Skip to main content

After serving her country, female veteran struggles to find a job

By Shirley Henry and Athena Jones, CNN
updated 2:09 AM EDT, Mon October 31, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Unemployment for female veterans is higher than the national average
  • In September, the national unemployment rate was 9.1%
  • For female veterans, jobless rate was 14.7%
  • Former Navy officer Kenya Smith is one of those unemployed female veterans

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Kenya Smith only has good things to say about the U.S. Navy, where she served a total of 14 years before leaving in 2009.

It's the only profession she's ever known. "I love the Navy," she said during a recent interview in suburban Maryland. "If you split me open, I'm blue and gold."

Smith, a former lieutenant and medical service corps officer, first enlisted right after college but by the time she left had earned two master's degrees, deployed to Iraq and racked up substantial experience in healthcare and administration -- experience she thought would impress potential civilian employers.

"I ran projects. I was an HR manager. I was a logistics manager," she said. But despite all that, Smith now is unemployed -- two years after leaving the military. A single mother with two teenage children, she lost her home to foreclosure in September and is currently living in transitional housing.

Kenya Smith served in the U.S. Navy for 14 years. Now, because she cannot find a job, she is homeless.
Kenya Smith served in the U.S. Navy for 14 years. Now, because she cannot find a job, she is homeless.

"I'm a female homeless vet with children, and I mean that, that's horrible, that's the worst, I think. You go from being self-supportive, having a great income to now serving your country, fighting for your country, and then you get out, and now I'm homeless, all because I can't find a job."

Smith is not alone. In September, the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans was 11.7%, higher than the national average of 9.1%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For female veterans in particular, the number is even worse -- 14.7% last month.

It's not entirely clear why the picture appears worse for female vets. Veterans advocates point to challenges like child care and dealing with a Veterans Affairs system -- and a civilian world -- still relatively unaccustomed to dealing with female combat veterans.

"A lot of people in this country don't understand or appreciate that women are in combat, that women are even in the military in the scope that they are. So, 15% of returning veterans are women, they are on the frontlines, they are getting shot at, they are leading tough missions," Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said. "And they, too, need the same training and skills that their male counterparts do."

Skills like how to create a resume.

"I really didn't know how to do a resume. I never had to do one. So, that was a challenge," Smith said. "Also a challenge was taking all of my military experience and putting it in layman's terms so a civilian employer could understand what I did."

Smith has since worked with professional resume writers, attended job fairs and sent out her resume dozens of times. But she's gotten few call backs and only two interviews. One of them was at Macy's. She didn't get that job and surmises it's because she was overqualified -- perhaps, but she needed a job.

"There were not a lot of jobs, and jobs I was applying for I was actually overqualified for, which led of course to depression and all things that come along with, you know, being unemployed. It was difficult because when you live in a town that is not necessarily a military town, people don't honor the fact that, yes, you were fighting for your country, and now here you are trying to fight for a job and fight to hold onto your house and all of that. "

Smith said she left the Navy for health reasons, and while re-enlistment might be an option, she is not sure she would meet the enlistment requirements.

In recent weeks, she has pursued a new tack: "I want to take the advice of one person, who said, 'Apply up. Don't apply for administrative assistant when you should really be applying for director or project manager or supervisor.'"

She remains hopeful. "My faith gets me through a lot. I truly believe that God doesn't take anything away without bringing you something better. So, my faith keeps me going. And my children, they're very positive and upbeat, but not only that, they're very understanding. They know this is temporary. I know this is just temporary, I know something will turn around, soon. I know it will."

But for sure, Smith is under pressure to find something soon. She and her kids must move out of their temporary housing in just two weeks, on November 11 -- Veterans Day.

CNN's Jonathan Helman contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT