Navy veteran Tom Keen said he's glad he came to Fort Wayne and to ITT Exelis, although he hadn't been looking to give up his civilian job in Tulsa, Okla.
"They called me," said Keen, who served as a naval flight officer, at the U.S. Embassy in London, and in acquisitions during his 20 years of duty. "How they heard about me, I've got no clue."
Such experience is vital to the communications innovator, said Tim White, a company spokesman at the Communications and Protection Systems division. "To be clear, we don't recruit active military. That's off-limits," said White, a 21-year Air Force veteran. Military service is an asset, not an employment requirement, he said.
Both men were to be among the 50 or so ITT Exelis employees scheduled to volunteer Saturday at Shepherd's House, which helps other veterans transition to civilian life.
In celebration of Veterans Day, about 300 U.S. flags were to fly from the military communications division on West Cook Road and the satellite communications division on Innovations Drive.
In interviews as the patriotic holiday approached, Keen and White said their company benefits by its example in valuing former service personnel.
"They have all the things that you would need in an employee, whether you're Applebee's, or Dana or General Motors," Keen said. "They have a strong work ethic that any company could utilize. They're dependable. They know how to get to work in the morning. "
Veterans transition quickly, White said. "Veterans come in with a leg up. They understand the products, the culture, the organization of our customers." Having an established security clearance also is an advantage, he said.
White said the company works mostly with the Army, but also with other branches of the service. "Sometimes it takes a Navy person to understand how the Navy operates," he said.
Besides technical expertise, White said, veterans bring soft skills that are valued outside the defense industry. "When you've got a 20-year-old leading a squad of men in a very difficult situation, and convincing them to follow him in harm's way, that's a certain leadership that isn't taught in a business school," White said.
Those technical skills are tested daily, in existing products and in plans for future products.
For instance, White said ITT Exelis has sold more than 575,000 units of a communications device, mostly to the military. "It's more than just a radio," he said, because of the ancillary devices and upgrades. "And to have someone there as a field service rep who is a veteran, who understands the culture, who has a certain amount of trust, is an advantage."
Keen, a business development specialist, said ITT Exelis wants to help the military keep that technical advantage in the years ahead.
"Over the last 15 years you've seen a huge leap in technology in communications and networking in the civilian world," he said. "We had these telephones that were on our desk and that's all we had, and then we went to cellphones and now we have smartphones. Well, you're seeing that same kind of thing evolve in the military. What we're trying to do is find out what the requirements are of the Army and the Navy today and then project out what their needs are going to be five or 10 years from today. We need to be looking at what's the next thing that's going to be coming down the pike in smartphone technology that a soldier can use."
"This is a nifty device," White said of a cellphone. "This phone has all kinds of things. But if you don't have towers spread every 20 miles or so down the road, it's not a lot of good. We have to have devices that will do that without towers, because in a battle the first thing that's going to go is the communications towers."
"At the same time operating for 72 hours on the same battery without being recharged," Keen added.
"So if you're a young and talented engineer, it's really a neat place to work," White said.
"One other issue is assurance of service," White said. A lost signal is an inconvenience to a civilian, but it is a peril to a combatant, he said. "Someone gets injured or maybe even dies if they're not able to transmit when they need to," he said.
"Former military guys are 100 percent dedicated to that mission to make sure that our brethren that are serving now are given the best possible equipment that we can when they go to battle," White said.
"If I had gone to work elsewhere, it would be doubtful that I would have been surrounded by other military folks," Keen said, who sees a disconnect between civilians and veterans and their understandings of military service.
White described those separate perspectives in different words. "There are always challenges, especially when veterans are coming back from a time of war," White said. "I think it's difficult for me to fathom what it's like in Kandahar; I never had to go to Kandahar.
"Tom and I are very fortunate," White said. "We have retired from the military. In my case I'm able to move home to Indiana with a company that has a tremendous value for veterans. But that doesn't happen for everybody.
"We recognize that it's not the same path out of the military for everyone," said White, whose company has committed $5 million over five years to assist veterans through Action Corps, in partnership with Points of Light. One small part of that, he said, was the volunteer project planned Saturday at Shepherd's House, 519 Tennessee Ave., in Fort Wayne. Some of that center's residents have post-separation issues, including addictions, he said. "And we just believe it's very important to help. So we're going to have 50 volunteers there, getting stuff ready for the holidays, and to spend some time with the vets there, share experiences, talk, enjoy each other."
His co-workers will try to do something for veterans three or four times a year, Keen said.
White also is vice president of the Fort Wayne Base Community Council, dedicated to improving relations between the civilian and military service communities.
ITT Exelis employs about 1,625 people in Indiana, including about 1,600 in Fort Wayne. The company opened Fort Wayne operations in the 1940s, as part of ITT.