Veterans' summit helps service members return to civilian life, find employment

Published: Friday, March 30 2012 6:30 p.m. MDT

Veterans and their families take advantage of an Employment Fair sponsored by the Utah Veterans and Military Employment Coalition at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 30, 2012. The fair included more than 80 employers and 18 veteran benefits providers.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — SALT LAKE CITY — For young veterans like John Angell and Justin Watts, life on the battlefield was often easier to negotiate than their returns to civilian life.

During combat, each had a clear sense of purpose and mission.

"I needed to keep my group alive. I needed to keep myself alive," said Watts, who served in 101st Army Airborne Infantry for four years.

After receiving a medical discharge for service-related injuries, he went to work in a friend's computer store, where he occasionally encountered angry customers.

It was difficult, he said, to reconcile the relatively minor things that can upset civilians when one has literally been responsible for protecting the lives of others.

"It's very, very different. You feel like you're on a different planet when you get back," he said.

Or, as John Angell explains, in the civilian world an employee who shows up late to work risks being disciplined by his or her employer.

"You show up late for a patrol and people end up dying," said Angell, a Marine.

To help bridge those worlds, veterans and their families were invited to a job fair and workshops Friday to help them address relationship, mental health and financial issues in the next chapter of their lives.

Finding a job is among the highest priority of veterans who attended the conference, "Generations 2012" at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who welcomed summit participants Friday morning, said simply thanking veterans for their service was insufficient.

"More important than our words, however, are our actions. We have an obligation to ensure our veterans have the tools and resources to successfully transition back to civilian life, and to be self-sufficient and independent thereafter," he said.

Toward that end, Herbert signed a ceremonial copy of HB162, recently passed by the Utah Legislature. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Tim Cosgrove, D-Murray, and Sen. Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, creates a 15-member Veterans Reintegration Task Force, which will study the difficulties encountered by returning service members. It will also create a statewide action plan to assist with reintegration efforts.

One job seeker said he has discovered that he needs to present a more polished résumé to present to potential employers. "After 24 years, I've never had to write a resume. That's the hard part," said Burke Kilburn, who will retire from the Air Force on Sunday.

Kilburn said one advantage that veterans bring to the workplace is that they have worked with a diverse array of people and they have a strong work ethic.

"They want to get the job done. Most of the people I've worked with are very hard workers," he said.

Meanwhile, 29-year-old Benjamin Stilson was seeking a job in sales or marketing. Stilson, who served three tours with a field artillery unit, said most of his military experience involved truck driving and cooking.

Stilson, who grew up in central Utah, said employers who hire veterans not only inherit employees who have "a skill set and work ethic. Obviously, the military is very structured."

To even join the nation's all-volunteer military, "you have to be very motivated," he said.

"You have to be a self-starter. No one is going to take care of you in the Army. You have to learn to take care of yourself."

Bart O. Davis, a transition assistance adviser, said one of the greatest challenges that young veterans face is that some had little experience in the civilian world of work before they entered the military.

"They're great people, great workers, but they only know how to speak in military terms," Davis said.

Nationally, veterans who served on active duty since September 2002 have an average unemployment rate of 12.1 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In February, Utah's state unemployment rate was 5.7 percent

Stilson's theory is that employers may underestimate the positive qualities of job applicants with military experience.

"They may not understand the skill set a military person can bring to the table," he said.

Angell said serving in the Marine Corps has given him a remarkable ability to handle stress. He's looking forward to a bright future because he's already endured some of the most difficult conditions possible, he said.

He's earned a college degree in business administration and is now studying for another degree in mathematics.

"Nothing is going to keep me down. I can do anything I set my mind to," he said.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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