Disabled vets see an employment hot spot in the Bay Area 

Jarom Vahai of San Bruno was blown up five times in Iraq. The 33-year-old ex-Marine has brain trauma, severe nerve damage and walks with a cane. He has seen some 80 of his friends die in U.S. wars. Now he wants to help veterans, many of them emotionally traumatized or physically disabled, to find jobs — but not just any jobs.

Vahai’s vision is to make the Bay Area a hot spot for veterans who need jobs and want to fight a new kind of battle: the battle against oil.

“We keep on buying oil and funding these dictators, and all they do is create instability like 9/11,” Vahai said. “Terrorism is a threat, but jobs, unemployment and deficit spending are the next big threat to destroy this country.”

As hundreds of thousands of vets come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, they’ll need jobs. Vahai is hoping green tech firms will provide them.

As a member of President Barack Obama’s Community Leaders Committee and Congresswoman Jackie Speier’s Veterans Affairs Committee, Vahai has lined up jobs and training for veterans at Tesla Motors, the Palo Alto-based electric-car company.

“Hiring vets complements Tesla’s strategy perfectly to promote energy independence and security,” spokeswoman Camille Ricketts said.

Ricketts said veterans are well-trained and have a can-do attitude. She said Tesla is working with the Bay Area Veterans Council to get the word out as it prepares to hire 1,000 employees.

Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, presented Vahai the Veteran of the Year award for his work with Tesla and for setting up an electric car training program at Skyline College.

Vahai also is banking on San Jose’s Clear-Wall, which makes a film that effectively turns regular windows into double-paned windows. This week, Clear-Wall signed a contract with Travis Airforce Base to coat the windows of its 30 largest buildings with the energy-saving film, and Vahai said the company recently landed another federal contract in Washington, D.C.

Clear-Wall’s CEO and inventor, Normand Marchand, whose father was a veteran, hopes construction teams run by disabled vets — who get preferential treatment on federal contracts — will install Clear-Wall products nationwide.

While Vahai helps make that a reality, his ultimate goal of creating 100,000 jobs for vets is still a dream. Although Clear-Wall expects to add another 24 vets by September, only two now work for the company. One is Pete Nell, an Army light artilleryman whose back was crushed by a Howitzer artillery gun while fighting in Iraq in 1992. Nell said the job has given him “a chance at life again.”

After Desert Storm, Nell continued his pre-war trade: construction. But when the job crunch hit in 2008, he spent nine months out of work — “basically starving, surfing couches, having nowhere to live,” he said.

“All I know is my hands … but I’m not supposed to pick up anything heavier than 30 pounds,” he said. “Contractors don’t want to pick up anybody that’s broken.”

Clear-Wall has been like a family to him, recreating the tight-knit, team atmosphere of the Army, Nell said, tearing up.

Yet Vahai himself remains unemployed.

“We have a saying in the Marine Corps where ‘The sergeants eat last,’” he said. “I’ll take a job if there’s one left over.”

Creating careers for GIs

- At least three vets work for Tesla Motors, the Palo Alto-based electric-car maker, and many more could be added as the company hires 1,000 or so employees over the next three to four years.
- Clear-Wall has contracts to retrofit windows at Genentech’s South San Francisco campus and 30 buildings at Travis Airforce Base.

nkyriakou@sfexaminer.com

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Niko Kyriakou

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Monday, Sep 15, 2014

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