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Building America, with stories to tell

by Victor Limjoco, Nightly News associate producer

On an unseasonably hot day in Seattle, Michael Lewis rushed to pour concrete at a construction site. A heat wave had come over the region, and as the day progressed, the weather only made his job harder -- helping to construct a new runway for Seattle's airport. He's much like the other construction workers on the site, except there's a small sticker on his yellow hardhat that says "Helmets to Hardhats."

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A little more than a year ago, Michael Lewis was in a very different position. A ground soldier in the U.S. Army, Lewis had served two tours in Iraq and survived multiple IED attacks. He received a Purple Heart. He looked forward to transitioning back to civilian life after separating from the military, but there were challenges ahead. "I don't think I realized how hard it was going to be until I left the military," Lewis says. "I went through a lot of difficult phases."

Facing a crippled job market and struggling to find a long-term career, Michael Lewis turned to "Helmets to Hardhats," a federally funded program that matches veterans with construction apprenticeships. The competitiveness for these training programs varies from region to region, and many wait months, even years, to get on the lists for a variety of construction jobs -- from carpenters to ironworkers to elevator repairers. "Helmets to Hardhats" accelerates the process for these veterans and matches them with careers that best fit their abilities and interests.

Lewis now works for the Local 440 Laborer Union as a first-year apprentice. "I truly believe that this will be my career," he says. "I don't see myself going anywhere else."

With the sounds of power drills and electric saws in the background, correspondent Michelle Kosinski and I watched as Brad Costalunga, another "Helmets to Hardhats" veteran, welded pipe together for a new condo development in the south loop of Chicago. He talks about his days in the military, when you're running on "crazy adrenaline," and the difficult transition back to civilian life.

When we go back to his suburban Chicago home, his wife remembers those days: "You have someone who was almost completely lost." But after the program, she saw a transformation. "Right now, you have somebody that's definitely successful … I would say that the guys at work now are his new brotherhood."

We witnessed these stories of transformation with the "Helmets to Hardhats" boilermakers in Ohio, pipefitters in Chicago, and laborers in Seattle. There are thousands of other stories where good jobs are going to these veterans.

Darrell Roberts, the program's director, knows the impact this has on veterans. "I have had some tell me that they didn't know if their military service meant anything," he says. "They didn't know if anybody really cared. And when they look you in the eye … and they say, 'Thank you. My family is taken care of. I have found a great career.' It makes it all worthwhile."

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