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.
They walk into his New Kensington office every day, sometimes just off the plane from Kuwait or Afghanistan, younger than they have been in years, looking for work or applying for health benefits or itching to go to college right away.
Brian Orczeck, 37, a job counselor for veterans, has seen them all, "Stompin' hard, DD-214 (discharge papers) in the left hand, and the post-9/11 GI Bill in your right," he writes in his monthly newsletter, The Ironclad. "You have your security clearance in the back pocket, and there's a swagger in every step cause you know you're high speed and just what your next boss is looking for ... in two to four years ... when school is done."
Big mistake, Mr. Orczeck says.
Too many veterans move too quickly to go back to school before stabilizing their finances first, he says. Many have a combined salary of $42,000 a year while serving at the E-4 level, the most prevalent job classification, and are now living on an $18,000 stipend provided by the post-9/11 GI Bill. It's a difficult challenge for a single veteran, much less one with children.
Then, finding themselves broke, "they are withdrawing from the courses they need to get a degree and make do with a low-paying job, if they can get one," says Mr. Orczeck, who helps them expunge most of the military jargon from their resumes, teasing out the real experience that employers value -- and show them how to navigate the vast, confusing terrain of Internet job sites.
So many of these soldiers, used to having every moment of their day accounted for, suffer from a kind of learned helplessness, because "the complexity of being a civilian is so much greater than being a soldier. There are no rules or regulations telling you what to do as a civilian."
A no-nonsense yet empathetic former Marine, Mr. Orczeck is veterans representative at the PA CareerLink Alle-Kiski office, part of a state-run network of "one stop" job assistance centers. He's also a cheerleader, a motivational speaker, a writer and an optimist. The letterhead on The Ironclad newsletter instructs the reader to "Draw deep. Draw hard. Adapt. Overcome."
"There are actually two kinds of veterans I see," he said. "Job seekers and job hunters."
Hunters are better than seekers, who don't practice interview questions in their spare time or self-critique, while claiming "they know what they're doing in spite of multiple applications and poor interviews. ... In the end, they sit at home and stew about how, 'There aren't any jobs out there.' "
The hunters, on the other hand, have no time for self-pity. They are "laser-focused, exuding self improvement from every pore! They land jobs, they bounce up ladders, they are the 'go-tos' with resumes stashed in their car."
Mr. Orczeck doesn't have a perfect success record. He remains haunted by the case of one veteran, an Army sergeant major with years of leadership experience, rapidly promoted within the ranks despite his lack of a college degree only to discover that the only work he could find, he told Mr. Orczeck a few months ago, was a part-time stint at a sawmill.
And then he dropped out of sight.
"He was just not equipped by the military to go out and find a job in the civilian world. They didn't give him the right tools."
These days, Mr. Orczeck finds himself driving by lumber yards, stopping the car and checking if he's there.
"That guy still bothers me," Mr. Orczeck says. "If I could just find him, I think I could help him."