Veterans: America's New Green Warriors

You might think that Dan Leary, now 32, had other things to worry about when he decided he'd start a solar company. In 2005, while on active duty in the Kuwaiti desert, Cpt. Leary drafted a business plan to make solar panels. With the cost of oil increasing, he figured public and government interest in solar and renewable energy was set to amp up. "When you're actually sitting downrange, and you're looking at where oil comes from up close, you can see that this stuff is not sustainable," says Leary, who figured the MBA he earned before the military combined with his experience overseeing construction projects for the Army would help him transition back into civilian life.

With his clear post-military mission, Leary is one of the lucky veterans. At nearly 12 percent, the unemployment rate for transitioning military members is higher than the national average of 10 percent. While an updated GI Bill passed in Congress last year paves some easier avenues for vets to find work by providing employment counseling and outreach, it can't account for everything. It doesn't help that, as a 2007 survey by found, 67 percent of vets have trouble explaining their training to would-be employers.

Sitting from his startup's corner office in Boston, Leary thinks that might not be such big deal in the sustainable energy sector. Field-tested veterans make ideal green-collar employees, he says. Why? The fledgling industry depends on highly skilled technicians and managers who can oversee projects with, well, military precision.

"I've seen guys walk into manufacturing plants where they make [wind] turbines and they say 'wow, this is just like a Navy ship,'" says Dave Bakkeby, a senior manager with military staffing firm Orion International, which, along with other agencies, is having trouble meeting demand for new candidates. Over the past year, requests for vets has shot up to fill in the ranks of an industry that started relatively from scratch. At Suniva, a solar-panel maker in Georgia, 20 percent of the 100-person staff is vets, a number CEO John Baumstark says he'd love to get higher. "When we miss a call from military staffers, we think that we might have just missed someone who would have transformed our business," he says. "We don't feel like that when other [employment] agencies call."

Nonprofit groups like Boulder, Colo.–based Veterans Green Jobs, which last year launched "rapid training and deployment" workshops to hone vets' skills and funnel them into energy companies, deepen the talent and recruitment pool. Following suit, a Washington nonprofit called the Truman National Security Project launched a program this month to train vets to drive the message of an undeniable overlap between green energy and national security.

In some instances, veterans are acting as recruiters for their new employers. Tim Hyclak, an Air Force crew chief who did six tours in Iraq, is now a maintenance technician with Solaicx, an early-stage solar manufacturer. He heard about the company from a fellow vet and has instructed his friends to call him for jobs when they're discharged.

Changing out of camouflage and into the renewable energy industry makes it easier to slip into civilian society says Jimmy Park, a former Marine specialist who's now a prized engineer with panel-installation company Akeena Solar. He says that people sometimes mistook him for a killing machine. "But when you say you work in renewable energy," he says, "it's like you're a hero."

For other vets, working in an industry geared toward energy independence is an extension of their national service. Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Murphy, a vet himself, recently visited a wind-power manufacturing plant in his home district to reinforce that message. "I told them, 'You're making us safer at home. By getting us away from the people who sell us oil, you're playing a key role in our national security.'?"