Veterans, students talk to visiting congressmen in Tacoma

When it came time to leave the Army, Karl Rone was ready to move into the civilian workforce for the first time in his adult life.

The Tacoma man had a job lined up, but then the Army threw a hitch in his plans.

His commanding officers told him he couldn’t attend the training program he’d found to help make the transition.

Instead of leaving the Army with a job waiting, Rone struggled to make ends meet.

“It was very nerve wracking,” he said Monday. “I had a few months of waking up each morning and not knowing if today was the day I was going to be evicted, if today was the day my car was going to be repossessed because I missed a couple car payments.”

The father of a young child, Rone said he was forced to ration diapers because he didn’t have enough money to cover his family’s basic needs.

Nine months after leaving the Army, Rone is now employed and happy.

He shared his story, his successes and his frustrations with three congressmen visiting Tacoma.

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, hosted a group of veterans at the University of Washington Tacoma. He was joined by with Reps. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., and Ruben Gallgeo, D-Ariz.

The three are part of a larger group of legislators, called the Future Forum, who are traveling the country to hear from millennials and veterans about the challenges they face.

That includes rising tuition, student loan debt, home ownership and becoming entrepreneurs.

The congressmen also heard from students at University of Puget Sound before traveling to Seattle later in the day.

“Millennials are the largest generation ever in our American history,” Swalwell said of the demographic that includes people 18 to 34 years old in 2015. “It’s an aspiring generation, but it’s also a generation that faces more challenges than any generation before it.”

One of the largest challenges is student loan debt.

“Student debt has now surpassed credit card debt as a primary source of debt in our economy,” Kilmer said.

Students paying back loans are more likely to delay making major purchases such as a house or car, he said. That affects the national economy.

Trying to relate to the students, the congressmen listed their student loan debt.

Swalwell, 34, is paying off law school loans; Gallego, 35, and his wife are paying back her loans. Kilmer, 41, has repaid his loans, but the former state representative and senator noted he was paying them while in Olympia.

Rising tuition and limited access to higher wage jobs contribute to student loan debt, said UWT student Amy Welch.

“There is a lot of focus today about the cost of education,” said the 35-year-old mother of three. “I have a bigger concern about finding good employment.”

When Welch graduated from UWT more than a decade ago she was less concerned about repaying her debt. That’s because good paying jobs were readily available, she said.

“I want people to come out of school to feel excited about starting business,” she said.

Welch is back at UWT, pursuing a degree in public administration. She also is a private business owner with her husband.

Welch was one of the few people at the UPS forum who talked about how decisions made in Washington, D.C., affect her.

Other students used the forum to ask the legislators about national issues, including the debate around funding Planned Parenthood and immigration.

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467