Nearly 120,000 people filed first-time claims for money in the military program over the last budget year, compared with 71,000 in 2008, the Labor Department says. Well over 515,000 have gotten compensation since 2008.
Wright, now director of the law center at the Reserve Officers Association, says the payments "ought to be for people who are actively seeking re-employment — it's not just free money."
Officials worry, too, about what will happen to costs when the military draws down from its wartime size, sending more troops out of the services.
A 2008 analysis for the Pentagon by the RAND Corp. research institution found that the sharp rise in military unemployment payments did not mean the civilian labor market for recent veterans had weakened. The study suggested "a rethinking" of the program and also noted the big increase in reservists called up over the decade.
It's not solely the number of reservists activated that matters, but also how many know about, and claim, their legal right to go back to their former civilian employers after coming home from mobilization.
"I think one reason that a lot of (recent) veterans are unemployed and have great difficulty finding work is because employers are routinely violating" the law on returning troops and that too few are being prosecuted for it, Wright said. He says his law center gets more than 700 calls a month from people complaining about that or other employment or legal issues.
There are plenty of other reasons troops may not go straight from life in uniform to one in the private sector.
The need for "down time" — particularly among those who saw combat — can be a huge factor in re-acclimating.
Some troops also find it hard to face civilian life after the more authoritarian and regimented style of the military.
It also can take time for some to figure out how their military skills and experience translate to private sector jobs.
And some may not want what's being offered in the job market.
"A lot say, 'Hey, I joined the Army or Marines so I could get out of working at McDonald's,'" Wright says.
The unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans is 9.4 percent, compared with 7.7 percent among all Americans, and has been higher for some years.
The compensation "could be funding the acclimation period for veterans; some veterans may be declining employment opportunities or choosing not to seek employment," said a study last year by analysts at the Center for a New American Security.
That may be inflating the program's cost and "artificially inflating the ranks of unemployed veterans with individuals who are not actively seeking employment," said the study, which looked at how American business executives view hiring veterans.
It said the Defense Department should work to better understand the complex needs of veterans during transition to civilian society and figure out how "efficient, helpful and necessary" the unemployment compensation is.
"Questions to be considered include which veterans require an acclimation period, how much time is generally needed and whether (the compensation) is currently supporting recently separated veterans through that acclimation period," the authors said.
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