Sgt. John Rodriguez, 2nd Battalion, 135th Aviation Regiment, looks over a sample résumé during a Transition Assistance Program class Wednesday at the Copeland Soldiers Service Center at Fort Hood. The class was part of the Army Career and Alumni Program.

By Colleen Flaherty
Killeen Daily Herald

When Yarimar Lewis left the Army four years ago, she had no idea it would take this long to get a job.

Consequently, she said, she supports proposed federal legislation that would require transitioning troops to undergo more training before entering the civilian job market.

“I think I applied to three to five jobs every couple of weeks,” Lewis, 29, said. “I never got called for an interview until this job.”

The Copperas Cove resident finally started clerking at the Killeen Police Department this week, but she wonders if she could have been employed sooner had she opted to take more pre-separation job training from the Army.

Called the Hiring Heroes Act of 2011, the Senate bill aims to reduce unemployment among young veterans, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chief sponsor of the bill and chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

According to information from the Labor Department, 27 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans age 20 to 24 are jobless.

During a news conference at the U.S. Capitol following the bill’s introduction on May 11, Murray said she didn’t know how much the bill would cost but that the Defense Department paid out $500 million in unemployment benefits for Army veterans in 2010.

Under the bill, departing service members would learn about such things as job searches, career decision-making, occupational and labor market conditions, interviewing techniques and how to write cover letters and résumés. It would be offered as part of the Transition Assistance Program, which was created by a partnership among the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Transportation and Labor.

Such programs are already offered at military installations across the country and at Fort Hood’s Copeland Soldiers Service Center through the 20-year-old Army Career and Alumni Program, called ACAP.

Only a 90-minute, computer-based pre-separation briefing on benefits and process, plus a 30-minute face-to-face counseling session are required, however. Only wounded veterans are required to take an additional three-day seminar on the transition.

“I participated in some of the programs,” Lewis said of the rushed end of her six-year Army career. Because her husband was also in the Army and they had no one in the area to watch their child, she left the service in 2007. “I didn’t really go into depth on anything because it wasn’t required.”

Linda Christ, the ACAP transition services manager at Fort Hood, also supports the bill. Soldiers’ biggest obstacle to taking advantage of ACAP’s offerings is that “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Many soldiers have gone into the Army immediately after high school or college, causing them to underestimate what a civilian job search entails, Christ said. Soldiers may find it difficult to market themselves and translate the skills they’ve learned in the Army into civilian language.

“I hate it when I hear ‘I’m just a —'” followed by an Army job, Christ said, imitating soldiers who don’t realize the complexity or tranferability of their occupational specialties.

Qualified counselors

All of ACAP’s counselors have master’s degrees, program manager Bob Oakes said. Staffers try to pair departing soldiers with counselors whose backgrounds match their career goals.

Drafting a résumé with a counselor — even if the departing soldier is set on attending school — is essential, Christ said, to get those skill sets down on paper.

The bill would also put pressure on unit commanders to allow their soldiers to attend training, she said.

Sponsors of the bill said that about one-third of departing military personnel choose not to take advantage of ACAP-style programs.

Oakes said the installation’s voluntary career preparation programs have a usage rate that exceeds the Army’s goals of 62 percent.

About 700 people leave the Army through Fort Hood each month, he said, and at least 90 percent pass through ACAP for mandatory counseling three months before they plan to leave the Army. Services are available to soldiers up to one year before they plan to leave or retire from the Army. They’re also eligible for counseling for months after they separate.

Army’s biggest center

Fort Hood’s ACAP center is the biggest in the Army, Oakes said. It’s also one of the most expansive, due in part to volunteer image and business consultants from as far away as Waco and Austin who conduct regular seminars.

ACAP’s June 15 job fair employer list already includes more than 50 names.

The program’s Copeland Center wing was bustling during a recent visit, full of soldiers seeking both mandatory and voluntary counseling at computers and in counselors’ cubicles.

Recruiters from defense contractors, universities and other employers chatted with departing soldiers in the lobby. Other soldiers perused walls of job postings and career counseling materials in the center’s library. A bulletin board was full of stars representing ACAP alumni who have gotten jobs.

Spc. Chad Lomax, 64th Military Police Company, 720th Military Police Battalion, 89th Military Police Brigade, searched a job posting board for positions. He’s a mechanic and can’t reenlist as such at the end of the year because the occupation specialty is over-strength, he said.

Lomax had just completed his mandatory pre-separation training, and said he planned to keep using ACAP as a resources until he found a job.

He didn’t know if he’d make the training mandatory, he said, but “I’m attending everything ACAP has to offer. It would be silly not to.”

It’s unclear when the bill could become law. Murray said her committee will not hold a hearing until early June, and a companion bill has yet to be introduced in the House.

McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.