— When Mathew Vance began looking for a job in Hampton Roads, he had plenty of experience to sell.
The 30-year-old Wyoming native had been a combat medic in the Army and later in the Texas Army National Guard. He had deployed twice to Iraq, first as a ground medic in 2003 and then in 2008, running medevac missions in a Blackhawk. He spent a few years instructing young soldiers. He had leadership experience as a platoon sergeant.
But after moving here with his Air Force wife, he applied for at least 50 jobs and struck out every time. The health care field seemed a natural given his background, but he didn't have the required schooling or certification.
"I have those skills," he said. "I just didn't have something on a transcript."
After six months of searching, he happened upon a pilot program from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that was operating at just 15 VA medical centers in the country. But one of them was in Hampton.
Today, Vance is an Intermediate Care Technician in the emergency room of the Hampton VA Medical Center. The job title and duty was created specifically for this one-year pilot, which seeks to employ recently discharged Army medics, Navy corpsmen, Coast Guard hospital corpsmen and Air Force med techs who might face administrative hurdles when seeking to use their skills in the civilian world.
Dr. Janet Henderson said she jumped at the chance for Hampton to be one of the first 15 VA medical centers. Henderson, chief of medicine and director of the emergency department, said it wasn't easy to carve out a completely new job, but it was worth it. The VA allotted $2.7 million for the 15 pilot projects.
"It's an odd position because they're not nursing and they're not physicians," she said. "We're trying to allow them to use some of the advanced skills they have."
Vance's six-month odyssey to find a job is part of a nationwide problem. Many discharged service members have legitimate skills but lack the necessary paperwork or degree to compete for a civilian job.
The problem is not limited to health care, as evidenced by other efforts.
Troops to Teachers is a Department of Defense program that recruits former service members to teach in high-need subjects such as math, science and special education. It is not a teacher certification program, but it provides stipends and bonuses for veterans to pursue certification and teach in schools where they are most needed.
Helmets to Hardhats, a national, nonprofit program, steers veterans toward jobs in the construction industry, many connected to federally approved apprenticeship training programs.
The Virginia General Assembly has also tackled the issue. In 2012, lawmakers approved a measure directing the Department of Motor Vehicles to consider military training and experience for commercial driver's license applicants.
Vance learned his medical skills during that first rugged, 15-month deployment to Iraq. He didn't like the job at first, but grew to love it. Likewise, the emergency room staff at the Hampton VA didn't know what to expect when Vance joined their team.
"The staff loves them," said Henderson. "I think there was a little hesitation at first, in terms of how they were going function. We've slowly eased them into the role. They're doing well."
The workload and the drama of Hampton's ER is far cry from the battlefields of Iraq or flying missions in a Blackjack chopper. Vance said he doesn't mind the new routine. If a nurse has several patients, he can step in after the initial assessment and begin to work while the nurse moves on to the next patient.
"We kind of do the grunt work," he said. "It makes the whole ER flow smoother. We get to a lot of patients more quickly."
Vance began work at the Hampton VA in December. A few other former service members are also enrolled in the Hampton program. The intent, said Henderson, is for them to continue to work for the VA after the one-year pilot ends. They will move over to the nursing department as full-time permanent employees. Meanwhile, they can further their education via the post 9/11 G.I. Bill.
Vance said he eventually wants to return to flight medicine, but in the meantime, he's enjoying his new role.
"This is the first job in a long time that I've looked forward to," he said.