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(Isobel Markham | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brendon Gehrke, left, Ryan Gallucci and Justin Brown chat during a recent softball game on the National Mall in Washington. Brown co-founded the group HillVets to help returning soldiers transition into civilian life through social events like softball.
Combat boots to loafers: Group helps vets shift to civilian life

First Published Aug 26 2013 01:01 am • Last Updated Feb 14 2014 11:32 pm

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.

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More online » HillVets

HillVets is a veterans’ group specific to Capitol Hill that supports young and recent veterans looking for career opportunities and shifting from military to civilian life. > hillvets.org

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"[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.

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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.

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