Like many veterans who return from combat, David Kurttila of Hot Springs described himself as just "blowing in the wind" after he came home from serving with the National Guard in Iraq.
Some soldiers — Kurttila among them — who cannot make a successful transition back to civilian life end up drifting or becoming homeless.
For a small group of struggling area vets, there is new hope from a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs program that offers them work apprenticeships. The intent is to help them find future employment and also forge a new path to a better, more stable life.
And for a half-dozen of those local soldiers, that rebirth all starts in a cemetery.
Kurttila is one of six local veterans in the VA Black Hills Health Care System who have become the newest full-time employees at the Black Hills National Cemetery near Sturgis.
The cemetery, which encompasses more than 105 acres and has more than 19,000 internments, is one of five National Cemetery Administration properties that recently added Cemetery Caretaker Apprentices to their staffs. NCA enhanced the existing caretaker training program to develop the Homeless Veterans Apprenticeship Program, which is a one-year, paid employment training program that launched in October.
Six local apprentices started at the Black Hills cemetery the first week of October, and two weeks later traveled to St. Louis for an intensive week of training.
The program provides one year of paid work and training to veterans — a strategy that will enable them to more easily re-enter the workforce, Black Hills National Cemetery director Bill Haggerty said.
“What might have taken people a long time to learn, they are getting compressed into one year,” he said.
The new cemetery caretakers undergo a one-year probationary period and receive the same benefits other federal employees receive, Haggerty said. Those who complete the program will be able to compete competitively for future positions at higher grades at Black Hills National Cemetery, other national cemeteries or in the private sector.
“They have all the rights and responsibilities as a government employee,” Haggerty said.
The six men — Michael Jancich of Belle Fourche; Donald Ellis, Brian Taylor and William Osier of Sturgis; and Henry Amador and Kurttila of Hot Springs — were referred from VA’s Homeless Veteran Supported Employment Program. The program provides vocational assistance, job development and placement, and ongoing employment support to veterans who are homeless, formerly homeless or at risk of homelessness.
It’s all part of the larger effort to get willing and able veterans back to work. “The VA has been urging private businesses to hire veterans,” Haggerty said.
On a recent day, as the wind wove through the thousands of white burial markers at the cemetery, Kurttila reflected not only on the benefits of the apprenticeship program, but also the sense of peace he gains from working among the solitude of graves of fallen fellow soldiers.
“It’s a beautiful cemetery,” he said. “I’ve been to combat three times, and it’s peaceful out here."
For Taylor, who served in the U.S. Navy and qualified for disability services, it’s a move in the right direction.
“I’m very proud they’re trying to help homeless veterans,” he said. “It’s going great; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
He hopes to stay on at the cemetery once the apprenticeship wraps up and hopes others can follow in his footsteps. “I hope we can continue it on in the future and get more in the program,” he said.
Kurttila, who served in the National Guard in Iraq and is in the process of retiring from the guard, also hopes it continues.
“It’s given me a sense of pride,” he said. “I was kind of blowing in the wind.”
He also plans to continue to use the skill set at a job after the year is up, even if it means leaving the Black Hills.
“I love this program; I’m intent on doing this job,” Kurttila said.
Learning from the other employees has been invaluable, he added, particularly the customer skills.
“You try to emulate their positive outlook,” he said.
So far, the six veterans are dividing their time between shadowing existing employees and formal training. They will spend time with a mechanic, a maintenance worker, the headstone crew and the internment crew.
Haggerty said he has been impressed so far. “They’ve all embraced the opportunity they have,” he said. “They have the right attitudes and the right enthusiasm. I’m very encouraged so far.”