By Jean-Marie Bralley

James Furgurson thought that he might continue working in logistics and pursue a degree in that field when he medically retired from the Army earlier this year. But Tonya Wacker, the USO PathfinderSM site manager at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, challenged him to pause and think about what he really desired to do.

Music is something that is therapeutic for Furgurson – a former unit supply specialist and a current USO volunteer – and something he’s passionate about, so he turned to USO Pathfinder to help him pursue a career in the music field.

The Pathfinder program was born from the USO’s core belief that when the estimated 200,000-plus service members transition from military service each year, they and their families should have access to the resources they need to successfully transition into thriving veterans.

The Pathfinder mission is executed by Pathfinder Scouts, who offer one-on-one support to active duty, Reserve, National Guard, military spouses and military dependents from 12 months before their transition and ensure a continuity of care by extending support up to 12 months beyond the service member’s date of separation.

Scouts work with individuals help identify their personal and professional goals. They then guide those individuals to success by creating a personalized Action Plan and providing direct connections to the services and resources in their community that are the best fit for them.

Furgurson’s journey from military service to his civilian life has been about discovering his talents and how he can both build a career and help others, he said. And the USO’s Pathfinder program has helped him along the way.

“It’s different when people see strengths in you that you don’t really recognize for yourself,” Furgurson said. “It’s been really eye-opening on a personal level as far as confidence, self-esteem [and] just finding out who I am as a person. That’s really what this is all about for me, self-exploration. Who am I? What do I want to do? And how can I help other people with my strengths?”

Furguson’s Pathfinder Scout assisted in figuring out what career options were available in music, and Furgurson said that he gravitated towards sound engineering and sound design. He recently completed an audio engineering certificate.

USO Pathfinder guided him through the process of school selection and everything that entailed, including questions about GI Bill benefits and military advisers.

“They (the USO) really just took me and my situation and completely focused on me,” Furgurson said. “There was no ‘other people have done this’ and ‘we’re going to put you in this category.’ I was my own category.”

He also said it was extremely comforting to have a team to rely on. “If things didn’t go directly according to the plan, that was okay,” he said. “There was plan B. There’s plan C. There’s this connection, this group of people who know other people who know other people who know other people. … I really can’t fail because there’s always something else to do. There’s always another way. [Nobody says] ‘that’s it. I’m sorry, I can’t help you.’ I’ve never heard that once. There’s always someone who is willing to help you. … There’s always a pathway to do something.”

Without the USO, he said his transition from military life “wouldn’t be pretty” and while it was difficult, it was not as rough as it could have been on his own.

He considers earning an audio engineering certificate his first major post-military accomplishment, and said his experience proves that the Pathfinder program is working. He encouraged others to take advantage of the USO’s offering – even if they’re not leaving the military – because one might hear something that could be useful regarding a career or education.

“It’s just more knowledge,” he said. “Even if you don’t use it, you can pass it on to someone else.”

Furgurson is pursuing an undergraduate degree in social work with a concentration in music therapy.

“Music is a way to express emotions,” he said. “It’s a way that we can all connect and help each other.”

In addition to volunteering with the USO, Furgurson works with the youth organization, LEAP, and he said that he hopes to establish his own program for inner-city youth or other inner-city programs involving music.

He wants students to be able to come together and collaborate and to “embrace their own talents, embrace themselves and encourage other people to embrace themselves.”

Furgurson said that, to him, the USO Pathfinder program means empowerment. It means that he doesn’t have to settle for anything in life.

“I can choose to make my own path. There are people who are willing to help me make my own path, and, in doing that, I can empower others to do the same and encourage them to help others.”

–Jean-Marie Bralley is a freelance writer and a is a professional ballerina with Charlottesville Ballet in Charlottesville, Va. USO Senior Multimedia Journalist Sandi Moynihan contributed to this story.