Last week, 10 soldiers climbed into the cabs of 18-wheelers at the Fort Bragg Fairgrounds and took their first steps toward post-military careers.
A $130,000 federal grant brought Johnston Community College's trucking program an hour's drive down Interstate 95, from Smithfield to Fort Bragg.
The program offers soldiers and their spouses an on-post opportunity to get truck-driver training for careers after the Army.
Students in the Fort Bragg Commercial Truck Driver Course avoid eight weeks of commuting to Smithfield and don't have to pay tuition, which usually is about $1,000.
Instead, they each pay $120 in state fees for their commercial driver licenses.
Some of the trucks for the program were provided by trucking companies. The future graduates expect the program to give them connections with the industry that could lead to jobs.
Spc. Francisco Salazar, from Bakersfield, Calif., hopes the class will help him find work when he leaves the Army after six years of service. The oil industry near his hometown needs drivers, he said.
"I've driven pretty much every truck in the Army," Salazar said, from Humvees to heavily armored mine-resistant vehicles to flat-bed trucks.
But even before he sat in the cab of a full-sized rig Wednesday, Salazar knew there were differences. And these are not just the comfy power seat or the satellite radio to make long days on the highway more pleasant.
The biggest difference: Military vehicles have automatic transmissions, while most civilian trucks have manual transmissions.
Knowing how to work a manual transmission clutch on a car is not enough. A truck driver has to know how to double-clutch to make the gears mesh together correctly. Salazar had learned that before he joined the Army, but he has not used the skill since.
Soldiers who have been taught to drive trucks in the Army can skip the class and attempt to get commercial driver licenses simply by taking the state's driving and knowledge tests. Salazar considered that route but thinks he is better off in the class.
"Right here, we're going to learn a lot more," he said, because the Army needs different skills from its drivers than a trucking company does.
"It's better to go through a class just to get a refresher and to learn more stuff that you may not know just by seeing other people drive," he said.
The first class began learning the rules of the open road Monday. On Wednesday morning, the would-be truckers got behind the wheel and began driving slowly past an obstacle course of old tires, construction barrels and wooden fences.
Fort Bragg, state and college officials and representatives from the trucking industry held a ceremony to celebrate the start of the program.
"One of the governor's primary emphasis areas is to help returning veterans find jobs, and we want to keep the veterans in North Carolina," said Tony Tata, the state secretary of transportation. "So this was just an obvious no-brainer, where you've got a shortage in the trucking industry, and then you've got soldiers that have been driving for years, whether it's in combat or garrison duty or whatever, and they have the skill set. And so this grant was achieved."
The visit was a homecoming of sorts for Tata, who was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division and served as a battalion commander at Fort Bragg.
The trucking industry needs 13,575 to 15,000 drivers in North Carolina and 111,000 nationwide, said Crystal Collins, president of the N.C. Trucking Association. Drivers typically earn $45,000 to $55,000 a year, and good, safe, experienced drivers can earn more than $100,000, she said.
Five classes are planned through September 2014.
Fort Bragg commercial truck driver course
The course is eight weeks of classroom and hands-on training to prepare soldiers and spouses for a civilian truck-driving career.
Five sessions are available through next summer.
Orientation dates: Sept. 30, Dec. 16, Feb. 17, April 21 and June 23
Information: Johnston Community College, 800-691-2220 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Staff writer Paul Woolverton can be reached at email@example.com or 486-3512.