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Recent changes in opportunities for returning soldiers have paved the way for even more growth for our nation’s veterans. Veteran National Guard Blackhawk instructor pilot, Stephen Harper, knows of these advantages first-hand. There is now more workplace and/or educational advancement through programs such as the veterans housing program or the employee assistance program designed specifically for soldiers they wouldn’t otherwise have. Through these programs, Harper was able to obtain his bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and his master’s in environmental management and planning.

Although Harper has been given great opportunities through the National Guard, he feels as though his training has given him even more opportunities for his life after the military.

“They’ve spent 1.2 million dollars on me to go to flight school, but I’ve also given back,” Harper says.

After serving their country and doing good, the government offers many benefits for veterans to make their return to civilian life easier.

“They’re getting deployed, going to war to support their fellow soldiers and support their country,” Harper said.

These benefit programs include pension, which provide soldiers and their families with supplemental income and educational programs such as tuition assistance, which Harper used. Not only is the public moving toward change, but more and more businesses, educational institutions and even the government is taking note of this. These opportunities soldiers allows soldiers to obtain jobs based on their given training and abilities.

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For a veteran without work, the stakes are high. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that there are more than 57,000 homeless veterans in the country. Time and money spent trying to earn further certification or higher education often lead to difficulty keeping up with bills and finding a job. Without a secure career after the military, homelessness is a very real possibility. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, skills that veterans learn in the military are not always transferable to civilian work, putting them at a disadvantage during a job hunt.

Maryland lawmakers, however, have taken a step to even the field. The newest act in Maryland that will benefit veterans in the state is the Veterans Full Employment Act of 2013. Signed into law in April, the act helps speed up the process for getting professional licenses, such as teaching or health care, for veterans and their spouses.

Active military members train in skills that can be applied to the civilian world, but are often limited in getting civilian jobs because they lack the official certification. The Full Employment Act would count the military experience of veterans towards the degree or certificate program needed to get a medical or teaching job. Military families would then have a shorter wait for a steady income.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley proposed the act in order to help meet his goal for full employment for Maryland veterans by the end of 2015–full unemployment defined as three percent or fewer of veterans without jobs. Between this law and others that have been passed or are in the process of being passed, it just may become a reality. This could help prevent veterans from returning from active duty only to find their job has been given away in their absence, forcing them to find work elsewhere.

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As lucky as Harper was, being able to come back to his job at Edgewood Chemical Biological Center after his 2003 deployment in Iraq, his 2009 deployment in Iraq and his 2013 positioning to Afghanistan, other men in his section weren’t so lucky.

“You go away and you come back and in the interim, they had to hire somebody, maybe part-time, for that job,” Harper said.

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act is supposed to grant certain protections, such as jobs, to active or deployed service members. Harper agrees, but sees that it gives an ultimatum.

“You still have a job, but it’s now in Alaska. So here are your options: you can move to Alaska, take that job or you can quit and go someplace else,” Harper said.

In efforts to make more returning service members not have to go through these problems, the military and the states are working on new acts and bills. These plans will help ensure that the men and women who fight for our freedoms are protected with those same freedoms when they come home.

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The Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs states that the state of Maryland supports veterans that have served, and the businesses that employ them. Now, steps are being taken to strengthen that claim, but there is still progress to be made. New bills are making their way through the American legislative system to help veterans–however, according to govtrack.us, only 23 percent of bills that made it past committee in 2011–2013 were enacted. One new bill, the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Miltary Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014, would help provide career transitions services for military employees coming back to civilian life, and would help protect veteran’s re-employment rights. The bill has yet to pass the Senate or the House of Representatives, and may, like the majority of bills proposed, fail.

On a state level, however, a promising program was created for veterans eight years ago. Starting a business, or getting money to employ more people at an existing business, can be expensive. But Maryland veterans are getting a boost from the state government in the form of small business loans with a zero percent interest rate. This will help these veterans start or improve their businesses and maintain a job outside of their military career.

“The program was established in 2006 by the state legislature to assist veterans and small business owners who were impacted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Jerry Boden, the chief of staff at the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs and the program coordinator.

Boden said that 18 people have received loans for their businesses so far this year, and 17 more loan applications are being reviewed for next year.

“If and when all the budget money for this program is used up (which has not happened yet in any year), then the applicants would have to wait a few months until the next fiscal year begins,” Boden said. Up to $50,000 can be borrowed through the program–enough to start a business from scratch.

These loans also apply to businesses that are owned by a military reservist or a National Guard member called to active duty, and to businesses that are owned by those who employ disabled veterans.

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These new bills, along with the Veterans Bill ( also known as the GI Bill), have helped Harper tremendously. Not only did the military help him in giving him his job back when he returned from not one, but three deployments, it also helped him go back to school, currently earning his Ph.D. in engineering management.

“Tuition assistance, which is some other federal funds that are made available, paid for my masters,” Harper said.

Unemployment rates for returning soldiers is still high, but the National Guard provides assistance, even helping veterans find a home through programs such as basic allowance for housing to help soldiers get back on their feet.

“They make it mandatory for us to go through certain training – financial training, resume writing – it’s a whole gamut of stuff for pre-deployment and post-deployment that we have to go through,” Harper said.

Every soldier has the option of opting in to receive the GI bill at the end of their service, but Harper believes that it’s effective and worth getting, especially if schooling and a job is important to them.

“They do a pretty good job of setting you up, so you are successful,” Harper said.

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