Army veteran David Decouto, a Spectrum Health recruiter, talks about how the Veterans Explorers program helped him. (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)

By his early 20s, Gary Vetitoe had learned more about motivation, negotiation and leadership than most business majors many years his senior.

As a cavalry scout with the U.S. Army 2nd Brigade Combat Team, Vetitoe led a squad for more than a year in Iraq’s Mahmudiya District, a region known as the Triangle of Death for its large numbers of insurgent attacks and improvised explosive devices.

During a second tour of duty, he spent a year searching for high-ranking officials of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Ba’ath Party.

“My day-to-day assignment was to interact with the local populace, seek and engage the enemy, and provide stability within the region I was assigned to,” Vetitoe recalled. “I also spent a lot of time motivating my men.”

Nonetheless, when he left the Army in 2012, Vetitoe found himself in a series of unsatisfying jobs that did not utilize the skills he had developed in eight years of military service.

“I was working security—midnights,” he said. “That happens with a lot of veterans. You can do security or be a cop. …I didn’t want to do either one of those things.”

Translating a ‘sense of mission’

In 2014, Vetitoe entered Spectrum Health’s Veteran Explorers Program, an initiative that provides unemployed and underemployed veterans with job skills through paid internships, including three 10-week job rotations, career development workshops, networking and other support.

“The program helped me to find a sense of purpose,” Vetitoe said. “I felt happy to be part of a non-profit organization—not necessarily part of a clinical environment—but part of the big picture and part of a community.”

While on duty in Iraq. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

“It also allowed me to get my confidence back,” Vetitoe added. “When I began to regain my confidence, I was able to expand upon my successes and it brought me back to the fact that I’m a good communicator.”

Such a good communicator, in fact, that Vetitoe was hired by Spectrum Health as a nurse recruiter before he finished his third job rotation. Today, he is fully employed and gives back to the community by participating in the West Michigan Veterans Coalition, a group of organizations and businesses that promote opportunities for veterans.

“My main recruiting focus is nurses, but I will give any veteran at least five minutes of my time,” Vetitoe said.

Since Spectrum Health launched Veteran Explorers as a pilot in 2013, 22 veterans have completed the program with an 86 percent immediate employment rate. The 17 veterans hired by Spectrum Health to-date serve in a variety of capacities, including application developer analyst, facilities project leader, payer relations manager, transportation coordinator and other management and support roles.

Gary Groom, 38, spent four years in the U.S. Air Force as a crew chief performing maintenance on jet fighter aircraft. Despite his master’s degree in health care administration, in recent years he had been performing maintenance work.

Air Force veteran Gary Groom, a facilities supervisor for Spectrum Health, talks about how the Veterans Explorers program helped him. (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)

Groom believes that most veterans bring a special sense of integrity to the workplace.

“Even when the supervisor is not watching, I’m still going to do the right thing,” Groom said. “That has always helped me.”

After completing just a single 10-week rotation in the Veteran Explorers Program, Groom was hired in 2014 as a supervisor in Spectrum Health’s facilities and small project relocation department. He credits the program with getting his foot in the door and providing a welcoming environment.

“The best part of the program is that you start off with a group of people with a similar background,” Groom said. “It’s like a big family to help you swim through the Spectrum waters.”

Joining Vetitoe as a recently-hired recruiter in the Spectrum Health human resources department is another graduate of the program. David Decouto, 47, is a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army, who retired as a military engineer with the rank of Sergeant First Class in 2007. Decouto’s military experience includes service in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004, as well as postings to Germany and Panama.

Army veteran David Decouto, a Spectrum Health recruiter, is shown at his desk. Decouto credits Spectrum Health’s Veterans Explorers program for helping him get his job. (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)

Despite holding a bachelor’s degree in business administration and advanced training in the field of physical therapy, Decouto found himself working a series of dead-end, minimum wage jobs, including a host of temporary and seasonal jobs, one of which found him cleaning bathrooms at a county park.

“It was a real roller coaster ride for a while,” Decouto recalled. “I was not finding the job I needed to feed my family, and I was just trying to figure out where to go next.”

Decouto believes the military produces a wealth of talented individuals who bring the attributes of discipline, hard work, loyalty to co-workers and a sense of mission that includes “getting the job done at all costs.”

Veteran Explorers Program branches out

The problem for some vets, Decouto said, is finding a way to educate employers by translating their military skills, training and experience into language understandable in the civilian world.  He found a mentor in the Veteran Explorers program who “worked on my resume line by line to translate my military experience into health care lingo.”

“This is a program that should be a model for other organizations,” he said. “Human capital is really important to invest in.”

Decouto, center, and Groom, right, are shown with Spectrum Health’s Inclusion and Diversity manager Kristin Ekkens. Decouto and Groom were able to find their jobs with Spectrum Health with the help of Ekkens and the Veterans Explorers program. (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)

This year, for the first time, the Veteran Explorers Program will include partner organizations, enabling veterans to search for jobs beyond health care in the food service distribution and manufacturing industries.

“This is a natural program progression that allows veterans to have experience in other industries beyond health care,” said Nicole McConnell, director of Employee Lifecycle, Inclusion & Diversity at Spectrum Health. “Expanding opportunities for veterans in other West Michigan organizations opens doors for collaboration and creates even more success stories.”

Michigan Works!, a statewide workforce development system that provides assistance to employers and job seekers, will run the program in 2015, and is accepting applications through May 8. Participants who meet eligibility requirements will complete work rotations at Gordon Food Service, Haworth and several Spectrum Health locations, including Spectrum Health Medical Center in Grand Rapids, Spectrum Health United Hospital in Greenville and Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital.

“The Veteran Explorers Program is an opportunity for Gordon Food Service to partner with the community while also meeting a business need,” said Tony Groll, president, U.S. distribution for Gordon Food Service. “We think this program will better prepare us to partner with veteran organizations throughout our U.S. geography.”

Eligibility requirements for the program include U.S. veterans who:

  • Served at least 180 active duty days in the military with honorable discharge
  • Can provide a copy of their DD214
  • Are currently unemployed or underemployed
  • Are willing to work 20 hours per week
  • Meet employer hiring requirements
Decouto and Groom were able to find their jobs with Spectrum Health with the Veterans Explorers program. (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)

Those eligible must complete prerequisite coursework with Michigan Works! prior to starting rotations, including:

  • 20 hours in general employability skills training
  • Work Keys
  • Basic skill and behavioral/interest assessments

To learn more and apply, visit