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Army vet returns from war but is faced with a new one Service members struggle for jobs

After putting the Army ahead of his family for years, David R. Cooney left the military in hopes of providing a stable home life for his autistic 12-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter.

The North Tonawanda veteran's decision has proved costly.

With good-paying jobs scarce, the Purple Heart recipient said he is now financially ruined. The home he still owns outside the Army's Fort Drum in New York's North Country is in foreclosure, and the 2008 Chevy Suburban he used to drive has been repossessed.

"I submitted 200 job applications after I got back home and just recently got a job driving a truck as my unemployment was about to run out," the 37-year-old former staff sergeant said.

Instead of rejoicing over his employment, he says the job barely pays above minimum wage.

His story does not bode well for the estimated 40,000 members of the military from New York State who are expected to return as civilians in the next 36 months.

"As a general rule, the veteran unemployment rate we are seeing in the 20- to 24-year age range is about double the national average" of 8.5 percent, said Patrick W. Welch, a local veterans advocate who runs Daemen College's center that assists veterans and their families.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs conducted a heavily promoted career fair and exposition last Wednesday in the nation's capital.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki showed up and talked up the "VA for Vets" event, which included 6,400 public and private employers.

But for Cooney, talk is cheap.

When the twice-divorced, single father left the Army in November 2010 because he feared a sixth overseas deployment and had no one suitable to watch his children, he said he never expected that the government would play a role in his financial problems.

The first blow, he said, came when the Army tried to deny him about $40,000 in separation pay for his nearly 14 years of service, which included four deployments to Iraq and one to Kosovo. He was wounded in 2004 in Iraq.

He ended up receiving $27,000, but after federal and state taxes were deducted, the amount shrank to $14,000.

Cooney took it in stride, knowing he would qualify for a VA disability pension for his combat-related injuries to his left eye and face from an improvised explosive device, plus post-traumatic stress, and a laundry list of noncombat injuries.

The VA rated him 80 percent disabled and granted him a $1,400-a-month pension. Desperate for money after a year of waiting, he welcomed the good news last November.

Then the VA told him he would have to repay his separation money from the Army before getting the disability pension. So his entire pension has been garnisheed until the $27,000 is repaid.

"When I got my separation pay, that was for my time that I served in the Army. Then the VA says I have to pay that back. But my VA disability pension is for medical reasons. It has nothing to do with my separation pay," said Cooney, who is living with his kids in the home of his girlfriend on Stenzil Street in North Tonawanda.

The VA, he said, told him he will not begin receiving his pension checks until August.

What makes it all the more disheartening, he added, is that he is paying taxes twice on the separation pay. The Army deducted $13,000 in income taxes, but the VA insists on garnisheeing his pension for the full $27,000.

In the meantime, Cooney said he barely makes ends meet with his job driving a truck, despite often working 12- and 15-hour days.

"I view the treatment that David is receiving as another example of how the government utilizes its military people until they reach the point that they no longer have use for them," said Welch, a disabled Vietnam veteran.

He added that it is shameful that transitioning veterans, such as Cooney, are denied "appropriate compensation between the Department of Defense and the [VA]."

In hoping to spare other returning veterans the hardships Cooney faces, Welch said efforts have begun to better train vets on how to complete online job applications to get past electronic filters and into the hands of human resources administrators at local companies.

"Through our veterans center and other agencies around town we are trying to educate employers on the value of hiring veterans and what they bring to the work force -- leadership skills, discipline, ability to follow orders, creative thinking and an overall attitude towards doing good work," he said.

Erie County Veterans Services also is committed to assisting veterans become employed civilians, said the agency's director, Carlos Benitez.

"It is a big priority. We want to help them through getting their benefits and education," Benitez said.

As for the forced return of Cooney's Army separation pay, Cooney said the VA called him Thursday and told him it has no control over that because Congress passed a law a few years ago prohibiting vets who receive VA disability pensions from receiving separation money as well.

"As a soldier, you put your life on the line, and I'm not expecting charity," he said, "but I want what is owed me."