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From ‘Boots to Suits,’ Transitioning From Military Service to Civilian Life

May 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Called Boots to Suits, a new University of Colorado, Denver mentoring program hopes to tackle a handful of stumbling blocks for veterans returning to civilian life, such as finishing college and entering the work force. Ray Suarez reports.
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RAY SUAREZ: And we close with two stories about veterans on this Memorial Day.

First, a Colorado program aims to ease the transition from military service to civilian life.

Twenty-six-year-old Tyler Heath was marking another milestone. He is a former Army infantryman who served two tours in Iraq. Heath crossed the stage this month to receive his diploma from the University of Colorado at Denver.

WOMAN: Tyler Heath.

RAY SUAREZ: It was one more journey that Tyler Heath’s parents were grateful he had survived, especially after their son returned from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

SUE HEATH, Mother of Tyler Heath: He had a serious case of PTSD when he returned from his second Iraq tour. It was real hard. We thought we had lost the son that we had raised. Many people advocate for these Iraq guys coming back, Afghanistan guys, but you know what? They’re hard. They’re really difficult to understand them. And PTSD is a very scary thing.

And I personally think there’s a lot of good words given to that, “We will — and we’re behind you, and yes, yes,” but I don’t think it is put into practice a lot.

RAY SUAREZ: That is exactly what a new mentoring program created by the University of Colorado, Denver, and the city of Denver’s Chamber of Commerce is trying to do. Get behind veterans finishing their college degrees and trying to enter the work force.

University of Colorado Vice Chancellor Leanna Clark.

LEANNA CLARK, vice chancellor, University of Colorado: PTSD is a very real thing. They deal with not just transitioning into a college atmosphere, which is difficult for anyone, but transitioning back into their lives. So they have so many challenges that they face.

The G.I. Bill certainly helps them out from a financial standpoint, but it doesn’t give them the other, the moral support that they need. Nationally, 80 percent of them drop out of college in their first year. Only 3 percent graduate.

RAY SUAREZ: Tyler Heath was aggressive in treating his post-traumatic stress disorder. He completed his degree ahead of schedule. But Heath describes campus life for returning veterans as very challenging.

TYLER HEATH, former U.S. Army soldier: When you come back here, this world is just a completely different world. And my world and a lot of other people’s worlds were kind of turned upside-down. Most college students are discovering who they are, what they want to do, so on and so forth. And I had already known that. So it was really, really difficult.

RAY SUAREZ: So the University of Colorado mentor program, called Boots to Suits, tries to tackle another tough stumbling block for veterans: getting jobs after college.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment rates for young men who served on active duty since September 11 is 29 percent, well above the 17 percent unemployment rate for non-veteran men of the same age.

LEANNA CLARK: Vets have so many skill sets that they have learned in the service, but they don’t always know how to translate that into job-speak. So, they can break down a machine gun in 30 seconds, but what does that mean to a potential employer? So a lot of it was talking to them about how they translate their skills into something that an employer might be interested in.

RAY SUAREZ: Before he signed up for the Boots to Suits program, Heath flooded local businesses with his resume, but couldn’t get any attention.

TYLER HEATH: It’s hard to get calls back. It’s difficult to send your resume out there and just get no responses, with all your awards and your citations from being in the military and having a college degree. And it’s like, meanwhile, I’m sitting next to some kid who is about to graduate and he’s got like a $40,000-a-year job.

And it’s just like, what am I doing wrong? Why am I not getting a job or why isn’t anyone calling me back? People are definitely a little wary to hire veterans.

RAY SUAREZ: Heath was matched with volunteer mentor Richard Lewis, CEO of RTL Networks, an information technology company. Lewis agrees, job recruiters, few of whom are vets, may not be comfortable trying to find a use for military skills, and may be skittish about reports they have heard of stress disorders among veterans who’ve served multiple tours in combat zones.

RICHARD LEWIS, CEO, RTL Networks: We have been extended in multiple wars. These veterans are doing a wonderful job and then they’re coming home. And a lot of them are getting lost, most of them getting a degree, but then they’re still somewhat stuck, many of them, because they’re having a hard time translating their experience into language and vernacular that corporate America understands and appreciates.

If you’re a soldier, and you’re breaking in doors, and eliminating enemy personnel, it’s just hard to translate that into language that’s not concerning, you know, for lack of a better word, to corporate America.

RAY SUAREZ: When Heath joined the military, he was just 18. He’s never owned a suit.

RICHARD LEWIS:  I always tell people to dress for the job that you want vs. the job that you have.

RAY SUAREZ: An Air Force veteran himself, Richard Lewis remembers the unease he felt rejoining civilian life.

RICHARD LEWIS: As a grown man, then coming into corporate America, I remember the anxiety, the fear, the culture shock of becoming a civilian. The military is a — in many ways a family, and you feel like you’re leaving home, you’re leaving everything you know. And it’s a very lonely feeling and a lot of people just don’t adjust well. So just learning how to navigate is a challenge.

Yellow is a good color, especially against a dark suit. I’m going to hold the suit up. The white shirt, that really looks — that’s a professional look and it’s a confident look.

RAY SUAREZ: Lewis says his advice to Heath was often subtle.

RICHARD LEWIS:  It just takes a little hand-holding to kind of let him know that, hey, everything is going to be fine. It’s not as bad as you thought it might be. There’s nothing to be afraid of. And here’s how you succeed.

TYLER HEATH: He taught me a lot about networking, how to sort of run through a room and meet certain people, and how to portray certain images depending on the setting. It was really, really helpful. He helped me with my resume, help understand what it is the industry wanted.

RAY SUAREZ: Boots to Suits is a small program, with only 40 participants the first semester. The hope is it can become a national model.

Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce president Kelly Brough.

KELLY BROUGH, president, Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce: A lot of these kids literally have been responsible for a piece of equipment that has the value of 10 cars, you know, half a million dollars, a billion dollars. And so they have a sense of commitment to an organization. They have a sense of the importance of what they’re doing. I think they bring discipline. I think they bring loyalty, which often might be a little bit lost in today’s work force.

RAY SUAREZ: Last week, it all paid off for Tyler Heath. He was hired by Colorado’s Anchor Network Solutions to provide I.T. support for small businesses. His new boss, Anchor CEO Vince Tinnirello, admired how Heath weaved his military skills into an interview.

VINCE TINNIRELLO, CEO, Anchor Network Solutions: Tyler did a pretty impressive job of explaining his experience in customer service of working with Iraqi civilians. I thought it was a — it was a great interpretation and very creative.

For me, it’s the — being respectful with our customers, “Yes, ma’ams, “No, sirs,” being on time, being professional, being dressed professionally, carrying yourself in a professional manner. Those are the things that really transfer over.

RAY SUAREZ: Tinnirello says the stigma Iraq and Afghanistan veterans face when searching for employment is real.

VINCE TINNIRELLO: I think people are afraid of what they’re coming back with. I sense and hear a lot of, “We support the troops,” but when it comes to actually hiring them, there’s a fear of what they might be coming back with.

And I feel very strongly of, we ask them to go make sacrifices for us. They didn’t ask to come back with PTSD. I feel like we have to take a little bit of risk. He took a huge risk for us, so is it that much of a risk for me? I’m willing to do that. I think it’s the right thing to do.

RAY SUAREZ: And for his part, Tyler Heath says he is ready to report for his new duty.

Find out what Tyler Heath did to help overcome his PTSD. That’s on the Rundown page on our website.