Over 13 years in the military, Eric Eberth had seamlessly transitioned from a journeyman in the Air Force to an Army infantryman and finally to piloting an Apache Longbow helicopter. But when a 2008 deployment to Iraq left him with a debilitating spinal cord and brain injury, the Oregon-native knew it was time for a new mission — and following his discharge he set his eye on finance.
Yet when Eberth graduated from a Florida business school, he found the only job offers coming his way were government jobs akin to his military service.
“I knew there was no long-term future in teaching hand-to-hand combat,” he says. He remembers having an unwelcome revelation: “Everything that I’ve been taught, and everything that I’ve been doing for the last 13 years, isn’t exactly relevant in the civilian world.”
But today Eberth is working in finance, for the broker-dealer Drexel Hamilton. His bosses weren’t so quick to dismiss what a 13-year service vet could bring to the table — in large part because the founders of the firm are veterans themselves. And in Eberth they saw an ideal match for the Wall Street Warfighters Foundation, which they’d established with the very goal of recruiting and training service-disabled veterans like Eberth for careers in finance.
Founded in 2008 by a group of veterans with deep connections on Wall Street — and largely funded by Drexel Hamilton’s profits — the small, rigorous program is designed to combat the high unemployment rate among disabled veterans by tapping into their fields.” says Cal Quinn, a former Marine and chief financial officer of Drexel Hamilton. “The character, the drive and the ethics that have allowed them to achieve excellence can be translated into this industry.”
The only true requirements for the six-month program, which is based in Philadelphia and chaired by retired Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, is service in Iraq or Afghanistan and a 30 percent disability or higher.
Beyond that, candidates come from a range of academic and professional backgrounds, and cope with an array of physical disabilities (which the program accommodates by giving medical appointments precedence above all else).
“The common thread,” says Quinn, of the 24 participants who’ve come through the program to date, “is demonstrated excellence” — and a passion for the financial industry.
But despite their military accomplishments and general drive, the aspiring financiers are still a long way from boardroom-ready. First up: basic career guidance (think resume writing and interview techniques) and a crash course in the ins-and-outs of the financial industry. In this, the offices of Drexel Hamilton — which are split between Philadelphia and Wall Street — serve as a lab school of sorts, allowing veterans to interact with and learn from executives firsthand.
And then there’s the growing list of high-flying corporate partners — Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Citigroup and the Federal Reserve — who offer participants everything from office visits to in-depth training, and in many cases, full-time positions.
“It gives you the exposure to a lot of different sectors within the financial services industry that most people will never know of,” says Eberth, who learned of the program through his representative at the Army’s Wounded Warrior program. “I knew it would be a great program just for the education, and to understand how the financial service industry works.”
For Tim Grajko, a former scout sniper who suffered a back and head injury during his 2006 tour of Iraq, the access to Drexel Hamilton’s industry network was invaluable.
“There was no limitation on what we could experience and see,” says Grajko, who was finishing up a degree at Manhattan College when he stumbled across the program during a casual Web search for opportunities for disabled vets. “We got to see the fine intricacies of the traders on the trading floor, all the way up to the talking to the CEO of the New York Stock Exchange.”
Still, even after completing the Series 7 certification and longer-term internships with financial firms of their choosing, many of the program’s candidates can face unique obstacles before they land a full-time position.
Grajko, for instance, was frustrated by the task of translating his combat experience to Wall Street hiring managers who don’t readily recognize the value of high-pressure military experience, and tend to instead see only a gap in civilian employment.
“People were saying, ‘what am I going to do with a scout sniper?’ ” says Grajko, who ultimately landed an analyst position at J.P. Morgan. “I went through about 35 different interviews, and some of them did not go so well.”
And for those with visible battle wounds — like missing limbs and severe burns — the difficulties can be far graver.
“There’s discrimination that occurs out in the marketplace against disabled veterans, and that’s an ongoing challenge,” says Quinn. “For the general population, sitting next to someone who has been in combat and been a part of the ugliness that humanity is capable of — that’s intimidating and sometimes terrifying to people.”
Quinn says one of the goals of Drexel Hamilton, which has hired nearly half of the program’s graduates, is to debunk false stereotypes simply by proving the “capacity, competence and proficiency” that former warriors offer the financial sector.
“The more successful we are as a firm that is 40 percent disabled veterans, the more we can increase Wall Street’s interest in hiring veterans,” he says of the 3-year-old firm, whose chairman, Lawrence Doll, is a disabled Vietnam veteran.
It’s precisely this sense of mission that attracted Eric Eberth to the institutional sales position he ended up taking at Drexel Hamilton — despite the fact that commuting between the firm’s Philadelphia and Manhattan offices causes him severe motion sickness, a residual effect of his brain injury.
“Even though I’m out of the military, I can continue to serve those serving our country,” he explains. “If I grow this business and we are successful, that’s just more money we can put into the Wall Street Warfighters Foundation.”
But, as Quinn is quick to point out, charitable impulses only go so far — at the end of the day, the firm’s primary goal is still to make money for its clients’ investors. And in an extremely challenging economy, the firm’s military veterans give them an edge, Quinn believes.
“They are quick learners, they’re hard workers, and they work with ethics that are second to none,” he says. “That’s why we’ve been able to grow a business where other people are struggling.”
Jim Cahill, Drexel Hamilton’s president, says he’s “always amazed at the energy” and talent of his ex-military employees.
“But most importantly, these are very proud people. They’re not looking for a handout,” he says. “I feel very strongly that they’ve earned the opportunity to reinvent themselves to do a job that they feel good about.”
That’s exactly why Eric Eberth, just one year out of the Wall Street Warfighters Foundation program, feels a deep sense of accomplishment each day in his new career.
“The biggest reward for me is proving to myself I’m capable of making the transition to being a civilian,” he says. “It’s being able to come home to my wife every day, and know that I have a future in something other than the military.”
Here are some other organizations that offer assistance to job-seeking veterans:
Wounded Warrior Project
Offers training, placement and transition help to injured vets: woundedwarriorproject.org
A job site for vets run in partnership with Monster.com: veteranemployment.com
Employer Partnership of the Armed Forces
Connects job seekers to vet-friendly employers: employerpartnership.org
Feds Hire Vets
Helps vets find jobs within the federal government: fedshirevets.gov
Helmets to Hardhats
Helps vets build construction careers: helmetstohardhats.org
American Corporate Partners
Connects vets with corporate mentors: acp-usa.org