Fifty three servicemembers from the Army or Marine Corps, all soon to become veterans, were guests of The American Legion at a Transition Dinner Reception held Aug. 24, during the Legion's 96th Annual National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
The American Legion and several of its corporate affiliates sponsored the group of soldiers and Marines for a three-day stay in Charlotte that included several job-related events, workshops and a "Hiring Our Heroes" career fair. The group came from Fort Bragg, Fort Benning, and Marine Corps bases at Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point.
The dinner reception gave the servicemembers an opportunity to hear lessons learned from others when they shifted from military to civilian life, and allowed them to meet and network with several corporate executives. They also picked up many useful tips on how to land a job, and how important it is to get involved with their communities – once they've chosen one.
Koby Langley, an Army veteran and Bronze Star recipient who served two tours in Iraq, told the soldiers and Marines that one important way to transition is to get involved with community life and volunteer time with service organizations. Langley is The White House's associate director for public engagement and intergovernmental affairs.
"I'm going to take a guess here, but more than 90 percent of the people that work for The American Legion don't work for money at all," Langley said. "They do it on a volunteer basis. They're in the community, they know the community, they know how to get connected with people that know how to get you a job."
Will every veteran who does community service find a job? No, but Langley said volunteer work improves a veteran's chances of being hired by 36 percent – by 50 percent if he or she has at least a high-school diploma.
"So think about volunteering," Langley said. "Think about joining organizations like The American Legion …. Think about joining any organization that will get you connected with your community."
While ex-military members are job-hunting, Langley said, they should find something to do that gives them a sense of mission. "It really epitomizes what The American Legion's mantra is, which is service and not self. When you get out, I guarantee that you're going to want to do something that's meaningful, that gives back to your community. Spend a little time doing community service."
In closing, Langley told the servicemembers, "Make sure you use that GI Bill, learn how to translate those (military) skills, and if you can't do anything else, get involved in your community."
The dinner reception gave the servicemembers a chance to begin the networking process, said Samuel Jung, assistant director for the Legion's Veterans Employment & Education Division. "Something like this definitely gives them a leg up and prepares them a little more for the civilian world they're going back to. It's essential to them, because they can hear a lot at the bases about what's going to happen in civilian life, but it's totally different when you get this kind of an experience on the outside."
Grace Waladkewics, a combat correspondent with the Marine Corps public affairs office at Cherry Point, said that attending the dinner reception was important for her, because "being on a military installation, you don't necessarily get to see what opportunities are out there for you.
"Being able to come here to an event like this, and see all the opportunities and who you can talk to, and what's out there for you – it's important. And having people like The American Legion specifically doing this for military members is a great opportunity."
Waladkewics said she knows people who have left the Marine Corps and are now having trouble finding work. "Especially right now. Anybody I've talked to that's gotten out within the past few years has said, 'Stay in, stay in. There's nothing out here for you right now.'
"My roommate just got out a month ago and she has no job, nothing. She's just out there looking around for work. She's qualified, she has a college education, but there just isn't an opportunity that she can see. But coming to this (event), you see that there are opportunities out there, it's just where you're looking and who you're in contact with."
Until she got an invitation from The American Legion, Waladkewics said she had never heard of such an event geared toward helping servicemembers make their transition into the private sector. "A lot of these people wouldn't be able to have this opportunity if The American Legion didn't sponsor them. They just said, 'Hey, it's all expenses paid. All you have to do is come here and listen to what we have to offer.'"