Trading body armor for a chef's cap
By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 22, 2013
WASHINGTON — Miyoko Hikiji drove convoy trucks in Iraq for a year, but she couldn’t get a modeling job with a military supply company because they thought she didn’t look like a soldier.
“I was the only person at that audition who could handle and fire an M16. But apparently I wasn’t believable enough,” the nine-year Army veteran said.
“They picked a guy who was more of a bodybuilder type, more of the stereotype of what you think a soldier looks like. I’ve been in the business long enough to know it’s all about the right look, but even my agent was surprised. There are a lot of veterans who look like me.”
Hikiji said she doesn’t worry about one lost modeling contract. She’s usually pegged as stand-in for a twenty-something mother, fitting the industry ideal of a friendly housewife.
But she does worry that the narrow image of today’s veterans stretches further than audition rooms and magazine pages, and she doesn’t fit the picture.
“When I wander out for my Veterans Day discounts I get glances that I’m just a gal trying to get a free meal instead of a real veteran,” the 36-year-old said.
“I’ve actually had people say to me, ‘You’re too pretty to have been a soldier.’ They think it’s a compliment, but it’s offensive.”
As servicemembers return from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, they’re discovering a country that sees veterans as older, battle-scarred men who made their second career through more hard labor. Modeling for Better Homes and Gardens — which Hikiji has done — doesn’t match the stereotype.
Hikiji and her peers think it should. “Being a soldier was part of my life, but not all of it,” she said. “I joined to help pay for college. Now Ihave a new career that I’m just as serious about. It’s really not that strange.”
Stashed away with her old Army uniform are two Army Commendation Medals and her Global War on Terrorism Service awards, proof that she hasn’t always been the housewife the neighbors now see.
“Civilians associate soldiers with rough, tough, tattoos, scars, bad language, bad manners. People are thinking too simply, not seeing veterans as whole people with other interests and hobbies.”
'I went from fighting to baking'
According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, almost one in four veterans working today has a government job. About one in five works in manufacturing or construction. Industry leaders from transportation companies, utilities and security firms have touted how seamlessly military skills translate to their workforce.
Mike Smetak, who did three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, became a pastry chef.
“My buddies outside the military, they think it’s hilarious that I went from fighting to baking,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense to them. To me it does, People forget there are cooks in the Army too.”
Smetak said at 18 he had an interest in becoming a chef but no money to pay for training. He signed up to become a soldier and worked his way into the services culinary posts. Between security patrols and logistics work, Smetak refined his cooking skills.
“During my deployment to Tikrit, I figured out how to make doughnuts with some makeshift supplies. I had Blackhawks making midnight runs to our (base) just to pick up the latest batch.”
The experience helped him land at the Culinary Institute of America, where most of his 19-year-old classmates couldn’t understand why a veteran was pursuing such peaceful work. When he landed a job with Balthazar Bakery in New Jersey two years ago, his co-workers had similar jokes and questions.
Smetak’s planning and storage supply work from the Army translates perfectly to running a large bakery. He’s used to working as part of a team, and used to following a mission plan to accomplish the day’s goals.
The only weird part, he said, is that people don’t see warfighters as chefs.
“Yes, I used to work with a rifle, and now I’m whisking eggs,” he said. “There’s almost an expectation that you’ll follow the stereotype, that you’ll come back to civilian life and follow the rules but still be someone else.
“There’s a joy in providing food to others. I feel like I’m servingothers, in much the same way as I did in the military.”
From a scout's life to scripture
John Murphy used to jump out of planes as an airborne infantryman. Now he builds churches.
“I’m not a pacifist now,” the Christian minister said. “People are shocked when they hear I was in the Army and assume that now I’ve rejected that.
“But that’s not the model I see in scripture. My past is not a conflict for me.”
Murphy spent almost eight years in the Army, and in 2005 was a scout sniper in Iraq. He had hoped to make it a career, but a bad jump a year later left him injured and unable to work in a war zone.
His unit took several casualties on their next deployment, and “it left me wracked with guilt,” Murphy said.
“I felt lost. I knew I couldn’t help, I knew I was leaving the military, but I didn’t know how I’d function in the civilian world.”
His religion helped stabilize his life. It gave him new friends, new goals and a sense of higher purpose. He started becoming more active in his local church, then started to look into Christian outreach programs.
He has spent most of the last year traveling around the country, learning how to establish his own church. He’s working now on establishing a Christian community in Fayetteville, N.C., one that caters to military personnel and veterans with similar backgrounds.
Murphy laughs that it’s almost a cliched tale of faith saving a lost soul, and yet the military twist in his life story make it seem foreign and implausible.
“I’ve gotten pushback inside the church, I’ve gotten pushback outside the church,” he said. “There’s a caricature of what a pastor looks like, and veterans don’t fit that.”
“Most people, once they hear my story, they understand. But it’s always a shock when they first find out I was in the Army. That’s part of why I want to plant a church that engages local troops, to help bring them that sense of faith and community.”