FAYETTEVILLE: New efforts help soldiers with life after Army - WNCN: News, Weather

New efforts help soldiers with life after Army

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Data from Fort Bragg shows the Army spent $431 million on unemployment compensation in 2013. That's the smallest amount since 2009. Data from Fort Bragg shows the Army spent $431 million on unemployment compensation in 2013. That's the smallest amount since 2009.

After years at war, America's military is slimming down, leaving thousands of service members looking for their next steps. Fort Bragg already sees an average of 8,500 soldiers leave the Army each year. A reduction in force is expected to increase that number.

By the end of 2015, 80,000 soldiers will have to find work as civilians as the Department of Defense reduces the Army by 14 percent.  More downsizing is planned through 2023.

Matt Oliver just retired after 26 years in the Army. He was most recently based at Fort Bragg, but tighter requirements for advancement meant he needed to look elsewhere to continue working.

"I was nervous, scared and excited because I've been in it for 26 years," said the 42-year-old. "That's more than half my lifetime."

While planning for his transition out of the Army he learned about a commercial truck driver training course specifically organized for soldiers leaving the military. Active duty service members and their spouses can sign up for the course. A grant from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration means they get free training. Similar courses in the civilian world can cost more than $5,000. THE North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) oversees the program, bringing instructors from the truck driver school at Johnston Community College.

Oliver, who has a wife and six children in a blended family, took the course the first time it was offered in the fall of 2013. He retired this year and had a truck driving job waiting for him with a company that has a hub in Fayetteville.

"I think there was more weight on me, on my shoulders prior to retirement because I wasn't sure, didn't have a guarantee," Oliver said. "After that it was such a big relief. It really was."

Instructors say after a few years on the job, truck drivers can make more than $100,000 per year. Trained drivers are also in high demand.

"We are in a shortage position in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand drivers [nationally]," explained Paul Jump, the director of the driver training course.

The potential for steady income was one of the factors that attracted other soldiers to the training course since it started in August of 2013.

"Now I'm ready to transition out and go do what I enjoy doing," said Cpl. Lane Phelps who is currently taking the course. After more than seven years in the Army, he is retiring around the same time he finishes the course at the end of February.

For Sgt. Shadya Maldonado, the truck driver training started out as just an option for her next step, but she said she really enjoys it now. The course has helped her feel better about at least having a backup plan.

"Some days I'm super scared, but some days I'm excited because I know where I'm going," Maldonado said. "I've planned every move."

The commercial driver training is just one of many ways the Army is now doing more with its Career And Alumni Program (ACAP).

"Possibly not enough was being done," commented William McMillian , the Fort Bragg Transition Services Manager. "The service members were serving their country right up to the last minute and then all of a sudden they were leaving not prepared."

McMillian said soldiers used to get brief summaries of veterans benefits, financial planning, and job searching tips. Then they were on their own.  

Now there are hiring events, programs connecting soldiers to employers and other long-term courses such AS the driver training classes. One program trains retiring soldiers to manage and maintain large facilities such as embassies. Another program covers small business entrepreneurship and helps soldiers start and new business after leaving the Army.

McMillian said the Army has decide it is wiser to invest in providing more programs and training opportunities, rather than paying unemployment insurance for soldiers who cannot find work after their military service. According to Army figures, unemployment compensation has been costing more than $500 million dollars in recent years.

"If we prepare them for actual jobs they can go out and actually draw a salary as opposed to drawing unemployment insurance," McMillian said. "We do not need to have unemployed, homeless veterans. We need to do a better job of taking care of our service members."

Maldonado said the additional help with transitioning is invaluable. After four years in the Army she has taken advantage of lots of help from ACAP to plan ahead.

"Soldiers need all they can to transition to the civilian world," Moldonado said. "I by choice am getting out because I want to, but some soldiers don't have a choice. Just having those options there is really nice."

Interested service members and their spouses should contact Johnston Community College at 800-691-2220 or email tdinfo@johnstoncc.edu as soon as possible to begin the enrollment process.

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