Bills would ease shift into civilian life as military shrinks

Trio of proposals aim to help veterans get college degrees sooner, find work

Staff writerMarch 1, 2013 

Gabriel Bowman left the Marines nearly two years ago with a plan. He’d hit the books hard in his home state of Washington, earn a degree and launch himself into a new career in law enforcement.

Now a student at the University of Washington Tacoma, the two-time Iraq veteran is lobbying lawmakers to help other veterans find their own footing in the civilian world. The downsizing of the military has given many of them a nudge.

“A lot of guys who want to reenlist can’t,” he said. “They’re having a hard time finding work.”

Bowman’s message hits home with lawmakers who are pursuing a pack of bills to make it easier for veterans to find work in the Evergreen State.

The proposals include:

 • Providing tax benefits for businesses that hire unemployed former service members.

 • Giving extra preferences to veterans when they apply for jobs with public agencies.

 • Waiving the waiting period for more troops to receive in-state tuition at public colleges.

The bills are moving forward at a pivotal time for service members looking to new careers. The Army in particular is downsizing, shedding more than 70,000 soldiers from its peak strength during the Iraq War.

Young veterans face an especially difficult time. Last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 29.1 percent of veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 were unemployed, 12 points more than their civilian peers.

In the South Sound, between 400 and 600 soldiers are leaving the Army out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord every month, said Robin Baker, the base’s transition services manager. The Army expects about 40 percent of them will settle in the region, at least for a time.

Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, wants the Legislature to help service members get a softer landing if they leave the military from here.

“It lets them know their career in the military did not go for naught, that they’re valuable citizens to the state of Washington,” he said.

The efforts in the Legislature dovetail with other partnerships to boost opportunities for veterans, such as the Hire America’s Heroes job fairs in Seattle and the Boots to Shoes nonprofit that provides mentorship for former service members seeking work.

Retired Maj. Gen. James Collins, president of Hire America’s Heroes, advises service members to start early and seek help starting their new careers.

“It’s never as easy as you think,” he said.

Both organizations offer programs to help veterans describe their military service in such a way that private employers can understand how their experience would benefit a company.

“You’re stuck trying to figure out what you do, and if you can’t enunciate that to a company, they don’t have time to help you figure it out,” said Army Reserve Col. William Andrew Leneweaver of Tacoma.

Leneweaver, 55, last week volunteered at a Hire America’s Heroes job fair in Seattle, connecting junior soldiers with recruiters. He’s looking for work in the private sector, too, and figuring out how to market himself as a project manager based on his varied experiences as an officer in the Washington National Guard.

The recent emphasis on life after the Army marks a change in tone from the height of the Iraq War, when the military handed out lucrative reenlistment bonuses and sought to keep soldiers in uniform.

“For so many years of war, the whole mindset was ‘keep everybody,’” Baker said.

She is working to bring more soldiers into transition programs as early as 18 months before they expect to leave the service. Participation in the classes accelerated dramatically after Congress passed the Veterans Opportunity to Work Act in late 2011. It requires service members leaving the military to attend classes about finding work in the private sector.

“We spend almost a year training them up to learn their job and be an effective soldier. We owe the same time, training and preparation on the other end to transition them to civilian life,” she said.

Bowman planned his shift out of the Marines by building on his previous studies at South Puget Sound Community College. He went home to Shelton in the summer of 2011 and earned an associate’s degree.

By then, the Marines were phasing out his job specialty maintaining a type of helicopter that’s being retired. Future promotions would have been harder to earn.

He expects to graduate from UWT in June and is spending his winter quarter as a legislative liaison for the school. He chose to focus on the veterans bills because he thought he’d have the most impact there.

He likes one in particular that would require public colleges to give service members a chance to finish a course and earn credit if called away for a deployment. That could empower soldiers to check off their educational goals without fear of losing tuition money in case of an emergency.

“I know guys coming out of the military and I think it’s important that everyone has access to public education,” he said.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@

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