Soldiers Try Turning War Experience into Civilian Skills

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As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, more than a million service members are expected to leave the military over the next five years. Soldiers from Fort Campbell face an already challenging job market as they also try to turn war experience into marketable skills.

Leroy Camacho is a combat engineer who expects he'll need to change careers as a civilian.
Leroy Camacho is a combat engineer who expects he’ll need to change careers as a civilian.

For the last 12 years, Leroy Camacho has been blowing stuff up. Four deployments gave this combat engineer his fill of explosives and now he’s moving into the civilian world.

“They have quarry blasting, you know, dynamiting, stuff like that. But you have to go out into remote areas,” he says. “That’s not something I really want to get into.”

Camacho is looking for a new career – cars. He wants to attend a program in California so he can work at a BMW dealership. He says it’s an attractive field considering the conditions he’s accustomed to.

“Even if they come out and say you need to work faster, I’m not going to die from that,” he says. “It’s not like the cars are going to explode on me or something crazy like what I’ve been dealing with.”

What soldiers deal with prevents a few from functioning in society. But Camacho says every combat veteran is managing with some level of post traumatic stress.

“You’re all going to be a little crazy, he says. “It’s just how you handle your crazy that sets you apart.”

Some Employers Wary

Harold Riggins runs the job placement office at Fort Campbell and says he gets questions like “are they going to be a hazard?” or “if we have an issue in our organization, are they going to go postal?”

The PTSD issues are overblown, he says.

For a variety of reasons, though, keeping soldiers out of the unemployment line has become more of a challenge.

“I would tell you that there are Lt. Colonels that are having a hard time finding a job, as well as the private who got kicked out of the Army,” Riggins says.

For a long time, service members didn’t have to look far for other work. The Department of Defense is the largest employer of military veterans. But just as troop numbers are shrinking, so is the Defense Department’s civilian workforce.

Riggins says private employers will have to give soldiers a chance, and they should.

“You tell a veteran to go out a dig a ditch with a spoon, they’re going to figure out how to do it,” he says.

Valuing Vets

The companies at a recent Fort Campbell job fair are believers in the value of vets.

“There’s more discipline,” says Lynsey Jonston. She’s an HR manager with Hendrickson International, which has hired six vets as of June to build tractor trailers frames in Clarksville.

“There’s more of a need and a want to be on time and show up to work, which you don’t get a lot of times,” she says.

But Hendrickson and the rest of the companies at this job fair don’t represent nearly enough jobs for the million service members expected to flood the market. And other employers need some help understanding the lingo, like 88 Mike, 42 Alpha and 91 Bravo.

The technical terms describe Military Occupational Specialties – shortened to MOS – and are thrown around by soldiers like Jessica Maxwell. So the Fort Campbell job placement office helped her interpret 91 Brave on Maxwell’s resume.

“It basically breaks it down into civilian terms, like ‘replaces engines components such as fuel pumps, generators, starters, voltage regulators,’” she says.

Prospects do exist for mechanics after the military, Maxwell says. She’ll just have to learn her way around a highway truck instead of a humvee.


Blake Farmer

Blake Farmer is WPLN's assistant news director, but he wears many hats - reporter, editor and host. He covers the Tennessee state capitol while also keeping an eye on Fort Campbell and business trends, frequently contributing to national programs. Born in Tennessee and educated in Texas, Blake has called Nashville home for most of his life.
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