In 1993, Sgt. Maj. Chris Fletcher joined the U.S. Army. Since then he has been deployed to Bosnia and Macedonia, twice to Afghanistan and numerous times to Kuwait, rising to the highest non-commissioned rank.
Now, 20 years later, with a wife and 18- and 15-year-old daughters, he is retiring from U.S. Army Central in Sumter.
"It's stepping out into the unknown," Fletcher said. "The Army is all I know."
He is not alone.
With the military set to be radically reduced after the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines will have to step out of a uniform and into a business suit during a tough, post-recession job climate.
They face challenges translating their military skills to civilian jobs -- from writing a civilian resume, to just speaking English instead of using prolific military acronyms.
In South Carolina, an estimated 300 to 400 active-duty service members from the state's bases are expected to look for civilian jobs here annually over the next few years. In addition, 200 to 300 service members a year are expected to come here from posts outside the Palmetto State.
Also, with all U.S. combat troops expected to come home from Afghanistan by the end of this year, hundreds of S.C. Guard and reserve troops will have to find civilian employment while still serving part time.
"A lot of these folks shouldered a heavy load in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Brig. Gen. Bradley Becker, commanding general at Columbia's Fort Jackson. "They have a lot of experience and are tested in battle. But while they are experienced and tested, they haven't been in the job market."
South Carolina is positioning itself to absorb those additional departing troops.
Numerous programs are available to help veterans find jobs, such as the Defense Department's active duty Transition Assistance Program, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Hiring Our Heroes job fairs, and Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.
The S.C. National Guard's Operation Palmetto Employment, which coordinates all public and private efforts in the state to match veterans with employers, has been expanded to active-duty military personnel in the state. Advisers for Operation Palmetto Employment will be stationed at the 12 S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce offices around the state, including the Beaufort County location on Castle Rock Road, to assist military members searching for jobs.
Beaufort County also has two local programs -- the Lowcountry Economic Alliance's Transitional Workforce Educational Assistance Collaborative and the Technical College of the Lowcountry's Transitioning Military Program -- to help military members find jobs.
Ernie Lombardi, the Jacksonville, Fla.-based associate for the U.S. Chamber's Hiring our Heroes program, has organized 67 job fairs in the Southeast in the past 18 months, including one in Beaufort in September.
Much of the problem with younger veterans and often older service members, he said, is that they don't know how to explain their military job skills to civilian human resource directors.
"They can't translate them into language that civilians can understand," he said.
Also, human resource directors don't understand military jobs and jargon and how veterans' skills can be applied to their businesses. "They just turn the resumes over and set them aside," Lombardi said.
"Veterans need to be able to explain their skill sets, and civilian HR directors need to rethink their language skills, too."
One of those veterans is 1st Lt. Gregory Harris of Florence.
The 24-year-old Army officer returned March 1 from nine months in Afghanistan.
Harris wants to embark on a career in information technology, but getting used to civilian methods and speech has been challenging.
"It's been awkward," said Harris, who holds a political science degree from Coastal Carolina University. "It's like speaking in a different language."
Harris said he has forced himself to drop Army acronyms while talking to potential employers.
"I have to get in the habit of saying the full phrase," he said.
SKILLS IN DEMAND
Despite the hurdles, many companies favor veterans as employees and make special efforts to hire them. Post-9/11 veterans tend to be on time, drug-free, mission-oriented and accept criticism and instruction well.
"By definition they are the top one-third of the population," said Col. Brian Hilferty of U.S. Army Central, a former U.S. Military Academy instructor who is leaving the service this year.
He noted that to get into the military, one must have a high school diploma, pass a drug test, pass a physical fitness test, pass mental health screenings and have avoided any serious brushes with the law.
The most popular occupations for those coming out of the military are manufacturing, distribution, security, construction, medical, information technologies and transportation.
Among the largest companies that work with the program to hire S.C. veterans are the Amazon.com distribution center in Lexington County and the Boeing manufacturing plant in North Charleston.
Amazon set a goal to hire 1,200 veterans last year systemwide. It hired 1,900.
"They are skilled at working as a team and accomplishing their missions as a group," spokeswoman Kelly Cheesenan said from Amazon's Seattle headquarters. "We have a bias for action, and they are leaders who take action."
Boeing presently employs 24,000 veterans throughout the company -- about 15 percent of its workers.
"Boeing hires veterans because they bring values, skills and perspective uniquely cultivated through their experience in the military," spokeswoman Candy Eslinger wrote. "They create value in our company by demonstrating leadership, excellence and a collaborative approach."
Staff writer Jeff Wilkinson of The (Columbia) State contributed to this report.