ATLANTA — After three years in the National Guard and seven harrowing months in southeast Iraq, Michael Lambert was more than ready to plunge into civilian life.

The problem was, he didn’t know where to start. For a 35-year-old who had long since abandoned his contracting business, starting a new career was no simple task.

Lambert, who returned to his native Carrollton just two weeks ago, said a program rolled out Wednesday by the state labor department is already helping him land the telecom or law enforcement job he wants.

Labor officials contacted him and put him up for job referrals. Thursday, he’s going to a local center to fill out a flurry of job applications.

Hundreds of veterans like Lambert returning to Georgia from conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan will be coming home unemployed, and countless more will be seeking new training and education for fresh careers.

To help the estimated 15 percent of Georgia veterans returning without jobs, the state’s labor department on Wednesday launched Operation Welcome Home, a program aimed at helping the soldiers transition into civilian life.

Veterans will be offered a host of employment services at a newly opened jobs center at Hinesville’s Fort Stewart. And state labor officials will be deployed to Georgia’s military bases on weekends when soldiers are drilling to help point them in the right direction.

Some 1,000 returning veterans are expected to return home searching for a job or pursuing a new one. Particularly hardest hit are small business owners, said Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond.

“They may have owned and operated small businesses that don’t exist now,” he said. “These individuals in many ways are starting over again.”

The veterans’ plight in Georgia — especially younger veterans — is not unusual.

In 2005, the unemployment rate was only 4 percent for veterans, compared to a 4.6 percent rate for those who never served in the military, said Sharon Cohany, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But the figures for younger veterans paint a different picture. Veterans between ages 20 and 24 logged an unemployment rate at 15.6 percent while the rate for non-veterans the same age was 8.7 percent, Cohany said.

Federal programs are already in place to help soldiers keep their jobs while they’re overseas and receive training for new jobs when they return. And records suggest that efforts to protect jobs and benefits for returning veterans could be paying off.

In the early 1990s, one in every 54 soldiers demobilized in Desert Storm lodged a work complaint. Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, that ratio has dropped to one in every 70 soldiers, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service.

The federal agency also started a “Hire Vets First” campaign that stresses the value of hiring veterans, selling employers on the work skills and ethics that soldiers learn in the field.

And since 2001, more than 500,000 active duty guard and reserve members have participated in federal job workshops at military bases that aim to be one-stop career centers for veterans, a federal labor spokesman said.

Thurmond said he saw a compelling need to start additional programs catering to veterans returning to Georgia.

“It’s been a problem that’s been overlooked,” he said. “I know here in Georgia I haven’t seen a lot of efforts to assist the soldiers that might be unemployed.”

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On the Net:

Operation Welcome Home: http://www.dol.state.ga.us/js/find—vet—info.htm

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