Tiffany Deering joined the U.S. Army in 2006. While stationed in Korea for two years, she met and married John, another soldier. He left for Fort Drum in New York, and she followed, but military service usually kept them apart. They each deployed to Iraq, in different units at different times. Her husband reenlisted, while Tiffany served her remaining year of duty and then made the transition to civilian life.
She had been a soldier for years, and a good one.
“I got out and wondered, ‘What am I going to do now?’” she recalls.
Her husband had a suggestion.
“What about driving a truck?”
Soon, he would be separating from the army himself, and liked the idea that they could finally spend some time together seeing the country that they had served.
The Deerings have been happily on the road with Werner Enterprises for the past year. Though neither had a background in trucking, they find that the job suits them, and their army experience gave them a solid foundation to build from.
That is the general consensus among veterans who become truckers, and recruiters for trucking companies wooing veterans.
“There is an attitude among military veterans that is a perfect fit for trucking,” says Josh Landers, a Veteran Advocate with Con-Way who specifically seeks out men and women about to end their service for driver openings. “Without any supervision, they come to the job with a mission-first mindset and are really hard-charging individuals with a strong sense of accountability."
The connection between veterans and trucking is getting stronger as one group grows and another shrinks. At the end of 2014, the American Trucking Associations partnered with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and set a goal on behalf of its members. The trucking industry would hire 100,000 military veterans by the end of 2016. It was a response to dual needs. There will be more than 1 million active military personnel discharged into the civilian workforce by 2020. Trucking, meanwhile, is seeing the ranks of its drivers dwindle as many age into retirement without an equal number of new drivers taking their place.
In 2011, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration instituted a waiver program that addresses the issue. Veterans and active duty members with experience driving a military truck or bus can get the skills test of their CDL application waived. So far, more than 10,000 veterans have taken advantage of the program, with about 4,000 doing so in 2014.
John Deering had no military trucking experience, but he had long thought about climbing into a semi and making a living on the highway.
“My uncle drives and I got to go on the road with him when I was a kid,” he says. “At the time, I thought, ‘this is it.’ A big part of the appeal to me is the traveling and not having to be in the same place day after day.”
His wife Tiffany had not seen much of the country, so she was quick to sign on to the idea. While John finished out his service, she went to driving school and got her CDL. He followed, and they’ve been drivers ever since, happy to be on the road with their two dogs.
Both held leadership positions in the Army and find that their approach to delivering a load mirrors the type of mission planning they once did. In this case, they know that they must be on time, and so they begin plotting out what they need to do as soon as they get their load message.
“You have to get your work situation down,” says Tiffany. “We do backwards planning, and we delegate tasks from the start. How many breaks will we be taking? How many fueling stops do we need? How many switches will we have to do? Do we know if there’s any construction? Will we be going through a big city?”
When obstacles threaten to delay the plan, the Deerings call in to report the situation — and to offer solutions.
Ultimately, though, they find the best part of the job is the freedom that goes along with that responsibility. The couple enjoy the time they spend together and the sights they see along the way. And maybe, just a little, they get a kick out of mastering the more difficult tasks.
“We like driving through the north in the wintertime,” Tiffany says with a laugh. “We like cold weather and love snow. There’s something about knowing that we have to make smart decisions, being careful and knowing when to get off the road. It’s a challenge and we like that.”
COMING OUT OF RETIREMENT
Jill Adkins planned to be a teacher, until her senior year of college when she finally stepped into a classroom.
“I realized that, no, that is not going to work for me,” she remembers, chuckling a bit.
With graduation around the corner she made a dramatic change of plans, and joined the Marine Corps in 1976.
“I read a book by Leon Uris, Battle Cry, about the Marines during World War II,” Adkins recalls. “I just fell in love with the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps is the best and I wanted to be part of the best.”
She spent 20 years with the Corps, stationed on both coasts of this country and overseas, in Okinawa. When she and her husband, also a Marine, retired, they settled down on a farm in Tennessee. In 2008, they started feeling a financial pinch. Her husband’s health was failing and he was unable to work, so she set out to find a job that she could take on quickly. She went to driving school, got her CDL and headed out on the highway. Soon after, her husband passed away and she sold their farm. She’s been driving across the country for seven years now with Con-Way.
“I love it,” Adkins says. “Our country is just gorgeous. Iowa, which people think of as flat and full of corn, is not like that at all — it’s just beautiful, while Nebraska really is flat as can be. You get out to the Southwest and it’s stunning. I get to see all that — and get paid to do it.”
Like the Deerings, Adkins sees a connection between her military training and the job of trucking, though she takes the viewpoint of the troops.
She points to the value of being respectful to everyone, and showing that respect through the simple act of saying ‘yes sir’ and ‘yes ma’am’ when speaking with customers. A strong sense of ethics — simply doing the right thing — is important in a job that gives a driver responsibility for freight and representing a company. Self-reliance to get the job done applies to both pursuits. And the camaraderie that ensures success in the military translates directly to the support truckers give each other on the road.
“The Marine Corps helped me have that strength to not have to be dependent on others, but to also be there to take care of people. We had each other’s back all the time. In trucking you are by yourself a lot and you have to have the strength to be alone, but through communication with other drivers, you know that you are not really alone.”
While a book inspired Adkins to join the Marines, Al Strong says that he enlisted after seeing an episode of the old TV show Movin’ On that asked: “who are the toughest men in America — truckers or Marines?” He had already been trucking for years so he decided to test it out.
“The Marines are a little tougher,” he says.
He served from 1981 to 1986, stationed at Camp Pendleton, where he was a driver and drive instructor. He earned extra cash by doing weekend runs for an owner-operator nearby. His life has pretty much been a melding of those two vocations. Once out of the Marines he went right back to trucking, then 10 years later joined the Army National Guard and was called up to go to Baghdad before retiring from service. Now, he and his wife drive for Mercer Transportation, often hauling military freight.
“There is definitely a sense of pride in doing this work,” Strong says. “It’s a great feeling to know that we have done a job that is worthwhile, that the troops have their supplies delivered on time. I love being on the base and talking to the young troops and letting them know how much we appreciate their service.”
In addition to passing special security clearances, with intensive background checks by the FBI and the Department of Defense (DOD), drivers hauling military freight must follow strict rules through the entire delivery run. Hauling a DOD load requires dual drivers, satellite monitoring, two-hour maximum for stops and driving straight to the base.
Al’s driving partner, wife Wanda, decided to join him in the truck after their children were grown, with kids of their own. Rather than stay at home and serve as the built-in baby sitter for her grandkids, she got her permit, went to Mercer and got a job — much to Al’s surprise. He taught her how to drive, and they have been a team ever since.
“I enjoy talking to the soldiers on the bases,” she says. “I’ve talked to quite a few who have been deployed, and they are all volunteers. They don’t have to serve, so I’m glad to give them thanks for the service they are doing for our country to keep us safe.”
Both of the Strongs honor that commitment and are glad to play a part in it. When Al describes his feelings about the work they do, he could just as easily be describing his military past or the young troops he is proud to support.
“There is a sense of pride and dedication,” he says. “You know what you need to do. You go do it, and you try to do it above and beyond the call of duty.”