Gregg Zoroya USA TODAY
Soaring unemployment that has bedeviled Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans for five years has finally reversed.
The jobless rate dropped to an annual average of 9.9% last year from 12.1% in 2011, labor statistics show.
"It looks like it peaked in 2011 and has since been coming down," says James Borbely, an economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics who studies veteran data. "We're looking at a rate that has clearly improved."
Veteran advocates caution that joblessness among this group remains stubbornly high - well above the national unemployment rate of 7.8%. About 205,000 of those who served in or during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are without work.
As the Afghanistan War winds down, more than 300,000 veterans will leave the military each of the next four years.
"We've got more miles to go. But it's clear we're marching in the right direction," says Tommy Sowers, assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs for the Department of Veterans Affairs and a former Green Beret who served two combat tours in Iraq.
Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive of the 250,000-member Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, warned against complacency.
"Even with this dip in the annual rate for the year, no one should be anywhere near satisfied," Rieckhoff says. "We've got hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans out of work and that should be unacceptable to all Americans."
The marginal employment success was attributed primarily to an improving economy. Veteran leaders also see the reversal as proof that a tougher focus on joblessness among new veterans by the White House, Congress, communities, labor unions and business has paid off.
Sowers notes that 880,000 ex-servicemembers have taken advantage of the new post-9/11 G.I. Bill for university or vocational education.
More employers display an eagerness to hire young veterans they see as disciplined self-starters willing to show up on time, says Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, head of Army personnel, who has met with recruiters from several major companies.
"These guys out there, they want our soldiers," Bromberg says.
"It just makes good bottom-line sense to hire veterans," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis says. "They've been tested, time and again, in pressure-cooker situations."
Many businesses are better informed about issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and how they affect only a minority of applicants or can be like any other disability, says Nancy Hammer, a senior policy official with the Society for Human Resource Management, an association of hiring professionals.
She says some employers still struggle to understand how a veteran's combat skills can translate into assets for employers.
The jobs data for Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans contain other trends both good and bad:
Joblessness remains high among a sub-group of veterans who have had the hardest time finding work - those ages 18 to 24 - although that rate also is declining. One in four of them were unemployed in 2011. That dropped to one in five last year.
For women who served, jobs remain scarce. Their unemployment rate inched higher, from 12.4% to 12.5% last year, and from about 35,000 out of work to 37,000, the data show.
Retired Army colonel David Sutherland, director of the Center for Military and Veterans Community Services in Washington, says the unemployment numbers leave him "cautiously optimistic."
"But I see a trend on the horizon with the upcoming draw-down of our forces ... where if we don't do more community-based support, that (jobless) number will go back up."