Veterans' New Mission: Find a Job

March 18 -- Sgt. First Class Lawrence Blackwell has been deployed seven times, dating back to the first Gulf War -- four times to Iraq and three to Afghanistan.

Now, the airborne ranger and Florida native -- one of the nation's elite soldiers -- is facing another tough challenge: finding a job.

"I went in the Army when I was 18, so I didn't know how to fill out a resume; never been to a job interview," said Blackwell, now 44 and stationed with Third Army at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter. "It wasn't my choice to get out. So it's kind of rough."

Blackwell is one of an increasing number of soldiers, particularly non-commissioned officers, who are being forced to leave the military as the Pentagon seeks to cut its budget by $486 billion over the next decade. The cuts are looming because of last year's political fight over raising the federal debt ceiling and the resulting supercommittee's failure to specify other options to slow the rise of the national debt.

The majority of those cuts likely will fall to the Army and Marine Corps, each of which has a large presence in South Carolina.

Fort Jackson is the Army's largest basic combat training base. Shaw is the new home of Third Army, the planning and logistics arm for operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Parris Island in Beaufort is the Marines' main East Coast training base. The corps also has Marine Air Station Beaufort in the state.

Current plans by the Defense Department call for the Army, specifically, to drop from today's 565,463 active-duty troops to 490,000 by 2017. The number of Marines would go from 202,000 down to 182,000. And the cuts could get deeper.

For Columbia, a big hit at Fort Jackson could have a big effect on the Midlands economy. The base employs 2,500 people, trains 50,000 soldiers a year and has an annual economic impact approaching $2 billion a year. The total economic impact of the three Midlands bases -- Jackson, Shaw and McEntire Joint National Guard Base -- is estimated at about $7 billion a year.

That is $1 billion more than the original annual economic impact estimates of Boeing on Charleston at full operation, and about $3 billion more than the University South Carolina's impact statewide.

"I view military bases like I view manufacturing plants -- employing as many people and creating as much economic momentum as a major manufacturing plant," said S.C. Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt. "The military is important to the economic health of our state. Additionally, the military can provide a strong, trained workforce for our state."

Protecting S.C. bases

Military officials and boosters in the Midlands say everything that can be done should be done to protect South Carolina's missions and bases -- and that includes hiring service members, which builds the state's talent pool. Many of those service members, particularly top brass, also could have influence on future Pentagon decisions.

"If we were to have an industry coming here with the economic impact of the military, we would move heaven, hell and earth to suit them and rightly so," said Ike McLeese, chief executive of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce and a civilian liaison to the Army secretary.

But officials and boosters predict the impact of the announced drawdown would probably be minimal here. There is more danger from future base realignments and closures (BRAC), they said.

Fort Jackson is the training base for support soldiers -- mechanics, financial officers and other support jobs. With the military drawing down after two wars over a decade, combat soldiers are more likely to be affected.

"The junior enlisted and the privates are the bulk of our Army," said Command Sgt. Major Kevin Benson, Fort Jackson's top non-commissioned officer. "Those numbers will probably drop for the combat arms more than they would for Fort Jackson, which trains the support (personnel)."

Benson, whose last posting was with the 101st Airborne Division before coming to Fort Jackson earlier this year, said the majority of a brigade is combat soldiers

"So as they cut down the combat forces, the support forces will remain about the same," he said. "So the effects on Fort Jackson, as far as the flow of trainees, will probably not be much at all."

McLeese echoed Benson's view, saying that the bigger threat to the Midlands and state economy would be another BRAC.

"We may get some (forced retirees), but mainly we're a school house," he said. "It shouldn't be significant because we don't have that many (combat) troops. And coming out of two wars over 10 years, the major reduction is going to be in combat troops," he said.

'Hiring Heroes'

But there will be effects.

Fort Jackson's Army Career and Alumni Center has already seen a rise in soldiers transitioning out of the Army.

The office provides soldiers with training in everything from filling out resumes to networking to filing for unemployment benefits. The number of soldiers it sees has risen to 70 a month from about 50 or 60, said Carolyn Andrews, the center's transition services manager.

"And we expect that to increase," she said.

A Hiring Our Heroes job fair held earlier this month at the fort, sponsored by the U.S. and Greater Columbia chambers of commerce, drew about 2,000 service members and veterans. A spokesman for the U.S. chamber calls it one of the largest of the 100 or so fairs they have held around the nation.

In addition to active-duty personnel and veterans, the fair also was popular with S.C. National Guard members who have lost their stateside jobs while they were serving in long deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The good news was that 94 employers packed the fort's Solomon Center for the fair, all with jobs to offer. And there also was a waiting list of employers who wanted to set up tables.

"It was pretty overwhelming," McLeese said.

Employers like hiring veterans, several recruiters at the job fair said, because they are dependable, know how to follow orders, are team players and don't mind long hours.

"They have no problem working a 12-hour shift," said Verizon recruiter Nicolas Relacion, who was manning a booth at the job fair. "And they bring military values: loyalty, duty."

An edge for veterans

U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that South Carolina used to be first in the nation in hiring veterans -- with 75 percent of transitioning service members placed. In the past few years, that number has fallen to 46 percent.

Abraham Turner, director of the state Department of Employment and Workforce, would not speculate on the reasons for the drop-off. But Turner said he and Gov. Nikki Haley are committed to turning that around.

As a result, the department has ramped up efforts to place veterans in jobs, particularly those from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

"I can guarantee (a veteran) one-on-one service and I can guarantee a meeting with an employer," said Turner, a retired major general and former commanding general at Fort Jackson.

The department gives "front of the line" preference to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans through the federal "gold card" program, Turner said. And it has specialists to work with veterans to help them find jobs.

Those specialists -- Local Veteran Employment Representatives and Disabled Veterans Outreach Program Specialists -- "hand carry a veteran through the process," Turner said. "It's like having a private (job) headhunter working with you."

The problem, he said, is many veterans don't know the services are available.

"So we're ramping up our marketing," he said, even using radio spots to get the word out.

Veterans can find a list of services at the department's Website:

For Sgt. First Class Blackwell, any help would be appreciated.

"I worry about the money," he said, adding that while his retirement check helps, it won't pay all of the bills, such as health care, a benefit previously provided by the military.

Blackwell said he has been offered jobs as a police officer and prison guard as well as a private contractor overseas. But after 23 years in the service, he would like a career that doesn't involve weapons or going back into a combat zone.

"With all I have done, all the skills I've acquired, it would be nice if there was another kind of job waiting," he said. "But I need a job by July. And if I have to (take a paramilitary job or go overseas), I'll motivate myself. I'll do what I have to do."


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