Like a lot of young people, it’s taken some time for National Guard veteran Giselle Ashook to find her professional calling.
After serving in the armed forces, including a deployment to Afghanistan, she stayed on in the reserves, working a lot of odd jobs along the way.
“When I did get out of my deployment, I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind yet; I guess the younger me was trying to find my niche,” said Ashook, who has worked as a server, receptionist, security officer, even in warehouses and doggy daycare.
But now, Ashook is ready to launch her career path as a deaf language specialist and would like to start giving back. And as president of the Veteran’s Club at Pasadena City College, she’s met a lot of fellow veterans who have had a similar experience upon returning home.
Leadership Pasadena is hoping to help guide more veterans like Ashook, who is applying for its new Community Leadership Course in May. The course will be only the second one in the entire country and fills a gap in current military-to-civilian transitional programs for veterans.
“I really hope to learn and grow from it — I learn by doing, so I’m excited about it,” said Ashook, who will attend Cal State Northridge in the fall.
The six-month, community leadership course is for 15-20 military veterans (including National Guard and all Reserves) who have achieved a rank of E4 or higher, now living, working or studying in the San Gabriel Valley, and will help them transition into their new civilian lives through community leadership and service.
“We realized there is a large untapped population of potentially exceptional leaders in our recently returned veterans,” said Leadership Pasadena volunteer Executive Director Cindy Bengtson. “Vets need to know they’re just as important here as they are on the battlefield; they have to have a purpose for getting up in the morning.
“So this really serves a dual purpose. If you’re looking to make outstanding community leaders, why not train leaders we already have?”
Through the course, veterans will learn to “re-mission” their leadership talent to thrive in the civilian world. Whether they want to secure a corporate job, start or join a nonprofit, go back to school or start their own business, the course will explore the civilian leadership culture and build connections with community and business leaders. The nonprofit LP aims to provide veterans with greater access to all aspects of the community and help them repurpose their military experience to become leaders who make an impact in the civilian world.
Army Capt. Dennis Lowe, who recently returned to Pasadena after graduating from West Point, completed two operations in Kuwait and was stationed in Eastern Europe. He is currently enrolled in the MBA program at USC, and has given a lot of thought to the Leadership Pasadena course.
Part of the transition that proves difficult for soldiers coming home, he notes, is the loss of camaraderie and purpose. There is also an etiquette skill set and language that needs to be relearned.
“The clarity of purpose is a little more elusive in the civilian sector than it is in the military — it’s much easier there to tie what you’re doing to a bigger purpose,” said Lowe, a Flintridge Prep graduate who “counts himself lucky” to have had the support of one of his high school best friends at West Point, and also upon returning home together.
Lowe, who plans on going into real estate development, said the LP program can help veterans translate their active duty experiences into common English for corporate America. It’s one of the more common difficulties for former soldiers, he said. When Lowe was stationed abroad, one of his duties was to plan out and set up base camps from nothing, coordinating infrastructure.
“I didn’t think about making the connection at first, but really what I was doing was building development and real estate site planning,” he said. “Leadership Pasadena will bring in a lot of different industry professionals and help people learn that for themselves and help veterans communicate their skill set in a way people will value and understand.”
LP wants to emphasize its mission “to create empowered, informed and inspired leaders for the community,” said program consultant for veteran services Lisa Raggio. While there are some transitional services for veterans, many are focused only on crisis management, and it seems those are often the most known.
“There’s a stigma people have of veterans. They think only of PTSD, but that is so often not even an issue. They’re just disconnected. They don’t know how to reintegrate to be as successful as they can be,” said Raggio, who grew up surrounded by armed forces family members. “The majority of veterans are not looking for help; they are looking for an opportunity. They want to be seen as a population of opportunity.”
For too long, there has been a negative connotation surrounding returning soldiers, she said, referencing a recent report of a high school teacher in Pico Rivera, who was recorded disparaging U.S. veterans during a class. The teacher, now under a school board investigation, called them “the lowest of our low.”
“I was shocked to learn, after talking to a lot of vets, that many of them feel as if they really are viewed that way, which is a tragedy. We are missing out on a serious benefit due to a divide between two communities,” she said. “I’m hoping this will be the beginning of the paradigm shift and that we can highlight these veterans as they were looked upon in the
military — with respect.”
Raggio was integral in helping LP to partner with another nonprofit, Leadership Pittsburgh, to bring the nationally award-winning course to the San Gabriel Valley. Leadership Pittsburgh spent two years researching the transitional needs of returning veterans and has delivered the course for three years, and is making the licensed curriculum available to LP free of charge.
“We are a small charity and could not have created this course alone,” said Raggio, noting that LP is personalizing the course to have a West Coast focus, with specialists from the entertainment, technology and medical sectors slated to speak.
One such speaker who will be sharing his experiences is U.S. Marine Corps. Lt. Col. Garth Massey, who also was the commander of the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment in Pasadena. Massey also runs his own consulting company called MLMethods.
Massey, who teaches leadership and corporate team building skills through consulting, has also seen many programs that focus only on veteran crisis management. “I think we do spend a lot of time on the veterans being disenfranchised, with PTSD, but that’s not been my experience,” he noted.
“What I’m trying to do is bring a perspective of a broader world by exposing veterans to different ideas and helping them create different tracks to find their own combination to achieve bigger goals,” he said. “If you peaked when you hung up your uniform, you have really missed the point of service. It’s what you learn in the military, how to apply your skills, and what else you can learn going forward to build on that. I’d love to do the ‘what’s next’ curriculum.”
The course will focus on helping veterans navigate the civilian and corporate world, covering such topics as “Personal Leadership in the Civilian World,” “Science and Tech in the Region,” “Corporate Landscape,” “Networks and Power of Conversation,” “Business Culture and Organizational Savvy,” among others. Optional workshops on financial literacy and communications also will be offered.
Kim Miller-Anderson, a former Army E4, will also be on board to help teach the course. As co-founder and president of MSK Consulting Services, she helps bring leadership to the financial services industry. Miller-Anderson is looking forward to honing younger veterans into new community leaders.
“There are so many veterans out there who have so much to offer. I want to bring that to the forefront and create a different narrative,” she said. “[The course] really resonates with me because it’s taking a different perspective on veterans… We need to start looking at veterans, not as charity cases but trained leaders with aptitudes and skills that will make a difference in corporate America.”
LP’s Veteran Leadership course applications are now available online. The six-week course, starting May 3, is offered to veterans for $300, with some scholarships available. LP will help place veterans on boards or appropriate volunteer positions at diverse nonprofits. Veterans or companies interested in sponsoring a session, provide a scholarship for a veteran or enroll one of their own employees, should contact Cindy Bengston at email@example.com. Applications will be accepted until April 1. For more information, visit leadershippasadena.org.