By Sen. Kay Hagan
Ask a random American if they know someone who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and the answer is likely to be "no." That's not surprising. Nationwide, military service members account for only 1 percent of our population.
But ask that question in North Carolina, and you're much more likely to hear a "yes." Over 700,000 veterans call North Carolina home, including 55,000 in the Charlotte area. More than one-third of our state's population is either in the military, is a veteran, or has an immediate family member who is in the military or a veteran. As the daughter, wife, sister and aunt of veterans, I'm proud to count myself in that group.
North Carolinians are familiar with the sacrifices our service members and their families make during deployments. But we also understand the challenges they face when they return home and begin the transition to the civilian workforce.
Simply put, the unemployment rate among our returning heroes is unconscionably high. Nationwide, unemployment among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is 9.1 percent, almost a full point higher than the national average. Overall, more than 800,000 veterans are without a job. That's 800,000 men and women who have put their lives on the line for our country and now struggle just to earn a paycheck. That's just wrong.
As a country, we make a promise to our veterans - that we will fight for them just as hard, and with as much dedication, as they fought for us. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a senator for hundreds of thousands of military and veteran families, this is a promise I take seriously. As a member of a military family, it's one I also take personally.
That's why this week I've brought my North Carolina Back to Work Jobs Tour to Concord for the Hiring our Heroes Veterans Jobs Fair, hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Jobs Tour is taking me all across the state to speak with small business owners, job seekers, community colleges, workforce development offices - anyone with ideas to help get North Carolina back to work, and back to work as soon as possible.
I will listen to N.C. veterans. I want to learn about their experiences in the job market and gather practical ideas to help them find work. But I also want to make sure that N.C. business owners know about an important tax credit that could help our heroes get jobs right now.
Late last year, Congress passed the VOW to Hire Heroes Act - bipartisan legislation that offers businesses a tax credit of up to $5,600 for hiring an unemployed veteran, and a credit of up to $9,600 for hiring a veteran with a service-connected disability.
The legislation also helps prepare our returning veterans for their transition to the civilian workforce. These men and women are highly-motivated and highly-trained, and they have succeeded under some of the most trying circumstances imaginable.
The bill we passed eases their transition by enrolling our servicemen and women in the Transition Assistance Program, an interagency workshop that prepares veterans to market their skills to potential employers. It also expands the education and training opportunities for older veterans by providing 100,000 unemployed veterans of past eras and wars with up to one year of additional Montgomery GI benefits to go toward education or training programs at community colleges or technical schools.
The important thing to remember is that our commitment to our brave veterans is not a Democratic, Republican or Independent commitment - it is an American commitment.
To be sure, the VOW to Hire Heroes Act will not solve all of our veterans' unemployment challenges. While any company would benefit from the hard-earned skills and dedication our veterans bring to the table, too few companies are hiring new employees in this economic environment. So we must do much more to foster a better business climate for American companies to expand and create American jobs. This new business tax credit is certainly a strong step in the right direction.
Bottom line: We cannot leave our next great generation of leaders in the unemployment line. As I continue on my jobs tour, I hope to bring more commonsense solutions from North Carolina back to Washington so we can get our courageous veterans, and all of our state, back to work.
Kay Hagan is the junior U.S. senator from North Carolina.