From Then to Now, A World of Difference for Veterans in IBEW 11

Veterans Day Highlights IBEW Service to Military Heroes

By Grant Slater

When Kelly Oliver sat on IBEW’s Joint Apprentice Committee, a young electrician came before the group for discipline because he hadn’t been showing up to work.

As the committee tried to figure out what was going on with the young man, a veteran, they learned that he had been struggling mightily and was living out of his car.

“I was absolutely shocked,” Oliver said. So, he called up Mike Kufchak, the newly installed director of Veteran Affairs. “I told him, I just had a homeless veteran come in front of our board, and I had no advice for him. We’ve got to do something.”

For one day each November, the country pauses to honor the men and women who have served in our armed forces, but honoring and aiding veterans has become a full-time concern for IBEW Local 11.

Over the past 10 years, the Local’s outreach, support and organizing around veterans has increased dramatically with caucuses, recruitment programs and support groups to help veterans find and help each other.

“It’s like night and day,” Oliver said. “The amount of awareness we had then versus now.”

Kufchak, who served for 32 years in the Marine Corps and fought in both Afghanistan and Iraq, said that he had brought more than 500 veterans into the ranks of IBEW electricians since he joined the union in 2014.

It all started with handshakes and hustle. When Kufchak left the service, he was Sergeant Major of the 1st Marine Division out of Camp Pendleton with 27,000 war fighters under his watch. So, now working for IBEW 11, he could march right back onto the base and spread the word unit-by-unit that engineers on the base would be a perfect fit as electricians.

“The crawl-walk-run of this whole thing was that I was going base to base. These men and women in the military sacrifice so much. They risk their lives for minimal money,” Kufchak said. “This was an opportunity for me to continue paying it forward and working with military service members from all branches to help provide them a good middle class living.”

Today, Kufchak estimated there are more than 800 veterans with combat experience dating back to the Vietnam War in the ranks of IBEW journeyman and apprentices.

Oliver, who was named a District 6 agent this summer, had a very different experience when he tried to get into the union after serving in the Marine Corps from 1990 to 1994 in Iraq, Somalia and on the streets of Los Angeles during the 1992 Riots.

After failing the entrance test on his first try, he doubled back and went to trade school while he waited for another testing date to come around. It took him a year to enter the apprenticeship program.

Today, there is a whole array of programs that seek to smooth this process for veterans. The most important among them is the Veterans’ Electrical Entry Program, or VEEP, which allows service members to begin training for their careers with IBEW even before discharge. The testing and math requirements are waived, and a successful interview gets them in the door.

But, Oliver said, despite the support, he still hears frequently from veterans who are struggling. As recently as this week, he fielded a call from a Union Brother, a veteran, who landed in the hospital after a mental health crisis.

“The biggest thing is to let these people know they’re not alone,” Oliver said. “Sometimes they think the end of the world is coming, that they’re not going to make it through the day.”

Every veteran has struggled or knows someone who has struggled, said Oliver, who has struggled with anxiety himself. “Us veterans aren’t perfect,” he said. “Now I have sympathy and understanding for what people tell me. They have an anxiety attack or something similar. It’s scary. And it’s real.”

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