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A veteran who served 20 years in the Navy explains how he’s assisting his fellow vets in New York City get on their feet and receive the help they need. He reveals the barriers veterans must overcome to find work and the stigmas that are often attributed to them. He also discusses how taking significant risks helped him land a job.

Q: What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How long have you been doing this job?
I am the Vice President of Veteran’s Services at Services for the Underserved, which is a New York City based non-profit. I’m also personally a veteran – I served in the Navy for just over 20 years. The Veteran’s Division, which we formed last year, focuses on mental health and wellness, housing, and employment for veterans – usually folks who are poor and need help. Basically, when a veteran comes in the door here, we try to connect them with all of the services they need based on whatever is going on with their life. One example of the kind of program we have is HUD-VASH, which is basically section 8 housing for veterans coupled with mental health services. With HUD-VASH, we’re working with veterans who are chronically homeless, have mental health issues, and sometimes are dealing with physical problems as well. All of these things end up affecting each other - the person with a mental health issue, for example, often can’t hold a job and then eventually becomes homeless. So often they really need our help by the time they get to us.

Q: How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail?
I joke that it’s herding cats, but in reality I’ve spent most of my time here building up this division. Services for the Underserved, like many nonprofits, applies to a ton of grants to get funding for their work. I always say that grants are like vanilla ice cream – everyone likes it and wants as much of it as possible, but there is such a thing as too much of it. When I got to SUS, there were a number of veterans’ programs all around the organization based on different grants, and I brought them together under one umbrella. It used to be that our housing program and our employment program and our HUD-VASH program didn’t even sit next to each other, physically. That didn’t make sense to me, because one person might need all of those programs – one to get housing and one to get a job and one to get mental health services. Now we’re organized around functional lines – I drew on my military experience and basically created mini-task forces. It’s made a huge difference. We’ve been able to grow the veterans’ division from 3 million in funding to 20 million in a little over a year and added 50 people to the team. That kind of change is very dynamic – it’s like the early days of the space program, where you lit the rocket and now you’re straddling it and just hoping it keeps going forward and doesn’t blow up. Every day is different.

Q: What was your journey to doing this kind of work? How did you get here?
I was in the Merchant Marines and then the Navy – I retired from the Navy after serving just over 20 years. By the end of my Navy career, I focused mainly on disaster response and humanitarian issues and worked at the War College. When Haiti had the big earthquake, for example, I got sent down to run the Navy planning effort. So it made sense to me to continue working to help people after retiring from the service.

Q: How has being a veteran hurt or helped you?
To be honest, a lot of my colleagues who are retiring from the military are having hard times getting jobs – it can be hard aligning what you want to do after the military with what you’ve done in the service. Maybe you were an infantryman in the Marines, and that’s great, but there’s no real civilian equivalent to that unless you’re going to go be a mercenary somewhere. You have to step back and learn a whole new industry. One thing that made the transition easier for me was that I planned for it. I worked with a lot of retired servicemen at the War College, and they told me that I needed to plan early, so I did. At first, though, I was applying incorrectly to jobs. I was applying for everything and using the same resume, and HR departments were completely writing me off. Once I got the hang of it, though, and got focused, I found jobs that worked for me. I’m trying to bring that same approach to the veterans I work with – sometimes guys will leave the service and want to get hired just for being a veteran, but they don’t have the skills to compete with folks from the private sector. So we’ve started working with local colleges to get scholarships and encourage our veterans to take classes and build some new skills so that they have the best chance of getting hired. I always tell veterans – sometimes you’ve got to be willing to just take a job and prove yourself.

Q: Do you think employers see veterans as an asset?
As far as perception goes, I think it really depends. Some people may have heard that hiring a military person is a great thing because they’re devoted and they put the mission first, but others worry that every veteran has PTSD and they’re going to flip out and attack someone, which isn’t true. I’ve seen it both ways, but ideally you’d hope that being a veteran would give you an extra boost in the hiring process, all things being equal.

Q: Do you love what you do? Do you think you’ve found the right path?
This has been the perfect job for me coming out of the military because I get to use my veteran-ness. When I work with the guys here, I’m not just some old white guy, I’m another vet. It gets them to open up to me and talk about their own service. This is also a great way for me to learn about life outside of the military – how does the New York City nonprofit community work, how does this agency work, how does that business work. I know I’m not going to go back to the Navy, so this is a whole new beginning of a career for me and I’m at a point where I’m just learning. My job lets me meet and see people from so many different organizations that I’m getting the perfect experience for learning what else is out there.

Q: What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of military about the working world?
Take a risk. I got my current job by calling the company and asking for the Chief of Staff of the organization. When I got her on the phone, I asked her about the job I was looking for directly, to see if it was still available. She could have been turned off, but it worked for me. It didn’t hurt that I also took a big risk driving down for the interview – I drove from Rhode Island during a blizzard just to meet with them. I definitely believe in taking risks when it matters - I even rewrote the job description for another organization I was interested in. I told them that what they thought they needed was x, but what they really needed was y. And it worked – they called me in for an interview and ultimately offered me a job.
Q: If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
Eventually, I want to run a nonprofit here in NYC. I’m VP now, and I’m cutting my teeth, but I am looking to see what the next step brings. It’s been a great life after the Navy so far.