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Returning Iraq vet finds no offerings in Tampa Bay job market

Casey Hengstebeck, 21, of Holiday holds a flag given to him on his return from Iraq.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

Casey Hengstebeck, 21, of Holiday holds a flag given to him on his return from Iraq.

HOLIDAY — Pfc. Casey Hengstebeck came home from Iraq in February, took a month to shake the sand off, then went to work finding a job in a market as dry as the desert. Eight months later, the day before Veterans Day, the day after President Barack Obama signed an order to prompt federal agencies to hire veterans, Hengstebeck sits in a recliner in the $800-a-month rented house he shares with his mother and checks off all the places he has applied.

Sweetbay. Publix. Blockbuster.

Not a nibble.

Hengstebeck, 21, fits snugly into the most unemployed batch of vets: those who have served since September 2001. The unemployment rate for those vets climbed to 11.6 percent in October, up from 8 percent in October 2008. For those veterans ages 20 to 24, the rate is even higher.

"When you leave, your world basically goes on pause," he said. "You go over and do your job and come home and find out that you've been left behind."

When he left for Iraq, his friend from Tarpon Springs High School was living with her folks and taking classes at St. Petersburg College. Now she has moved out and is enrolled at the University of South Florida.

"I came back and I had to pick up life right where I left it," he said.

What is eight months of unemployment like for a kid from Holiday who shipped off to basic training two months after high school?

In March, he was picky. He wanted something related to his preventive medicine work with the Army Reserve for 13 months at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector maybe? Something in water purification?

Those jobs can take a year or longer to land, he was told.

He lowered the bar, scoured the help wanted ads, filled out applications. Spring turned to summer. He and his mother, who is also unemployed, fell behind on their electric bill and the power was shut off. He canceled his cell phone and asked friends for loans to get the lights and air conditioner back on.

By July it seemed hopeless. It hit him: I'm on unemployment. I can't find a job. I'm just going to let it all go.

What was the hardest part of war? Going away and being relied upon, being at the pinnacle of importance, a kid from a military family that stretches back at least to the Revolutionary War, and returning to find that nobody needs you.

"You come home and you feel useless," he said. "That's the worst feeling in the world."

He started rolling out of bed at 9 or 10, cracking the cupboards for Pop-Tarts, plopping down in the recliner, Doritos on the left side, Mountain Dew on the right, UNITED WE STAND on the welcome mat a few feet away.

He didn't change clothes. He played Xbox for 18-hour stretches and watched Law & Order marathons and quit answering his phone. He put on 40 pounds, grew a beard.

He didn't want to see anybody. He didn't want to go anywhere.

In August, a friend came over. She'd been trying to call. She yelled at him for 15 minutes. She told him he was acting like an idiot. She hit him in the head.

He was angry and defensive. It was the most passion he had felt in weeks.

He went to CVS and bought a razor and shaved his beard.

This is good, he thought.

The kid who could knock out a four-minute mile in basic training ran to the end of the block and got winded. The soldier who could tap out 70 pushups in two minutes did 20. But he kept going. He slid into khakis and a polo to hand deliver his resume. He expanded his search as far south as St. Petersburg, as far north as New Port Richey. He said he gets about one call back for every eight applications he submits. He knows what it's like to dish applications for a week and not hear anything.

He says he will work anyplace that offers a paycheck.

"I've done landscaping. I've done housecleaning. Never mind the fact that my time in basic training qualifies me to be a janitor anyplace in America."

He wants to go to college, but he has to get a job first. His unemployment runs out in a month.

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at (727) 893-8650 or bmontgomery@sptimes.com.

Returning Iraq vet finds no offerings in Tampa Bay job market 11/10/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 11, 2009 11:48am]
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