The prevailing feeling in the air as Fort Polk's Army Community Service Center hosted the United States Chamber of Commerce's Hiring Our Heroes job fair Nov. 27 was an equal mix of nervous energy and hope.

The large number of soon-to-be transitioning Soldiers, spouses, retirees and other members of the Fort Polk community seemed optimistic as they gathered to see what the event offered.

Col. Roger Shuck, Fort Polk garrison commander, said a few words to open the event. He thanked the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Central Louisiana, Southwest Louisiana, Vernon and Beauregard Chamber of Commerce offices and the National Football League Players Association for sponsoring the program and helping veterans and military spouses find meaningful employment after leaving service.

"Two weeks ago we celebrated Veterans Day. The theme of this year's Veterans Day celebration was 'Once a Soldier, a Soldier for life.' That statement epitomizes the Army's commitment to lifelong success for our Soldiers, veterans and Families by connecting them with opportunities for employment, education and health care post military service," said Shuck. "We can't do this alone. Supporting Soldiers and veterans requires a team approach by other government agencies and local communities."

That's why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched the Hiring Our Heroes initiative in 2011. Eighteen months later what started as a vision became a reality. "As of Sept. 30, the chamber has hosted, in conjunction with their community partners, 299 job fairs in 49 states and in the District of Columbia. Through these job fairs, 14,000 veterans and military spouses have found jobs with more than 750 different businesses. However, we know we need to do more because in the next five years more than 1 million men and women will leave active duty to enter the work force. Many have served multiple tours of duty and have sacrificed much to uphold and defend the ideals of American liberty and democracy," said Shuck.

He thanked employers for caring about that sacrifice and said that he appreciated their commitment and dedication to hiring heroes. "I ask you to consider the proven skills of our veterans, their experience in a variety of job duties, but more importantly, the fact that they come to you with a sense of loyalty, duty and a great work ethic," said Shuck.

To the job seekers in attendance at the job fair, Shuck said, "Whether you are a Soldier, veteran or spouse, good luck. You have a chance to show these employers exactly what kind of person belongs to the Army Family. Stand tall and be proud of your accomplishments. Once a Soldier, a Soldier for life."

The Hiring Our Heroes job fair is a great place to find employees, according to several of the businesses taking part in the event.

Walgreens was one of the employers represented at the fair. John Ferrier, DeRidder Walgreens store manager, said one of the reasons the company signed up for the event was because military service members have a great work ethic that is hard to find anywhere else and that's definitely something they are looking for. "Events like this are extremely important. I'm retired military and if it wasn't for opportunities like this, I would never have found Walgreens. You can look on the Internet all day, but there is so much stuff out there it becomes overwhelming. Nothing really applies and it's not local. This gets you in a position to be face to face with the people doing the hiring," said Ferrier.

Job fairs like this produce a lot of good applicants and connections with people in the local community, said Lee Jones, Walgreens Southwest Louisiana district manager. "Often folks aren't aware of what Walgreens has to offer and giving Soldiers an opportunity to find a job is the least they can do to thank them for what they do every day. This company is growing and that means there are leadership positions available," said Jones.

Another potential employer at the job fair was the Texas Department of Public Safety. Dean Cockrell, Texas State Trooper, said they support not only Soldiers, but also their Families in the attempt to find work. "They are all good candidates, especially former Soldiers because the training and discipline translates well into law enforcement. Many people don't know that state agencies like the Texas Department of Public Safety are hiring. We know a lot of people look locally, but not beyond the state line. That's why we are here," said Cockrell.

Veterans and spouses looking for jobs at the Hiring Our Heroes job fair seemed to be impressed with the turn out of potential employers.

I'm still an active duty Marine, but I will be transitioning out, said Michael Kapotsy. He said this is an excellent opportunity for him to see what is offered in the area. "I'm really excited about this job fair. I want to talk to different employers, see what they can offer me and show what I can offer them," said Kapotsy. "Events like this are essential for service members leaving the military."

A spouse attending the event, Daisy Torres, said that it was pretty cool that so many employers were located in one place. "It really helps me save on gas and at the same time gives me a better opportunity to find a great job," said Torres.

Edwin McKinney worked at Fort Polk for eight years but is currently unemployed and looking for something new. "This is the first job fair I've ever been to and I think it's excellent. I've been here for maybe 15 minutes and it is already more than I expected it to be," he said.

The Hiring Our Heroes job fair is the kind of event that is good for Fort Polk, said Stacey Delgado, Army Community Service Employment Readiness Program manager. Delgado was the ACS connection that helped put everything together and she said this is the perfect way to let the Fort Polk community know that businesses in the surrounding areas actually have positions available. "Often military spouses have to move a lot and start over again and again. That can be tough on a career. This type of event helps spouses connect with employers that are willing to hire them because they have great talent and different insights gained from those travels across the country and around the world with their Soldier," said Delgado.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sponsors the Hiring Our Heroes job fairs on a national level and works in conjunction with military bases and local chamber of commerce offices to make them a reality for Soldiers and spouses.

Noreen O'Neil is the deputy director of Military Spouse Programs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. She said every day service members are retiring or transitioning from service and not only are they affected, but so are their spouses. "It's important for a military spouse to be employed when it is time for their Soldier to make the decision to leave the military or not. It makes financial issues easier to deal with and gives the spouse their own identity," said O'Neil.

The economics of the situation is beneficial to employers as well, according to O'Neil. She said they tend to take part in Hiring Our Heroes job fairs because they know the qualities service members and spouses bring to the table. "These are outgoing, get-the-job-done kind of people that are trained and dependable. That's good for business," said O'Neil.

The significance of what we do is that employers have jobs and job seekers -- veterans, spouses, active duty or retired -- need them. Hiring Our Heroes gives them the setting to find one another, said Ernie Lombardi, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Southeast Region associate. "This is where the opportunity for one-on-one conversations happen. Job seekers can talk to employers about the jobs they are offering and then tell them about the job skills they have to offer and why they would be perfect for that job," said Lombardi. "Employers quickly learn that these men and women are team players with discipline and commitment to a mission. Failure is not an option."

Page last updated Thu November 29th, 2012 at 00:00