Transitioning from military to civilian life is a well-documented struggle, and returning soldiers often feel like they’ve slipped through society’s cracks.

For Vietnam veteran and Local 11 Business Manager Marvin Kropke, the 2013 decision to reach out to veterans was an easy one.

“We’re in the middle of one of the largest drawdowns of active duty troops since Vietnam,” he said. “There’s an opportunity for us to make a big difference in these people’s lives, and it’s the least we can do to try to help them, to try and prioritize them and give them some opportunity for their service to our country.”

Training Director Brett Moss teaches pipe-bending to veteran Eric Cooper during the July boot camp.

And in July, for the first time, Local 11 and the Los Angeles County chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association welcomed an all-veterans pre-apprenticeship boot camp to their joint Electrical Training Institute in Commerce.

The 29 veterans who completed the two-week course spanned every branch of the military, with one even joining the program before his active duty service in the Marine Corps was officially over.

“These vets are such a good fit,” said Local 11 Treasurer Eric Brown, himself a former sailor who left the Navy in 1980. “They’ve got the discipline, the work ethic, and they crave the structure IBEW provides. We tell them exactly what’s expected of them, and that’s a lot like the military.”

During the 13-day program, a requirement for all apprentices starting at Local 11, instructors teach students the basics of pipe-bending, ladder safety, and scissor-lift operation, along with countless other skills that will put them ahead of schedule when they report to the job site.

“We give them safety training too,” Brown said, including first aid, CPR, ladder safety and some OSHA certifications. “So these are all things that give the contractor the comfort of saying, ‘Here’s a guy who didn’t just go in and out to a construction site, somebody who’s not going to walk off the side of a building.’”

And while dozens of veterans had already completed Local 11’s boot camps in mixed classes, the July program was unique thanks to the camaraderie an all-veteran group could provide.

“We had a day that we set aside to have a little bit of a lunch with them,” Brown said, “and we brought in some of the existing vets who were a little further into their apprenticeships, some for five or six months, and some for four years.”

Brown, who also serves as Local 11’s apprenticeship coordinator, said Kropke went around the room and had each service member introduce themselves with branch and rank, and that the exercise was helpful in developing the bond between them.

“The whole thing really helped me out because I was still in that military mindset,” said Cesar Miramontes, a Marine Corps veteran just days removed from a five-year stint as a drone technician. He credited the boot camp with helping to ease his transition into civilian life.

“The camaraderie was really important,” Miramontes said. “I was there with people who understood what I was going through, and I probably would have had a harder time in a group with fewer vets.”

The idea to put on an all-veterans boot camp was partly the brainchild of Sgt. Maj. Mike Kufchak, a 32-year veteran of the Marines who retired in 2013 and was recruited to Local 11 by Kropke (See “Iron Mike’s New Mission,” July 2015).

Before shedding the uniform, Kufchak was the highest-ranking senior enlisted officer in the Marine Corps’ 1st Marine Division. Dubbed “Iron” Mike by his comrades, he helped to lead more than 26,000 men and women into combat, earning himself two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart.

But when the time came to leave the Marines, Kufchak was looking for a mission, and he found it at the IBEW. Today, he is charged with helping Local 11 recruit military veterans, and by July he had enlisted enough former service members to make the idea of an all-veterans boot camp feasible.

“These guys and gals,” he said, “they’re reliable, responsible, dependable, and they have great aptitude about themselves, and they show up with a great work ethic.

“Coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, we have this tremendous number of veterans with combat experience who wanted to serve their nation, and now they’re looking for careers that will stay with them the rest of their lives. And the IBEW offers that opportunity, with the same benefits they got in the military and the same sense of community and common purpose they had in uniform.”

And Local 11’s commitment to veterans doesn’t stop there.

With so many new veterans entering the trade thanks to Kropke’s leadership and Kufchak’s efforts, said Brown, “A bigger goal is to have a veterans group or a veterans’ mentorship going on, so there’s even more of an internal brotherhood within the Brotherhood.”

And Kropke hopes other business managers, other contractors’ associations and other unions take notice. “I’m in a position to help,” he said, “and I’m stepping forward. I hope others in my position around the country will step up just like these young men and women did when they volunteered.”

Photo: Mark Savage/”Building Trades News”