Local Entrepreneurs Offer Hope for Unemployed Veterans

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When Jeff Lee left behind a 24-year career in the Army, he struggled to rebuild his life.

"I did what a lot of veterans do," he said. "I thought I had a game plan, and it all fell apart."

Lee handles hiring and human resources for Combat to Impact Professional Services, a small business started by Urbana resident Gary Hefner. His own trials with rebuilding personal relationships, rehabilitation and finding a way to make a living are the same challenges many veterans continue to face.

The unemployment rate for veterans in Maryland has increased from 5.9 percent in 2013 to 8.5 percent in 2014, according to a report issued Wednesday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That 2014 rate translates to about 19,000 unemployed veterans across the state. Maureen O'Connor, a spokeswoman for Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, acknowledged that 8.5 percent is "unexpectedly high," but more than half of Maryland veterans are currently employed.

One March afternoon, Lee, in a black baseball cap bearing the words "U.S. Army Retired," sat at his kitchen table in Frederick with a laptop and a handful of veterans' résumés. His mission: Find veterans his company can hire.

Some employers aren't as understanding of veterans' challenges and disabilities and choose not to hire them or don't provide the specialized support veterans need, he said.

"There's a stigma attached to veterans," Lee said.

Frederick County Workforce Services has two state employees who focus on outreach and employment for veterans locally. They do not release statistics on the county unemployment rate for veterans, but they work with businesses like Combat to Impact to connect veterans with job opportunities.

The Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation also provides job center services where veterans receive priority and encourages employers to hire more veterans.

Combat to Impact employs vets to install energy management technology and LED lighting upgrades on commercial properties.

"I come from a construction background, and a lot of the employees that we've hired through the years come from word-of-mouth," Hefner said.

Hefner started Combat to Impact in 2013. On visits with veterans going through rehabilitation in hospitals, he said he heard the same story: Some had gone on multiple tours of duty because they felt they couldn't come back to civilian life.

Hefner's goal is to run a business where the employees are all veterans, though Hefner himself is a civilian. He employs 11 veterans and two civilians.

"Getting guys back to work allows them to have some purpose and feel like they can handle some things," Hefner said.

But retention at the company is challenging, Lee said, especially when the veterans they hire see their job as just a steppingstone.

"We'd love to have longevity, but our main goal is empowering veterans," he said.

Building a welcoming environment for them is a large part of the job.

"The thing that's most important to me is: create a subculture that will allow a veteran to come on and work with our company where you're surrounded by all your battle buddies. We speak the same lingo, the same language," he said.

Janet Fish, former U.S. sea marshal and wife of a retired Coast Guard officer, started a federally certified small business called Northeastern Innovations that focuses on cultural adaptation.

"It is very innovative, very cutting-edge," Fish said.

Fish and her trainer, Jason Norcross, a Marine veteran who was part of the expeditionary force to Iraq in 2003, will work with veterans and businesses to help each understand the cultural shock faced by career veterans, many of whom have had multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"They miss the camaraderie, eating, sleeping, spending time often in life-threatening situations with a team. Now in civilian life, they don't have that," Fish said. "Many become withdrawn."

Norcross, who is taking training to be a security director for a casino, said he experienced culture shock when he returned to civilian life and worked at several businesses.

"I found the lack of camaraderie, people didn't show up on time for work, they seemed to be more about themselves than the company they were working for," Norcross said, a complete opposite of the command and control of the military environment.

Fish said it has taken about a year and a half to put the program in place. Businesses could set up a course with her company as the veterans start to work.

She plans to tailor programs to meet the specific needs of a company and veterans. Her initial course, "Culture Shock and Bridging Perception," is the first of a planned series of courses.

A major challenge for veterans making the transition to civilian life is finding how their skills translate to businesses. While he was a first sergeant, Lee helped soldiers develop their résumés with that in mind and put their best foot forward.

"That's my driving force," he said. "Every day when I get up, I want to touch a veteran's life, be positive, give back."

Lee recently moved to Frederick to reconnect with his family. His mother lives in the county, and his daughter attends Frederick Community College. He's hoping that veterans who need help getting their lives back on track will meet Hefner and learn about Combat to Impact, like he did last year.

"In a lot of ways, and not to be melodramatic," Lee said, "but he saved my life."

Combat to Impact plans to hire 10 to 15 more veterans in the next few months.

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