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First lady gives vets and spouses a pep talk on jobs

By Susan Essoyan

LAST UPDATED: 1:38 a.m. HST, Nov 15, 2011

First lady Michelle Obama, appearing Monday at a "Hiring Our Heroes" job fair at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, pumped up the crowd by assuring veterans and military spouses that "America has your back" as they leave the service.

"For a lot of folks, making the transition to civilian life is hard, especially in the midst of a tough economy," Obama said. "I know it can be daunting and incredibly stressful to walk away from an institution where you have invested so much of yourselves. ...

"Here is something else that I know: I know that all of you are some of the highest-skilled, hardest-working, most dedicated employees that we have in this country. And that's important for this country to know. ... We've issued a simple challenge to America's businesses. We've asked them to step up and hire as many veterans and military spouses as they can. And I have to tell you that the response has been overwhelming."

The crowd, some in uniform and some toting children, waited patiently for the first lady's midafternoon arrival on the lawn outside the Hickam Officers' Club. After standing in the sun for nearly an hour, listening to an Air Force band play pop tunes, they erupted in cheers at the sight of her. After she spoke, Obama delighted the crowd by stepping down and reaching out to shake hands and greet people, lingering along the rope line as cameras and cellphones were held aloft to catch the moment.

"She was phenomenal, as I expected her to be," said Lanese Claibourn, a mother of four who got to greet the first lady in person. "I'm really glad to have had an opportunity to meet her."

Claibourn said her husband is about to retire as a staff sergeant from the Army after 23 years and that she will be looking to resume a career in human resources, so the job fair came at a perfect time for their family. While they were at the fair that morning, she said, he received an email with a job offer.

"It is good to know there are so many people out there who are willing to hire a vet," Claibourn said.

Obama's appearance was in conjunction with the job fair sponsored by the U.S. and Hawaii Chambers of Commerce, one of 100 being held across the country this year to help veterans and military family members land jobs. The job fair featured 53 employers, from E Noa Tours to Bank of Hawaii to GameStop, and more than 500 people came to check it out.

So far, 68 fairs have been held across the country, and 3,600 people have found jobs, said Kevin Schmiegel, vice president of veterans employment programs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Next year it hopes to hold 400 such fairs, he said.

"Iraq and Afghanistan vets are suffering from 12 percent unemployment, and 1 out of 4 military spouses is unemployed," Schmiegel told the crowd. "That in my mind is unacceptable."

With tens of thousands of troops returning, he added, "it's only going to get worse unless we take decisive action now."

Schmiegel, who retired two years ago from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel, said the job fairs set off ripples that spread through local communities.

"What you see is not just success at the hiring fairs in terms of placements, but the creation of a movement across the country," he said. "When the tables are folded up and the chairs are put away ... all these employers become engaged on this issue of hiring veterans and military spouses, not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it's right for business."

Obama praised the chamber's efforts and said she and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, are working to rally the country to support veterans through their "Joining Forces" campaign.

"So if there's one thing I want you all to know today -- and I want every veteran out there and every spouse and family to know -- is that America does have your back," Obama said. "America has your back."

Earlier in the day, Pfcs. Bianca Zurita and Alysha Toguchi walked from booth to booth at the fair, looking for work to supplement their part-time positions as mechanics in the Army National Guard. They said they were flexible, and noted that most positions were in customer service.

"I need a job," said Zurita, 25, a Kapolei resident with a degree in media management. "I'm pretty open -- anything that's open."

The two friends stopped to fill out applications with E Noa Tours, which was looking for customer service representatives and Waikiki Trolley drivers. The man behind the table, Vincent Cervantes, a sales and marketing representative for E Noa, said service members make attractive employees.

"Basically it's the discipline and experience they have -- most of them already drive large vehicles -- and also their commitment," said Cervantes, a veteran himself.

Ross Cohen, who served as an enlisted man in Afghanistan and works with Schmiegel at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, agreed that military skills are valuable in the civilian sector.

"For the guys I served with, the skills we learned -- being able to work well in teams, being able to think creatively on the spot, being dedicated -- are all things that employers want. It's just a matter of translating those skills to civilian employers. The role the chamber is playing is just being a bridge."

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