Work agreement program helps Soldiers restart their lives
November 8, 2013
Almost eight years ago, Earl East, the Morale, Welfare and Recreation mission information systems specialist was approached by Winnfred K. Jones, transition coordinator and training specialist with the Warrior Transition Unit and retired Sgt. Maj. Clarence Harmonson, director of the Soldier and Family Assistance Center, to enter into a work agreement to help retrain WTU Soldiers interested in computers.
On that day a very special "family" was born. Almost 20 Soldiers have gone through the program designed by East. About three years later, Gary Smith, MWR functional administrator, came on board.
"All our Soldiers have transitioned back into civilian life, complete with an information technology education, plus certification tests in Security +, Server 2008, Microsoft Windows 7 and Network +. And best of all, the majority of these transitioned Soldiers have landed good careers in the IT field and still keep in touch with their mentors and extended family," said East.
Like all programs, there were growing pains and bugs that needed to be worked out. Today's program refined by East and Smith starts with an interview of the Soldier candidate. Once accepted, the Soldier spends their first day 'on the job' tearing a computer apart down to the shell and then putting it back together. "This was about the only way we could devise to see what they knew and what they needed to learn," said East.
"We take what they know and expand it with hands-on training, schooling at the Warrior Signal University on North Fort Polk and then certification tests that mean a great deal especially in the IT civilian field," said Smith. "During the initial interview, we ask them about their goals, where they want to go and ask them if they are ready for a fun, challenging career that keeps you on your toes as long as you keep up with the ever changing technology."
"Then for the first two weeks, they sit in front of a computer listening to a computerized voice and completing computer-based training," added East. "Eventually we give them a map and an assignment; someone in MWR needs help. They go to their location and repair their computer, sound system, projector or whatever electronic device needs repair. If they run into a problem, then they call us, but those calls seldom come."
"We try to give them the opportunity to learn all facets about the computer so that they will have a well rounded concept," stressed East. "We work with these Soldiers on a one-on-one basis. Many have post-traumatic stress disorder and we have seen them completely turn around and basically come back to life."
"I grew up with a father who served 30 years in the military and tours in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, so I had lived with PTSD all my life even though it wasn't called PTSD at that time," East recalled.
"One of our greatest rewards is seeing these Soldiers blossom and fight to regain their life," stressed East. "One Soldier was injured and legally blinded. He was a truck driver with the 4th Brigade, 10th Mountain. He could physically not do his military job anymore. We worked with him for a year. It was a special friendship -- he's part of my family now. I even took him in after he was discharged until he could get on his feet. He left the military and had a job at NEC the next day. He left for awhile to go back to school, but he's back "home" again. Now he has a job as the administrative assistant for the Middle School Teen program at Child-Youth Services. He's married and has a family."
"This program changed my life," said Mark Cole, the Soldier described above. "I wouldn't be where I am today without this special program. It was life changing. It helped me take the steps needed toward my career and not just a job. We joke with each other just like a family. Here you can relax and find yourself."
MWR's own "Geek Squad" is responsible for keeping the IT systems at seven childcare centers, Post Library, Education center, three computer labs at Child-Youth Services facilities, all Post MWR facilities and the systems at Alligator Lake and Toledo Bend up and running. This also includes telephone service.
Currently there are two National Guard WTU Soldiers in the program, Staff Sgt. LeVon Betts and Spec. Kully Mauck.
Betts is the new kid on the block. He's been in the program about three weeks and is in the process of completing the two-week computer generated program.
"My military occupational specialist is 25B, computer specialist, so I have a little more knowledge than other beginners, but I still have to do the computer training," he said. "I was the IT manager at Camp Shelby, Mississippi for the last four years. I already have some certifications, but I want to further my career potential by gaining more knowledge and hopefully focus towards digital forensics as I begin to transition out of the military."
Mauck has been in the program since February 2013. He was a heavy equipment mechanic and was injured and cannot continue in his present occupation.
"I've learned a lot," he commented. "I've got a new career, a new way to make a pay check because I can't do my old job anymore. I still have some more to learn, but I just got my Server 2008 certification."
Mauck keeps the 120 computers at the Library and Post Education Center in working order. Every morning by 9 a.m., he's at the library checking systems and making repairs. Although he still has a few months left on active duty, but he hopes that he will be able to secure a position on Fort Polk by the time he's ready to transition to civilian life.
Right now, he's working with Sec. Eduardo Ramirez, borrowed military manpower from the 115th Combat Support Hospital. Ramirez will return to the 115th CSH November 1, as the administrator having just received his certification.
"This is a great program," said Ramirez. "Since my first day, Earl and Gary have made me feel very comfortable. It's a great learning environment and they are very supportive. I have learned a lot more in this program than I have learned in the past." Ramirez is currently working with Mauck taking care of the IT problems at the library and Education Center. In addition to the computers, they also keep the MWR phones up and running too.
"The more certifications they have the better," said Smith. "Companies are now looking for these certifications instead of degrees. They are all looking to earn their administrative card and that requires a great deal of certifications," he said.
"The IT field is one that requires constant studying and reading. You have to keep current and fresh. The technology is changing every day and it's hard to keep up. You have to grow on your own," emphasized Smith.
"Our program has evolved by its self over the years," said both East and Smith. "The Soldiers have taught us to point toward their individual goals, one hurdle at a time."
"We start out working as a team and then they are on their own", stressed East. "Basically we throw them to the wolves to deal with issues and the people that are having them."
Both Betts and Mauck agree that this special program has changed their lives for the better.
"Based on my expectations, it has been very beneficial to my IT career. I've gotten real hands-on work experience plus I've been able to focus what I am interested in."
"For me, this program has been a life changing experience," said Mauck. I've done a complete 180 degree turn in a career field. It's given me information and experience to get back into the world again and have a great career. My future looks bright, thanks to this program and my two mentors, Earl and Gray," he stressed.