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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Life after service: Making the transition to civilian life

July 25 is National Hire a Veteran Day.


As Fabian E. Mendoza Jr. tells it, he had a very specific reason for joining the U.S. Navy.

“I’m from Laredo. I didn’t want to see the Rio Grande. I wanted to go see something,” he said.

He got to see plenty but he also got access to the GI Bill, and that’s how he was able to put himself through college at what was then Texas A&I University, now Texas A&M University-Kingsville.

“Otherwise, I would have never afforded it,” he says. He was already married with a family, so to help financially, he joined the Texas National Guard and ultimately took a commission in the U.S. Army to serve in the Corps of Engineers.

Now, following his retirement as a colonel in October 2015 after more than three decades in the military, he is the federal client account manager with AECOM’s North Texas office.

He picked multinational engineering firm AECOM, which has offices in Fort Worth, for a number of reasons, but one was the company’s outreach to veterans. The company employs around 9,000 veterans throughout its system.

July 25 is national Hire a Veteran Day and AECOM offered Mendoza as a spokesman to encourage other employers to be active in hiring veterans.

Helping veterans find work and, in some cases, housing after leaving the military is one of Mendoza’s passions.

He speaks of the Greatest Generation, the men and women who saw the nation through the dark days of World War II and went on to build what most Americans believe is the greatest nation on Earth.

“It’s up to us now, the veterans, and this generation of millennials, to be the next great generation to go out there and rebuild,” Mendoza says. “You know my background. I’m a civil engineer, but as a combat engineer I took down airplanes, blew up stuff and built stuff, and did all sorts of things for our nation. But I wanted to come back and build our nation.”

One way he is doing that is by helping veterans wherever he can to find meaningful work.

For the Greatest Generation, the entire nation was caught up in the war effort and, regardless of whether they had served in the military or on the home front, people understood veterans, what they had been through and how they could contribute to civilian life.

Maybe not so much now.

“They’ve been fighting for such a long time, people have completely forgotten that they were still fighting wars,” he says.

“As I was going through that transition process from running 100 miles per hour to now taking a knee, I started networking a lot with veterans groups that were in the area,” Mendoza said. He himself is on disability and he was asked to speak at a disabled veterans event.

One of the veterans pulled him aside and asked him whenever he spoke in similar venues to “let the audience know not to be afraid of us.”

“I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He says, ‘Yeah, you know, there’s a stigma out there that we all have PTSD.’ ”

Perception is one issue veterans face. Another is how to describe how their training and experience best fits into a company profile when they are talking to someone without military knowledge or experience.

In these days when many job searches start on line and artificial intelligence algorithms decide who makes the first cut depending on keywords, knowing what to say about yourself is of great importance.

“There’s buzz words that the computer will pull out and say, ‘OK, this resume makes the first cut. This one won’t.’ We’ve lost that face-to-face opportunity to interview until you get to the [final decision].”

AECOM, he says, is aggressive in getting the human resources environment involved in this, with a program to figure out ways to help veterans apply for positions. The company has a specific section of its website devoted to veterans. (See: veterans.aecom.jobs)

“This job keeps me on the road a lot, so I get the opportunity to speak to a lot of veterans,” Mendoza said. “They all share the same sentiment: ‘I want to go work for a company where I can make a difference, and where I can remember the things that I witnessed and not let those be lost causes, and lost lives, and lost lessons learned. That I can do something to make an impact.’ ”

The armed services do a pretty decent job of preparing service members for transition to civilian life but they don’t have the resources to bring industry in to coach, teach and mentor service members on even simple things like creating a resume.

AECOM let Mendoza go to a transitioning assistance seminar at Fort Hood where he spoke to combat engineers.

“They were so intrigued to just understand how do I do it? How do I take my military skills, which industry won’t quite understand – that he or she was a platoon leader, or a company commander, or an operation sergeant – and translate that to the civilian side,” Mendoza said.

The Fort Worth Business Press asked him what advice he would give to service members just beginning the transition. Here are his suggestions.

– If you don’t have a game plan, you’re not going to succeed because you don’t know what you want to do. Having a dream without any goals, forget it. You’re not going to do it. So you need to make a really honest assessment of yourself and write down what your strengths are, and really be critical about your weaknesses.

– Network across the particular industry you want to target for employment. And then pick a mentor. My suggestion is two mentors. A mentor who’s military, who’s been there, done that, and has been able to successfully transition. And then a civilian mentor from that industry that you are interested in going after, so that that person can give you some guidance.

– Don’t be afraid to fail. That’s one of the challenges that I, myself, as a veteran, was afraid that I was going to fail at my age. And in some cases, when you put your weaknesses against your strengths, you see that you might have to go back to school. You might have to go get a certification.

– Don’t waste time. [During active service] take advantage of every opportunity that the Army is going to give you to enhance your education. Whether it’s going to the university that the military would pay for, or some trade, walk away with a certification.

And advice for CEOs of prospective employers:

– Get into the trenches. The only way you are going to understand a veteran is if you go out there. There’s a television show, Undercover Boss. Spend a couple days at basic training. Spend a couple days at Ranger school. Just to see what a military person would go through.

– Go to the military’s national training centers. Go and see what these service men and women are going through.

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Paul Harral
Paul is a lifelong journalist with experience in wire service, newspaper, magazine, local and network television and digital media. He was vice president and editor of the editorial page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and editor of Fort Worth, Texas magazine before joining the Business Press. What he likes best is writing about people in detail and introducing them to others in the community. Specific areas of passion are homelessness, human trafficking, health care and aerospace.

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