Veterans Back to Work Boot Camp: Chicago area veterans ready to excel in civilian workforce

DES PLAINES, Ill. (WLS) -- Service members and those who support them are by nature quick to adapt to changing circumstances, meet challenges head on and get the job done, no matter what.

So when the Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce & Industry's Veterans Back to Work Boot Camp, presented by Rivers Casino, needed to switch from its typical in-person format to a virtual one, those involved with the program never batted an eye.

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They tackled the boot camp with the same dedication, passion and commitment to serving veterans that they have since the program first launched three years ago.

This year's participants stepped up to the challenge as well. Thanks to everyone's commitment and hard work, they are ready to launch new careers in the civilian workforce.

Credit: Ian Ryan Interactive

"It was inspiring to see each and every one of the participants ready, willing and eager to get as much out of the program as possible," said Patrick Drury, director of finance operations for Rivers Casino and a program mentor. "None of them were there to waste anyone's time or effort, and they were all truly grateful for the opportunity being offered."

After fielding over 75 applications, 20 former service members were selected to participate in the program, which gave them tools and skills to transition into the civilian workforce.

The fourth annual eight-week Veterans Back to Work Boot Camp kicked off just after Labor Day.

After fielding over 75 applications, 20 former service members were selected to participate in the program, which gave them tools and skills to transition into the civilian workforce. This year's program was open to veterans just leaving the military as well as those whose employment was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As part of the orientation, veteran participants introduced themselves to everyone, which was the start of new bonds being formed among the group.

Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce & Industry

"Many incredible veterans were affected by the pandemic, and we were honored to help them take steps toward finding a new job or career," said Andrea Biwer, executive director of the Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

Through the 10-week program's numerous classes and activities, veterans learned how to write a standout resume, improve their interviewing skills and network with professionals in their chosen industry. Joe Kulis, Ph.D., and M. Eileen Brown, Daily Herald vice president of strategic marketing, as well as others representing Harper & Oakton community colleges, served as course instructors.

Several local business leaders, including those from Rivers Casino, AMITA Health Holy Family Medical Center, International Paper, American Eagle and others spoke to veterans about human resources and recruiting best practices. They also participated in a live mock interview that was videotaped by Ian Ryan Interactive so they could instantly review their performances.

Charles Benford introduces himself to fellow boot camp participants, mentors and instructors.

Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce & Industry

Brown said the program blends a lot of practical advice - the nuts and bolts of how to find a job - with personal skills. The instructors teach veterans about resume writing, interviewing skills and how to market themselves on social media. They also focus on helping them develop a persona that enables them to find satisfying work and be happy and productive employees and spend a good deal of time talking about personality type, nonverbal behavior and corporate culture.

Veteran participants flex their networking skills at the Women In Business Power Hour lunch hosted by iPure Med Spa.

Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce & Industry

"Most of the veterans we have had in the Back to Work Boot Camp have all the right ingredients to make a successful transition to civilian life, but they don't always realize that!" Brown said. "It's really gratifying to help them discover what is already there."

Veterans were also paired with a mentor that guided them through the program. All mentors are veterans and one mentor was even a graduate of the boot camp.

Boot camp participant Katherine Madden introduces herself at the orientation session in September.

Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce & Industry

The mentorship from veterans was a key aspect of the program, as all of those who gave their time understood the position these service members faced when navigating the civilian world after many years in uniform.

"When you transition out of the military, there is an expectation that you have everything figured out and you know exactly what you want to do. That's not always the case," said Marne Deithorn, a veteran, program mentor, and director of human resources at Rivers Casino.

"As a mentor, I want to let veterans know that they have so much to offer a company, things that we tend to forget about as they are so ingrained in us from serving in the military, and that those skills are highly valuable in the civilian world."

The program wasn't all virtual learning. Veterans attended Des Plaines Chamber's networking events, including the annual golf outing and First Friday networking breakfasts, to practice their elevator pitches and networking skills.

Veteran participants flex their networking skills at the chamber's annual golf outing.

Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce & Industry

They also participated in a community service project that benefitted the Self-Help Closet & Food Pantry in Des Plaines. Thanks to support from Planet Fitness, program participants and their families also enjoyed free livestreamed workouts on Sunday nights.

COVID-19 restrictions spurred a modification of the usual graduation ceremony, with veterans and mentors meeting in person on Nov. 4, and guests joining them via Zoom.

Program participants read aloud letters they had written to their future selves about their personal and professional aspirations. Writing the letters gave participants a chance to reflect on how much they had grown during the program and gave family and friends a chance to celebrate their loved one's transformation.

Participant Angela Poole introduces herself at the orientation of the Veterans Back to Work Boot Camp.

Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce & Industry

At the end of the night, each veteran received a career-enhancing gift package that included laptops, gift cards to Woodfield Mall and The Home Depot, a one-year Car Maintenance Package, a fitness membership to Planet Fitness, a Seiko watch, Fishing Rod & Reel Combos to enjoy during their free time courtesy of Operation Fishing Freedom, and many other goodies to help them with their future transition.

"We need to do everything we can to take care of these individuals (veterans)," said Jay Garstecki, co-founder and president of program sponsor Operation Fishing Freedom and Take a Vet Fishing. "Our programs hopefully provide some sort of relief as they transition. Hopefully it provides them with some peace knowing that there are people and organizations who care about them."

Elbow bumps and face masks abound when veterans participate in a boot camp networking session.

Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce & Industry

While veterans graduated the boot camp with an updated resume and extensive job search skills, they also left with something possibly even more important: a sense of camaraderie and support similar to what they found in the military. At the beginning of the program they were strangers to each other. By the end, they had become close friends.

"The Boot Camp is a wonderful way for veterans to connect and find the camaraderie that they might be missing now that they're no longer serving in the military," Biwer said.

Credit: Stan Kotecki Photography

Biwer believes the program will grow and expand as its success in Des Plaines attracts attention across the Chicagoland area.

Windy City Live is featuring the Veterans Back to Work Boot Camp as part of its Veterans Day show at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 11.

"We're thrilled that Windy City Live took an interest in our boot camp," said Biwer, "and we're so grateful to all the Des Plaines businesses and individuals who supported us and made the 2020 Boot camp an awesome experience for our veterans," Biwer said.

For more information on the Des Plaines Chamber's Veterans Boot Camp, visit or contact Andrea Biwer at
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