Marine veterans give service members a chance to recycle their skills while cleaning beaches
By ERIKA I. RITCHIE | The Orange County Register | Published: September 16, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — When Kyle Hansen was recovering in a Wounded Warrior Battalion rehabilitation center at Camp Pendleton, he knew his injuries from being seriously burned in a training accident would later force him to go from the infantry to a desk job.
And that wasn’t why he joined the Marine Corps — in 2014 right out of Laguna Hills High School.
The severity of his injuries led to his medical discharge, and he quickly realized when he left the structured day-to-day life of the Marine Corps navigating the civilian world wouldn’t be as easy as he thought. But through a company he started with his friend, Andrew Levin, another Marine also returning to life as a civilian, Hansen found a new purpose of service.
With their company, Recycle for Veterans, the two Marine corporals combine their respect for the environment and their interest in preserving the planet with their desire to help fellow service members succeed outside of the military. Each year, nearly 35,000 Marines transition from the Marine Corps to civilian life. At Camp Pendleton, it’s about 9,000 annually — 77% of those after completing a four- or five-year contract, according to military officials.
Hansen and Levin, who attended El Toro High School, both had dreams of becoming infantry Marines. They met at the Mission Viejo Marine Corps Recruit Depot and bonded over their shared goal. They worked out and became stronger together before heading to boot camp and later the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton.
“I want to serve in the infantry because I wanted to protect our communities,” Hansen said. “If there was a chance my country needed someone to fight for our freedoms, I was ready to do so.”
They were assigned to different units: Hansen as a squad leader with the 1st Battalion/1st Marines and Levin as a machinegunner for the 3rd Battalion/5th Marines.
Then in 2017, Hansen was riding with 13 other Marines and a sailor in an amphibious assault vehicle during a pre-deployment training exercise when it drove over an uncovered gas line at Camp Pendleton and blew up. Hansen was critically burned and had a brain injury and spent the next year recovering.
When Hansen and Levin left the Marines in 2018, they found while highly trained for their infantry jobs, transitioning from years of following orders and working in a rigorously structured environment was challenging.
“I realized I had to start a whole new life for myself,” said Hansen, 25. “I didn’t want to have to do this, but with no further future in the Marines, I needed to find a new purpose for my life. This gave me the idea for Recycle for Veterans. I found myself excited to wake up for work again. I found my new purpose.”
Recycle for Veterans is a company the two Marines started together. Their own experiences led them to realize that while Marines are highly skilled at what they do, finding a way to recycle those skills in the civilian world is critical if they want to succeed. Their mission focuses on cleaning up beaches and using their motivated, mission-oriented and attention-to-detail work ethic to make a difference in the community and the world. They make their money by selling T-shirts made from recycled products.
But with the cleanups comes another twist. By partnering with local companies — especially those dedicated to the environment — it provides exposure for veterans and active-duty military members to meet up with the CEOs, hiring managers and other civilians that could help them land a new job.
“When service members get out they assume that they’re going to be hired because they’re veterans when that simply isn’t the case,” Levin said. “But, it’s pretty difficult when you’ve done one thing with such great magnitude for four years or 20 years, it isn’t just your job, it becomes your life. It takes years to reintegrate. It’s like two different worlds.
“Marine Corps is based on life-and-death decisions. There is rank and structure,” the 25-year-old said. “Inherently everything you do has more weight. In the civilian world, there’s no one to hold your hand and tell you what to do.”
The beach cleanups, they found, created a bridge for the veterans and civilians.
“When they’re together cleaning the beach, they meet each other on a whole different level,” said Hansen.
In Recycle for Veterans’ first year, more than a dozen service members have found new jobs. They’ve also done 14 beach cleanups and removed nearly 3,000 pounds of trash from beaches in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties. They’ve partnered with more than 30 companies for cleanups and marketing in and outside of California and have donated more than $2,500 to veteran charities.
As an example of success, they point to Better Earth Solar, a Los Angeles-solar energy provider that has become a stalwart partner.
The company has hired a handful of Marine veterans, including Trent Allison, 24, of Bakersfield, who also served with the 1st Battalion/1st Marines at Camp Pendleton.
Like Hansen and Levin, he, too, found the skills he learned as an infantryman were not easy to transfer once out of the service. Like the others, he, also, joined the Marines right out of high school in 2014.
“I was part of the 9/11 generation and saw it all happen on TV,” he said.
“I joined to get a solid foundation for the future,” he added. “And, I joined the infantry because I wanted to be in all the way.”
After getting out in 2018, and bouncing around a bit, he ended up back in Bakersfield and started working for a solar company. Hansen contacted him and told him about Recycle For Veterans and Better Earth.
Now, Allison not only works for Better Earth, but heads up the company’s veteran’s division. He oversees a group of Marines being trained for sales positions.
“For veterans getting out is scary,” Allison said. “When you have a network like this and you can come in and have the brotherhood and the camaraderie we had in the military, you can’t put a price on that. That’s what you miss the most, and you really can’t find that in the outside world.”
And, while that’s good for the veterans, their sense of teamwork also pays off dividends for their employers, he said.
“We try to uphold the ethics we’ve learned in the Marine Corps,” Allison said. “As sales reps, we bring integrity, honesty and transparency. We’re highly motivated and tasked-oriented individuals.”
Zain Jan, CEO of Better Earth, said he was instantly impressed with Hansen and Levin when he met them during a podcast his company was hosting on helping the environment.
“They’re extremely active, which is so important when you’re in the field,” Jan said. “It’s hard to transition people to that when they are used to desk jobs. The veterans are used to disciplined schedules. It’s a perfect pairing. It’s the best type of talent you can get.”
Hansen and Levin are working hard on creating more partnerships with new companies. This month, they held a cleanup at Belmont Memorial Pier in Long Beach and collected nearly 300 pounds of trash. On Oct. 3, they have another cleanup planned in Oceanside, and they have another one planned at a beach in Washington in November.
Like with many other events, the coronavirus has impacted their efforts, but they are working with all the required social distancing measures in place, they said.
Hansen, who still deals with the injuries he sustained in the AAV explosion, including the effects of his brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, said Recycle for Veterans has been his inspiration.
“I take everything day-by-day when it comes to coping with my physical and mental injuries,” he said. “Working on this keeps me going.”
He and Levin want to take their efforts national and bring together as many veterans and civilian companies as possible.
“I got a second chance,” Hansen said. “I want to make the best of living. There’s plenty I can still do to serve my country and community.
“I was a squad leader then. I want to be that leader now.”