Awaiting his turn to give blood, Adam Rocke prowls the corners of American Legion Post 176 in Springfield, Virginia. As usual, the place is buzzing, even on a weekday afternoon. The main floor is filled with sleeveless donors of all ages, volunteers, and Red Cross workers. Upstairs, a patient is behind the closed door of a Project ATLAS VA telehealth appointment. Some members are playing cards in the lounge. Others are watching sports on TV, listening to music, or just visiting.
When Rocke comes around, it’s all handshakes and hugs. He seems to know everyone in the nation’s 17th-largest American Legion post. To some among the 1,600+ members here, he’s the retired Army colonel who was the operations officer for one of the primordial Stryker brigades in Iraq during the troop surge – some post members were there then – or was a battalion commander in the volatile region of Muqdadiya. Vietnam and Korean War veterans know him for the respect he pays to their combat memories and the common ground they share.
Others recognize Rocke as the guy who carves turkey for the post’s annual Thanksgiving feast, whose wife makes deviled eggs, and whose daughter, a full-time teacher, is also a part-time server.
Guidance Is Rocke’s Passion
Between Post 176 and the bigger, broader network Rocke has built nationwide as senior director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes program, there is little difference. He’s at home anywhere, among anyone who has served in the armed forces or employers who want to help them. From private to Pentagon officer, his own career in uniform spanned 30 years. He did three combat tours in Iraq before helping create the Army’s Soldier for Life program.
His experience at both ends of the military pay scale has positioned him well to guide others on their life journeys. To him, such guidance is both a passion and a matter of national security.
He recently spoke with The American Legion Magazine.
Our Veterans Deserve to be Successful
What led you to serve in the Army? There is a long lineage of military service (in my family), starting from World War I with my great-uncle, to World War II with my father, who was a Marine Raider on Iwo Jima, then the Korean War with my uncle Dick. My grandfather was in the New York National Guard. My older brother, Mark, graduated from West Point. He was an Airborne Ranger, and I said, “I want to do this.” I was graduating high school, but I was not ready to go to college just yet. So, I volunteered to join as an enlisted soldier.
What kind of command roles did you assume after going through ROTC at the University of Miami? I was an infantry officer. I served in Korea, 2nd Ranger Battalion, as a lieutenant, got promoted to captain, and deployed to Haiti to Operation Uphold Democracy back in 1994. And that grounded me. It made me a true tactical leader in the infantry. I learned so much. From there, I went to the 82nd Airborne Division and commanded a company. Then I came back to the 2nd Ranger Battalion out of Fort Lewis, Washington, and ended up being a company commander and then a major there, as liaison officer to the special-ops community. I then went to the Army’s 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team and stayed in the same brigade for another eight years as a battalion S3/XO, Brigade S3, then battalion commander, with three tours in Iraq.
How did that put you on the ground floor of Soldier for Life? I didn’t necessarily determine my “why” in life until I got to work for Gen. (Raymond) Odierno (then Army chief of staff) and the Soldier for Life program.
I think my “why” is a calling to help young men and women not only find employment, but meaningful employment. They need mentors. They deserve to be successful.
How did Soldier for Life lead you to the next step? I thought I could do more outside the military, with the connections and network I built wearing the uniform, promoting employment opportunities for transitioning service members, veterans and military spouses … I made a huge network of folks, to include The American Legion, and I wanted to use it for our military community to thrive.
Why is transition assistance so vital today? Transition is powerful because we want the young men and women who served and determined that they are going to get out … we want them to be successful. I also think it’s about our national security and retaining the all-volunteer force. So, if they transition successfully back into communities and have meaningful careers, they are more likely to be a proponent of the value of their service and recommend that to the younger generation.
If they transition successfully back into communities and have meaningful careers, they are more likely to be a proponent of the value of their service and recommend that to the younger generation.Adam Rocke, Senior Director of Events and Programs at Hiring Our Heroes
How did Hiring Our Heroes evolve? The U.S. Chamber started out trying to make connections at the grassroots level. It was mostly about transitioning service members. Over the years, we have grown in many areas – it’s veterans, military spouses, caregivers … the entire military community. And we grew from in-person summits on installations – hiring fairs at the time – to where we’ve now changed the name to Transition Career Summits because it’s more than a hiring fair. There’s an educational component. We need to educate the young men and women who are preparing to get out, so they are better prepared and ready for the workforce. We educate them through lots of different means and culminate with the hiring fair. As a result, the impact for employers is far greater.
A Recipe for Success
You started as senior director of events and programs for Hiring Our Heroes at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. What kind of curveball was that? We all went to a screeching halt, basically. We were all operating from our homes. The world was wearing masks. We had to get really creative. We collaborated daily on how to continue to make ourselves relevant … now from a virtual environment. Companies still had to hire. And service members still had to transition, COVID or not.
We quickly pivoted to a couple of things. The first was virtual webinars that helped continue to educate the transitioning service members, veterans or military spouse population on a host of things, from an industry panel to keynote speakers on leadership to a series of resources on wellness. But how do we continue to do the hiring fairs? How do we do the career summits? We decided to do that virtually, too. We eased ourselves into that, and now we are doing one (virtually) every week or two.
What did you learn about virtual events? They are not going away. What came of a crisis turned into an opportunity to grow our programs in different ways. And frankly, the young men and women thrive on technology today, with the use of their computers and phones. We are now doing educational webinars for service members and their spouses overseas in remote positions or isolation who couldn’t get to a hiring fair and couldn’t get companies to fly over there, but now they are learning about preparing for transition and then bringing that to a hiring fair on a platform we are partnered with, and you have a recipe for success.
70% of the Jobs Military Spouses Got in 2022 Were Remote Jobs
Where do military spouses now fit into the Hiring Our Heroes formula? I think with spouse unemployment – which is a staggering 24% – there’s still a long way to go. But we have 10-plus different programs at Hiring Our Heroes specifically that cater to military spouses, whether it’s a fellowship program, a credentialing/certification/licensing program, whether it’s just finding them direct employment or whether it’s educating them with an amplified program … we also have a robust network with 60-plus chapters around the United States and a couple overseas, that are just for military spouses.
What is happening to augur against high military spouse unemployment? We just did a survey of our military spouses, and 70% of the jobs they got in 2022 were remote jobs – remote full-time jobs. The spouse is no longer geographically tied. Now this is an exportable job. If you do three years and you PCS to another location, you can take that job with you. There’s no gap in that employment now. They are continuing a pathway to meaningful careers.
How do you educate major employers about the military-connected job candidate? The needs of the employer are critical to us. We are in a position to inform them, educate them and help prepare them for that transition. We’ve got to be able to have an open dialogue with our employers, which we do – those that want to improve and want to hire veterans. We also offer the opportunity to learn from us how to recruit veterans. That could be at the tactical level, the strategic level, developing a campaign plan or a whole host of things. We have built some resources on our website … we built a transition roadmap for young service members, and we also built a roadmap for employers.
What questions do major employers ask about veteran candidates? First of all, there are stigmas out there. There are people who think every service member has PTSD. It couldn’t be further from the truth. The other thing is that veterans are very humble. They don’t like to talk about themselves. They talk about the team. We’ve got to educate them to talk about themselves a little more.
How difficult or different is the transition process for officers? It’s a shock to some people, but just because I led a brigade, a combat team of nearly 10,000 people, men and women, large budget and so on, doesn’t mean I am fully capable of being the CEO of a company. Let’s look at a reversal. Would you want a CEO to come in and lead your brigade? No, he or she is not trained yet on that. Could they get there at some point? Yeah, but it will take a while. You have to educate yourself.
You also have to be patient. And you’ve got to realize you might not come in at the level you think. You’ve got to outwork people. You’ve got to outthink people. You’ve got to prove you can learn quickly. It doesn’t matter if you’re a colonel or a private. You have values, you will work hard, you will prove yourself, and you will be successful.
How has Hiring Our Heroes grown? It went from about seven employees in 2011 to about 100 employees today, with thousands of employer partners. In 2023 we have 48 in-person events, 30-plus virtual hiring events and a host of other small boutique-type events for military spouses. We have improved educational programs for both our military spouses and our service members. And we will have more job fairs with The American Legion, which is a valued partner of Hiring Our Heroes.