JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. – It may not take much thought for service members to get dressed for work in the morning. They routinely place their uniform, belt, boots and cover on, then report for duty. After leaving the military many seek work but finding affordable attire for job interviews can be a stressful dilemma.
Suits for Service Members was established at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in 2011 by the late Mary Findlay, who was a former Army spouse, and who was inducted into the JBLM Civilian Hall of Fame in 2019 for her work with the program.
“She saw a need with the service members she worked with,” said Suits for Service Members Director Paige Dahlke. “As they were leaving military service, they struggled to dress themselves, because they had been wearing uniforms their entire careers.”
The program provides two complementary suits for service members who are within six months from transitioning from the military to civilian employment. All branches of the military qualify, including the Guard and Reserve members on active-duty orders.
Findlay began with helping service members out of her own home, but when the program grew, it was relocated to the Steilacoom Town Hall until Findlay’s death in 2018. In 2019, the program, in partnership with the Association of the United States Army, found its new home at the America's Credit Union on JBLM.
“The program didn’t stop growing and the need was still there,” Dahlke said.
The program has also expanded to providing spouses of service members with business attire as well.
“If a spouse comes in with her service member, they can also utilize our services and receive two free items,” Dahlke said.
The organization receives most of its suits through private donations as well as commercial stores. Suit donations must be manufactured within the last 10 years and be in good condition.
“With so many people teleworking, a lot of the big, suit carriers are decreasing inventory,” Dahlke said. “The good thing about our program is that we can tailor our inventory to the current needs of the service members.”
Dahlke said that along with suits, they take donations of collared shirts and polo’s, long-sleeve button up shirts, slacks and other more relaxed work attire.
“I first learned about this program in a skills class at the Hawk Center,” said Spc. Drake Lampman, an Apache helicopter mechanic with the 4th Attack Reconnaissance Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, who plans to go to college to become a pilot once he gets out of the military later this year. “They said there was a ‘closet’ downstairs where I could get two free suits for interviews.”
Dahlke doesn’t run the program alone, she has three volunteers who assist her in ensuring each service member is taken care of.
“I went to a volunteer fair before I retired from the Navy and met Mary,” said Denise Holdridge. A volunteer for Suits for Service Members. “After 38 years in the military, I had no idea about stuff like what suit top matched with what bottom, so I knew I could use her help.”
Holdridge said she could just feel the passion Findlay had for the program and wanted to be a part of it.
“After volunteering for a short while, I knew we needed a male’s perspective, and that’s when I roped in my husband,” Holdridge said.
Denise and husband, Michael Holdridge, have both been volunteering with the organization for three years. Unlike the Holdridges, Jamie Combs, who’s been volunteering for two years in the program, has never served in the military.
“Although, I never served myself, I have many family members who have and are currently serving,” Combs said. “I like the idea of helping service members look and feel their best outside of their normal uniform.”
Service members not only get several clothing options to try on in the dressing room, but also the option to let Dahlke and her team see them in it.
“Every service member gets four or five clothing options,” Dahlke said. “I tell them they can come out and get our opinion, if they want, but they don’t have to. I’d say 99 percent of them do and we love it.”
The program has distributed over 10,000 articles of clothing to over 6,000 service members from all over Washington and even Oregon.
“We are passionate, because Mary was passionate,” Denise Holdridge said. “She worked on this program up until the day she passed.”
In fact, the day before she passed, Findlay suited her last retiring service member, 1st Sgt. Ta Mouton. Today, Mouton is the transition assistance counselor for the Transition Assistance Program at the Hawk Center. She is also the coordinator for the “closet.”
“I get chills every time I think about it,” Dahlke said. “I’m just glad we are able to keep Mary’s program going and her passion for helping service members will continue for years to come”
Service members looking to utilize the program can sign-up through the Hawk Transition Center or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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