By SHARON COHEN
AP National Writer
CHICAGO (AP) - Matthew Saldana proved himself in a world where stress, danger and life-and-death decisions were routine. He served one tour in Iraq and a second in Afghanistan. But the Army veteran is having a harder time back home navigating a calmer but uncertain terrain _ the job market.
On this spring day, Saldana is roaming the aisles of a noisy ballroom in the Hilton Chicago at a Hiring Our Heroes job fair. Dressed smartly in red tie and black suit, he clutches a leather folder containing his three-page resume, joining hundreds of other vets looking for opportunity and a paycheck.
"It's frustrating trying to get back on track," the 29-year-old Saldana says, his soft voice barely audible in the din of the crowd. "I always thought if I get out the military, I'd be a step up. That's not what it takes. It's who you know."
Saldana, who left the Army in 2004, hasn't worked full time in 18 months. He's scoured "`help wanted" listings, taken college courses and earned an emergency medical technician certificate. But he finds himself pigeonholed. "What do you come out with having been an artillery man or in the infantry?" he asks. "The best job you can get is security. That's not what I want to do for the rest of my life."
Saldana's dream is to become a Chicago firefighter _ he's been on a waiting list five years. He's survived mostly by working security; he's a fill-in sub at one company and also earns a modest on-call fee as a firefighter-EMT in a southern suburb. "I'm barely pulling through," he says. "I'm drowning. I need to find something fast."
His predicament is shared by tens of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans facing a rocky transition from the routine and reliability of military life to the volatility and limited job prospects of a nation emerging from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Like many other vets, Saldana misses the Army's anchors: a sense of camaraderie and its steady income. "Here," he says, "you've got to worry about how you're going to find money to eat and how you're going to pay the bills."
And like many vets, he's now trying to find his way in an ultra-tight labor market, competing with millions of unemployed people, some with long resumes and proven records in the civilian workplace. Some vets face even more hurdles: job-hunting skills that are rusty after spending months, or years, in uniform. No college degree. And little exposure to a business culture that has its own language and rules.
"We've had to be entrepreneurial and innovative and think on the fly and manage people and logistics ... we know that we have the skills," says Matthew Colvin, who advises companies on hiring as a member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "But it's hard to convey our worth a lot of times because we know it in military terms, not in civilian terms."
"Sometimes we hide the fact that we're veterans," adds Colvin, an Air Force vet of two tours in Afghanistan. "I don't think that's the way it should be. ... We've got more life experience than the kid coming out of college or even the guy who's maybe equally qualified on paper."
Vets aren't the only ones spreading the we-need-work message. Their plight has attracted powerful support from the White House and Capitol Hill to Fortune 500 companies, resulting in tax breaks, job fairs and pledges to hire hundreds of thousands who served.
Colvin says it's too early to gauge the impact of those efforts _ some are just getting underway _ on a population saddled with high unemployment. In 2011, the jobless level for those who've served since Sept. 11, 2001, was 12.1 percent, compared with 8.7 percent for the non-veteran public, according to federal statistics. Among men 18 to 24 for the veteran group, it was nearly 2 1/2 times higher: 29.1 percent.
In March, 10.3 percent of post-Sept. 11 vets were out of work. Colvin's group surveyed its own members last month and found a nearly 17 percent jobless rate. For those 20 to 24, it was almost 36 percent. Experts say these numbers are likely to grow as more troops return from Afghanistan and hundreds of thousands of people separate from the military over the next five years.
The anemic economy _ the very reason some young people enlisted _ is considered the main cause. But military and business experts also cite a lack of understanding among some employers of post-traumatic stress and a lack of appreciation for the abilities of returning troops.