Koebel, from Nesconset, served two tours on the ground in Iraq. And Centereach-native Jason Quinones spent two years on an aircraft carrier, returning to find bleak job prospects and an uncertain future.
"There's not too many jobs," he said. "It's hard to get work."
But now, these warriors are back at work, learning to build large-scale and highly technical air conditioning systems. It's a big change from the war zone.
"I find it ironic that they keep thanking myself and the union for getting them in, when the whole purpose is us thanking them for the freedoms we share," Tom Goodwin said.
Goodwin runs the training center for Steamfitters Local 638, one of several Long Island trade unions involved in a national effort called Helmets to Hardhats.
Since 2003, the program has recruited and trained thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan vets nationwide to be apprentices in trades like steamfitting.
It's a pathway to high-paying and stable jobs, but these days, those jobs are in short supply.
"It's really bleak," Goodwin said. "It's sad what's going on. Here are people, I'm feeling guilty cause we're enjoying the benefits, and we can't help them more.
In fact, things have gotten even harder for returning vets in the years since Michael and Jason came home. Since 2003, the program placed an average of 2,100 veterans into construction jobs each year. But when the economy fell off a cliff, demand for those jobs dried up. In 2009, only 992 veterans found work through this program nationwide.
That means 50 percent fewer warriors like Jason and Michael, who say Helmets to Hardhats has been a lifeline for them.
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