Combat boots to loafers: Group helps vets shift to civilian life
By Isobel Markham
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Aug 26 2013 01:01AM
Washington • When Marine Corps Sgt. Austin Stannius returned from his final Afghanistan tour in September, he decided to enter politics. After seven years serving his country, he wanted to have some input on the policies governing his brothers and sisters in combat.
But he soon found his wealth of military experience, which taught him teamwork, leadership and discipline, hadn’t prepared him for many aspects of civilian life.
"[The military] gives you your friends, they give you your food and they give you your place to live. The only thing that you have to do is fight and train as hard as you can all the time," Stannius said. "Here it’s the complete opposite. ... You have all these skills for survival but none of those apply to this world of Craigslist and Facebook."
Fortunately for Stannius, his first gig on Capitol Hill was for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs under the direction of Justin Brown, a native Utahn.
A Navy veteran, Brown is the co-founder of HillVets, a veterans’ group specific to Capitol Hill that supports young and recent vets looking for career opportunities and shifting from military to civilian life.
HillVets scouts for internship opportunities for returning soldiers looking to get a foot in the door in Washington.
"Right now what we’re focused on is just building that networking community, building a group of regular folks who are involved, who provide resources to everyone else in the group," Brown said. "It’s give and take."
Brown, a former aviation electronics technician on the USS Boxer, got his start on Capitol Hill thanks to the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
The institute, which matches students with internship programs in Washington, has seen an uptick in applications from veterans in the past few years, and former soldiers now make up around 5 percent of the total student class that comes to the nation’s capital every year.
Part of that can be attributed to Brown and his work with HillVets, helping to place Hinckley interns in veteran-specific roles.
When Stannius returned to America he enrolled in the U. for his final year of college, building on the credits he had accumulated at various community colleges during his military training. Focusing his studies on foreign relations and security, he applied to the Hinckley program and was paired up with Brown.
It was a lucky partnership .
Non-traditional • Brown says the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs are valuable resources but there’s still a gap for many modern-day soldiers coming back from what many refer to as "the sandbox."
"A lot of traditional veterans’ service organizations are not doing a very good job of being attractive to my era of veteran," he says.
Identifying the need for an informal forum for networking, exchanging ideas and building a community, Brown co-founded HillVets with friend and Army veteran James Cunningham.
HillVets has consciously thrown off the trappings of traditional veterans’ service organizations.
There’s no membership; no stuffy meetings with droning speakers.
Instead, there’s a softball team and a regular happy hour at a Capitol Hill bar. There’s also an informal mentorship program that puts veterans making the transition to civilian life in touch with those a few years further down the line.
"I can’t even stress how important it is for young veterans that are getting out to see their successful peers," Stannius said. "To know that you work hard, you continue this and you will be rewarded, there’s a place for you. America’s not going to forget you."
At last count, HillVets had around 20 mentors, and roughly 80 people turned up to its summer gathering, including a few congressmen.
As an organization in its infancy, HillVets also recognizes and embraces its limitations.
While Brown and Cunningham can offer HillVets participants something unique in terms of networking and their connections on Capitol Hill, they realize that when it comes to community activism and education there are many other groups out there better placed to help vets get involved.
"We think there are already enough fabulous groups that we can say, ‘Hey, here’s a group doing great things, let’s help them out,’ " Brown said.
Earlier in the summer HillVets highlighted the work of Team Rubicon, an organization which deploys ex-servicemen to disaster areas to work alongside first responders.
The group’s current community partner is Team Red, White & Blue, a social and fitness-oriented group, and the HillVets calendar is filled with opportunities to join up on road runs over the next few months.
As well as opening up job opportunities and social gatherings, HillVets mentors can help with some of the fundamentals of D.C. life that may not come naturally to them.
Social skills • One of the toughest aspects of Stannius’ new job on Capitol Hill was the emphasis on networking, something he never encountered on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
"In the Marine Corps you don’t have to talk to anybody and you can be very successful," he said.
What’s more, Stannius had to fight against his military training that taught him to steer clear of those in a higher ranks, a particular challenge when Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos wanders in and out of his office on a regular basis.
"The first time I saw him I couldn’t even go up to him, I was just so nervous," Stannius said, "like a 13-year-old boy at a school dance."
And networking in the workplace isn’t the only challenge he faces.
The soldiers-turned-interns coming out to Washington, whether through the Hinckley Institute or by other means, can feel particularly isolated from their peers, who are usually significantly younger. Stannius is the only veteran in this summer’s Hinckley Institute intern group.
"When you’re a Marine, you’re 25 and you’ve fought in two wars and you’re essentially backtracking to be on the same level as 19/20-year-olds," Stannius said. "It’s hard because they don’t necessarily appreciate the same things; they have a different outlook."
On a recent Thursday, the group held the first of its new regular happy hours at the Capitol Hill haunt Bullfeathers. Within sight of Brown’s office building, the bar is popular with Hill workers and a convenient spot to unwind after work.
"Many people are not from D.C. and so people are really looking for ways to meet new people and make new connections, and the city kind of runs on that," says Brendon Gehrke, a Marine and University of Utah alumnus.
All newcomers to Washington have to find ways to tap into different communities, but for some former service members, finding people who can relate to their previous lives is paramount.
The camaraderie and sense of shared experience among veterans is what Gehrke values the most about HillVets.
"Veterans, especially combat veterans, relate more to each other than they do to their other colleagues or even their close family," Gehrke said.
He recalls a colleague asking him a few months after he came to Washington how the transition to civilian life was going. It was strange, he said, to transition from combat boots to loafers.
Well, asked the colleague, did he miss getting shot at?
"I was like, ‘Not necessarily, but it’s still a different culture and a different environment and a little bit of a different war on Capitol Hill than overseas, but a war nonetheless sometimes.’ "