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Job expo aims to help veterans make switch to civilian life

With help from the Army, Tenzing Rapgyal got a degree. He looked for work at a job fair in Dorchester yesterday. With help from the Army, Tenzing Rapgyal got a degree. He looked for work at a job fair in Dorchester yesterday. (Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff)
By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / March 30, 2011

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Justin Chappell was a squad leader in the war in Afghanistan, an infantryman assigned to Taliban strongholds in Kunar Province to drive out warlords.

“The infantryman’s job is to fire at the enemy and then kill them,’’ said Chappell bluntly.

Now back after a four-year tour of duty, Chappell is trying to find a civilian job, and yesterday he was doing that with some 350 others at a career expo aimed at giving former and current service members a chance to meet with company recruiters, fill out job applications, and start a new career path in civilian life.

“I’d like to get a job with the federal government — just not one in the military,’’ said Chap pell, who stopped by the Customs and Border Protection recruiting desk during his short stay at the expo. “I’d like something close to what I used to do — searching for the bad guys.’’

The road back to everyday work can be rocky for service members. At yesterday’s career expo, held in a massive hall at International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers offices in Dorchester, men and women trained by the military in such fields as behavioral health, communications, and airplane mechanics said they can’t find similar work outside the military.

Organizers of the career expo, now in its third year, say their goal is to get companies to see the value of employing people who have risked their lives in service of their country.

“For a lot of these men and women it was their first time meeting with a recruiter,’’ said Clifford “Scoop’’ Davis, one of the organizers. “You take a kid pounding the sand in Iraq and carrying a machine gun over his shoulders and ask, how does that equate to an office job?’’

Discipline, leadership, and a good work ethic are skills that can be applied to policing, management, even sales, said Davis, who heads the Non-Commissioned Officers Association, which works to enhance the quality of life for returning troops.

Recruiters from 28 companies, including Northrop Grumman Corp., Boston Police Department, Sears, the Art Institute, and Bartlett Nuclear Inc., were at the career expo.

“A lot of the guys who are back want to go into law enforcement after the military,’’ said Dudre Begon, a Customs and Border Protection officer, who took in 40 applications yesterday.

The Non-Commissioned Officers Association was established in 1960 to fight for the rights of service members and offer services and benefits that improve their lives. The group teamed with Military.com, the largest military and veteran online group, to hold the event. Davis said 250,000 members will leave the armed forces this year, and they will need civilian jobs, making the pitch for their employment all the more urgent.

Clutching a stack of brochures, Albert Marquez, a former Marine, said he served four years in Iraq leading a communications team that set down cables for different battalions to communicate with one another. But when his service ended in 2006, he said, he could find work only as a security guard.

“To me, that was beneath me. I was a sergeant, basically a supervisor, who was managing 30 people,’’ said Marquez, a 27-year-old Norwood resident. “I was just entry level. It doesn’t make any sense to me.’’

Christina Smith said she was trained as a behavioral health specialist in the Army Reserves and counseled and assessed soldiers with depression, suicidal thoughts, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But now she needs a license and more schooling for such work.

“There is a lot of stuff that I could do that would be better,’’ said Smith of her current entry-level job as a case manager for a nonprofit. “But no one is hiring.’’

Tenzing Rapgyal left active duty in the Army in 2007 after serving two tours in Iraq, including during the first war. In the Iraq War, he was an engineer who surveyed land for construction, sampled soil, and built camps for soldiers. But when he came home, Rapgyal, who also served in Kuwait and Cuba, could not find similar work because he did not have a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.

He promptly enlisted in the Army Reserve, went back to college, and got a degree in environmental science. He wants a job in the field, but also looked at law enforcement opportunities.

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com.