Driven to serve

Only a small number of the U.S. population volunteers for military duty. We wanted to know their motivations and experiences as they transitioned into civilian jobs, so we asked!

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Sometimes, the obvious isn’t so obvious.

This story, about U.S. military veterans in the workforce, started out as a look at benefits, jobs available, and the employers that hire them. But when it comes to actual experiences and transitioning back into the workforce, perhaps it was time to go to the source.

What follows are exerpts from conversations with Matthew J. Schroeder, director of military and veterans services at Edgewood College; Sherri Smith, in the nurse residency program at the American Family Children’s Hospital; Tom Slaten, a new franchisee of Orange Shoe Fitness in Waunakee; and Andrew Shuck, who’s found a delicious future at Pure Sweet Honey Farm in Verona.

All four are employed here after serving in the U.S. military, and each offers a glimpse on what they experienced and how they transitioned back.

This represents just a tiny sample, and we applaud all U.S. military veterans and the employers that hire them. With a better understanding of what they went through, our hope is that we can better appreciate who they’ve become.

Halftime deployment

Tom Slaten

Co-owner, Orange Shoe Fitness, Waunakee​
Age: 29
Wisconsin Army National Guard

After 9/11, Tom Slaten wanted to belong to something bigger than himself. He enlisted in his junior year of high school.

With his dad’s consent, Tom Slaten was able to enlist in the Wisconsin Army National Guard in 2006 when he was just a junior in high school. Last week, Nov. 29, Slaten retired after 12 years.

A month earlier, he and his wife, Kelly Haas, opened an Orange Shoe Fitness franchise location in Waunakee.

Tom’s story:

“I was always interested in the Army, and always wanted to belong to something bigger than myself.

“I was in sixth grade when 9/11 happened. It had an impact on me, but at 13 years old, you don’t really think about how you can help, or how it will affect your life.

“My mom had died from breast cancer, and as I got older, I saw my dad, a single parent, trying to do as much as he could, but it was tough for him. I decided I never wanted my family burdened with how to pay for my college.

“During the high point of the war, recruiters were sweetening the pot, which was a huge incentive, as well. When I signed up, there was a $20,000 enlistment bonus if you agreed to six years active duty and two years reserve, knowing you might get called up.

“I spent the summer of 2007, between my junior and senior years, in basic training. I always knew there was a chance of deploying, but I was in the Army National Guard, not the active military. Suddenly there were guys in my training unit getting called up. Whoa!

“I was mobilized in 2008 when the whole 32nd Brigade deployed. I was at a high school basketball game when I got the call at halftime. I just left. I just wanted to be with my family. This was really happening!

“They always say you don’t believe you’re going in until you land. When we landed, it was a different world.

“Suddenly, it’s 2009 and I’m an 18-year-old kid landing in Kuwait to go to war in Iraq. It was surreal. The plane doors open and you know you’re not home. There were bombed-out tanks and smashed vehicles left over from Saddam’s army during Desert Storm. I’ll never forget the smell of the desert. It was very distinct.

“From Kuwait we flew in a military plane to Mosul, Iraq. We were there for nine months. Everything you do is very serious. You grow up quickly. If something goes wrong, you’re entrusted with that as well. I was driving military vehicles around. It was crazy to experience.

“I realized how very privileged we are here in the U.S. and I stopped complaining a lot. My worst day would be an amazing day for someone over there. It was very eye opening. Life isn’t the same for me anymore.

“I got back from Iraq and about seven months later my friend and I decided to ‘go see’ Afghanistan.

“So just after my 21st birthday, we flew into a hotbed, in a very volatile area near Pakistan. But this time I was more relaxed — the old guy — and mentored some younger guys.

“We were flown in by a two-prop Chinook at night. It was so dark! It was a no-light base that sat in a bowl surrounded by mountains and we didn’t want the enemy to see us. We were instructed to get some sleep, but you’re anxious and excited.

“In daylight, I’d never seen mountains like that. It was unbelievably beautiful!

“Sometimes you’d forget you’re at war. We’d be playing horseshoes out there on a gorgeous 70-degree day, enjoying a day off, and the next day, rockets are being shot at us. We’d get ambushed all the time.

“It was an adrenaline rush like you wouldn’t believe. You’d see flickers from gunshots in the mountains. Taliban soldiers were trying to run over our base — they were trying to do that everywhere. Sometimes we’d call in air support and jets would drop 2,000-pound bombs and everything would shake. We’d get attacked at 2 a.m. and then suddenly, all is quiet and the enemy retreated. It was so weird.

“We slept in plywood buildings but there were concrete bunkers on base. Everyone knew their duties, and guns were always ready on vehicles or walls. If we got attacked, it was an all-out race to your post.

“The Taliban soldiers were shooting from so far away and didn’t have good marksmanship skills. More times than not I think they were all drugged up on heroin or something else to build their confidence. We found evidence next to their bodies.

“I didn’t get PTSD from the experience, but many of my friends did. Some have since committed suicide. For me, my training just kicked in. There was no time to be afraid. You didn’t think, you just acted, and the body does what it’s trained to do, which is just amazing to me.

“When I finally got back to the U.S., I gelled right back in. I always used fitness rather than drugs or alcohol to cope, but I did have trouble connecting with people my age.

“At 22, I was older than most of the students at UW–Whitewater, where I went to college. They complained about nonsense, in my opinion — their ‘hard’ tests, or that mom and dad weren’t funding their schooling. I felt kind of insulted, actually. All they wanted to do was party, but I saw them taking life for granted. I couldn’t relate, so I’d go to class and drive home.

“I used the GI Bill for my tuition and never got a bill. I also got a monthly stipend for things like rent and groceries.

“I graduated from Whitewater in 2016 in health, human performance, and recreation with a strength and conditioning minor.

“Now, with Orange Shoe Fitness, which I co-own with my new wife, my goal is to give my clients 30 to 60 minutes of time just to disengage. We all do things for others, but I believe we need more time for ourselves. Exercise has always been a way for me to disconnect. When you’re in the middle of a workout, I can guarantee you won’t be focused on your work or troubles.

“Where I am today is 100% because of the military. I’ve learned integrity, honesty, trustworthiness, grit, mental toughness, which all are important when you open your own business. Had I gone directly to college, I know I wouldn’t have been as focused or mentally strong. I probably would have fallen into partying.

“I can’t imagine replacing the last 12 military years with 12 regular years, but I do miss some things. When you’re deployed, life is easy. You know what every day will look like. You’re on a base. You don’t have bills, or a car, a job, random weddings, parties, and family get-togethers to attend. Your life is very simple.

“It’s not that simple anymore. I miss the guys and the camaraderie. When you’re over there, you’re always giving back. Now I feel I should be doing more, but as of Nov. 29, I won’t miss the monthly drills.

‘There’s still a lot going on over there. How many people here even realize we’re still at war? I’m always thinking of someone having a much worse day. It’s still very real and happening. People continue to lose their lives in a war that’s gone on for too long, in my opinion. At what point do we risk running ourselves so far into the ground that we can’t help ourselves anymore?

“Now, I’ve seen people staying in the military solely because of the health insurance. They don’t leave, even though the passion’s gone, and that’s sad.

“I’m glad I served at a time in history when people respect the military. There are so many programs now to help others who aren’t coping as well — couples therapy, drug counseling. The VA health system has taken its knocks, but I know it will only get better.

“On the other hand, I’ve seen the help that we’re doing overseas. I know we are making great progress, yet all you see on the news is the bad and so many people make judgments based on what others say. Experience it yourself before you judge! There is a lot of good happening and a lot to be proud of.

“I decided to get out because I got married. I won’t get a pension, but there are a lot of VA benefits available to me. We took out a business loan to buy Orange Shoe Fitness, which opened Oct. 15.

“I couldn’t deploy now. It’s not just me anymore. I have to respect my wife’s wishes as well, because I know that deployments are very tough on the family at home.

“But I’ve got absolutely no regrets whatsoever. Yes, there were good days and bad days, but that’s life. I have developed relationships and bonds that I’ll have for the rest of my life.”



Military mentor

Matthew J. Schroeder

Director of Military & Veterans Services, Edgewood College
Age: 40
U.S. Army Reserve/U.S. Marine Corps

Snakebit by injuries, Matthew J. Schroeder now helps returning vets transition into the workforce at Edgewood College.

When Matthew Schroeder took the job leading Edgewood College’s Military & Veterans Services department, he identified one problem almost immediately.

“They needed to understand veterans,” he remarks. “Nobody there knew or had any idea what vets had gone through, so that’s where we started.”

Now, Schroeder helps other military veterans transition back into the workplace at Edgewood College. Sometimes it’s as simple as talking over a cup of coffee, he notes, but mostly he serves as a mentor, tutor, and friend to vets as they try to make sense of a very fast-paced American society.

“I’m not a counselor,” he clarifies, “but because of the rapport I’ve developed, vets feel comfortable talking with me, including women who have opened up to me about sexual assaults. I’m also a tough-love guy,” he says. “I don’t use fancy words. I give it to them straight.”

Matthew’s story:

“I joined the Army Reserve and served my weekends in Dodgeville. I’d been highly recruited for football in high school, so as a young athlete I tried to play through everything, but ultimately destroyed my shoulder socket, which meant reconstruction surgery. I couldn’t do pushups or any physical activity above my head, so eventually I was separated from the Army Reserve.

“I had reconstruction surgery and during my rehab decided to join the Marine Corps because that’s where most of my friends had gone. I saw it as an opportunity to reconnect with them. But that was delayed, too, when I tore a ligament in my knee and had to have my ACL reconstructed.

“I was driven to serve. I was in the Army for about 13 months, but when I enlisted in the Marines Corps, I had to sign a waiver absolving the military from any responsibilities if I got hurt again related to any of those previous injuries.

“I went to the Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego, Miramar Island, which is beautiful to visit, just not when you’re in boot camp. The recruit depot is right next to the airport, and some people get incredibly homesick watching planes coming and going. A number of people try to run away. It was 1999, before 9/11, so the world was much different. You really had to want to be there, and I did.”

“Unfortunately, while at boot camp, I reinjured my knee. So, best-case scenario, I got to serve in two branches of the military.

“I was discharged after eight months due to injury … but tried enlisting in other branches of the military all the way up until 2008.”

“Why? Because I just wanted in! A lot of people joined because of 9/11. My mindset was, better me than someone else, and had they called me back I would have gone and done whatever was asked. I served during a non-combat time, so I didn’t have the fears others might.

“It’s hard to imagine that there are kids in college or seniors in high school who weren’t alive when 9/11 happened.

“The regimentation of the military makes it very easy to function. When I was in the Marine Corps, I’d wake up at the same time, police my Marines, and get them off to chow every single day. No vacations, no time off.

“But when I got back, I didn’t feel like I fit in even though I had a great family. There’s an adjustment period for veterans, and support groups are incredibly important in terms of helping them.

“If they come home and get back with their old friends who have no military experience, it’s not easy for them to relate, especially those deployed to a combat zone. The pace of the world here is very different than the pace of the world there.

“I decided to enroll at UW–Oshkosh as a freshman and, at 23, was living in a dorm with 18-year-olds who didn’t grasp what it was like to have served. It was difficult, especially after 9/11. My mindset was very different than theirs.

“The hallway conversations always made me laugh. I didn’t care about this or that; I cared about my friends serving, and wanted to know that they were okay.

“The inclusion of the media since Vietnam has brought the war into our homes. In my second year of college, 2003, we invaded Iraq and I was in my dorm room watching every minute of coverage with another vet friend so I could know where my friends were.

“I needed to watch. I think just about anyone who’s served in the last 20 years knows someone who didn’t come home.”



Unplanned career

Sherri Smith

Post-anesthesia care unit (PACU), nursing residency program, American Family Children’s Hospital
Age: 46
Wisconsin Army National Guard

All In the family: When Sherri Smith deployed with the Wisconsin Army National Guard in 2009, her daughter enlisted as a combat medic and her eldest son later joined too, as a photo journalist. In 2013, left to right: Amanda Espinal, Sherri Smith, Chris Enderle, and Sherri’s husband Thom, a 28-year veteran.

Sherri Smith has always had a passion for children, and in her new career as a nurse at the American Family Children’s Hospital, she’s reached her sweet spot.

“Whether it’s cancer treatment or something else, making them smile is a reward in itself,” Smith says.

Smith retired in 2016 from the Wisconsin Army National Guard after almost 21 years working in human resources.

Years earlier, she was a single mom raising two young children, going to school full-time, and working full-time. She also had two older children from a previous marriage. “It was hard to get it all done,” Smith admits. She hadn’t planned on joining the military, but while attending MATC, she landed a work-study job at the Department of Military Affairs at Truax, tracking down military records for retirees seeking VA loans. Her work ethic so impressed a supervisor that she was encouraged to look into joining. “I’d never considered it with two young kids,” Smith says. “What if I get deployed?”

As scary as that idea was, her biggest concern was doing her part to ensure her kids’ safety at home or around the world. “To me, that was worth the sacrifice of being separated from my kids.”

“I enlisted in 1995 and went through about four-and-a-half months of basic training,” she adds. “I took the shortest amount of military training I could and went into the human resources field. I didn’t realize at the time that it would be a full time career.”

Smith was deployed to Baghdad, Iraq in 2009 with the 32nd Brigade.

Sherri’s story:

“I will always remember Baghdad being very hot and dusty, but also beautiful and unusual. Constant sand storms would sometimes set fire alarms off.

“My office made military ID cards, which all soldiers need, like driver’s licenses.

“It certainly was a war zone. We were right on the edge of the green (safe) zone, so there was a heavy military presence. The Iraqis live and work in the red zone. There were always mortar rounds going off and flares or helicopters in the sky. It had its moments, but you get used to it. If it’s your time, heaven forbid, it’s your time, so you all just protect each other and get your mission done so you can get home!

“Honestly, I found deployment to be easy compared to the stress of being in charge of two kids and all the work and schooling I was fitting into each day. It was stressful in a different way.

“My girlfriend took care of my kids at home while I was deployed, and other family members helped out as well.

“Unfortunately, I suffered a non-war-related injury. I developed a massive blood clot after my knee gave out. We were just about to process the entire brigade out to Kuwait and I had to go to the doctor. I was devastated when they said I had to go back home. I hadn’t completed my mission!

“I was the point person taking care of 3,300 soldiers transitioning to Kuwait, and a lot of them looked to me to provide answers on retirement benefits or after-duty orders. I felt I was letting them all down.

“I was medically evacuated back to the U.S., and once back in Madison, I was able to resume my previous job at Truax. Many of my co-workers had been deployed with me, so we had a big support group when we got back. It would be very different having to go back to a civilian job. You try to explain things in the simplest terms, but there’s a lot people here that just wouldn’t understand.

“I completed a degree in psychology in 2015, and retired from the military and enrolled in Edgewood’s one-year accelerated nursing program in 2016.

“Now, I’m better prepared for emergencies because I can shift on a dime if it means taking care of my family or doing what people count on me for. The military taught me to multitask, so I’m always thinking of a plan B, C, or D. I’ve also learned to take more in stride, so if something happens it’s not the end of the world.

“That’s helped me be a good nurse.

“My two degrees [psychology and nursing] were entirely funded by the GI Bill. In Wisconsin, the GI Bill will only pay up to UW–Madison’s tuition costs, but there’s also a Yellow Ribbon program that can help fill in the gap if a select school’s tuition is more than that. I was able to use both programs and I feel so fortunate because all of my non-military cohorts have student loan debt.

“Given all that, I wouldn’t change a thing. Everything has had its reasons and purpose. Was everything wonderful? No, but I helped people here directly. It wasn’t that I did anything special.”



Bartering for benefits

Andrew Shuck

Sales/purchasing, Pure Sweet Honey Farm, Verona
Age: 29
U.S. Army

Prior to enlisting, Andrew Shuck had some difficult early years. Now he’s got a promising future at Pure Sweet Honey Farm in Verona.

“The Army changed my life,” notes Andrew Shuck, who turns 30 at the end of this month. Raised in the Fort McCoy, Wisconsin area, his single mom had a job at the Veterans Hospital and moved him to Middleton as a young teen.

Admittedly, he wasn’t a good student. In fact, he skipped his entire freshman year of high school before enrolling in an alternative school. He graduated in 2007.

Andrew’s story:

“I hadn’t had a lot of direction growing up but I had relatives at the VA Hospital and uncles who were vets.”

“Originally, I wanted to join the Marines, but I was overweight in high school. A Marine recruiter told me to lose 50 to 75 pounds and ‘we’ll talk.’ So I went next door to an Army recruiter who introduced me to my first non-commissioned officer. Well, that guy came to my house three to four days a week and we ran together, we’d do pushups, sit-ups, and he walked me through everything, so when I enlisted, I did so as an E2 private, and was shortly promoted to E3 private first class.

“I married my high school sweetheart right before I got stationed. I listened in on the phone when my first child, Molly, was born, and was able to meet her a couple of months later.

“From late July 2008 through August 2009, my unit was Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ghazni, Afghanistan. It was surreal. You go through a ton of training, but nothing really prepares you for the utter shock of landing in a country most people never get to. If you’re left alone long enough you can’t help but wonder what the heck you’re doing there.

“The scenery and atmosphere is so different. Our FOB was equal parts U.S. military and the Polish army. So there were people in different uniforms under different flags and local nationals. There was a lot to take in for an 18-year-old.

“I was never scared, but I was nervous. You’re going to a war zone, but you aren’t left alone long enough to realize how strange things are. You share space and meals and you all have the same haircut. I think that keeps you from getting too overwhelmed.

“As a unit supply sergeant, I had to make sure we always had enough food, water, ammunition, and basic supplies like soap, radio components, and writing utensils in inventory to plan ahead. I also made sure all the weapons and computers were accounted for.

“We loaded speed bags with food and water to reload missions. If a patrol goes out carrying enough supplies for four days but it’s an eight-day mission, I’d fill up the bags, get in the back of a Chinook helicopter, and off we’d go. When we reached the patrol, the helicopter would get within feet of the ground and we’d slide the bags off to soldiers below us so they could scurry back to their outpost. We came under fire, but I was never in a vehicle that got struck.

“Occasionally, I could arrange a trade with the Polish army. They wanted cardboard boxes to send things home, so I traded tons of boxes in exchange for ‘chem lights’ — the kind that you snap to light up — and extra new socks for my unit. My job was to make sure the guys in my unit had what they needed to do their mission, so I’m proud I figured that trade out.

“I returned home for a year before being deployed to Afghanistan again.

“On my second tour, I was on a much larger base in Sharana. It had an airstrip for small military planes and a mix of all branches of the U.S. military, plus a mix of international troops.

“By then I had a higher rank and more responsibilities. I was in charge of all the ammunition, from 9mm handgun rounds to machine gun rounds, to mortars, and grenades. I had to keep a count of all of it, move truckloads of supplies, restock the missions, and load speed bags. As the units returned, we’d also check them in and out at a front gate.

“If you needed more people, you’d pick up five or six local nationals who got paid to work on the base. Sometimes they picked up trash, or helped load and stack supplies. They were not allowed to handle weapons, but they might load boxes of socks, uniforms, or help stack supplies. They were always watched, but this was their job, and they were happy to earn some kind of income. I’m guessing it was better than what they earned at home, and I’m hoping it made an impact.

“On my second tour, every time you were on duty or on tower watch, you were with one or two U.S. soldiers and one local Afghan military or Afghan police. From my perspective, there was no difference. We all had AK-47s.

“Modern war movies make it seem like there’s action all the time. From my perspective, it might just be 10 percent of the deployment. The other 90 percent is doing your job and waiting for orders or supply refills. There was a lot of hurry up and wait.

“Deciding to get out was tough, but my daughter was a stranger to me, and having grown up without a father, it felt wrong that I was forcing that on my child.

“I immediately found a job with Schwan’s in Tennessee and Kentucky for about a year before transferring up here. I finally decided I’d be cheating myself if I didn’t go to school full time, so I enrolled at Edgewood, using the GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon program. It allowed me to raise a small family, work, and go to school.

“My second daughter was born in 2012.

“I wanted to become a history or social studies teacher and pursued that for about two years before getting divorced and eventually gaining custody of my two girls. At one point, I had three different jobs plus parenting. I switched my major to organizational behavior and leadership, and was lucky that my education credits transferred.

“At the end of 2016, I graduated from Edgewood, cum laude with a 3.5 grade point average. I thought that was pretty good, considering that I went through some stuff.

“Matthew Schroeder at Edgewood connected me with Pure Sweet Honey about five years ago and now I oversee all of our international imports, exports, domestic distribution, sales, and purchasing.

“Looking back, the transition was challenging. In the military, you’re always with someone. When you get out, you don’t necessarily have that built-in support network and that’s difficult to figure out on your own. Frankly, I didn’t know how to act as a civilian and had to relearn how to connect with people.

“There were hard times. For a while I was drinking too much and dealing with anxiety issues. My low point came after my marriage ended. I was renting an apartment. I had no furniture, only a backpack, and I slept in the living room in a sleeping bag with a $3 pillow I bought at Walgreens.

“It took me a year to buy a bed and I pretty much lived off the generosity of others. My friends gave me furniture; my dishes were extras from a restaurant-bar I had worked for. My glassware consisted of pint and old-fashioned glasses that were too scuffed for them to use anymore.

“The food pantry kept me going, but knowing that other people were helping me made me feel obligated to get through it and give back.

“Now I rent a three-bedroom duplex in Middleton. In my extra time, I go to the gym, VFW, and other vet events, and I just started helping two students at my old high school apply for a Voice of Democracy scholarship. I’d like to do more of that.

“Would I do it again? This is the happiest I’ve ever been. My kids are happy and healthy. My girls have it better than I could ever imagine. In that regard, I wouldn’t change anything. I grew up in a trailer park and moved around a lot because my mom was always working.

“Sure, I might have made some changes, but without those experiences I wouldn’t be who I am today. The Army gave me a set of core principles and discipline to succeed that I didn’t have as a kid. It forced me to communicate with Afghans and international soldiers, which all helped. It all came together for me.

“But there are still people over there fighting. The wars are still going on. We can’t forget that.”

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