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RADM Dixon Smith on Transitioning VETS

Driving aboard the Navy base at Sewell’s Point to meet Rear Admiral Dixon Smith, one notices fewer Sailors and the effects of extended deployments. Admiral Smith is the Commander of the Mid-Atlantic Region.  As regional commander, Smith is responsible for the operation of Navy installations in 13 states from North Carolina to Maine, providing support programs and services for the fleet, fighter and family. He understands the importance and brings energy and experience to the topic of transitioning and hiring veterans. While serving tours as regional commander in Hawaii and the Navy’s Southwest Region headquartered in San Diego, Smith has seen two other areas involved in the challenge of retaining transitioning veterans.  He shared that Admiral John Harvey, U.S. Navy, retired, and now the Virginia Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security was in his office the week prior and this discussion included transitioning veterans.

The Admiral immediately crystallized the issue. “The veterans don’t know where to go to find the jobs, and the companies don’t know where to go to find the veterans.” Each year, nearly 10,000 Sailors from Hampton Roads units retire or transition from the service.  Of those, the service estimates 3,000 will stay in the area.  Smith says there is incredibly positive energy to seek solutions to retain and employ transitioning veterans in Hampton Roads. He also understands that the Navy is “not set up to be easy or convenient for the job market.” Smith is confident, however, of a collaborative solution to help both sides find each other and is a champion of the effort. 

Smith knows the process can be better, desiring to see the transition programs maintain pace with the fast changing business world, especially since most veterans will wind up working at small businesses as opposed to large publicly traded corporations. He experiences first-hand the hundreds of organizations looking for veterans and knows that the Navy is “not set up to let them all in the door” to meet with veterans. And given the crushing op-tempo, today’s service members can’t wade through the endless number of organizations that want to help, and determine the one that’s right for them.

He knows there is a lot of goodwill out there, but believes the community needs to come together and collaborate among the many organizations, subordinating their individual interests to send the Sailor to the right place. The question isn’t “how can you not hire a vet, it’s how do you get to them.” He’s concerned that it’s a daunting task for a 23-year-old to look through two pages of websites and decide which one will help them.

So what’s the answer? The Admiral says a couple of initiatives he has seen across the country may be potential road maps for the way ahead. The single theme that emerges shows success is achieved more often in public private partnerships.  And the most successful initiatives leverage existing programs while removing stovepipes, and engaging the business community to help solve the issue. 

What can the DoD do to help veterans convert their specialty into a certification that provides a higher market value for their experience? Admiral Smith shares that the DoD has worked hard to develop the Joint Services Transcript to show equivalent credits, like the Marine Main Propulsion specialty. But not all the schools take those credits, and some of those schools are the ones the transitioning service member should be attending. While the primary transition class, called Transition GPS (Goals, Plans, Success), is becoming more robust than its predecessor, “we still have to reach that person a year before he or she gets out,” and “not the week before they go on terminal leave.” This is so they have time to make sure they have their certifications and they can figure out which industry values them. He also points to a program that recognizes the change in self-interest of a veteran. The concept addresses the fact that individuals enter the service with a healthy sense of “I” and the services replace that with the team concept of “we.” And while teamwork is important in business and the services, veterans competing for positions in the business community, often need to relearn the notion of rational self-interest.

If the VSRA could change one thing about their approach to finding veterans, Admiral Smith would advise them to look at a mentorship program. Businesses love the veteran when they meet them, and they want them to succeed. The VSRA should build personal relationships with individual Sailors and help them navigate the business world. Meet with the individual and take them to the yard and show them around. Yet he immediately recognizes the challenge with this from DoD’s perspective. For example, giving them time off on the taxpayer dollar is not an option. And he recognizes this is not a wholesale solution, it’s an individual solution.

Admiral Smith said improving the odds of transitioning service members and the Hampton Roads business community finding each other “is a tough nut to crack. If it was easy we would have already solved it. We know [veterans] will be valuable to any business. We need to eliminate the stovepipes, put down our individual interests and do this as a group, because otherwise it’s too confusing of a world, and [the service members] don’t know where to go, and don’t know where to start.”



Marcus Boggs is a government contract specialist with Wells Fargo Bank in Norfolk.




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