Marine Cpl. Nicholas Czerniak of Arlington Heights won the Gung Ho award in his battalion for his leadership skills and motivating those around him. But after leaving the Marines, the young veteran had no idea how to transfer those skills to a civilian job.
On Thursday, Czerniak was one of 20 veterans who graduated from an eight-week Back to Work Boot Camp, sponsored by the Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce and local businesses, designed to help them find meaningful careers.
The celebration took place at Moretti's in Rosemont and drew a standing-room-only crowd, including many veterans and leaders from the Des Plaines VFW Post 2992 as well as the American Legion Post in Des Plaines.
The oldest veteran in the audience was 94-year old Arthur Rento Sr., a survivor of the Battle of Normandy and owner of Pontarelli Companies in Chicago.
"One thing I didn't expect to get out of it was all of the networking and professional development," said Czerniak, a 2011 Prospect High School graduate. "I met CEOs and small and large business owners, who respected my service and treated me as an adult."
The eight-week course took place at the chamber offices and featured different business mentors who presented each week.
One of the first was Marne Deithorn, human resources director at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines. A former Marine herself, she compared their fire team in the military to making networking contacts. On Thursday, she encouraged the graduates to remember all the professional attributes they had stored in their toolbox.
"You guys have got this,' Deithorn said. "You know how to network, how to build that fire team, and coming from the military, you're good at problem solving.
"You know your mission," she added, "and you approach it with common sense and self-confidence."
One of those graduates, Quentin Arnold of Vernon Hills had plenty of confidence going into the program, but he lacked the right skills to communicate his strengths and experience.
The Air Force veteran had spent eight years in the military, including two tours in Afghanistan. He worked as a highly classified intelligence analyst, writing reports on security that went to the Pentagon and even the White House.
"I'm so used to government regulations and following instructions that I didn't know how to talk about how my transferable skills," said Arnold, who hopes to land a job in consulting. "This course taught me how to open up and free myself from those boundaries."
Likewise, Leslie Ehardt, 23, of Algonquin spent four years in the Marines, doing everything from manning a gunning position to driving a Jeep, yet now back home she had no idea where to start in landing her desired job in the medical field.
"This course taught me how to write a resume, and how to interview," Ehardt said. "Mostly, it just got me out there meeting people."
The graduation ceremony not only affirmed the veterans, it awarded them gifts. Each one received a career-focused package valued at $8,000, including a new laptop computer,