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Program Aims To Transition Veterans Back To Daily Life

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(credit: CBS) Rachel Slavik
Rachel Slavik joined the WCCO team in October of 2010 and is thrill...
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — As our service men and women return home from their tours of duty, falling back into a daily routine can be a difficult challenge. That’s especially true on the job front, whether it’s returning to work or finding employment.

Now, companies and the National Guard are making an effort to make that transition easier on veterans.

As a 17-year veteran of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, you can hardly call Barry Heikkinen a rookie, but this seasoned deputy is learning the ropes.

“Everybody gives me heck being the new guy,” said Barry Heikkinen, a veteran who works in the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.

Deputy Heikkinen just returned to work after 10 months in Afghanistan with the Army Reserve.

“I was nervous. There’s been a lot of changes around the sheriff’s office,” said Heikkinen.

To ease the transition, the sheriff’s office implemented a program in 2009 called SMART, or Sheriff’s Military Activation, Reintegration and Training.

“This came from our military vets. Deputies who’ve deployed, who we talked to, we asked where’s the disconnect,” said Sheriff Rich Stanek of Hennepin Couinty.

The program includes retraining in all areas of the job, from policies and procedures to technology and changes in the law. Heikkinen will undergo three weeks of patrol training, but he was also assigned a mentor who helped reacquaint him to the department.

It’s a resource that wasn’t available during his 2006 deployment.

“It was stressful returning because it’s up to you to figure out that additional stuff. You’re trying to fit in at home and trying to fit in at work,” said Heikkinen.

With more than 2,700 Minnesota soldiers slated to return home in 2012, it’s not just the sheriff’s office that is focusing on veterans in the workforce.

The Minnesota National Guard is also revamping its employment resources. It’s focus is on finding jobs.

“On the soldier side it’s been a mentality shift, as well, to really help them think about it before rather than when they come home. We want them to start thinking about that before they leave country,” said Captain Ron Jarvi of the Minnesota National Guard.

It’s estimated that 19 percent of Minnesota Guard members are concerned about job placement when they return. That’s why the guard is partnering with dozens of other agencies, coordinating resources and finding potential employers.

In the coming days, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development will help roll out a new three step program aimed at streamlining the job search for returning soldiers. The program will provide job assessment and referral opportunities, help them create a career goal, and post a resume on MinnesotaWorks.net.

“We do struggle with this and we’re working very hard at this.  We’re doing things in Minnesota they aren’t doing in other states,” said James Finley, of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

The SMART program also includes supplemental pay and resources for the family while the soldier is away.

For more information on job opportunities for veterans, log onto PositivelyMinnesota.com.

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