Coming Home PA is a project spearheaded by PublicSource, a local nonprofit investigative news group, with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and other local media partners.
Three months to get in, three days to get out.
That's about how long it takes to transform a civilian to a soldier and back again: Boot camp -- plus additional training -- at the beginning, and at the end, the Transition Assistance Program, or TAP.
TAP is 21/2 days of workshops, mostly PowerPoint presentations on resume writing, job search techniques, interviewing skills and other tips for catching an employer's interest.
And in some ways, it's tougher than boot camp.
"It's death by PowerPoint," said Aaron Hill, a vocational rehabilitation counselor at the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.
Despite numerous anonymous testimonials ("The best training I have ever attended" "Awesome job, great information! Thank you!") on the federal Veterans' Employment and Training Service website, which manages the TAP program, "A lot of veterans have told me they haven't had good experiences," Mr. Hill said.
Ismael "Junior" Ortiz, deputy assistant secretary in the Labor Department's Veterans' Employment and Training Service, says a major redesign is under way, with a more professional staff, possibly classes at off-base locations and more flexible scheduling for soldiers who often aren't allowed to take the course until just before discharge.
"That light bulb went off a few years ago," he said. "We were talking to service members, we went to a few classes, [and said] 'Man, this is difficult.' "
It's a change that can't come soon enough, say veterans, noting that soldiers have been known to sleep through the presentations or skip them altogether.
"It was a waste of time," says Jonathan Quicquaro, a 25-year-old Navy veteran in Latrobe, "especially the part where they tell you what color tie to wear with your suit."
He and six others in his unit attended TAP in Washington state, but all planned to move elsewhere. "They were telling us how to apply for benefits in Washington state. They seem to think that if you are discharged in one place, you're going to stay there."
There was also little one-on-one assistance, some veterans say, with resume writing. A soldier might list "11 B, Infantryman," on a resume instead of "11 B, Infantryman, chief adviser to mayor of Iraqi town, facilitator of incubator maintenance at local hospital, and more specified individual tasks," Joseph Sharpe, a top American Legion official, told a congressional committee recently.
It's hard to describe the unique tasks performed in a war theater, leaving veterans "with an empty shell of a resume," he said.
Moreover, only a fraction of Guard and Reserve members, who make up nearly half of currently available military strength, took the transition course, instead receiving short briefings on their legal rights and veterans benefits.
"Time and money," said Ron Drach, an independent consultant on veterans and employment and training issues. "There was a perception that TAP was not needed for the Guard or Reserves because they weren't leaving permanently."
"TAP has been around for 20 years and things have changed," Mr. Ortiz said. "We need to get the bugs out of it, tweak it and change it."