VetCon fair connects veterans to resources
By Lou Fancher
VetCon is all about increased face-to-face interactions.
Employers shook the hands of veterans looking for civilian jobs. Workshops, films and a town-hall meeting gave voice to active duty, reserve, National Guard, and other military men and women eager to exchange information.
The six-hour VetCon resource fair (formerly East Bay Veteran's Fair) at the Concord Hilton on Aug. 17 was staffed with volunteers from local government and nonprofit organizations, including the Contra Costa County Veteran Service Office, California Employment Development Department, Blue Star Moms and others.
"We want to move away from the regional focus to make it a premiere, nationwide event," said Concord Vet Center outreach coordinator and VetCon director Maurice Delmer. "Nothing is more important than the connection vets make with each other. Learning other vets' stories of success is a great way to transition out of the military.
" Like the San Diego grass-roots comic book convention known as Comic-Con that has grown from an indie outing to a major player on the convention circuit, VetCon's atmosphere is a blend of intentional networking and casual camaraderie. Vendors place older veterans at their booths to shepherd younger veterans through employment and benefits applications, or to explain educational programs and other community resources.
Delmer, a former member of the Marine Corps who served in Iraq, attended UC Berkeley and graduated in 2010 with a political science degree, said he had no idea what he wanted to do when he graduated from high school.
"The Marine Corps helped me define my vision. I'm absolutely proud of my service. Becoming a vet, Cal has one of the best vet's programs. I'm passionate about helping veterans."
Linda Saunders is vice president of the all-student club, Cal Vets Group. Like Delmer, she gained a sense of pride from her time in the Marine Corp Reserves from 2008-2014.
"I deployed twice, to Iraq and Afghanistan. I felt a calling to step out of traditional roles for women. I proved not only that I could do it, but that I could be good at it," she said. "I met resistance: everyone said don't do it. I just shut them out. But after boot camp, everybody was proud. It was 180 degrees different."
Saunders said the club educates veterans about available benefits.
"Any services, we're the gateway. The reasons VetCon is unique is that all the vendors are specific to vets and the range is broad, with employment, education and services all in one place."
Aaron Saari, of San Francisco, was in the Army from 2007-2012 and left as a captain after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He was scheduled to speak on a panel about transitioning to civilian life. He recommended veterans find other vets who are doing what they want to do and network.
"In the military it's frowned upon (networking), but in the business world, it's the way it works."
Working with other veterans, Saari said, is like a special club.
"You can trust them because you trusted them with your life."
Tony Villa of Oakley, found Saari's statement to be true, both during and long after the Korean War.
Villa broke his nose a few years ago and while receiving care, blood tests revealed he had a slow-growing form of leukemia.
"I researched the USS Joseph Strauss, the ship I was on," the retired PG&E worker said. "I found Agent Orange claims. It took me a year, but other vets helped me so the benefits fall back to cover that year's time too."
Employment vendors, including Adam McClure, of San Jose, with EDD, said many vets are unsure of what they want to do when they leave the service. McClure said veterans with a college degree are finding the opportunities for obtaining a high-level job are improving along with the economic recovery.
"If they're post-9/11 vets, we push education, but if they're older and without a degree, they just want anything to support their families."