Jacob Johnson joined the Marine Corps on Sept. 11, 2000 – exactly one year before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
He served two tours in Iraq – combined, 13 months overseas – and considers himself fortunate to have been hired by the Arlington County Fire Department in 2005.
“Transitioning out of the Marine Corps was one of the most difficult challenges in my life,” Johnson, now a lieutenant in the department, told a crowd of about 150 people Friday in Arlington Fire Station No. 5. The crowd consisted largely of veterans who now work as area police officers, firefighters or with the National Park Service, plus a few local dignitaries.
That building, on South Hayes Street near the Pentagon City and Crystal City Metro stations, is next to the old fire station that served as one of the staging areas for emergency responders when a plane struck the Pentagon on 9/11.
And it’s where President Barack Obama announced a new series of initiatives Friday designed to put post-9/11 veterans to work as emergency responders, repairing America’s infrastructure and starting their own small businesses.
“When these men and women come home, they bring unparalleled skills and experience. Folks like Jacob – they’ve saved lives in some of the toughest conditions imaginable. They’ve managed convoys and moved tons of equipment over dangerous terrain. They’ve tracked millions of dollars of military assets. They've handled pieces of equipment that are worth tens of millions of dollars. They do incredible work. Nobody is more skilled, more precise, more diligent, more disciplined,” said Obama, who spoke for about 13 minutes.
“Our veterans are some of the most highly trained, highly educated, highly skilled workers that we’ve got. These are Americans that every business should be competing to attract. These are the Americans we want to keep serving here at home as we rebuild this country. So we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that when our troops come home, they come home to new jobs and new opportunities and new ways to serve their country.”
The president announced a number of new initiatives as part of his Veterans Job Corps program, including $486 million in grants to communities to maintain and increase their numbers of police and firefighters – and a proposed $5 billion more that he will include in next year’s budget to further that goal.
Communities that make recruiting and hiring post-9/11 veterans will be “among the first in line” when it comes to getting help from the federal government, Obama said.
The president also proposed a $1 billion conservation program designed to put up to 20,000 veterans to work over the next five years in a variety of occupations, rebuilding trails, roads, levees, recreation facilities and parks.
And he proposed expanding entrepreneurship training programs, including the development of a two-day program open to all service members and an eight-week online course that’s designed to teach the fundamentals of small business ownership to more than 10,000 veterans each year.
“This was outstanding,” Arlington Fire Chief James Schwartz said. “The focus on hiring vets, especially as we look at the military draw-down and the pressure the Department of Defense is under… It’s a natural fit for them to take public safety jobs. We’re thrilled every time we get one.”
In its last 10-month hiring process, the Arlington County Fire Department received about 1,500 applications. Of those, 35 applicants were hired. Veterans tend to fare better in the process, Schwartz said.
A handful of local firefighters, police officers and National Parks Service employees, all veterans, stood behind the president as he spoke.
“It’s an honor and a privilege that he chose a fire station here that, as he mentioned, has a lot of symbolism both to the attack on 9/11 and to the world that changed after it,” Arlington Police Chief Doug Scott said. “I know our officers are proud to stand up there with him.”
On Jan. 1, Arlington police began waiving the entry-level requirement of a college degree for veterans who apply to be officers, Scott said. They are still required to earn a degree before promotion.
Johnson, of Frederick, Md., said he spoke with Obama immediately before Friday’s appearance. The president asked him questions about his transition from military to civilian life.
Johnson said he was a little nervous getting in front of a crowd, as it was his first shot at public speaking. But the president eased his nerves before he went up to the podium.
“I’ll remember this as an exciting moment, not only in my life but also for veterans,” Johnson said. “I have a lot of buddies who were with me who still don’t have jobs. I’ll remember this hopefully as the start of an initiative that was very successful.”
In his speech, Obama referenced the stone from the Pentagon and portion of a beam from the World Trade Center that are on display at Arlington Fire Station No. 5, saying that “reminds us of our resolve as a people.”
“They remind us that when we come together as one people and as one community, one nation, then we prevail,” Obama said. “That’s who we are.”