Liberty Station’s Hire Heroes USA helps military veterans and spouses find their place in civilian world
San Diego County has a storied military background — it’s the home of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton, Naval Base Point Loma and others.
It’s also home to one of the largest concentrations of military personnel in the world.
A major issue facing many in that population is figuring out their next steps in a post-service life.
Enter Hire Heroes USA, a nonprofit founded in 2007 by John Bardis, who currently is chairman of the board.
In 2005, Bardis met Army Sgt. Justin Callahan, who was a patient at Walter Reed Medical Center after being severely injured while in Afghanistan. According to Hire Heroes’ website, “the two formed an immediate bond and Bardis learned that Callahan’s biggest concern, despite his injuries, was finding employment.”
Bardis was inspired to create Hire Heroes USA, which provides free job-search support to military veterans and their spouses. Hire Heroes is headquartered in Alpharetta, Ga., but has satellite offices throughout the country, including San Diego’s Liberty Station office.
Wendy DeCesare, California area manager for Hire Heroes USA and a former military spouse, said that for spouses, among the biggest issues in finding employment are gaps in work history. For veterans, one of the biggest issues is translating the skills they learned in the military to civilian life.
“Military spouses typically have employment gaps or moves — or both — so that career continuity can be incredibly challenging to manage when your spouse is moving every two to three years or they’re going overseas and then back, or you move from one spot in a job that’s going really well to a new spot and start over,” DeCesare said.
“For the veterans and the transition service members, a lot of it is understanding how their skills translate to the civilian workforce, because not all the work they did translates in the same language. ... So learning how to communicate their story, how to develop their professional brand and communicate their story so that the employers understand their value is such a huge part of this process. But then also helping them understand the employment landscape and what these skills mean to different employers, and then sometimes what industry is the best fit for them.”
Military members who are planning to leave the service or retire can sign up for Hire Heroes’ services. Every client is assigned a one-on-one transition specialist. Services are free to military personnel and their spouses.
DeCesare said the program is customized for each person since the needs and experiences of veterans and spouses can vary.
“Our services really are tailored to each client, but we have a variety of departments. We all collaborate to make sure that those needs are met,” she said.
One of the departments manages partnerships with employers that are hiring veterans and spouses. Those partnerships include Boeing, Walmart and USAA insurance and financial services, among others.
Hire Heroes also has a team of mentors — working professionals who volunteer to speak with clients one on one about industry specifics or conduct mock interviews. A virtual services department contains a library of webinars and workshops.
“The cornerstone of what we do is individual service for each client with a focus on achieving career success,” DeCesare said. “Each year, about 80 percent of transitioning service members will not have a job lined up when they’re leaving the service. So that’s what we’re here to do, to support and empower them in getting that position lined up and securing meaningful employment.”
Raisa Diaz is one of those clients. She left the Marine Corps as a sergeant in 2016 and took some time to go back to school. While at the University of San Diego, she became aware of Hire Heroes USA and the services it offers to veterans like her. She said the knowledge and insight the organization provided was invaluable, since she hadn’t worked in the civilian world in years.
“I worked with Wendy and it was just amazing to have another set of eyes on my resumé,” Diaz said. “She’s so knowledgeable, and with me not being in the workforce since 2012 … not knowing what to do, how to even align my information on a Word doc ... her help was awesome.”
“Wendy reached out, asked what my goals were, when I wanted to start working, what I was actively doing,” Diaz added. “She also asked me to send a copy of my resumé, and she tailored it to my industry. The little things, fixing alignment and bullet points where they should go, the spacing, those little details that make the difference ... giving tips on how to interview. ... Those are the first things that people see when they interview you and they can either make you or break you.”
Jorge Cassio, a chief petty officer in the Navy, has served for 20 years and is due to leave soon. He said he found out about Hire Heroes USA through a class called “Transition GPS,” which the Navy provides for personnel who are leaving.
“My experience [with Hire Heroes] was good from the beginning,” he said. “I felt like they understood and knew how I was feeling. They helped me out in the beginning, helped me out with a resumé. They explained about networking, LinkedIn — I didn’t know anything about that.
“People who come from the military, especially after 20 years, we don’t know anything about the civilian circuit. We don’t know about resumés, I don’t know about administration for jobs, like salaries and stuff like that. So the moral support and encouragement they provide helps us to release our anxiety and our stress.”
DeCesare said that support is vital, particularly in San Diego. As people leave the service, keeping them in this region is beneficial not just for those who want to stay here but for the local economy as well.
“Here in San Diego, we have one of the largest concentrations of military in the world, so retaining that talent and helping them understand where they can go and utilize their skills is key for San Diego and our economic development,” she said.
DeCesare said two very common industries where veterans can easily transition are defense contracting and the federal government because “those tend to be the easiest to translate, although there are still some differences.”
A not-so-obvious career path for military veterans and spouses is project or operations management, she said.
“While it might not have been labeled project management or operations management in the military, that’s absolutely what that skill set is,” DeCesare said. “And you can do so many different things with a project management or operations management background. I had a client who worked in an entirely different field, in the Navy nuclear surface space in an operational capacity, and then got a role as a project manager for the robotics division at Amazon. So into a bit of a tech space, a very different application of this skill set, but still his skill set.
“I have had other clients who have not necessarily had that tech or cyber background but have moved into operations or project management based in the tech or cyber field and have been absolutely amazed at how many directions they can go when they have a strong understanding of their skill set.”
DeCesare said helping to transition service members and their families is rewarding for her and the other employees at Hire Heroes USA.
“Over the course of our tenure as an organization, we’ve supported over 52,000 veterans and military spouses, which is 52,000 families that have meaningful employment. Employment is so pivotal to our identities and what we are able to contribute to the world. So having a program like this that helps people understand their professional brand and how to secure meaningful employment to support their family is life-changing.”
For more information about Hire Heroes USA, visit hireheroesusa.org.