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Combat boots to loafers: Group helps vets shift to civilian life

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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.

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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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"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.

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"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?

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