It’s one thing to appreciate a veteran and say, “thank you for your service.” It’s another to truly understand what they’ve done, experienced, and how they got to where they are today.

No one, truly no one, understands that journey more or better than another veteran. That is a major reason why a statewide non-profit, “Boots2Roots” is completing its mission and revitalizing Maine’s workforce one veteran at a time.

It’s the brainchild of a retired colonel and West Gardiner native who returned to Maine after 23 years in the Air Force, two advanced degrees, and experience in command positions. Still, it took him a long time to find a job.

Dave Hickey’s thought was if it was that difficult for him, what’s it like for someone leaving the military at a lower rank and maybe only a few years in service? So for a year, he and co-founder John Manganello, through word of mouth helped other newly separated from service vets, and the concept for Boots2Roots was born.
They knew doing transitional groundwork before the person leaves the military is key. Great idea, but with Dave and John both working it was tough to take it further.

That’s when another recent Air Force retiree Jen Fullmer, now executive director of Boots2Roots entered the picture. She flew B-1 bombers with 90 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan during her 24 years of service. Having recently moved to Maine, she was just the passionate, driving force needed to catapult this from a plan into an active mission.

With volunteers and an unbelievable statewide networking system, Boots2Roots volunteers are teamed up with active duty members planning to leave the service and move to Maine. Each “teammate” is paired with a “front-line” volunteer, someone who made the military to civilian transition themselves within the past five years, and can offer peer support right through that first year in a new job.

Ideally, Boots2Roots connects with a military member six to 12 months out from leaving the service. “Because if you come here and try to start from scratch it could take months and you could very quickly get into financial difficulty,” says Jen.

“By starting early, we go through self-assessment … really discuss where you can best benefit a company.”

Then they work on a resume which has few, if any military terms. Jen asks a lot of questions to translate those skills and lingo from military jargon to key assets HR people look for.

Then they’ll meet Bruce MacMillan of Phippsburg, with 45 years of experience in corporate work and as an executive coach and consultant. He also served five years in the Navy, active and reserve, and knows what these men and women truly have to offer.

“Their leadership skills, understanding how to commit to a mission, team work, and technical skills, obviously,” he says. “What’s not understood about them as much is the vast array of soft skills they have. It’s not just a matter of giving orders and taking orders, there’s a lot of consensus and influence.”

Bruce teaches vets how to really use and prepare references. He also prepares them for interviews, helps them navigate questions and structure a story from their service, making it resonate with what the job calls for.

“One of my slogans is ‘People don’t listen and they don’t read. They’re too preoccupied.’ So sometimes you’ve got to make a few high-impact ‘leave behinds’ on an interviewer, so we try and focus on that,” he said.

Meanwhile, Jen and other volunteers are working their sources, networking companies and going to career fairs. “I’ll make sure they (the companies) get a tailored resume and I’ll go to that job fair and meet the HR person, introduce myself as Boots2Roots and tell them, ‘Have I got a person for you! I understand this job is open …’”

James Webster was an Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot for 10 years. He vacationed in Maine as a child, dreaming of living here. He heard about Boots2Roots, emailed Jen, and then talked with her.

“You spend 10 years becoming the expert in your field, and then starting anew is certainly intimidating. But, talking with Jen and Bruce and Grant (front-line teammate), they’re able to make you realize you’re capable of this.”

James says Boots2Roots “managed his expectations” and helped him narrow his focus on a few quality positions. Two days after arriving in Maine, he had an interview with Bath Iron Works and in October became a principal project manager.

“I had no doubt I could find something,” James says, “but I didn’t want to leave a job I already loved for a job that just paid the bills. I wanted to find a career with an organization I’m proud to be a part of and support what they do … I want to be there for the next 30 or 40 or how many years of my working career.”

Jen is currently working with 28 people, 12 of whom are already in Maine, and eight of them were hired within two months of arriving, which is a Boots2Roots goal.
That not only says “thank you for your service,” it says “welcome to Maine and we’re glad to have you.”

For more information about Boots2Roots, visit www.boots2roots.org.