For soldiers who have spent their entire adult lives in military service, finding their first civilian job is daunting. But it is one of the most significant steps in making the transition from the military world into civilian life.
It's a time when they exchange combat boots for wing tips, camouflage for business formal, and salutes for handshakes. And for servicemen recovering from battle wounds and training mishaps, it has unique challenges.
On Thursday many former soldiers moseyed past 80 potential employers, passed out resumes at a Fort George G. Meade job fair, and tried to find a new career in the civilian workforce. They visited with recruiters from police departments, defense contractors and federal agencies.
"You have an active-duty guy who joined right out of high school and doesn't know anything but the Army," said Capt. Jason Bloom, the commander of the Army's Warrior in Transition Unit, a group that helps soldiers heal from injuries. "Some people are concerned. Some people don't know what's out there," Capt. Bloom said.
The transition unit is there to change that, he said. The unit and its companion, the Soldier and Family Assistance Center, are responsible for helping soldiers who will leave the service.
A cross between a rehabilitation center and high school guidance counseling and social worker's offices, the unit provides healthcare, job training and career advice for soldiers and their families, allowing them to concentrate on making life better.
Among the 77 soldiers in the unit, about two-thirds will recover and return to active duty. The remainder, like Spc. Edward Heddinger of Gambrills, will become civilians, starting a new part of their lives.
Spc. Heddinger, a graduate of Arundel High School and the Citadel in South Carolina, has been a member of the unit since it opened in August 2007.
He attended the job fair, and is trying to find a job with the U.S.
Department of State. Or maybe he'll go to law school. A gig testing video games is also a possibility.
He served in the Army for a few years and left only to be called back after eight months as a civilian.
A former infantryman in southern Iraq, his injuries make a career in the service impossible.
"I can't do it anymore. I'm infantry and I depend on my body ... I wish I could stay in but I was told I couldn't do what I want," he said.
He said he has jitters about starting a civilian job. There's office politics, a different work environment and a different hierarchy, all things that are strange compared to his career as soldier.
"It's a different lifestyle, a different place," he said.
For a while there he was the only soldier in the transitional unit's care, having the full and undivided attention of the caseworkers, counselors and supervisors, all of them, with plenty of time on their hands, asking him the same questions several times.
But other soldiers soon joined him. While some were senior to him in rank, they were junior to him in experience in the transition unit, putting him in the position to be a mentor of sorts, guiding them through recovery, nudging them toward active duty or civilian life, he said.
Also in the unit is Sgt. Wilbert Adams, who was on active duty for four years and was a reservist for 12 more and counting.
He served a tour in Iraq as a military police officer but then hurt his knee during training at Fort Meade. It was an injury that required surgery. Before he was called up from the reserves he was a bus driver and now he's trying to restart a civilian life.
"After you work in Iraq dealing with Saddam and his family you don't want to go back to driving a bus," he said.
He's looking for a job in homeland security or law enforcement, something that will let him use the training he received as a military police officer.
But he has some worries. He's used to working with other military people, he understands them, and they understand him, a comfortable arrangement that makes it easy to move through the day.
And what if they don't think he knows what he's doing, he said. And will this put him in a rut, professionally'
"I'm concerned," he said. "Will my job still be there. And if it isn't, can I learn new skills, adapt to things' Will anybody give me a chance'"
Spc. Heddinger said his time with the unit has been a tremendous help and finding a new job is almost like a graduation of sorts.
But it can't solve all of his problems.
"My biggest challenge is that all of my ties are still clip-ons," he said.