Donna Clementoni, 55, of Egg Harbor Township, serves as employer outreach director for the New Jersey Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, or ESGR, a division of the U.S. Department of Defense.
In her position, she encourages the employment of military service members. The freelance writer and poet also serves on Richard Stockton College’s Veteran Advisory Board and volunteers for the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides services to wounded service members.
Q: How did you become interested in veterans issues?
A: My consciousness was raised during Desert Storm when I was in marketing, and I was on the road all day, so I did a lot of work while listening to talk radio. I was very aware of our movements there. I just started at night to write letters to anonymous servicemen and women. I actually had the opportunity to correspond with a woman who had a 6-month-old baby and was on the (USNS) Comfort. She was a guardsman, never thinking that she would actually be in a combat situation, so that was enlightening just to have a woman’s perspective, especially (that of) a young mother.
Q: You also researched your father-in-law’s military service.
A: My father-in-law’s parents were from Italy. His father was in the Navy in Italy, and as soon as he got done his deployment ... he came and emigrated to America. They were not U.S. citizens at the time World War II broke out. ... Once we were at war with Italy, they became enemy aliens, so his mother and my maternal grandmother had to apply as enemy aliens. They were very restricted as to their movement — they couldn’t leave their neighborhood (and) couldn’t go out at night. Coincidentally, my father-in-law’s mother had three sons that served for the U.S., and one of her sons, the oldest, was killed at Saint-Lo, France.
Doing research in my family background and their immigration to America, I read a lot on World War II, the homefront, that whole time period, of how America was completely involved, from the little children saving scrap metal to the victory gardens, the canning, the rationing. It just really is a time period (that explains) why they call it the greatest generation we all can be proud of.
Q: And how does that compare to the treatment of war you see today?
A: I think that there is great patriotism and support, but it’s at an arm’s length because you don’t walk around and see service people in the airport and out to dinner in their uniform. It’s invisible to a lot of people, and there’s so much competition in the media ... that it’s not really on their conscious level on a daily basis. For me, it is because now I’m so involved in the effort, but (for) the average citizen, I don’t think it’s apathy but just not being aware of what’s going on.
Q: How did you become involved in the ESGR, and what do you do there?
A: I became involved as a freelance reporter. They have events a couple times a year, which they call “Boss Lifts,” and (for) the event I (attended), we were going to New Orleans on a refueling flight leaving out of McGuire Air Force Base.
They take employers to show the military service and what the military world of their employees is. So, for example, if The Press had a reporter who is also a citizen soldier, we may (take a manager) on one of these “Boss Lifts” to show them what the military environment is (and) what training is involved.
Uniquely, we were in New Orleans when the (oil rig Deepwater Horizon) exploded, so at the Coast Guard command center ... citizen soldiers were manning the radios, doing search and rescue. So it wasn’t just simulation and war games, it was the real thing. You got to see not just how they protect our freedom overseas, but also right here in the homeland and on the waterways.
Q: What are the incentives for employers to hire active-duty military?
A: What citizen soldiers bring is integrity. They have a global view of what’s going on in the world. They have great core values. They’re drug-free. They’re on time, all the time. They’re used to working on schedules and getting missions accomplished, so I think that you just get a really well-trained person (who) has ... experiences that someone who hasn’t gone through what they’ve gone through can’t bring to the table.
Q: How do you work with employers to encourage them to hire from the military?
A: The biggest thing is awareness. It’s making them aware of the value of hiring a guard or reserveman. One of the things we do is: Some of the citizen soldiers will let us know when their employer has really gone above and beyond to support them. If they were on a mission, maybe they did a pay differential, maybe they contacted their spouse to see how things were going, maybe they put up Christmas decorations when they were gone or checked on the kids and how they were doing in school. So they will submit a request for an award for that employer, and I, as one of the team, would actually present that to them. Once you do that, it also increases the awareness of others in that business.
Q: What difficulties do returning military face when readjusting to civilian life?
A: We liken it to a three-legged stool. You really have to have the employer behind it, the family and the community.
It is a delicate balance, but, from what I have seen, they’re really admirable in how they juggle everything.
Q: What challenges face employers who hire active-duty service members?
A: There’s always the possibility that a serviceperson may be called upon to put the uniform on. So, for example, in the public sector a lot of times a police department may have quite a number of citizen soldiers. (At) the Atlantic County Sheriff’s Office ... 15 percent of their people might be deployed at any given time because that’s a profession (where) there’s a lot of people that are in the service. Sheriff Frank Balles was (recently) honored by some of his employees for being so supportive.
We advocate and tell (employers) the benefits, but they really have to step forward and manage their own staff.
Q: What practical realities face service members looking for civilian jobs? Do they ever face discrimination?
A: I don’t think that anybody should ever think (their service) is a disadvantage. I think for all of the reasons we promote — the quality and integrity of the service people — that it should be a privilege to be able to hire those people.
Q: The ESGR has an affiliated program called Hero 2 Hired, a job network for service members. How is the Internet changing employment for returning soldiers?
A: We have 4,800 volunteers nationwide, and there is an ESGR committee in every state utilizing those volunteers. Working with the (Department of Defense), the Hero 2 Hired program is a really high-tech way of being able to get together the citizen soldiers and veterans and their families who need jobs with employers. The website, h2h.jobs, was launched at the end of 2011, and employers can post job openings for free. There’s also resources to help a soldier or serviceperson ... to get their resume to really show what they do and what their strengths are. It connects them with information about job fairs and hiring events.
Q: You’re also involved with the Stockton College Student Veterans Advisory Board.
A: I have a real soft spot in my heart for the Stockton student veteran organization. I graduated from Stockton, and it was a great experience for me.
They have over 300 students now that are veterans that are going to school at Stockton, and that number is really rising. (Stockton is) looked upon as really a model amongst colleges and universities for how to treat veteran students. They’ve got a lounge that they’ve dedicated to them, so that they can go and have the camaraderie that’s really important to make the college experience meaningful. (The veterans’) GPA is over 3.5 collectively. (The school does) a lot of really interesting things the community can get involved with.
(They brought in) Anthony Smith, who is a wounded war veteran from the Iraq War. He was hit with a direct hit from a grenade and had over 100 surgeries. He was actually left for dead. The reason (the field responders) wound up going back to the body bag is they didn’t have his dog tags, and they found him ... they couldn’t believe that he was alive. It’s such an amazing story, such a story of resilience and courage, being able to get through everything he did. They had him speak to all the incoming freshmen last year. If you ever felt sorry for your aches and pains and little problems, when you see him up there with his prosthetic arm and his story of heroism, I don’t think college is anywhere near a hard climb.
Q: What does Stockton do differently from other colleges?
A: They have a lot of resources for soldiers who are transitioning. (Veterans) face unique challenges a typical student wouldn’t. Some of them have three and four combat tours, and quite a few of them are actually citizen soldiers now, so they’re active. We have a golf outing May 3 to raise money for them for scholarships. ... It’s a lot of recognition and support. I cant say enough about what they do for the students.
Q: What are some of the other interesting veterans outreach efforts you’ve been involved in?
A: I’m involved with the American Legion, specifically with the Women’s Auxiliary in Post 352 in Somers Point. We’ve done everything ... (made) subs and sold them to be able to support military groups. I just had the pleasure to go to Edna Mahan (Correctional Facility), which is the state’s women-only facility, and interviewed the inmates. There’s 15 inmates in a program called Puppies Behind Bars, and what they do is they raise Labrador puppies for 18 months. They teach them 80 obedience skills, and from there those puppies become part of our national defense by becoming bomb-sniffing dogs. And also in that program they also have service companion ... dogs. It was neat to be able to explain to the inmates who are now doing something that’s very vital toward our country’s defense that they do play an important part.
It’s taken me in all kinds of directions that I never would have expected.
Q: The world of veterans affairs and advocacy is fairly tight-knit. Tell me about that world and how it works.
A: It’s an amazingly tight-knit group of people. A lot of times we’re going to the same well for fundraising, where we’re asking the same people, the VFWs and the American Legions, for support. They always respond, they always kind of heed that call of duty. ... It’s just nice to feel you’re part of a community and citizen warriors that get the job done.
Q: You were acquainted with April Kauffman, who was part of the push for more veterans health care in South Jersey. How did you get to know her, and how did she fit into that world?
A: I got to know her ... when she had the Cherry Cafe (and Catering business). I saw all the red, white and blue decorations, and I asked her, you know, what inspired her patriotism. An hour later, I don’t think I even got a bite of my salad ... and she had invited me on the radio show she had when I was getting involved in the Stockton golf outing last year. I don’t think anyone can ever underestimate what she’s done for the veterans and really rais(ing) awareness. For that she’s missed every day. Quite often, you’ll hear if April was around she’d go to Washington to get an initiative passed. She was very patriotic, and that was her legacy.
Q: What made you so passionate about these issues?
A: I researched the book that I wrote on my relative’s immigration, and a whole section of that was on the Korean War, World War II and World War I. And ... living with my father-in-law, who was going to boot camp after he buried his brother. To go through the emotions (of the book) really hit the poetry aspect that I’m very passionate about. I really believe in making your life have a purpose, and I think that freedom is one of the things that everybody aspires to. I’m not the type of person who can go into a combat zone, but I can certainly be their cheerleader.
Q: How can other people get involved in helping veterans and active military in their communities?
A: If you Google veteran outreach in your community, the information is out there, and each organization is always reaching out for people to get involved. It’s just to open your eyes, and all of the sudden you won’t see anything else. You can call the American Red Cross, the Wounded Warriors, ESGR. You can go onto our website, which is ESGR.mil, and get connected with our state office.
There’s so many organizations that are involved. The American Legions and the VFWs really need the next generation to come and carry the torch because a lot of the older members are getting sick and dying, and the younger generation is slow to come and embrace (those organizations). But (it’s important) for any age, (from) a 20-year-old wounded warrior to a World War II veteran.
Contact Wallace McKelvey:
Follow @wjmckelvey on Twitter