Several organizations and programs in the commonwealth are working to smooth the transition for Kentucky’s military veterans back to civilian life. Two programs help ensure that soldiers about to leave the armed forces can find good jobs in today’s workforce, while a third organization uses outdoor adventures to give vets who sustained a service injury the opportunity to bond with other men and women who shared similar active-duty experiences.
KET’s Connections explored Fort Campbell’s Soldier for Life Transition Assistance Program, the veterans’ transition services provided by West Kentucky Workforce Board, and the Kentucky Wounded Heroes organization.
Enjoying Nature and Building Bonds
Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient Brett Hightower knows what it’s like to be a wounded warrior.
The retired Bowling Green policeman was serving in Afghanistan with the Kentucky National Guard in August 2008 when he was critically injured in a firefight.
Two facial reconstruction surgeries and a long recovery followed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland. But while he was there, an officer suggested to Hightower that he look into taking a fishing trip with the Kentucky Wounded Heroes organization after his release.
“I knew nothing about the organization, knew nothing about the program, but when [he] said ‘free’ and ‘trip to Alaska,’ I was all in,” Hightower says.
What followed was a two-week excursion to a remote Alaskan fishing lodge in the company of other veterans who understood what Hightower had been through.
“The best part about it was I was meeting other men and women who had been injured in the line of duty, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says. “So I got to hear the experiences that they had during their recovery.”
Hightower was so impressed with Kentucky Wounded Heroes and its founder, Marine veteran and retired state police office Chuck Reed, that he began to volunteer with the organization. Now he serves as a board member of the Louisville-based non-profit.
The organization has no paid staff and relies on donations and in-kind contributions to fund its activities. In its first ten years, Hightower says the group has taken more than 1,500 vets on fishing trips to Alaska and Lake Erie as well as other sports and outdoor adventures.
“We just want to say ‘thank you’ to so many people who have served this country in different capacities at different times,” he says.
That includes reaching out to older vets, including those from the Vietnam War, who Hightower says weren’t properly thanked for their service in that controversial conflict. And since he and Reed have law enforcement backgrounds, they decided to invite police officers injured in the line of duty to join their trips as well.
“We felt that it was important to go back to those folks and pay them the same respect as we do our military,” Hightower says, “because they are truly just trying to provide protection to us each and every day with a high standard.”
The number of service members returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade has put a strain on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, says Hightower. But he believes the vital services the VA provides are getting better and will continue to improve. In the meantime, Hightower says the bonding opportunities that groups like Kentucky Wounded Heroes offer in their trips are equally important.
“You see guys and girls who end up sharing things they wouldn’t even share sometimes with their family,” Hightower says. “But because of that common denominator of being in certain places in difficult times, whether that was an injury that happened here in the United States or an injury that happened overseas, there’s some type of therapeutic healing that takes place.”
Translating Military Skills to Civilian Jobs
Marc Quesenberry studied environmental and civil engineering at The Citadel and did two tours of duty in Iraq. Yet when it came time to leave the Marines and military life, he found it hard to land a civilian job.
“When I was getting out as a captain, I had a degree. I felt like I would be going either back to project management or back into the engineering field,” Quesenberry says. “I felt my education and my background and my experiences would be enough, but I really struggled.”
Now Quesenberry works to ensure other service members don’t encounter similar obstacles. He is a veterans transition liaison for the West Kentucky Workforce Board, where he helps connect soldiers from the U.S. Army’s Fort Campbell about to exit the military with a range of services, including résumé preparation, job interviewing skills, networking opportunities, and referrals to job placement services.
As Kentucky employers seek to fill some 165,000 open jobs, state workforce development officials found servicemen and women at Fort Campbell to be a valuable asset. The base in western Kentucky on the Tennessee border is home to the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Each month, around 400 soldiers complete their military service at Fort Campbell and return to civilian life. Workforce board director Sheila Clark says she wants to keep as many of those service members in the commonwealth as possible.
“The workforce does not stop at the state line,” says Clark. “Whichever, whether it’s Kentucky or Tennessee, has the latest and greatest industry and has the greatest wages, then people are going to be attracted toward that.”
Fort Campbell also offers its own career counseling services to soldiers about to leave the military. The Soldier for Life Transition Assistance Program provides financial planning, résumé preparation, job fairs, and other activities to help soldiers translate their military skills into good-paying jobs in the civilian marketplace
“They reach out and connect you with people that you don’t think of,” says Edward Baldwin, who retired from the Army after 20 years of service. “Reaching out and making these introductions, making these connections with these people was a great help in… finding employment that would be satisfying.”
In addition to learning specific military occupations during their Army careers, soldiers also develop so-called soft skills that are highly prized by civilian employers, says Fred Workman, deputy program manager at Soldier for Life. He says service members learn leadership, teamwork, and problem-solving skills. They’re also able to pass drug screenings, which Workman says is critical for many jobs.
“We have plenty of skill sets that I believe can help fill those 165,000 opportunities across Kentucky,” says Workman.
The Soldier for Life program also offers training in trade skills like plumbing, electrical, and advanced manufacturing as well as white-collar occupations like information technology and operations management. Teresa English, a career skills program coordinator at Fort Campbell, says 85 percent of soldiers who complete the career programs on the base find jobs within a month of leaving the military.
“All the soldiers want to know is a plan,” English says. “If you give them a plan, if you give them an opportunity, they will be successful.”
The Fort Campbell career services don’t end when the soldier leaves the military. They are available to veterans and their spouses for life. The West Kentucky Workforce Board also helps those who left the military years ago. When veteran Mark Hrudicka lost his job at a factory that closed, the workforce board got him into a retraining program for dislocated workers. Now a student at Murray State University, Hrudicka will graduate in 2019 with a degree in social work. He says he wants to work with vets who have substance abuse problems and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Just because I may have done something in the military, doesn’t mean that’s all I know… You tell us what you need done and we’ll figure out a way to do it,” says Hrudicka, who served for 22 years. “Give us a chance and we’ll make your job easy.”