SALEM — Rey Rivera knows his way around an aircraft engine. As a soldier, he was the crew chief and lead quality control officer for all AH-64 D Apache helicopters in the first wave of air combat in the Iraq War.
“I know more about those aircraft than some of the people who built them,” he said. “I can tear an aircraft apart and put it back together again blindfolded.”
Unfortunately, getting a job stateside is trickier than fixing jet engines.
The engines Rivera spent years maintaining for the military are conveniently built right here in Lynn by GE. But when Rivera’s deployment was over, the company would not hire him — he didn’t have the proper paper credentials.
The problem is the same for military mechanics, medics, truck drivers, supply logistic experts, and many more servicemen and servicewomen who have exceptional skills and training, but no piece of paper to prove it.
“It’s like starting all over again, despite their experience in the service,” said Congressman John Tierney, who convened a round-table discussion in Salem on the issue with more than a dozen local veterans and veterans services agents.
Work is under way to address the problem. The Department of Defense is launching a pilot program this month to look at how military occupational specialties translate to civilian fields. More importantly, the program will also attempt to streamline or eliminate some of the red tape that prevents many veterans from earning the necessary permits, certificates and credentials that are preventing them from getting jobs that they are more than qualified to do.
It would help people like Christina Ayube’s son, a combat medic who even trained other medics but couldn’t get a job on an ambulance because he wasn’t certified.
Carlos Noyola drove 7-ton trucks, forklifts and other big machinery in the military, managing huge supply warehouses in the Middle East.
“In Iraq, you don’t need a license to drive anything,” Noyola said. “But I come home, and I’m a young kid looking for a job and I didn’t have the credentials.”
He ended up working menial retail jobs in stores like GameStop — a far step down and a waste of his skills.
“You think, ‘Why am I doing this, when I used to do this?’ It hurts you inside,” Noyola said.
There were tales of water purification experts turned Panera Bread bakers; vets who struggled to get jobs because of disability discrimination; and even one veteran who claimed he helped write the state test for a Commercial Driver’s License, but didn’t have the money to take the test himself.
More also needs to be done to help soldiers transition to civilian life and build skills outside the military, the veterans said. Streamlining and simplifying the process for getting the services that exist would also help, they said.
“I can do anything with a machine gun ... but without special training and education, veterans like myself don’t have a future,” said David Marshall, a Vietnam veteran and senior vice commander of the Salem VFW. “Grunts like myself who joined after high school, 19 years old, come out with no education. I am still fighting the war in the back of my mind, still in the bush. I would have given my life for my country, and I still would give my life for anyone in this room, and now we need help.”
Larry Conway worked just after Vietnam as a personnel officer, one of the last people a soldier spoke to in the process of leaving active duty. Conway used a book to help soldiers figure out how their military specialties translated to civilian jobs. For infantrymen like Marshall, there were two potential jobs listed in the book: ditch digger and big game hunter.
“That was part of the mentality back then,” Conway said. “We need to open the doors up with education and get the word out.”