Their roles in life, their very identities, were tied to their roles in the military.

 

When the military went away, they had no idea who they were.

“I was anxious, frustrated, empty,” said veteran Danielle Crowder, who spent four years in the Army. “It was a very, very scary place to be. The silence … was deafening.”

Crowder said she got a “second chance” when she was accepted by Operation New Uniform, a Jacksonville nonprofit that offers free training and development, resources and professional networking to make veterans more competitive in the marketplace. She and eight other veterans graduated from the four-week program Wednesday, transformed from struggling job seekers with little direction or confidence to poised job candidates who are certain of their value and know how to sell themselves to potential employers.

“I knew my life was going to change, but I didn’t know how,” said Crowder, whose most recent Army duty was leading a vehicle maintenance unit that oversaw $1 million worth of equipment. “I am strong, motivated, ready.”

Founded in 2014, Operation New Uniform gives veterans 30 hours of classroom training, 10 hours of resume services and one-on-one coaching and unlimited support and guidance. Wednesday’s group was the 20th to complete the program; 92 percent of the 149 earlier graduates have found careers.

Co-founder and executive director Justin Justice and all of the nonprofit’s other full-time staff are veterans, and 60 percent of the board of directors are veterans or military spouses.

Justice’s vision was to help fix what he saw as the military’s poor job of preparing veterans for the civilian workplace. The goal is to help veterans — many of whom are highly educated, trained and skilled — translate their military resumes into civilian ones and support them during their transition.

“It is our responsibility to help them,” he said. “Their service was not valued the way it should have been. They were not given the employment opportunities that they thought they were going to receive.”

With additional funding, he hopes to expand the program and serve more veterans, possibly even nationwide.

REDEFINING THEMSELVES

Jeff Robertson, vice president of veteran training and himself an Operation New Uniform graduate, said the key is building veterans’ confidence. They have to make a choice — wait for the world to offer them a career or recognize their worth, “take ownership” and mount an aggressive job search, he said.

But first they have to free themselves from their past military identity. Graduates likened that process to a civilian boot camp.

Graduate Carl Bush, a 30-year Navy veteran, was director of operations at Navy Region Southeast. His responsibilities included the planning, coordination and execution of major annual exercises at Navy installations from Texas to Missouri to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. When he retired, he realized he had been in a “constrained box of regulations and expectations,” he said.

“Breaking out of that box … there was some fear there,” he said. “I was fearful to understand what I could do without the military.”

The box-breaking part of the program could be painful, he said.

“There was a moment of epiphany in almost every session. ‘Another beatdown today,’ ” Bush said. “It was absolutely critical. It gave me confidence, re-energized me.”

Graduate Dustin Gano, who spent 17 years in the Coast Guard, was shift manager of a machinery technician team. He led a project involving rebuilding a ship’s main diesel engines that was completed two months early and $3 million under budget.

That military service “defined me,” he said. “That’s who I thought I was.” Leaving was a “terrifying and harrowing experience,” he said.

Operation New Uniform helped him redefine himself, “letting me know I am qualified for so much more,” he said. “The lesson is knowing myself and what I am capable of doing, how to present myself.

“The path I was walking … is still an unknown path, but I’m not terrified,” he said.

Graduate Brian Low, a 23-year Navy veteran, thought he had it all together when he went to his first interview with Robertson. He found out differently, comparing the interview to trying to sell a car or a boat.

“Jeff kept kicking the tires, kicking the boat. ‘There’s a hole. There’s another hole.’ Brutal,” Low said. “I thought, ‘What am I getting myself into?’ It was emotionally taxing.”

He learned that he was underestimating himself. As a combat system trainer, he led 15 teammates in the development and execution of 35 complex training scenarios and did so well he was promoted. Still, when he began Operation New Uniform, he ranked himself as a 5 out of a possible 10.

One of the mantras was for all participants to see themselves as a 10. Now he does and plans to show that in future job interviews, he said.

COMPLETING A MISSION

Web.com CEO David Brown, who grew up in a military family, was an early supporter of the program.

Veterans “already are prepared, have the skills,” he said, they “just don’t know it.”

The military “prepared them to be leaders, prepared them to be project managers, taught them to be able to evolve from job to job to job,” he said. “When you get hold of some of these people, you get something special. … They’re ready to go, they just need an opportunity.

Justice “had a vision … and like all good military people, he accomplished his mission,” Brown said.

Bill Spann is director of Jacksonville’s Military Affairs and Veterans Department, which typically includes Operation New Uniform in its annual “micro-grant program” funded by the Jaguars Foundation.

“They’re probably the best at doing what they do anywhere in the country,” he said, adding that he wished he had such a program when he retired from the Navy. “They get people jobs.”

When graduate Crowder started the program, she had the benefit of having watched how it impacted her veteran husband, Kevin. He is employed at Veterans Elite Services, a veteran-owned residential and commercial cleaning services company.

He said Operation New Uniform is still helping him.

“It’s been life changing, given me direction and confidence,” he said. “I know that if what I am doing doesn’t work out, no worries.”

Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109