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Retired Marines transition to civilian work with TWEAC program

After 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, Rodney Neal retired Oct. 31 at 38.

A gunnery sergeant who had been deployed overseas, done special operations and worked in logistics most of his career, Neal had skills that he knew could land him a job.

But he didn't know how to explain those to skills to civilian employers unfamiliar with military jargon.

"Anyone can talk the talk," he said. "But it's not easy putting the words to paper and getting it out there."

Neal put together a chronological resume, as he was taught to do in a course at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. It didn't get him far.

So he turned to Dwight Hora, an old Marine buddy who is the military workforce liaison for Transitional Workforce Educational Assistance Collaborative. They reworked the resume, and Neal wound up with three offers. He is now managing inventory for Grayco's Lady's Island location, an opening Hora told him about.

The Lowcountry Economic Alliance and the city of Beaufort teamed up in 2012 to create TWEAC. The program was intended to find job and training opportunities for people leaving the military, with the aim of keeping them in Beaufort. It was also set up to create tailored training programs for companies.

Although the program was pitched as a way to entice companies to come to the Beaufort Commerce Park and have a pool of specially trained employees, that part of TWEAC is mostly on hold, Hora said. No new companies have moved to the park since the city bought it for $1.85 million in spring 2012.

However, Hargra has set up an internship program for exiting military members, and some other local companies are interested in replicating that program, Hora said.

Each year, about 1,000 military personnel depart Beaufort County's three bases -- the air station, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and Naval Hospital Beaufort, Hora said. Only about 100 to 150 of them are retiring with a pension.

"The other 850, they're leaving with nothing," he said. "These are the guys who need to make $14, $15, $16 an hour."

Barry Roberts, 44, took a job as the parent-military liaison at Lady's Island Middle School after the position he originally applied for at the school was offered to someone else. It's a world apart from the staff sergeant's previous work in avionics at the air station, but he loves it.

"I had 110 vacation days at the end of my career," the father of six said. "All I wanted to do was take the kids to school. But once I started applying for jobs, I realized it wasn't easy."

Hora worked with Roberts on his resume, as well, translating military experience into civilian work. Without the help, Roberts said, he wouldn't be working at the school.

"I'd be working, it's just a question of where," he said. "But I'd probably be miserable, and I love my job now."

Besides tweaking resumes, assisting with job searches and collaborating with the military bases' transition programs, Hora said he helps exiting military members transition mentally and emotionally.

"Whenever I sit down with an individual, I always talk with them first about their goals and what they want to do, what they want to make, how they want to support their families," he said. "...When you sit down with military members and let them know they're not alone, that's when their tension relaxes."

Roberts laughed and likened the stress of exiting and transitioning to a duck.

"Calm on the surface and paddling furiously underneath," he said.

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