Military Veterans in NDT

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Tales of the Trades shares just some of the millions of stories in the skilled industrial trades, shining a bright light on the hard-working tradesmen and women who build, operate, and maintain the world we live in. We also focus on the individuals and organizations working hard to advance industrial sectors and ensure their success over the coming decades.

This month, we shine the spotlight on four U.S. military veterans—Toni Bailey, Bobby Durning, John Stewart and Jeff Wagner—who’ve built successful civilian careers in NDT after serving their country. We recently spoke with them about getting into NDT, how they made the transition from military to civilian careers and why industrial employers should hire veterans.

In what branch of the military did you serve and for how long?

Toni Bailey: I am a U.S. Air Force veteran. I joined the Air Force in 1989. It was around November, so I was in basic training for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s that year. I served until 1997. It was a great experience.

Bobby Durning: I was in the Air Force and served for 24 years. I liked a lot about the experience, mostly the relationships I built and the places I got to go. But it also set me up for a career.

John Stewart: I served in the United States Navy. I was a part of the Navy Seabees from 1987 to 1992.

Jeff Wagner: I servedin the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, 193rd SOG for 13 years

How did your experience in the military prepare you for your career in inspection?

Stewart: Just paying attention to detail is really what is what they teach you in the Navy in general, and Seabees as well. And that’s pretty much what NDT is all about: paying attention to detail. In the Navy, we did standard visual inspections on the equipment, so stuff of that nature. We would have to visually inspect all our heavy equipment, our bulldozers or front-end loaders, we’d have to check the hydraulic lines and whatnot. Just check where normal wear and tear could lead to possible maintenance issues.

Wagner: I fell right into the 2A7X2, Air Force (AF) NDI career field without any prior knowledge; it just sounded like a cool job. I was fortunate to work with several individuals who were not only very experienced AF 7 levels (highest NDI level of qualification) but they also had ASNT Level III certifications and taught me so much about the career field and the industry which made my transition to finding a commercial NDT job super easy.

Durning: It gave me a range of experience with different airframes and inspection methods and allowed me to meet a variety of people—including people outside of the military. One thing I gained was relational equity with vendors, sales team members and product engineers. These were people who were doing things with NDT but weren’t involved in the military. I initially connected with them through a regional ASNT event which let me meet people in my area who were doing NDT for different companies and schools.

I got into NDT by luck. When I went to basic training, they let you take your pick of jobs that were available. They gave me a list of possible jobs, and I was asked to make 10 different choices. I had no idea what NDT was, but they made it look interesting, so I put it on my list. NDT was my number seven. Lucky number seven.

 I joined the Air Force right after graduating high school, and I signed up to work in medical to hopefully be an RN, because I knew it was something I could use on the outside. Later, after I did some testing, I ended up scoring well in science and math, and they said to me, “we think nondestructive testing would be better for you.” I had no idea what nondestructive testing was, as a matter of fact, I thought it was something medical. So I went to a new Air Force base for nondestructive testing. In the beginning, I said, “Oh, my God, what have I gotten myself into?” But I’ll tell you something that my instructor said to me. He said, “if you just give this a chance, and you apply yourself, you will never have to look for a job. They will always come looking for you.”

They trained me for seven methods: fluorescent penetrant, magnetic particle, eddy current ultrasonics, radiography, visual testing, and something called spectrometric oil analysis. That’s the classroom training you get for about six or seven months. By the time I was 20 years old, I had gotten Level II certifications in all those methods.

What was your first job as a civilian in industrial inspection? Where are you now?

Durning: I actually went way off into left field. I was looking for a work environment rather than a target salary. I wanted to find a place where there was a culture fit for me, so I applied for an LLC and started doing contract work. What I noticed was that there were a large number of companies trying to connect with government contracts. So I offered them my services. It eventually led me to the company I work for now, Carestream NDT. I started as a contractor with Carestream, but contract work can be inconsistent, and when my contract ended, they asked if I would be interested in applying for a full-time position.

Currently, my job is to focus on our government customers and how we can best help them utilize our products and services for their market. We specialize in Computed Radiography and Digital Radiography panels. Computed radiography is a way to acquire images without the use of film or chemicals allowing the technician to use the image plate multiple times. We use it in aerospace, and the Oil & Gas industry is starting to use it in some areas as well.

Bailey: I got a good job at Honeywell Aerospace in Houston, Texas, and I used almost all those methods I’d learned in the military over the first two years. Then I worked at Gulfstream Aerospace. In 2001, I became a partner at a company called Structural Testing Systems. I was only 28 years old, and I was able to hire other military veterans. I had a guy from the Army, a young lady from the Air Force and a few others from the Air Force. We ended up building a staff of all veterans. 

I went on to work for Hellier NDT, which is a training and consulting company. I was with them for 21 years and continued hiring other veterans. Then in 2017, I moved over to my own company, TB3. TB3 specializes not only in classroom training, but hands-on training and a lot of our customers are the Department of Defense, government and military bases.

Wagner: My first civilian NDT job was as a MT and AE trainee working for a company called Independent Testing Laboratories where we inspected Man-lift devices such as bucket trucks used by electrical power companies. I later took a job with Lebanon Steel Foundry doing UT and RT on sand castings followed by a job with Doehler Jarvis doing Quality Assurance. The first gulf war kicked off, and I took a full time job at my National Guard base as a civilian technician which was the start of my 30 year government career. I moved through numerous DoD agencies learning more NDT and acquiring more certifications. Today, I work for the Defense Contract Management Agency as an NDT Examiner for the Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program with the full complement of associated certifications. I also have ASNT Level III certifications in MT, PT, RT, UT, and ET and I am a certified AWS-CWI. I also dabble on the side with my own company, NDT Quality Assurance LLC, because I just can’t get enough NDT and love to learn new techniques and applications.

Stewart: My first job was at Tulsa Gamma Ray in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was a student at Spartan College of Aeronautics and during the day, and then I was an assistant radiographer. So I was lucky enough to be able to get some hands on experience while studying the theory as well. After graduating Spartan, I was blessed enough to get into SpaceX. My plan was then was to do my five years, invest in my stocks and then get out. And that’s exactly what happened. And the stock options were generous enough for me to retire.

I knew that once I retired, I wanted to start a school. I didn’t know it was going to be a nonprofit at the time. But my wife has her degree in nonprofit management, and she’s an attorney. And she said, you should really look at this and you know, make a decision if you want to go for-profit or not-for-profit. And a not-for-profit just seemed like the right way to go, because our mission is to help people who normally wouldn’t be able to pay for the education. You know, there are a lot of people out there, even those in the military who come out without any GI Bill support.

So I founded AATA—American Aerospace Technical Academy—to give underrepresented people a chance to learn a trade, which can serve as a great career for them. Because we’re a nonprofit, the training is usually at no cost. Most of the veterans that we come to AATA, we’re able to fund them because we are approved by the Department of Labor. And we’re also approved by the Department of Apprenticeship Standards, which means are a federally- and state-approved as an apprenticeship program.

Any veteran is usually going to get funded at 100%. We also live in Los Angeles, so there are a lot of underserved communities, a lot of disenfranchised communities. So we also fund the majority of them. Most of our funding comes through government programs. The California Community College Chancellor’s Office is a huge supporter. They’ve given us probably over $2 million so far, to help. And it’s just great.

What was your biggest challenge in making the transition from active duty to the civilian job market?

Wagner: At the time, my biggest challenge was transitioning from Air Force certifications to civilian certifications was getting credit for the training and hours I had already been given by the military. I am told that process has been streamlined now, and it’s much easier to pull records now that everything is in a digital format.

Durning: Patience. I needed to remain patient for what I wanted achieve. You look at a calendar or you look at your bank account and think you should be farther along in life than you are, so you need to be patient and stay the course.

Bailey: I was used to being with the guys in the military, but as a civilian, there are challenges. Sometimes, I think they can use some of the training and discipline that we had in the military, with women and men working together in the same environment, because there were some challenges just being a female airman among the males. The good news is that working with all guys in the Air Force helped me to know how to deal with discrimination. And just outright disrespect, things that you simply shouldn’t say to other professionals. So, I would say the unprofessional behaviors from some people, but not all people.

I went through very challenging situations where some of the guys just weren’t professional. They said some inappropriate things, and that was hurtful. I wasn’t used to that because I was used to everyone being a team, and it was hard to adapt. However, there were other veterans at the shop, and some of those people became good friends. Whenever I needed to handle situations such as discrimination, or unfairness, or just inappropriate things, they were in my corner.

Stewart: When you transition out of the military—and it’s gotten a little bit better now—but when you transition out, they don’t prepare you for civilian life. You come out with a totally different attitude, and you look at other people around you, whom you are still calling civilians, even though you’re a civilian yourself, and you kind of like, say, I’ll never fit into this world. There’s no structure to this, there’s no discipline out here. It kind of feels like a free for all. I realized I need to get into something structured and school was an option. I discovered NDT, and for the cost of the training versus the possible income, it was a no brainer. I think the total cost back then was under $20,000, which can easily be made up in your first year as an inspector. And that’s been over 20 years now, and I’ve never been unemployed or laid off. It’s just been a great experience.

What advice would you offer to active duty service members or veterans entering the NDT space?

Durning: Document all of your experience hours and build relationships with people inside and outside of the military community in NDT.  Go to trade shows, working group meetings, get involved.

Bailey: If the person was not in nondestructive testing, and they need to learn, take an intro to NDT class to get your feet wet, understand what it is before you go and spend money, because sometimes people drop out. They’re like, “listen, there’s math involved and I don’t like math.” For military people, I think it would be great if ASNT could offer an eight hour, “What is NDT?” short course.

Stewart: If you’re still in the military, I would recommend that you look into transition programs. They normally have career transition personnel who can help. What normally happens when you come six months due from your obligated service, they start trying to talk you into re-enlisting. At the same time, if you just say, “Hey, I really don’t want to re-enlist, I would like to transition, could you give me some information on what I need to do to transition,” they’ll start pointing you in the right direction.

For those who are already out, just having your veteran status and being able to understand the importance of paying attention to detail, because that’s what NDT is. If you just focus on that, reading your specifications and your procedures and following instructions, then you will go very far in this industry.

Wagner: I would suggest that active or military veterans be diligent in maintaining good personal records of training, certifications, and experience to ease the worries of potential employers.

What do you like to do in your free time?

Bailey: There’s two things that I really, really enjoy. I like to go to the beach and just sit and watch the waves come and go. Peace and quiet. I’m teaching and hands-on all the time, which takes a lot out of you. And the other thing that I really enjoy is dancing. I love Jazzercise kind of exercise stuff. For the second part of my journey, I’m slowly moving past my NDT training and mentoring and now focused more on having more balance in my life and dancing.

Wagner: Aside from faith, family, and fun, I love to read and when time permits, get involved with ASNT at the local or national level.

Stewart: I have a stepson who has autism. He’s 21. When I met him, he was only 12, and I didn’t even know what autism was. Since then I’ve learned so much. So in my free time, I like to spend time with him. He’s a little bit on the lower end of the spectrum, so he’s still learning a lot. But just to see his mind work is kind of fascinating. I have four sons and five grandsons. That’s a lot of boys now. My son Raymond works for Northrop Grumman. He’s a materials engineer. He was also at SpaceX, and he left SpaceX and went back to college. I have another son who’s also doing X-ray for companies, so two of my four boys are actually in the business and they love it.

Durning: I love to barbecue. Everything from brisket, ribs, pork shoulders. I’m going to BBQ the Thanksgiving turkey this year.

Our thanks to Toni, Bobby, John and Jeff for making time to share their stories and industry insights with us. We are grateful for their military service and honor the work they do in NDT each day to keep us all safe. (We’re also dreaming of crashing Bobby’s Thanksgiving dinner for some barbecued turkey!)

Photo credits: Toni Bailey, Bobby Durning, John Stewart and Jeff Wagner

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