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Life on the Homefront: Iraq War veteran finds job search daunting as he returns to civilian life

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 22, 2012 - Robert Rossfeld, a former combat engineer and Iraq War veteran, is back home in St. Louis helping to build a bridge across the divide that often separates former members of the military from civilian employers.

Rossfeld, 33, is the new veterans outreach coordinator for the Go! Network, a nonprofit that provides support for unemployed business professionals. It’s a volunteer, unpaid position, but Rossfeld is committed to the new project -- dubbed Go! Vets -- that he hopes will help local veterans like himself make the transition into the corporate and business world.

Rossfeld, who was an Army captain, said he left the military because he and his wife of five years wanted to be near family and friends when they had children. They are expecting their first child this summer.

“I considered staying in the Army,” said Rossfeld, who officially became a civilian last week. “We talked a lot about it. It took me a while to make the decision. I was successful and enjoyed what I was doing, but I decided that my priority right now is to enjoy my family. ‘’

Rossfeld began contacting companies last year while he was preparing to leave the Army. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in geological engineering. Although he had some apprehension about his job search, he thought he would be employed by now.

“I expected folks to want me,” he said. “We’re a proud culture in the military. We believe in ourselves -- and I believe in myself. There were things that made me nervous about the transition, but I was confident that there was a place for me out here and that I would find it with relative ease. I haven’t found it with relative ease yet. I’m still working on that.”

Rossfeld’s job struggles locally are indicative of a broader national problem: The unemployment rate among U.S. veterans serving after 9/11 -- referred to as Gulf War II era veterans -- was 12.1 percent in 2011, according to a report released Tuesday by theU.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By contrast, the unemployment rate for nonveterans was 8.7 percent during the same period. For young male veterans, 18 to 24, the unemployment rate was shockingly high: 29.1 percent, compared to 17.6 percent for nonveterans.

From the feedback he’s received to his letters and resumes, Rossfeld has concluded that the skills and experience he earned during his military service  don't match the jobs he thought he was suited for in the civilian economy. Although his Army engineering training and experience qualified him for a master’s engineering program, he does not have a bachelor’s degree in engineering, required for most jobs.

“I was making a mistake marketing myself as an engineer in the civilian world,” he said.

Rossfeld realized that he would either have to go back to school for an undergraduate degree in engineering -- or he would have to rethink his job search.

“I recognized that I needed to do more self-assessment to understand where and how I fit into the civilian economy,’’ he said. “I’ve got so many snippets of different things that I’ve done that are important to corporations. In the Army, there was a position for all of those snippets, but I don’t know where it exists in the civilian world. The civilian world looks to want more depth in employment candidates, where I have a lot of breadth.”

Rossfeld said the programs he’s attended at Go! Network have helped him to refocus his job search and to understand the importance of networking.

“Go! Network has felt like business school. I feel like I’m getting a good transition from the military into what’s accepted in the corporate world. It’s refined me,’’ he said.

Most veteran friendly city in the U.S.

Go! Vets -- an acronym for Veterans Employment Transition Services -- is still being developed, but Rossfeld says a key component will be helping veterans assess their skills, in addition to mentoring and networking.

“We have a lot of experience coming out of the military but may never have applied for a civilian job, never gone through a civilian job interview. The military version of that is really different,” he said.

Just as important, Go! Vets will reach out to the region’s human resource professionals to teach them how to find veterans in their talent searches. The goal is to create a guide for identifying key words for military experience -- and how to correlate military rank with positions of corporate responsibility.

“We can both work to fix the problem,’’ Rossfeld said. “We can both work to try and understand each other a bit better.’’

As part of that initiative, Go! Vets will participate in the "Hiring Our Heroes" veterans jobs fair in Bridgeton on April 19, sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and organizations that support veterans.

Rossfeld said he has faith in the St. Louis community, and he points to January’s “Welcome Home Heroes Parade” that honored veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’m proud to live in the most veteran friendly city in the United States of America,’’ he said. “We need to capitalize on that. We need to continue the momentum. I think we showed the rest of the country how to do it, and we’ve got an opportunity to keep moving the ball forward.”

'Where am I going to fit in?'

In his new uniform – a crisp shirt and tiex–Rossfeld looks right at home in the business environment established by Go! Network, which meets at St. Patrick’s Center in downtown St. Louis. Though he has traded in his combat camouflage and goggles for business attire, Rossfeld thinks of his work at Go! Vets as a way to continue doing what an officer does -- looking out for his soldiers.

“Always place the mission first,’’ he said. “I’ll never accept defeat. I’ll never quit, and I’ll never leave a fallen comrade. That’s not going to be shaken out of me through transition. And, like it or not, if I wind up in the corporate world, that’s going to be a part of me. I’m still connected to my battle buddies by doing this. And I’ll see it through.”

Rossfeld served in Iraq from October 2006 to December 2007 with the 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division stationed in Alaska’s Fort Richardson. As he described his combat mission, he spoke in a matter-of-fact tone that belied the potential danger of helping Iraqis identify and disarm roadside bombs.

“I was an adviser to the Iraqi army. We partnered with the local Iraqi unit and we would travel to their base, participate in their planning. Try to promote them – as they stand up, we stand down, so to speak. We tried to facilitate their development in planning, in tactics, intelligence gathering. We would go with them on raids, patrols and large operations,” Rossfeld said.

“I want Iraq to be a success story,’’ he added. “We gave a lot over there, and I don’t want the importance to be underestimated. I was proud of what I was doing. I want it to work.”

Leaving the Army, he says, was a major – and scary – step outside his comfort zone.

“I knew where I fit in that organization. I knew that I didn’t have to change the way I communicate with people. I was comfortable, I was accepted and I was doing a good job. And there were great opportunities in front of me if I wanted to keep doing it. I think that’s what I said most to my wife – that I’ll have to start from the ground level over again,” he said. “Coming to the outside where I might encounter someone who either doesn’t care what I did in the military or doesn’t understand its relevance to their mission statement or their bottom line. That terrified me. Coming into this economy, I felt stronger because I have a graduate degree. That gave me a degree of confidence. But, yes, I was scared to death. Where am I going to fit?”

Rossfeld said he has also been working with a career consultant who recommended that he attend Go! Network.

“I got here and have loved it ever since,’’ he said.

He sees Go! Vets as an extension of the transition assistance offered by the military, which usually consists of several days of training conducted on base.

“You’re with your military peers and you’re with a contractor hired by the military -- so you’re still in that military cocoon,’’ he said. “I’m not downplaying the work they’re doing because they’re trying to provide a worthwhile service to vets. But the real transition starts the day after you sign out of the base. A lot of the important work is done out here.”

Crossing the great jargon divide

Roni Chambers, executive director of Go! Network, says her organization is blessed to have Rossfeld as its new veterans coordinator, and she is working to find funding for the initiative.

“This will be a program nested inside of Go! Network,’’ she said. “The power of this is to bring the veteran unemployed population together with the civilian unemployed population and learn from each other and create energy in the room.’’

Chambers, a former HR executive with Anheuser-Busch, said that communication can be one of the biggest hurdles facing veterans in their job searches.

“We talk different languages. We use different words. Quite honestly, I’ve been in corporate America my entire life and was never exposed to military language. When I first met Rob, I didn’t entirely understand him. And that was actually healthy for both of us. Clearly for him because I’m using the language he’s going to be faced with as he steps out of that military world. Veterans have to find a way to communicate – to figure out how to talk, how to speak, to be relevant in the business world,” she said.

Chambers stressed that it is also important for the business world to acknowledge its responsibility in building that bridge. Speaking from personal experience, she believes that the people doing the hiring often don’t consider veterans based upon their resumes.

“When I was in corporate America and I was hiring to fill jobs – and I hate to say this – but I was not as inclined to hire a military man or woman because they didn’t have experience,’’ she said. “I hadn’t been taught or trained to transition a platoon sergeant’s leadership skills from the battlefield to the office. Even if I had done it, the hiring manager wanted somebody with consumer products experience. He wanted somebody who knew how to sell beer or toilet paper or whatever you’re selling. And they weren’t perceived as having it. And shame on us because that can easily be taught.”

Chambers and Rossfeld said they are coordinating their efforts with other area veterans initiatives, such as those sponsored by the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE). 

“We are not recreating the wheel,’’ Rossfeld said. “There’s a lot of infrastructure out there, and we’re really trying to maximize an infrastructure that already exists.’’

About 6,300 veterans have sought employment assistance in the past 60 days at SLATE’s career centers in St. Louis and St.Louis County, according to Frank Alaniz, the Missouri workforce regional liaison at SLATE. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the rate of unemployment for all veterans in the St. Louis Metropolitan Statistical Area was 12.5 percent in February. That includes St. Louis and the counties of St. Louis, St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin, plus the Illinois counties of Macoupin, Madison and St. Clair.

Alaniz said his organization wants to forge partnerships with organizations, such as Go!, to help the career centers take their services to the next level.

“Our strategy is pretty laid out for what we do and how we do it, so we’re always looking outside the box, and when Go! Network approached us we thought this would be a great collaboration,’’ he said.

Alaniz cited the example of an employer who told him that she received three resumes from veterans for a recent job posting, but she didn’t understand what they were telling her because they were using military terminology.

“Our goal between Go! Vets and the Missouri Career Center system is to help understand and translate that military jargon to what the employer wants to see and hear,’’ Alaniz said.

He gave Rossfeld credit for his drive.

“He’s a go-getter. He’s very enthusiastic. He’s very passionate about what he’s trying to accomplish,’’ Alaniz said.

'I loved serving'

Rossfeld said the self-assessment he has done at Go! has allowed him to expand his job search and consider a wider field of options. Among those interests, for example, is environmental project management, or as he puts it, working for companies “who either have to clean up after themselves or after others.” That type of work would dovetail with his geological engineering degree and with similar training he had in the Army.

In the meantime, Rossfeld said he will be applying for unemployment insurance -- something he hadn’t planned on but that will help pay the bills and keep him from depleting his family’s savings. He is also looking into joining either the Missouri Army National Guard or a Reserve unit. The benefits would be two-fold: He could continue serving his country and he could get health insurance for his family – which he will now get through COBRA. 

“I liked being in the Army and wearing a uniform, so I want to keep doing it,’’ he said. “I loved serving. But now I’m really hoping that I can provide my service to the state. So if Missouri has a need – whether it’s earthquake or floods or tornado damage – that I can meet those types of needs.

He acknowledges that he’s still nervous about his job search, but he also feels that he is taking positive steps and will eventually find his place. For now, though, he is excited about his new mission with Go! Vets.

“I found something I’m passionate about and I want to see this through,” he said. “In my ‘unemployed-ness’ I’ve at least found something that I enjoy doing. I’m a big picture guy. I get fired up solving problems, and I want that same sense of importance and contribution in what I do. The Army taught me to invest everything I am in everything I do. I just want to do that and have it bear fruit.”

Mary Delach Leonard recently attended a workshop on veterans coverage at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University that was funded by a grant from the McCormick Foundation. Over the next months, Leonard will be introducing readers to veterans who make their home in this region. She will write about veterans of all wars – past and present – but will focus on those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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