MISSION FIRST: Down But Not Out




Dec. 27, 2013

by Tracy Nelson

When tragedy strikes, it's human nature to respond in one of two ways: one can let a great misfortune get the best of them, or they rise above. In many ways, that reaction can define a person's character.

For Haley Uthlaut, heartbreak came at a young age and a high price.

She grew up Haley Ann Edwards in Oklahoma City, Okla., the granddaughter of a major general and 1954 West Point graduate with few aspirations to follow suit. A standout guard on the basketball court, she was an academic all-state honoree and helped Putnam City North High School author an impressive 80-6 record during her four-year career. Although recruited to play at several other schools, Uthlaut decided on West Point after making an official visit and instantly falling in love with the historic military academy.

Uthlaut lettered four years on the basketball court for the Black Knights, contributing as a role player for three seasons before earning the starting point guard job in all 28 games as a senior team captain.

Two months after being commissioned into the United States Army Corps of Engineers, Uthlaut married her longtime boyfriend and classmate, Ryan Dennison, in his hometown of Ijamsville, Md. The newlyweds settled down and began their life together in Fort Bragg, N.C.

The Dennisons deployed not long after -- Haley to Afghanistan and Ryan to Iraq. On Nov. 15, 2006, just four months after the couple's second wedding anniversary, John Ryan Dennison lost his life in a small arms fire while on patrol near Balad Ruz. He was 24 years old.

Uthlaut returned home to plan her young husband's funeral, but longed for purpose and a sense of community following his death. She decided to return to her platoon in Afghanistan and finish the first of two deployments.

"I felt like I had been knocked down in life to say the least," Uthlaut remembers. "I had and still have a strong support network through my faith, family, and friends. They all helped me in my personal journey of grief. Another important healing mechanism was my decision to go back to work, a choice that helped me define how I would respond in the face of tragedy."

Before her five-year commitment expired, Uthlaut spent most of 2007 and 2008 on a second deployment in Iraq where her life took an unexpected, yet life-changing turn. Uthlaut met and fell in love with Maj. Dave Uthlaut, a 2001 West Point graduate whom she would eventually marry in May 2009.

The young couple returned stateside where they both completed graduate studies at the University of North Carolina and Haley's active duty commitment came to an end. The Uthlauts welcomed their first son, Jackson, in 2011 and a second son, Caleb, two years later.

Life for Uthlaut was perfect. She found love again, returned to a familiar background on the banks of the Hudson when Dave got a teaching assignment at West Point and motherhood had followed not long after.

However, the fact that Uthlaut held an undergraduate degree from one of the finest educational institutions in the country in addition to a Master of Business Administration was not lost on her. Unfortunately, with the nation's unemployment rate climbing at a rapid pace, she ran into obstacle after obstacle in trying to find meaningful work commensurate with her education.

"In the context of my life, dealing with being a `Gold Star' wife (widowed while the spouse is on active duty in military service) and meeting other spouses in a similar situation, I began questioning what my career options were as a military spouse with an MBA," Uthlaut recalls.

As Dave dove into his coursework with West Point's Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, Haley began to put her well-earned education to work at home.

Uthlaut had the idea to establish a non-profit organization with the intent of helping military spouses much like herself gain meaningful employment through advocacy.

In Gear Career saw its infancy phases come to fruition in early 2011 with Uthlaut as its founder and executive director. Together with a strong board of directors, In Gear Career began its mission to "enable military spouses to seek and obtain professional employment alongside their service member and improve the quality of life for the family."

"When I got back to West Point, I considered the opportunities and resources available and identified a gap in services and opportunities available for spouses," she explains. "When looking at everything that the government provides and other non-profit social organizations available, there wasn't anything geared towards professional military spouses and providing career resources and networking for that specific group."

Uthlaut reached out to Wittenberg Weiner Consulting, LLC, a small consulting firm founded by military spouses with the goal of helping federal agencies put government principles into practice.

"I wanted to know how to create systematic change and opportunities for spouses at the professional level," Uthlaut says. "Throughout my time in the military and as a military spouse, I've come across many talented spouses who have been unable to find work appropriate to their level of education, experience, and aptitude."

Uthlaut, who currently runs the organization from her home, says research indicates military spouses are three times more likely to be unemployed, will face a 42 percent wage disparity and will look for work three times longer than a civilian counterpart.

How do you handle holes in your resume? How do you explain how many times you have moved and when it will happen again? Do you say you're a military spouse on an interview? These are all very relevant questions to which In Gear Career helps provide the answers.

As Uthlaut knows from personal experience, when moving to a new installation, some spouses may feel isolated when beginning a job search under non-traditional circumstances.

In Gear Career aims to eliminate that hurdle in two ways. The first is through a local chapter from which military spouses may obtain materials, advice and face-to-face information regarding work in the local area. The second, and most important in Uthlaut's opinion, is creating a community of practice specific to a spouse's career field.

In Gear Career's local West Point chapter currently has 80 members and is continuing to grow. The group gathers periodically and in doing so expands the professional network, which, in turn, leads to increased job opportunities. There is also a mentorship program in place as a part of the community of practice, which brings lawyers together with local lawyers, accountants with accountants and so on.

"In less than two years, we helped 22 spouses in the West Point area obtain professional employment through `one-off' opportunities and networking that they otherwise wouldn't have known about," Uthlaut says. "It's amazing how valuable word of mouth can be, especially when you're a new spouse in the area. That's when In Gear steps in and dramatically narrows that gap. At the end of the day, the goal is to unify the voice of the professional spouse through advocacy."

Of those 22 placements, Uthlaut estimates the average salary being $87,000 with a couple of the spouses securing a six-figure income.

In addition to the West Point pilot program, In Gear Career has spawned 14 other chapters to include Naples, Italy, San Diego, Colorado Springs and Tampa among others. Uthlaut's dream is to expand In Gear Career onto every military installation in the country because the need for such an organization is evident everywhere.

Uthlaut is bound to add another chapter shortly, as she and her family recently departed West Point for a new home at Fort Benning, Ga.

Uthlaut's young life has certainly taken some unexpected turns and morphed at each stop. In her short 30 years, she has filled the role of military spouse, veteran, `Gold Star' wife, mother and now the founder of an ambitious non-profit organization geared towards improving the lives of others facing similar challenges.

"I made a commitment to a lifetime of selfless service, so I feel called to continue that in my role as a spouse," Uthlaut says. "This is a way I can use my skill set and continue my promise."

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