By Eric Brandner

Doug Watjus quickly realized he’d have to play the long game. But he didn’t expect the help he’d get along the way.

A few months before leaving the Air Force, Watjus was speaking with several companies and recruiters about job opportunities in the civilian world. But the same question kept coming up.

“When can you come in and meet us?”

Doug Watjus

That’s when Watjus—a major with more than 15 years of service—had to tell them he was in the unenviable position of trying to find a new job while stationed in Ramstein, Germany. Last fall, he was steaming toward his civilian transition an ocean away from his long-term job prospects. He offered to group the interviews together during a U.S. visit, but the perspective employers told him not to worry about stopping by until he was permanently back in the States.

“I think it started off as ignorance. I thought, ‘Yeah, no problem, just like any other location in the States,’” Watjus said. “I learned very quickly that it was going to be a lot more difficult than I imagined.”

But it wasn’t all bad news.

Watjus attended the September 2014 USO/Hire Heroes USA Transition Workshop at Ramstein Air Base, where he received preliminary job search coaching, resume tweaking and went through a round of mock interviews.

“I had not, at that point, gone through an interview in years,” Watjus said, “so it was definitely nice to kind of knock some rust off and get some feedback on how things went.”

Hire Heroes USA is part of the USO Transition 360 Alliance. Formally launched in May, the alliance aims to cover every aspect of a military family’s transition. USO and Hire Heroes USA host co-branded Transition Workshops and Career Opportunity Days, where transitioning service members and military spouses can get both general group instruction and one-on-one experiences, like the mock interviews Watjus mentioned.

Watjus—a 1999 Texas A&M graduate who earned an MBA and a project management certificate over his final years in the military—worked on his resume before attending the workshop. However, despite being a C-130 navigator by trade, he didn’t want to pursue the obvious career path into the airline industry. After a conversation, the Hire Heroes USA staff helped him rebrand himself as a business services candidate.

He left the workshop with an improved resume and clearer direction, but Watjus still wasn’t getting the looks he wanted from employers—even after moving to Texas with his spouse and two young children at the end of 2014. He had several conversations with recruiters who would often float him labor-intensive jobs. One recruiter asked him if he wanted to be a pest exterminator.

Photo credit USO photo

USO and Hire Heroes USA host Transition Workshops and Career Opportunity Days, where transitioning service members and military spouses can get both general group instruction and one-on-one guidance.

“It was kind of like ‘Are you even looking at my resume?’” he said. “I was working with about three different companies and it seemed like most of them didn’t have the personal touch I was looking for.”

But Hire Heroes USA was sticking with him.

Watjus said Jason Dodge, the veterans’ programs manager at Hire Heroes USA’s Alpharetta, Georgia, office, continued following up with him, advising him on both general job search topics and specific strategies for upcoming interviews.

“I would say we probably talked four times a month, if not more,” Watjus said. “And then whenever anything changed, I knew that I could call him and just talk to him about it.

“If I told him ‘Monday I’m going to go in and talk to this lady about a position’ he would help me—almost as a mentor or a coach, [by saying] ‘Hey, don’t forget to mention this.’ Or ‘Hey, don’t forget to emphasize this.’”

Dodge knew all the tricks because he’d been in Watjus’ shoes. A veteran with 10 years split between the Army and Air National Guard, Dodge entered the civilian workforce with big ambitions—and few immediate job prospects.

“Like a lot of vets, I thought ‘OK, I have this degree, I have all this experience, all this leadership, people are going to line up around the block to hire me,’” he said. “Well, I was humbled.”

Dodge was unemployed for five months before taking a job at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Wanting to help veterans in a different capacity, he signed up for Hire Heroes USA’s online services in June 2013 to retool his resume and boost his interview skills.

Hire Heroes USA was so impressed with Dodge’s drive they hired him to work out of their Alpharetta office as a career coach. Now, he manages about a dozen other career coaches.

Dodge said Watjus was already a strong candidate for employment because of his experience and education. Once those credentials were properly portrayed on Watjus’ resume, Dodge’s focus became fine-tuning the scope of Watjus’ desired career path and talking with him about the external stressors of the job hunt.

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“A lot of the conversations with Doug weren’t really about the job search [specifics],” Dodge said. “We just enjoyed those talks about life and him really trying to figure out ‘OK, so what do I really want to do?’

“It was having those talks with someone who was a veteran who he knew he could trust. … I think the one thing he really appreciated about our services is he knew he had a friend.”

Their check-ins went on through May, when Watjus finally accepted a job offer at MEI Technologies in Houston. Watjus works as a business development manager there, using his Air Force background to translate and assess the needs of the company’s clients.

“That was invaluable just to be able to bounce ideas off someone who’s kind of gone through the same thing that we’ve gone through and been out there in the civilian world a little more than we have,” Watjus said.

“It really is a high [when you help someone find a new career],” Dodge said. “I’m not just happy for them, [but] I’m happy for their family, because I know the joy that they get. And to play a small part in that is pretty cool.”

—Eric Brandner is the USO’s director of story development. This story appears in the Spring 2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.

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