BRADENTON -- When Dawn Smith left the U.S. Air Force six years ago, she was sure a career that included a master's degree and eight years experience moving people and cargo to war zones around the world would easily get her into a $60,000-a-year civilian job.
But all she found waiting for her when she went home to North Carolina were offers for $9-an-hour warehouse jobs from potential employers who simply couldn't believe a woman was capable of running an overseas logistics operation.
They weren't offers Smith, a single mother of four who moved to Bradenton in June, could afford to accept.
"Even before I joined the military, that was what I was making," the former staff sergeant said. "I sent out resumes in any avenue, anything that was out there."
She didn't give up. A straight-A student in high school who got her diploma after having her first child at 17, Smith did what many veterans have done when they get out of the service: She took the best job she could find, earned a second master's degree in accounting and kept sending out resumes.
Eventually, with help from a Washington, D.C.-based foundation that mentors female vets looking for jobs commensurate with their experience, Smith landed a better job with the Internal Revenue Service and was later hired by the Department of Defense as a military contract auditor at twice her previous salary.
Smith also started an online herbal tea retail business she had planned to open with her late sister, Sandy. Mystic RemeTeas, and now ships her own blends of tea to clients around the United States.
Smith's hard work hasn't just earned her the wage she had planned on coming out of the military. It also got her invited to the White House in July to help first lady Michelle Obama spread the word about the plight of female veterans looking for work in the civilian world. Smith was one of five female veterans Redbook arranged to spend an afternoon with Obama to talk, interview and do a photo shoot for the national magazine's November issue highlighting the First Lady's "Joining Forces" veteran employment initiative.
Getting to where Smith is now was a struggle. Married at the time she left the military, Smith divorced shortly after transitioning out. Her first post-Air Force job was as a middle school teacher, earning $35,000
a year. For a time, she lived with family because she was earning so little that there were many nights she didn't eat because there wasn't enough food for her and her children.
But after her experience at the White House, Smith prefers to think about what has gone right for her. That includes her afternoon with Obama.
"The first lady, I love her," Smith said.
Double-edged career sword
Married at age 18, Smith struggled early to find a career path. She finished high school even after counselors encouraged her to drop out to raise her first child. Smith and her then-husband split after four years, which left her looking for work that would support her and her children.
A chance visit to an Air Force recruiter with a friend who was signing up convinced her the military was the way to go. Like Smith, her recruiter was a divorced woman with children who had found her career calling with the Air Force.
Smith worked eight years with the Air Force, handling logistics for moving troops and material in and out of Iraq, Afghanistan and other locales. She rose in the ranks working a job she said she still loves as much as anything she's ever done.
When it came time to leave the military, Smith got a whirlwind course on job searching from Air Force career counselors. In retrospect, she said the experience did not prepare her for how few job opportunities she would find as a veteran.
According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, about 9.6 percent of female veterans who served in the military after 2001 are unemployed. That's a higher rate than male veterans, 8.8 percent, and the non-veteran population, 6.8 percent.
Female veterans are at the bigger disadvantage, Smith said, because employers often don't believe they actually run many of the military's operations. During her job searches, she saw male veterans with lower ranks and less responsibility than she had offered higher wages.
"I think the issue for me, primarily, was lack of respect," Smith said of her years-long search for the right job.
She got help from the Business and Professional Women Foundation's Joining Forces mentoring program, which provides free, unlimited job search and career counseling to female veterans. Her counselor called every few days to build her confidence, and made key changes to her resume that brought employers calling.
Deborah Frett, executive director of the Joining Forces program, said civilian and veteran mentors in her organization help female veterans market their skills so they accurately reflect their job-related accomplishments in the military.
"To be able to show that and tell the story, that's important," she said.
Smith's trip to the White House grew out of the Joining Forces program, which was co-founded by Michelle Obama. Among the five interviewees Redbook brought to the White House, she was the only one to be fully employed and cited as a "success story."
Still early in her career with the Department of Defense, the 37-year-old Smith said she isn't taking the pressure off herself to succeed. She wants to be an example to her children, three of whom are girls, and to other veterans. She's also become an activist on behalf of jobless veterans in general. Within the next year, she plans to start her own nonprofit that will help veterans pursue professional careers and entrepreneurship.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.