Thomas Garlic, center, cleans a piece of conduit as fellow combat vets LaVaughn Harlston, left, and Bryan Ratcliff wait their turns in an electrician class in Elk Grove Village, Ill. (By John Smierciak, for USA TODAY)
Washington, DC (written by Gregg Zoroya/USA Today) -- The cost of unemployment compensation for troops leaving the military without jobs approached a billion dollars last year, though the rate of increase slowed to just 2% over 2010, figures from the Department of Labor show.
A key factor behind the trend easing was that the Army, the largest of the services, saw the benefits it pays out decline slightly from 2010 to 2011.
The military spent $944 million last year in unemployment benefits - the largest amount since the recession of 2008.
Federal law since 1991 has provided unemployment compensation for servicemembers if they leave active duty with an honorable discharge and are without a job.
Seventeen percent of former active-duty servicemembers or deactivated National Guard and reservists were out of work in the last three months of 2011. The unemployment rate was 13% in May.
But the average weekly number of former full-time military members receiving checks keeps climbing from between 20,000 to 25,000 in 2008 to about 40,000 through June of this year, according to the Department of Labor.
The Army reported a 4% decline in unemployment money paid out last year.
The pattern of Army payouts has "pretty much flattened out," says Walter Herd, director of the program for transitioning soldiers out of the military.
Hikes in benefits to former sailors, airmen and Marines in 2011 drove the overall cost last year to a record level.
Several factors are behind the Army's success, Herd says. Fewer numbers of National Guard and Reserve troops are being sent into combat, with U.S. combat involvement in Iraq over and the Afghanistan War winding down, so fewer face disruption in their civilian employment.
The Army is also more aggressively screening unemployment compensation applicants to ensure eligibility, and has lengthened to 12 to 18 months the period in which it begins assisting outgoing soldiers in looking for work, Herd says. "The driving force behind this process is really to better prepare soldiers for the next stage in life," Herd says.
Gay Gilbert, director the Labor Department's office of unemployment insurance, said the department is also working with the Army and four states - Georgia, Texas, North Carolina and Illinois - to better link former servicemembers who apply for unemployment benefits with government programs aimed at helping them find jobs.
Total unemployment benefits paid to former members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, and to members of the National Guard or Reserve who have left full-time military status.
2008: $457 million
2009: $710 million
2010: $923 million
2011: $944 million
Source: Department of Labor
Contributing: Paul Overberg