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WASHINGTON – Citing high unemployment and uneven job skills among War on Terror veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday launched a new program to help ease young troops into the civilian workforce.

The “Coming Home to Work” program, open to all recently separated servicemembers, will provide job skills assessments, job training programs and job placement assistance through the department's 200-plus veterans centers.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson said most of the resources for the new program already exist, through state programs and private employment initiatives.

But the department’s goal is to make it easier to access them, Nicholson said, and to encourage more private and government employers to look to veterans as a desirable, unique employee base.

“Many of these people are already job ready, or have other technical skills,” he said. “They are the future of our economy.”

Veterans department officials note that the unemployment rate among young veterans has been rising in recent years, further emphasizing the need for transition assistance. In 2003, the unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-old veterans was 11 percent; So far this year, it’s hovering around 15 percent.

The new effort is based on a pilot program created by the department this spring through Walter Reed Army Medical Center, taking wounded troops and providing them with classes and jobs in the Washington D.C. area.

So far 20 recently separated soldiers have finished that program and started new jobs, according to veterans officials.

Sgt. Mike Meinen, who lost his leg during a firefight in Iraq, recently began classes in cybersecurity after a friend recommended the program to him.

“I didn't know anything about cybersecurity; this is a whole new world for me,” he said. "And hopefully this can open up that new field for me.”

Meinen, who was with the 43rd Combat Engineer Battalion, said his goal is to work in the Washington D.C. area while he completes his recovery at Walter Reed, then look for job opportunities back home in Idaho.

Nicholson said they also hopes to create a network of private sector companies with an interest in veteran employees, and provide a database of information of job opportunities and corporate information for recent veterans and troops about to leave the service.

That database likely won't be available until early 2006, officials said.

A list of veterans centers and assistance programs is available through the department’s web site, www.va.gov.

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