Disability Awareness Month: Resources help veterans secure jobs
October 11, 2012
FORT CARSON, Colo. -- Brad Bellas has worked since he was 11 years old. He's worked for family-owned businesses, performed odd jobs to put himself through school and enlisted as a Soldier in the U.S. Army. So when the former sergeant was forced to leave the military due to medical issues last year, he faced the daunting task of securing a job in the civilian workforce.
"It was the first time in 31 years I've had to collect unemployment," he said. "That was the longest I've ever gone without work."
For almost a year, Bellas said, he searched for work, but was turned away for being "overqualified" or was ignored completely. Frustration with his job search, coupled with often debilitating stomach issues, left Bellas feeling dejected and miserable.
"You get into this depression," he said. "It's tough. When you're used to being the main provider for your family and then you're not."
Persistence, however, paid off. Bellas turned to Shelley Anderson, a Veterans Services representative working at Fort Carson, for help. In September, he took a government service position at Schriever Air Force Base.
"Shelley Anderson, she was fantastic," he said. "I could just call her up and she would help."
Bellas attended federal resume classes with Anderson and met with her numerous times to apply for jobs.
Still, the process took time.
"I must have applied for 300 jobs," Bellas said. "When you're looking for jobs, that is your job."
"We help those Soldiers willing to take those steps toward … employment," Anderson said. "We help them market themselves, help them with interview skills, the 'elevator speech,' career counseling and self-confidence. A lot believe they can't do something because of injuries and we help them see they can."
Anderson encourages all Soldiers to attend a federal resume class and meet with counselors from the Army Career and Alumni Program, something former Staff Sgt. Sarah Petersen took seriously.
"One time is not enough," said Petersen, who now works for a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Denver. "It took me seven months to get (my federal resume) right. I still tweak it."
Petersen, a former medic with 704th Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, said Soldiers leaving the Army should begin their job search as quickly as possible and network through business social media sites such as LinkedIn and career fairs.
"You don't know how long that process might take," she said. "Soldiers looking for jobs need to keep networking and be prepared to be interviewed on the spot."
Although federal resume classes are offered to all Soldiers, Anderson dedicates a large portion of her time to helping Soldiers with disabilities.
"The most important thing is picking jobs you can do with disabilities," she said. "Many times I'll introduce alternatives in the career field for a Soldier to consider."
While Anderson would never discourage a Soldier from pursuing a dream job, she stresses having realistic expectations. She also educates Soldiers on what employers can legally ask about injuries and disabilities.
"You have to say whether or not you're capable of performing the duties required of the job," she said. "Our role is to manage expectations and encourage Soldiers to have realistic expectations in pursuing a job."
Anderson said there are several misconceptions surrounding employment and mental injuries, specifically post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I've had students say that if you say you have PTSD this will prevent you from getting a job -- that if you're pursuing a career in law enforcement, you won't be able to handle a gun. This is simply not true," she said.
Although severe cases of PTSD may preclude a Soldier from a position that handles firearms, Anderson said this is not typically the case and Soldiers fearing this possibility should seek concrete answers before assuming the worst.
When Donghee Kim, a former specialist with 4th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd BCT, 4th Inf. Div., left the Army due to physical and mental issues, he pursued a career in law enforcement.
"From time to time I concealed my injuries," he said. "It's a problem for a lot of Soldiers."
Kim said he heard rumors that if he disclosed his PTSD, employers would not hire him.
"I still have a problem acknowledging PTSD," he said. "As long as you fit into society correctly, you'll be fine. … It's all about your attitude."
Kim eventually achieved his goal and now works as a detention specialist for the El Paso County Sherriff's office, but not before he spent two grueling years searching and applying for positions.
"It was bad," he said. "I didn't believe you had to look for a job a year (before leaving the Army). … I felt stuck. A lot of people say, 'I have all these experiences, this background. How can they say 'no?'' They can."
Kim said he took advantage of resources through ACAP, the Soldier Family Assistance Center and Education Services. He took his counselors' advice and volunteered for the Sherriff's office, making connections and networking with potential employers and co-workers.
"Even if it takes a long ways, (Soldiers) should do whatever it takes," he said. "Eventually, you will reach it and it's worth it."