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America Supports You: Toyota Helps Guardsmen, Reservists Find Jobs

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 27, 2006 – Don Esmond, a Vietnam War hero, walked into the Toyota Motor Sales in Torrance, Calif., one day in early 2004 and told the staff he wanted the company to develop a hiring program for guardsmen and reservists returning to civilian life from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

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David Sweat, left, the parts department manager at Priority Toyota in Chesapeake, Va., said Army National Guard Sgt. Ricardo "Ricky" Velez came to the company about two months after leaving active duty. Velez previously served in Iraq for 14 months. Photo courtesy of James Wallace
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The idea from Esmond, Toyota's senior vice president of automotive operations and a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran, turned into the Toyota and Lexus "Hire-a-Hero" program, launched in September 2004. Hire-a-Hero worked so well that Patrick Stluka, Toyota's national labor relations manager, nominated the company for the 2005 Secretary of Defense Freedom Award, which the company won.

The award recognizes employers who go the extra mile to support their employees who serve the nation as guardsmen or reservists.

Stluka knows the needs of military people because he served in the Navy from 1970 to 1980 and then joined the Naval Reserve. He retired in 1993 while serving as the command master chief of the San Bernardino U.S. Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Center.

"The Hire-a-Hero program is a tool to make members of the military aware of job opportunities available at independently owned Toyota and Lexus dealerships," explained Toyota spokeswoman Charlotte Lassos. "The company benefits by hiring a diverse group of individuals who have typically demonstrated commitment and responsibility and have attained skills and leadership abilities while on military duty."

When Toyota-employed guardsmen and reservists are called to active duty, they keep their health care benefits, including medical, dental and vision; their life insurance continues; and they can continue their 401K contributions or make a "catch-up" payment into the 401K when they return from active duty. They also can elect to keep their lease car or turn it in without early-return penalty, and Toyota has designated an ombudsman to assist Guard and Reserve employees and their families while the employees fulfill their military obligation.

Esmond earned the Silver Star Medal for valor, the Distinguished Flying Cross, 45 Air Medals and a Purple Heart during the Vietnam War. He spent five years as a naval aviator and helicopter pilot in Vietnam.

The former Marine captain is a 1999 recipient of the Semper Fidelis Award, and is director of the Semper Fidelis Foundation, which raises money and awards college scholarships to the deserving sons and daughters of U.S. Marines and the children of former Marines.

Lassos said that while the Iraq war heightened Esmond's and Toyota's appreciation of military servicemen and women, Toyota already had explored and implemented programs supporting the U.S. military before the war.

For example, she said, some Toyota associates have returned from active duty with stories about how fellow reservists have lost their benefits or even their jobs. "That's something that will not happen at Toyota," Lassos noted. "The company makes up the difference in their citizen-soldier's pay, maintains their health care benefits and continues paying into their pension plan."

Toyota also has come to the aid of wounded servicemembers with care packages when the troops return from fighting the war on terrorism. Toyota donated a 2004 Sienna Rampvan -- a van modified to be driven by mobility-limited drivers and with room for up to three wheelchairs -- to the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

The company also made a $250,000 down payment on an endowment to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation that will total $1.25 million over five years. Toyota also received agreement from 1,422 Toyota and Lexus dealers from across America to support guardsmen and reservists.

Of the 5,500 associates based in Torrance, 202 are veterans, including 84 active and inactive members of the Guard and Reserve. The largest concentration of veterans at a Toyota facility is at the North American Parts Center in Ontario, Calif., where 70 out of 523 associates are veterans.

Lassos points to Ricardo "Ricky" Velez as an example of dealerships hiring people with military backgrounds. The San Juan, Puerto Rico, native wasn't hired under the Hire-A-Hero program, but his military experience in handling automotive parts was a plus for him being hired as a parts department associate by Priority Toyota in Chesapeake, Va.

Velez wanted to make the Army a career, but was unable to find a joint stateside assignment on the East Coast with his wife, Staff Sgt. Katty Velez, 26. She was assigned to Fort Lee, Va., and he left active duty and joined the Army National Guard.

Velez, who served 14 months in Iraq while he was on active duty and has been working at Priority Toyota for about three months, hasn't been called to active duty since signing up for the Guard. When he is called, the Army sergeant will work as an automotive logistics specialist at the Fort Pickett Maneuver Training Center in Blackstone, Va.

He said he hadn't heard of the Hire-a-Hero program but he's pleased about his military experience helping him get hired at Priority Toyota about two months after leaving active duty. As a parts associate, Velez receives parts shipments, sorts and stocks parts, and works the customer service counter.

"Ricky came to us with a lot of training and he's disciplined," said David Sweat, the parts department manager. "I've been impressed. He has got a lot to learn, but he has caught on very quickly and he's not afraid to work."

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Related Sites:
Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve
America Supports You

Click photo for screen-resolution imageIn Washington to accept the Secretary of Defense Freedom Award in October 2005 are, left to right, Don Esmond, Toyota's senior vice president of automotive operations; Patrick Stluka, the company's national labor relations manager, who nominated the company for the award; and Jim Press, president and chief operating officer, all of Toyota Motor Sales USA. Photo courtesy of Toyota  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDon Esmond, a Vietnam War hero and Toyota's senior vice president of automotive operations, brainstormed the idea of creating a program aimed at hiring National Guardsmen and Reservists returning to civilian life from Iraq and Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Toyota  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imagePatrick Stluka, national labor relations manager for Toyota Motor Sales USA, nominated the company for the 2005 Secretary of Defense Freedom Award - and the company won. Photo courtesy of Toyota  
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