— By Theresa Duque
Phil Weiss (Office of the Chief Financial Officer) and Rich Celestre (Advanced Light Source) may work for different divisions, in completely different fields, but years ago, they both dedicated their lives to serving their country – one from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, the other under the sweltering sun of the Persian Gulf.
Weiss saw military service as a way to not only serve his country while he was going to school but to also help him pay for college. “My mom became disabled when she was 36, and my parents couldn’t afford to pay for my tuition,” said Weiss. So during his senior year, he joined the Army Reserve, and upon graduating from high school, he deferred his acceptance by the University of Washington (UW) to attend basic training along with four months of school to become a medical laboratory technician.
When he became an Army reservist, Weiss hadn’t planned on serving in the military full-time, but on Nov. 17, 1990, during his junior year at UW, his reserve unit – the Seattle-based 50th General Hospital – was activated, deploying Weiss along with some 700 physicians, nurses, technicians, and other medical workers to staff a 1,000-bed hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of the operations buildup for the Persian Gulf War.
The once full-time college student turned full-time Army medical laboratory technician suddenly found himself having to prepare for the possibility of chemical warfare. While fully outfitted in a rubber suit and gas mask, Weiss underwent nuclear/biological/chemical decontamination training for four hours a day under the unforgiving desert sun, even when it was 120 degrees outside.
Weiss served in the Persian Gulf War until it ended in April 1991. “It was definitely a character-building experience,” he said. “I learned a lot about being creative when you have nothing, and the importance of family.”
1991 was also when Celestre returned to civilian life after nearly a decade of service as a reactor operator in the Navy’s elite fleet of nuclear submarines known as “fast attack subs,” during the tail end of the Cold War. Later that year, he joined the Lab as an electronics engineering technician at the Bevatron.
Today, Celestre – now a senior scientific engineering associate in the Advanced Light Source –and Weiss – a talent and workplace services manager in the OCFO since 2008 – both co-chair the Lab’s Veterans Employee Resource Group (VERG). When VERG first formed in 2013, they had only a vague idea of how many other employees at the Lab who, like them, had once served in the U.S. armed forces.
“All the veterans I knew were from word of mouth. When you run into people, you can pick up that someone may have had prior service,” said Celestre.
As a federal contractor, Berkeley Lab is required by the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA) of 1974 to recruit, hire, promote, and retain veterans as well as establish annual hiring benchmarks for
One of the reasons why the Lab’s veteran population is hard to track is because many are reluctant to self-identify as former military personnel.
“Some employers might have a bias against veterans,” Weiss explained. “There’s a stereotype that they’re always regimented, that they all have PTSD if they were in a war zone, or that they might bend toward one political party or another. But what’s true for a few veterans doesn’t make it representative of the entire veteran population.”
Celestre added that even at the Lab, a hotbed for scientific inquiry and discovery, those biases can surreptitiously show up as unconscious biases, social stereotypes about certain groups of people formed outside an individual’s conscious awareness.
Under their leadership, VERG has worked with the Lab’s hiring managers to help them understand how unconscious biases work not only against vets but also the Lab’s diversity and inclusion efforts. “We need to train hiring managers on how to interpret veterans’ résumés, which might not be conventionally laid out,” said Celestre.
They also recently launched the annual Veteran Outreach Campaign to encourage vets to self-identify, which will help the Lab better assist them. And for the first time this year, thanks to support from Lab Director Mike Witherell and Deputy Director for Operations Glenn Kubiak, each veteran who self-identified by Oct. 31 received a Berkeley Lab Challenge Coin – modeled after similar tokens of service the U.S. military issues to those who served in the armed forces – at the annual Veteran Appreciation Luncheon on Nov. 8.
This year’s Veteran Outreach Campaign may have ended, but there’s still much work to do, the VERG co-chairs said. In collaboration with the 26 other members of VERG, they plan to create a career development program, open to Lab employees who served in the military, and hold quarterly functions that bring together veterans as well as their friends and family to discuss strategies for inclusion, recruitment, and community outreach.
And for veterans at the Lab who missed the Oct. 31 deadline to self-identify, they can still do so at any time by logging onto the Lab’s Employee Self-Service system.