Bob shook hands with then Secretary of State (Retired) General Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on Memorial Day, 2006 after receiving a medal at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. for his service in Iraq. He had an extraordinarily impressive combat record of over 500 successful missions as an Army sniper. He had been awarded the Bronze Star, Combat Action Badge and was an Audie Murphy Award candidate. However, these impressive commendations that highlight 23 years of service are still not enough to secure employment, even low-paying unskilled jobs, in today’s arena of economic combat where the enemy is as much the overwhelming horde of qualified applicants as it is a dearth of jobs. The 45 year old veteran who survived the war is also finding his age and experience works against, not for him in this new job market.
Bob looks like news commentator Joe Scarborough of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC. He has something of a ‘military bearing’ in terms of posture and eye contact. His lack of gestures suggests a disciplined economy of motion. While he is not unduly rigid, he does maintain an erect posture and never slouches.There is no sense of discomfort or affectation in it, rather his rigid physicality seems so practiced as to have become natural. He has maintained enough of his military fitness to successfully complete the Ironman triathlon. His eyes are smallish but unsquinting and constantly but almost imperceptibly scanning. He maintains eye contact with you when he walks into a room, but there is also a sense that he is ‘taking in’ or ‘reading’ the room. This scanning, as opposed to nervous darting, suggests a practiced habit of situation analysis and gauging the people and places in it.
Bob was born in Bowie, AZ, a city he describes with all due irony as “Where Rambo is from, in the book”. He attended Arizona State University where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in Justice Studies. His career plan was law or law enforcement and he is still hopeful for some sort of government employment in law enforcement “when things get better”.
Bob performed a number of different tasks during his deployment in Iraq, including truck driver, military police and prisoner transportation. The last two obviously made good use of his college education but the truck driving is unfortunately the only marketable skill he has in this job market.He also served as a forward observer in the infantry, a job he describes as “Blowing people up first“. Bob volunteers that, contrary to popular opinion, “The soldier’s most powerful weapon is a radio, for calling in artillery and airstrikes”.
The descriptions of combat in Iraq are terse and workmanlike, like stories he has had to tell too many times. He recalls a number of friendly fire incidents and recounts them in a matter of fact way that suggests that the confusion of guerrilla warfare makes them an almost natural reaction. He points out with more attention to the inescapability than to detail that “Helicopter pilots die three times: First from the impact of the crash, second from the shredding metal that surrounds them and third from the fire from the burning fuel”. He describes the often troublesome mechanics of transporting the bodies of those fallen comrades with respectful brevity and begrudging resignation to the inevitability of the horrific becoming mundane. He is a firm believer in the “When your number is up…” take on fate and says the most common response to wartime casualties-friend or foe-is “It sucks to be him”.
His most distinguished military accomplishments lay in his marksmanship, a skill he has traveled the world demonstrating. He can hit a target up to 1,500 meters (1,640 yards) away and still occasionally competes in close quarter combat shooting competitions. The military application of this finely honed ability is obvious but he readily admits that “Marksmanship doesn’t pay in civilian life”.
Bob came back to that civilian life in 2006, bought a house and went to work in the booming real estate market of 2007. He had a profitable relationship with a successful real estate developer and a bright future in a career that made good use of his combat-proven leadership and management skills. The crash of 2008 left that career crumbled and bleeding in the dust. The irony of this ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ story is certainly not lost on him, but he is far too stoic to acknowledge it aloud.
There is a constant disconnect between Bob’s calm and unassuming manner and the fact that the profile is largely based on his record of “over 500 successful missions”. The ‘Sniper Bob’ historical image doesn’t mesh easily with the “Innocuous Bob’ that I’m interviewing. This is clearly complicated by the fact that I, and I would imagine most of us, have no idea what a sniper should look like.
There were unspoken terms regarding the nature of the interview and the questions I could expect an answer to. I did not ask questions about specific combat experiences in deference to the possibility of this forcing Bob to relive traumatic events. I also based my questions on the likelihood of national security constraints that bind veterans with regard to specific missions. There was not so much a matter of difficulty in understanding his descriptions and perspective as there was an understanding that some things were not likely to be understandable to a non-veteran interviewer.
His one clear expression of disappointment came in describing how people constantly ask about “all the gory, bloody movie stuff” but rarely ask about the things that he considers most important about the war. He alludes to the images the public sees from embedded news correspondents as being ‘scripted’ when he vents his frustration at soldiers being expected to fight a war “in front of CNN’s cameras everywhere. If you want us to do this thing then get out of our way and let us get it done”.
Bob has an impressive degree of historical knowledge regarding the Middle East and the military, religious, sociological and economic factors that have shaped its development. His wide-ranging expertise adds depth and credibility to his retelling of the events that have dominated the headlines of the past decade. His ease at pulling in so many diverse perspectives adds a leadership/command-level dimension to his first-person experience.Bob has an obvious facility for ‘big picture’ management, given that he could divine all these facets of his environment while people were shooting at him. Unfortunately for him, the leadership and command sectors aren’t hiring right now.
Management positions were some of the first to go in this latest economic collapse. Real estate and property management are vocational graveyards and no one in the private sector is hiring snipers…yet. Bob has another major negative working against him in his job search: Forty-five is old in this job market. Middle-aged displaced workers are some of the hardest hit by the current downturn. Their age and presumed salary requirements make them poor candidates for entry-level jobs that offer low pay and entail a training investment and their experience makes it unlikely that they will stay in a lower paying job once the economy recovers.
Furthermore, older workers tend to have larger financial responsibilities (mortgages, car payments, and kids) and consequently more credit score vulnerability in hard times. More employers are using job applicants’ credit scores now than ever before as a hiring guide. Bob is concerned that despite his stellar qualifications, a sub par credit rating may add one more stumbling block to his job search.
The news is full of stories of lines a hundred people long all applying for one job at McDonald’s or a shoe store or a pizza parlor.These are not rare occurrences exploited by the press, but instead are commonplace responses. These low paying but sought after service jobs are representative of the new economy and how desperate applicants clearly qualified for better are. Bob has applied for a number of positions like these and at some of the larger hardware chains as well-with no luck.
When asked if he thinks his military training helps him in his job search, Bob unhesitatingly answers “Yes, the military teaches you to be accountable, responsible, and analytical and to maintain the right attitude”. This is typical of the stoic acceptance that is at once admirable and tragic given the legitimacy of the complaints that he never makes. Perhaps his situation here is made all that much more bearable by comparing it to what he lived through over there. In the larger picture, Bob is still a ‘forward observer’. There are tens of thousands of Sniper Bobs coming home, in varying degrees of wholeness. I have to wonder if he ever looks at his situation in his own words: “It sucks to be him”. It shouldn’t.
*The happy (-er) ending to this story is that Sniper Bob got a new job. He is working part-time as a driver for the elderly, shuttling them to and from doctor’s appointments.