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Artilleryman Rickey Mitchell transitions to civilian life

The ACAP program is an important stepping stone for soldiers

Rickey Mitchell's Army knowledge and experience with high mobility artillery rocket systems qualified him for a contract to assist Jordanian artillery battalion in its transition to HIMARS. Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Mark Miranda

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JOINT BASE LEWIS MCCHORD, Wash. - Dressed comfortably in a track suit, Rickey Mitchell smiles happily as his youngest daughter, Rianna, chooses accessories for her new toy at the custom teddy bear shop. After a while, Rianna and her friends parade around the store with their plush creations in celebration of her fifth birthday.

Mitchell is happy to spend time with her before he makes a trip overseas to work in Jordan for a year. His stepchildren, Steven and Nathalie, are busy capturing photos of the party on their phones while his wife, Claudia, tends to their 9-year-old son, Jahrese.

Many parents of the party guests are active duty military, and Mitchell spoke with them about his struggle to find work after retiring from 23 years of Army service.

His Army career began like countless others. Mitchell, 41, grew up in Sardis, Miss. He was taking classes to prepare for a four-year university but college expenses were a major concern, so Mitchell enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves in 1989. Tall and athletic, he ran track and played football in high school, and knew he could handle being a soldier.

"My family encouraged me because it offered different opportunities that I probably wouldn't have been offered if I decided to stay local and apply for college funding," Mitchell said.

After a year, Mitchell requested to go active-duty. He changed his military occupational specialty from combat engineer to multiple launch rocket system operations/fire direction specialist.

During his career, he deployed to hot spots in Yugoslavia and twice to Iraq. Mitchell retired as a staff sergeant but not before earning a bachelor's degree in organizational management with Ashford University.

With transition looming, Mitchell attended classes through the Army Career and Alumni Program.

"The resume writing classes were helpful, so were the workshops and the three-day transitioning briefing. My transition consultant advised everyone in the class to open a LinkedIn account to be connected, because that is where the country is headed," Mitchell said. "When it comes time for the job hunt who you know, rather than what you know - to an extent - can be just as important."

The ACAP program is an important stepping stone for soldiers transitioning out of the Army.

"What I want every transitioning soldier to understand is the importance of starting early," said Lori Mann, ACAP contract installation manager. "Soldiers can start two years prior to retirement, 18 months before (ending term of service) and it's simply the best advice I can give."

When his retirement came, months passed by with no firm job leads. His wife did what she could to support their family.

"I was working two jobs to keep funds coming in," said Claudia Mitchell, who worked for Army and Air Force Exchange Service. "He was really trying hard not to show how difficult it was, but it messes with you emotionally when you move from 23 years of no money problems to collecting unemployment."

He looked into opportunities offered by job fairs held at JBLM, but received no firm offers. Mitchell researched dozens of companies over the course of a six-month period, but none panned out with any good leads.

Battling frustration, Mitchell began to take note of what made applicants attractive to employers.

"I've seen that a lot of employers were looking for candidates with training certificates in a specific line of work," Mitchell said. "Certifications validate an employee as experienced, and it's probably the number one thing that gets you a second look."

He and Claudia searched the Internet for any company seeking high mobility artillery rocket system trainers, trusting that their persistence would pay off.

"My wife found most of the jobs I applied for because she did not give up. She became an expert at seeking out the few companies that still seek applicants for domestic and overseas employment," Mitchell said.

Mitchell finally landed a contract job in Jordan with a company based in Florida that supports the U.S. Army Security Assistance Training Management Office. He considers himself extremely lucky to be chosen for this position.

"I get to do what I did in the military for over 20 years, training HIMARS Fire Direction. It's for a little more money, so it was a relief I got it when there were so many other applicants to choose from," Mitchell said. "I felt blessed to have been selected among the number of applicants that applied for the same job. The number of jobs being offered abroad is beginning to vanish little by little."

Building on his degree in organizational management, Mitchell continues to work on a new skill set for after his year contract is up in April 2014.

"You do what you must," Claudia said. "Sure, the money is great, but this year of separation is not what we wanted. We thought that military retirement was the end of that."

To make his professional portfolio more marketable upon his return from overseas, Mitchell is working toward a master's degree in organizational management, with a minor in human resources.

"No matter if it has been three or 25 years of service to the nation - transitioning should come a lot easier and be more rewarding as well. It's tough, but not impossible for a former service member to get a job that qualified civilians are also seeking," Mitchell said.

Claudia said it was nice to have her good-natured husband back instead of the stressed man who was constantly on the computer.

Mitchell, relieved to be working now, circulates to chat among the parents of his daughter's party guests to be sure they feel welcome. Over a piece of birthday cake, he gives advice to his active duty friends.

"Start now preparing yourself for the biggest transition you will ever make in your life," he said. "That way you and your family will be prepared for what the future will hold."

Staff Sgt. Mark Miranda is a journalist with the 5th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.

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