While the nation's unemployment rate declines, the jobless trend for America's youngest veterans is climbing, jumping to 6.3 percent in January from 4.4 percent in September.
"We still see around half a million veterans that are unemployed right now, and over a million veterans that are underemployed," said Brian Stann, CEO of Hire Heroes USA. Economist note that the jobless rate for post-9/11 vets is volatile, and the small sample size leaves it open to inaccuracy.
But even looking at the trend over a three-month period, the scenario looks tough for young vets. One reason, according to Stann: "They get out of the military and they're competing against their peer group that just graduated college. And a lot of companies do not equate four years of military service to four years at a university or state institution."
And it can be a huge challenge to transition from a regimented, follow-orders environment to the civilian world where self-starters succeed.
Brandon Smith left the Army in 2015. After a restaurant hosting job and a brief stint with UPS, he enrolled full-time in Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families, the first-in-the-nation cross-disciplinary institute to focus on veterans.
"I think a lot of the soldiers that go in the military don't have entirely what they need to tackle the workforce in the first place," Smith said. "I went in the military because I couldn't find the job I wanted, or I couldn't get the opportunity I wanted."
To complicate matters, President Donald Trump's federal hiring freeze may hit veterans hardest. It's a primary source of civilian employment post-service because of its preferential hiring practices toward veterans. A third of federal workers are veterans.
Companies that value the leadership and experience earned in the armed forces are working to make sure veterans have that same kind of training going into the civilian world.
JPMorgan Chase committed $22 million to fund Syracuse's Institute for Veterans, and within its company has dedicated a team to recruit, acclimate and retain veterans. The bank has hired 11,000 veterans in the past five years.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz also pledged $20 million to the endeavor through his family foundation. The coffee chain has hired 8,800 veterans and military spouses, and that number is slated to increase to 10,000 by next year.
But experts suggest that many employers have allowed their vigilance to lag when it comes to hiring vets. As U.S. forces withdraw from overseas conflicts, news coverage of military matters has softened, allowing national attention to lapse.
Hollywood has also shifted its focus away from broader military themes, with movies and television shows honing in on extremes, portraying veterans who are either heroes or victims suffering from PTSD, addiction or suicidal tendencies.
"A lot of people put me into a box, which is what a lot of veterans face when they go into the civilian world," said J.R. Martinez, one of the best-known veterans of the second Gulf War. "Once I started to deal with this feedback of people rejecting me, I then started to have to deal with the mental and emotional — then I became angry, developed resentment. … I'd earned the right for people to give me a shot, to give me a chance."
Martinez got his chance when he landed a role on ABC's daytime drama "All My Children" and then went on to win "Dancing with the Stars," helping America see beyond his scars and disfigurement.
"If we let that narrative be simply about victims or heroes, I think we've missed an opportunity," said Mike Haynie, executive director of the Syracuse's institute. "Most veterans are somewhere in the middle of those two extremes."
At a panel sponsored by the institute about Hollywood's influence on America's perception, David Gale, formerly of MTV and now the co-founder of a veterans-focused production company We Are the Mighty, said, "We need more volume. We need more stories. We need to be able to show veterans in the complexities that everyday people are."
CBS' "NCIS" employs more than 100 veterans on the show's roster of 250, and Scott Williams, a writer and executive producer of the show, says the vets fully inform the stories "NCIS" produces. That means writing storylines with complex, multilayered individuals with leadership, experience and problem-solving know-how.
With some 200,000 servicemen and women leaving the military every year, highlighting that perception could make all the difference.
"It's more competitive to stay in," said Zachary Watson, who left the Marines in the fall. "So, now a lot of people are realizing, 'OK, I can't stay in here. I've got to get a job or something.'" Watson is taking advantage of the GI bill, enrolled as a full-time student. He believes a college degree will help him launch a successful career in TV or film but thinks his military experience would be the most valuable to future employers.
"At 22 years old, I was in charge of an entire crew, and I was responsible for being part of the whole organization and unit that was repairing helicopters that are [worth] millions of dollars. How many 22-year-olds are in charge of stuff like that?"
Experts urge companies to consider adapting their approach to recruiting veterans — anticipating unique needs for acclimation and retention — in a similar way that they've had to change their approach for hiring millennials. Veterans say those in the armed forces need to prepare themselves for the civilian world six to nine months before leaving the military, taking advantage of the tools available to them through the military, the Veterans Administration and support groups.
Martinez, who is taking a break from acting to study psychology full time at Fordham said, "As much as we're talking about hiring veterans and giving them an opportunity, we hope people don't translate that to just saying, 'Just hire us on the spot because we're veterans and because of what we've done for this country.' We want to be in the conversation. Give us a chance to sell ourselves to you, and to prove to you that we can, and we will!"
CNBC's Michael Newberg contributed to this report.