Combat veterans face tough transition to workforce

Sgt. James Brantley (center) helps a customer at ATP Gun Shop & Range. (Photo/Leslie Burden)
Sgt. James Brantley (center) helps a customer at ATP Gun Shop & Range. (Photo/Leslie Burden)

Dave McNeil, CEO of Hannah Solar
Government Services, served 30 years
in the Army and retired in 2009.
(Photo/Leslie Burden)

Army veteran finds demand
for solar power systems

After 30 years in the Army, retired Col. Dave McNeil opened his own business that designs, installs and maintains solar energy systems.

McNeil retired in 2009 after a career with infantry and special operations then base management and training. He served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Korea. After retirement, McNeil wanted to use his electrical engineering degree. He had a friend who started a company called Hannah Solar, and McNeil joined him for a year. In 2010, McNeil opened a separate sister company called Hannah Solar Government Services, which focuses on government and Department of Defense contracts.

“It’s a bit scary because you get used to the policies, procedures, rules of business with the military,” McNeil said. “Then it’s quite different outside.”

McNeil had to make payroll, manage benefits and navigate all the administrative requirements like licensing, taxes and certifications. He also had to turn a profit, a new concept for a base manager who was given a budget and told he had a year to spend it wisely.

“The last thing you ever worry about as a soldier is your financial stability for you and your family,” McNeil said. “It’s a given.”

Now, Hannah Solar Government Services is looking for a bigger facility, new hires and more equipment, McNeil said.

“We’re growing by leaps and bounds,” he said, adding that years could pass between him bidding on a project and winning it. “We started bidding a couple years ago on this business model, and now it’s starting to come to fruition.”

The company received its most recent contract in October, when it won a $471,000 contract to design and build a solar power system at a NASA facility in Alabama.

“We’ve got enough business to keep us busy for the next 10 months,” McNeil said. “The Army alone has announced they’re putting $7.5 billion of investment over the next 10 years for solar. We expect our business to be very bright.”

— Matt Tomsic

By Matt Tomsic
Published Nov. 5, 2012

Sgt. James Brantley spent his first days back from Iraq surprising people who didn’t realize he was home.

Brantley, a Marine reservist called into active duty, arrived to the Lowcountry the day before Halloween in 2008 following his first deployment, and after his surprise visits, he began looking for work.

Brantley started with jobs he wanted, but days stretched into weeks, and, desperate, Brantley applied wherever he could, looking for anything to pay the bills.

After a month, he landed a security job, the same work — base and gate security — he performed while on duty in Iraq.

“I was pretty much filling out everything,” Brantley said. “It’s frustrating, it really is. You come back from being so mission oriented and getting your job done every day and trying to keep yourself sane from all the stress. You expect you’ve got pretty good credentials. It shouldn’t be too terribly difficult.

“It was tough to get a decent-paying job anywhere, trying to keep yourself on your feet, trying not to burn through my savings.”

Nothing equates
Reservists and active duty military face a host of challenges after returning from deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unemployment for 18 to 24 year old men returning from Iraq and Afghanistan peaked in 2011 at 29.1%., and those rates for all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans hit about 12% that year. The government calls veterans who serve after Sept. 11 Gulf War II veterans. In 2011, South Carolina veterans faced an unemployment rate of 13.2%.

Now, male veterans have seen their unemployment rates fall, but women leaving the military are seeing a spike.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 9.7% of Gulf War II veterans were unemployed in September, compared to an overall unemployment rate of 7.8%. Male veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan had an unemployment rate of 8%, while women who served in those wars had an unemployment rate of 19.9%, nearly triple the unemployment rate for all women older than 20 in September.

Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan face several hurdles to well-paying employment, and some of those hurdles drive the disparities between veteran and civilian employment.

Some veterans return to potential employers who don’t give them credit for full-time work before their deployment, a technicality that lowers their starting pay by reducing the amount of veterans’ full-time work experience though he or she worked a full-time job before deployment. Since they were deployed, the employer doesn’t consider work interrupted by a deployment as full time.

Veterans also face challenges getting the same work they performed in the military, said Herbert Fielding, the veteran representative supervisor for the Charleston office of the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.

Fielding said military truck drivers don’t get credit for their experience after they leave the military. To drive commercially, they have to take the same classes and pass the same tests as someone without any experience.

“The person who’s been doing something like that should at least be given the ability to test into a certificate of some type,” Fielding said.

Combat medics face the same issues, Fielding said. They don’t qualify as EMTs though they are treating gunshot victims and performing simple surgeries on battlefields to keep troops alive and prepare them for transport to a medical facility.

“They’re doing way above what’s going on in the civilian (world),” Fielding said, referring to medics and other military professions. “And they get out, and they get no credit for it whatsoever.”

Brantley performed base and gate security during his tour in Iraq, and when he returned, he had to pay for training and certification to be a security guard licensed through the S.C. Law Enforcement Division. Brantley worked security for automotive manufacturer American LaFrance after getting certified. The American LaFrance job was the same as his job in Iraq, Brantley said, except he didn’t have to search under anyone’s car.

Brantley’s military experience also includes operating heavy equipment, everything from small forklifts to Kalmar lifts like those used at the S.C. State Ports Authority.

“None of that training equates,” Brantley said, adding — like truck drivers — he doesn’t have the proper certifications and is considered untrained by civilian employers. “If you are a truck driver in the military, you don’t have a CDL to drive in the states.”

‘Anything we can do’
The state Department of Employment and Workforce has a division devoted to helping military veterans find work, said Fielding, who served in the Navy as an airplane mechanic during the Vietnam War. Fielding’s draft number was 16.

“We have been pushing very hard to contact younger veterans and get them in,” Fielding said. “There’s so many programs out there right now for veterans that a young man can literally start a career at 20 years old.”

Trident Technical College provides some of those educational opportunities, including special resources such as counseling and study lounges solely for veterans and a Veterans Upward Bound program for those who want to attend college.

“All of them don’t, but for those who do need the assistance in terms of making the transition, it can be very important,” said Elise Davis-McFarland, vice president of student services at Trident Tech. “People who have been in the military are used to a certain amount of order and structure. That’s what they respond to, and that’s what we try to provide.”

In October, Victory Media named Trident Tech to its list of Military Friendly Schools for the fourth time. Victory Media compiles the list through a data-driven survey of more than 12,000 schools approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“We really have put forth an effort to provide the best services that we can for veterans,” Davis-McFarland said. “So many people have given so much for our freedom and for our country, and especially now during these very difficult times, anything we can do to help veterans get back into the mainstream and into the workforce is important.”

‘Are we doing better?’
Brantley’s second tour sent him to Afghanistan, where he delivered supplies from the main base at Camp Leatherneck to outlying forward-operating-bases. He also operated heavy machinery.

He left his security job before to work for the S.C. Department of Transportation, where he worked until his second deployment. Brantley also began working as a firearms instructor at ATP Gun Shop and Range.

“I already had my jobs before I left,” he said, adding federal law requires employers to hold a reservist’s job during deployment. “I was mostly just trying to use my experience for the guys who are junior of me to help them ease into it,” he said.

Brantley told them stories about his transition and recommended they begin looking for jobs and submitting applications about three months before leaving Iraq. He also told them to document their training and experience with the Marines.

In 2009 and 2010, Fielding said, he’d be doing well to get three veterans a job each month through his Charleston office. Now, Fielding helps about 10 veterans find employment each month.

“It’s been bad,” he said. “It’s been very bad, but it’s gotten much better now. I’ve got some people in the unit, and they really go the extra mile to make sure the veterans got a decent resume and how to use it.”

Now, Fielding said he feels good about a veteran’s chances at employment when they visit his office.

“You just don’t throw one application in and go sit back on the couch,” Fielding said. “If they do what we ask them to do, they’ll get work, and it’ll be decent work. Are we doing better? Yes.”

Reach Matt Tomsic at 843-849-3144.

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