“I would rather try and fail than go through life wondering what if.” Those words have guided Melissa Pulliam from her hometown in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, around the world and back again. In her 34 years there’s not much she hasn’t tried, and, so far, she’s managed to elude that four-letter word that strikes fear in so many: fail.

Helping Veterans Find Jobs with the Coca-Cola Company

Melissa Pulliam at her West Point graduation.

Photo Courtesy of Melissa Pulliam

The Many Paths to the Military

There are many reasons why people choose the military, but for Pulliam, the military chose her. It was teenage Pulliam’s fearlessness on the softball field that first caught the eye of a West Point recruiting coach. At the time, Pulliam and her mother were visiting colleges and considering recruiting offers from various schools — none of which were military academies. The idea scared Pulliam’s mom, but Pulliam was convinced that, if she could get in, West Point was meant to be: “I feigned interest in other schools so as not to upset my mother, but deep down inside I knew it was the place for me, and that West Point was everything I was and then some.” Without her parents’ knowledge, Pulliam filled out an early application to the U.S. Military Academy. 

Applicants to military academies must be recommended by the president, vice president or a member of Congress, and Pulliam’s congressman, Rep. Robert Walker, provided a recommendation and she was accepted. Post-graduation, Pulliam signed a five-year commitment with the U.S. Army, and there was no time to wonder ‘what if.’ She was on her way to war.

“I never had that moment of ‘what have I done? I made a huge mistake,’” she says. ”I really took to it. I enjoyed every moment I was in the military, and to this day I still keep in touch with soldiers of mine.” 

During her five years in the army, Pulliam served in Hawai'i, South Korea, and spent a yearlong tour in Iraq. While deployed she volunteered for humanitarian missions — something she says she sought out. “I wanted to go over there and come home knowing I helped in some small way to make a difference,” she says.

The Challenges of Life After the Military

At the end of her commitment, Pulliam, then a Captain in the Army, resigned. And like the tens of thousands of veterans today, she began a search for both a new career and a new identity within the private sector

“Environment and experience within the military influences how they transition out,” says Michele Jones, director of external veteran/military affairs and community outreach for the United States Office of Personnel Management. “It’s really based on how long they’ve been in, their individual experience with the private sector, and how removed they have been from mainstream America. It can and does create some of the biggest hurdles. If they worked in the private sector prior to entering the military and have only been in for three years, transitioning back into a civilian mindset is often easier. Reserve and Guard members traditionally revert back and forth between military and civilian worlds on a continuous basis, however, they also have challenges for employment.”

But the challenges of securing a job in today’s economy are more difficult than they were when Pulliam got out in 2005. The unemployment rate is up, and the military is downsizing and consolidating facilities. So in addition to the thousands of military men and women transitioning out every month as part of the normal attrition rate, there are thousands more who are leaving as the military reduces its force.

Jones says, “The United States Office of Personnel Management is working with the U.S. Department of Defense as well as the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs in a concerted effort, including all federal agencies, to execute the government-wide Veteran Recruitment and Employment Strategic Plan Fiscal Year 2010-2012 and  hire veterans within the federal government.” That ask has expanded beyond the government as it’s now Jones’ commission to development partnerships, share best practices and provide training to private sector entities on recruiting, hiring and retaining veterans. Her marching orders come directly from President Barack Obama, who has called upon the private sector to hire 100,000 veterans and military family members.

A National Focus on Hiring

The private sector has answered with the 100,000 Jobs Mission. That coalition, led by JPMorgan Chase, includes nearly 75 U.S.-based companies that are committed to hiring veterans. The mission, stated on the 100,000 Jobs website, began in March 2011 “with a goal of collectively hiring 100,000 transitioning service members and military veterans by 2020.” Some of the companies involved include Home Depot — whose program includes a pledge to hire military spouses — AT&T, Delta Airlines and The Coca-Cola Company. The coalition has hired more than 28,000 veterans as of Oct. 10, 2012

As part of that commitment, in May, Coca-Cola committed to hiring 800 veterans over the next 12 months. Jerome Richard, Coca-Cola Refreshments (CCR) talent acquisition program manager at Coca-Cola, says this initiative is “both good for business and part of our company’s civic duty.” Richard notes that Coca-Cola has a centralized and dedicated strategy to hiring veterans that revolves around four pillars: attract, develop, recruit and retain. As of October 2012, Coca-Cola has hired 733 veterans.

This is in line with The Coca-Cola Company’s long history of supporting U.S. military men and women. In World War I the company had battlefield bottling plants, and in World War II former company president Robert Woodruff committed "to see that every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for five cents, wherever he is and whatever it costs the company."

Though now it seems it’s the military men and women who are the ones providing the refreshment. Throughout CCR, there are thousands of veterans performing a variety of roles across all 50 states — Pulliam among them.

Helping Veterans Find Jobs With the Coca-Cola Company

Melissa Pulliam at her California office.

Photo Courtesy of Melissa Pulliam

Working at Coca-Cola

Many veterans, including Pulliam, acquire a range of life experiences before working with Coca-Cola. After the Army, Pulliam attended law school and worked as a litigation attorney before realizing that litigation wasn’t for her long-term. At a career fair in California, she met Tim Heinen, vice president of the regional field operations supply chain for the Western region at Coca-Cola Refreshments. Pulliam quickly identified him as “the man I wanted to work with.”  

Following that introduction, Pulliam applied to Coca-Cola and accepted her current position in January 2012 as distribution center manager, reporting to Larry Byres, VP of field operations for San Diego/ Hawai'i,who is a part of Heinen’s larger team.

“She came in with a tangible,” Byres says of Pulliam’s leadership. "It’s present when you meet her. Operationally we can teach people about warehousing and delivery — that can be trained — but how they develop and lead their work group is harder for someone to learn.” And because Byres' operations are located near the Naval Base San Diego and Camp Pendleton, it’s only natural that many of his employees are ex-military.

“The military forces people to accelerate their maturity. They’ve been put in some difficult situations. So what happens here on a day-to-day basis doesn’t seem to faze them,” explains Byres.

Nine months into the job, Pulliam will tell you she has no “what ifs” to speak of, and she finds many parallels between her job now and her role in the Army. “Just like the military we have different units — product supply and operations. You have various teams to manage, but at the end of the day we’re all working together. We’re all Coca-Cola.” Her mission now is to ensure the success of her colleagues and fellow veterans. She participated in a military hiring event at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, and is preparing for another one at her facility later this year. “I believe there’s a lot that veterans have to offer with the training and experience that they have. I truly believe vets can be successful within Coca-Cola.”

 And who’s to argue with the woman who doesn’t know how to fail?

Veterans interested in working for Coca-Cola Refreshments can log on here. Those interested in companies who participate in the 100,000 Jobs Mission can sign up for more information through the U.S. Veterans Pipeline or by visiting the 100,000 Jobs Mission Facebook page.