With his marine unit caught in an ambush, Dakota Meyer knew what he had to do. In September 2009, Meyer and Staff Sgt. Juan Rodriguez-Chavez drove their Humvee into the thick of the action in the Afghan village of Ganjgal, stopping repeatedly under murderous fire so that Meyer could leave the vehicle to pick up stranded Afghan soldiers. Using a machine gun and grenade launcher to ward off the swarming Taliban militants, Meyer darted house to house searching for four missing Americans. They were dead, and while the precise details of the action have been a matter of controversy, an official review of the battle credited Meyer with saving the lives of numerous fellow marines and Afghan troops.
Last September President Obama bestowed the Medal of Honor on Sgt. Meyer, 24, the first living marine to receive the award since the Vietnam War. Suddenly the farm boy from Kentucky had become a celebrity -- greeted like a rock star, even becoming fishing buddies with Gary LeVox of Rascal Flatts. But as it turned out, Dakota Meyer had just begun to ï¬ght. His new mission: to use his fame to draw attention to the alarming unemployment rate among veterans who have served since 9/11. “I don’t care anything about being a Medal of Honor recipient,” says Meyer, who also served in Iraq, “but if I can use that to help veterans get jobs, I will.”
Certainly, there is no denying the need for solutions. Consider these sobering statistics: Among post-9/11 veterans, unemployment stands at 9.5 percent, compared with a national average of 8.2 percent. Among younger vets, the problem is even more dire: Those 24 and younger have an unemployment rate of 29 percent; their civilian peers are closer to 17 percent. Meyer well knows the hurdles that vets face.
Since leaving the Marine Corps in June 2010, he has bounced among several jobs. Though he is in demand as a motivational speaker and recently became a liaison between Toyota and the military community, he has also worked in construction to make ends meet. “I faced the same struggles getting jobs,” he says. But he is emphatic on one point: The last thing he or any vet wants is charity. “I don’t see that anyone owes me anything for my service,” he says. “I don’t feel any sense of entitlement.”
In Meyer’s view, veterans haven’t been given the proper tools to market themselves to civilian employers. He points out that in the Marine Corps he was a sniper -- not an occupation in great demand outside the military. So the challenge is to cast his experience in a different light. “For example,” he says, “I’m good at task management in a stressful environment.”
Enter the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s new guide to personal branding, sponsored by Toyota, which answers such basic questions as what to wear on a job interview but also gives more nuanced tips, like how to frame one’s military experiences to a potential boss. It’s all part of the chamber’s Hiring Our Heroes campaign, which encourages businesses to employ veterans and military spouses. “Many younger veterans, those who enlisted right out of high school, are stepping in front of an employer for the first time,” says Kevin Schmiegel, a vice president of the Chamber of Commerce and a veteran himself of 20 years in the Marine Corps.
The response so far has been promising -- pledges to hire have topped 156,000. To keep the numbers moving in the right direction, the chamber will host 400 job fairs for veterans around the country, and in a first, 60 of those events will be held on military bases. Private sector volunteers will be on hand to help service members and vets craft more effective résumés and improve their interview skills. On Labor Day, the chamber is also unveiling the Fast Track Program, which will identify for vets the 100 U.S. cities with the greatest job growth. “No one’s been taking the time,” says Schmiegel, “to show vets where the jobs are.”
For Schmiegel, there’s an added urgency to get vets employment help. “I see this as a national security issue,” he says. “How many people are going to want to serve in an all-volunteer force if they’re 50 percent more likely to be unemployed?” The hope is that Meyer, who will be speaking at selected job fairs, can be the face of change. As was the case that day in Ganjgal, he shows no signs of ducking the challenge. Asked what he’d like to do for his career, he doesn’t hesitate: “Make a difference.”
Meyer will be making appearances on behalf of Hiring Our Heros. Get more information from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
By Bill Hewitt
August 19, 2012