S.F. Job Fair Helps Iraq, Afghanistan Vets

San Francisco Chronicle

September 10, 2008 – Sean Scharf, a Marine veteran of two tours in Iraq, is looking for a job.

He might want to be a police officer. But he also wants to study engineering. He’s worked security. He’s worked for a junkyard and a home improvement store. Before that, he drove an armored vehicle and fought insurgents in Iraq’s Anbar province, back when it was really rough.

Right now, he’s a little unfocused, which is not uncommon for military veterans who are trying to make a transition back into the civilian workforce. That’s why he spent time Tuesday at a job fair for veterans, put on by the group Swords to Plowshares.

“When I first got out of the Marines, I went back to my old job to see if I could get work there again,” he said. “Their attitude was like, ‘Oh, you’re just back from the military? Are you messed up from Agent Orange or anything?’

“A lot of people aren’t familiar with veterans or their issues. All they know is what they got from movies about the war in Vietnam.”

Scharf was one of about 100 veterans who showed up at San Francisco’s War Memorial building, across the street from City Hall, to attend the first-ever job fair sponsored by the nonprofit organization that deals with veterans’ issues, working primarily with veterans who are homeless, or have drug or alcohol problems.

Dave Lopez, director of training and employment services for Swords, said there’s a great need for employment programs for veterans, considering the multitudes who are getting discharges after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, or generally in the “Global War on Terror,” also known as “GWOT.”

“Because of the kind of work that Swords does, we felt it was time to step up to the plate,” Lopez said. “We went around and asked a bunch of employers to come here to talk to the vets, and no one said no.”

Lopez said a lot of veterans don’t realize the importance of the job skills they learned in the military.

“It pains me to talk to some young guy who says, ‘I was just a grunt,’ ” he said. “Even as a grunt, you learned about leadership and working as a team. You have some very good skills that employers are looking for.”

The job fair had about 30 employers, the majority of which were police departments, security firms and construction businesses. A handful of banks, retail operations and companies such as Pacific Gas and Electric Co. were also there.

Scharf, a San Jose resident who served from 2000 to 2005, drove a Light Armored Vehicle during the invasion of Iraq and served on the personal security detail for Marine Gen. James Mattis on his second tour. He said he had some trouble holding onto jobs when he first got out of the Marines, but he’s ready to buckle down and work hard, and keep his college studies going at the same time.

“I decided on engineering because I think I’d like to build things at this stage of my life, instead of blowing them up,” he said.

Julius Briggs, a 52-year-old former career soldier, has worked mostly security jobs since he retired from the Army in 1996. He took some time off recently to go back home to Gary, Ind., and reconnect with his family. Now he’s back in San Francisco looking for work.

“There are a lot of security jobs that I could get that pay $9 an hour,” he said. “But I’m qualified for the higher-level jobs, the better paying ones. That’s what I’m looking for.”

Briggs said being a veteran is both a blessing and a curse when looking for a job. He said he finds employers in the Bay Area to be very respectful of veterans, more so than in other parts of the country. But there is still the mystique of the former military person that some people fear, or simply don’t understand.

Scharf said finding a good and meaningful job is important for veterans who want to remain in the civilian world. All too often, he said, veterans have trouble adjusting to civilian life, and before they can really get into a rhythm, they decide to chuck it all and re-enlist because the military is the only place they feel comfortable.

“That’s when you have to call your buddy so he can remind you of all the reasons you got out to begin with,” he said.

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