Many veterans continue serving after their military careers are over
November 11, 2022, 3:01 PM HST
* Updated November 11, 6:39 PM
When most people think about Veterans Day, it is to honor the service, bravery and commitment of veterans who have sacrificed so much in defense of the nation.
But for many veterans, their commitment to the nation doesn’t end when their military service is over. They become firefighters, police officers or even hold public office. There also are former military personnel who return to the Armed Services in a civilian capacity.
That is the case at the Army’s Pōhakuloa Training Area, nestled in the saddle region between Mauna Loa, Maunakea and Hualālai, and featuring a small military airstrip known as Bradshaw Army Airfield.
“Fifty percent of Department of Army civilians are veterans,” said Amy Phillips, public affairs officer at Pōhakuloa Training Area. “Veterans play a very important role to help connect the public with the Army and inspire the next generation to serve.”
To watch a tribute video to some of the veterans serving there, click here.
One veteran is Jeffrey “O.C.” Cunningham, who is the executive assistant to Garrison Commander Lt. Col. Kevin Cronin. He’s worked at Pōhakuloa since July 2021, supporting the day-to-day operations and helping Cronin organize his schedule and be the bridge between civilian employees and the military.
Cunningham joined the U.S. Navy in 2006 and served until 2012. His first duty station was with Squadron VAW-115 aboard the USS Kitty Hawk in Yokosuka, Japan. He served a little more than three years in Japan before being selected for Special Duty Orders to Strike Fighter Weapons School Pacific at Naval Air Station Lemoore in California, where he became an assistant special security officer. While overseas, he also served a combat tour as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“My experience in the military was a great one,” Cunningham said. “It changed my life for the better. It gave me structure and taught me self-confidence as well as how you can relate to people from all lifestyles when you have a shared goal or objective in mind.”
He decided to enter the military because of a need to escape his living conditions at the time: “I wanted more for my life and I saw the military as a way to jump-start my life toward my goals.”
After leaving the Navy, he entered the corporate world but did not like the atmosphere and missed being around people who shared a common and great goal.
“When you serve, you are forever endowed with this overwhelming feeling of being a part of something greater than yourself,” Cunningham said.
So he became a contractor on a military base in Maryland, working around Army personnel.
“I loved the mix of being able to be a civilian while also working with the military in some capacity,” Cunningham said. “My mentors recommended working for the government as a [Department of Defense] worker, so here I am.”
Phillips also is a veteran working as a civilian for the military. She has been the public affairs officer at Pōhakuloa for three months and has more than 30 years of public relations and affairs experience. In her job at the training area, Phillips helps the public understand the Army’s mission, specifically that of the training area on the Big Island . She’s the public’s go-to person for questions and concerns.
She served as an enlisted journalist and public affairs officer with the Army National Guard from 1990-2000 at Diamond Head on Oʻahu and with the Army Reserve from 2000-2003 in Georgia and California. Her last assignment was in Fort Hunter Liggett in Jolon, Calif.
She does not have any combat experience, but served active duty at the Hunter Army Airfield in Savanna, Ga., in 2003. Phillips said the experience at the Georgia airfield was rewarding because the 3rd Infantry Division was deployed to support Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom and she had the honor of helping tell its story.
“My military experience is the best investment I ever made for myself and I wish everyone could have the chance to learn about the exemplary values, discipline and benefits that the military offers,” Phillips said.
She enlisted in the National Guard for the tuition benefit, which helped her earn a bachelor’s degree in communications. She also was able to earn her master’s degree in public relations through the GI Bill. But said she gained so much more from her service than just her degrees.
“I learned to love the Army values and culture so much that I became an Army officer,” Phillips said. “I love the Army and the public affairs career field. That is why I am still doing the same job as an Army civilian.”
Prior military service is not a prerequisite to work as an Army civilian, but she and Cunningham both said being veterans helps them in their civilian jobs with the Army now by giving them an inside track to what it’s like to be in the military. That translates into being able to help the public and active-duty service members better. Cunningham said as a veteran, he thinks it’s easier for him to understand the mentality that many military people have.
“I understand what it is like to be a part of a larger mission and how that can sometimes come with an influx of emotions that can sometimes be judged more harshly by civilians who have not served in the military,” he said.
Both will be at the Hawai’i Island Veterans Day Parade on Saturday. Cunningham plans to attend to see the festivities and Phillips will be there taking photos and video of participating troops from Pōhakuloa.
“Many thanks to the community for supporting troops and veterans,” Phillips said. “And many thanks to the veterans in the community for your service.”
After his time in service and now working for the military as a civilian, Veterans Day has an even deeper meaning for Cunningham.
“It’s not just us who serve, but also our loved ones as well,” he said. “So Veterans Day for me is not just about honoring those who ‘answered the call,’ but also for the family members who were placed on ‘call waiting.’ The sacrifice is felt by everyone when you are in the military.”