Marine finds new purpose at our heavy equipment operator school

Heavy equipment operator training is our specialty. This student, pictured in front of a bulldozer, will complete his heavy machine operator training in 6 weeks and is on his way to an excellent career.

BRENTWOOD — Marine sniper Alex LaBier survived two overseas deployments across 10 countries in the span of four years. But when he came home to western Massachusetts he struggled to find purpose while working to support his longtime girlfriend and his new child on the way.

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The new father said he fell on hard times and made some “bad choices” of his own after being laid off from a Massachusetts state job at the end of 2017. He said he could no longer afford his apartment. He said he and his girlfriend Kelsey Roach moved in with her parents around the time his son Eli was born 15 months ago. He did not have a vehicle and was homeless.

“When I got back, I didn’t have that structure, I didn’t have that drive,” LaBier, 27, said. “I was just getting depressed and losing motivation by the day. I wasn’t going to the gym anymore. I said to my girlfriend I have to do something for our family if we’re going to have a future and be successful. It was hard. I couldn’t provide for my new family.”

LaBier said after his layoff he sought the help of Veterans, Inc., a nonprofit organization based in Worcester, Massachusetts, which supports veterans with employment and training services, counseling, temporary financial assistance and more. The group has assisted 80,000 veterans across New England since its founding in 1990.

Veterans Inc. helped LaBier get in for physicals and dental checkups for the first time since leaving the military. Through Veterans Inc.’s career services, LaBier attended an informational session from Heavy Construction Academy (HCA) in Brentwood. He took an interest because he was familiar with heavy equipment from working with his father after high school.

“When Alex says he couldn’t provide for his family, for a Marine that translates to, ‘I can’t accomplish my mission,’” said Charlie DuQuette, a retired Marine master sergeant and the employment and training specialist at Veterans Inc. “Veterans want a hand up, not a hand out.”

LaBier said the day after the informational session, HCA’s admissions counselor Derek Alsup spent an hour on the phone with him to help him register for his Veteran’s Affairs benefits, including his GI Bill benefits, to cover the cost of his tuition. By the following Monday, LaBier had attended his first course as part of his six weeks of classes at HCA, from which he will graduate proficient at using a number of pieces of heavy construction equipment.

LaBier will leave HCA when he graduates this week with several job offers to select from, including the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, said Brian Martin, director of business development and operations.

Students at HCA spend 70 percent of the class time devoted to “stick time,” or working on the equipment, Martin said. The instruction includes the operation of backhoes, bulldozers, excavators and six other types of equipment. Martin said each day students get a blueprint from instructors and after the tutorial on whatever piece of equipment they are using for the lesson. Students get right to work applying the material.

“It’s a slight adjustment for the military guys because they’re used to calling everything a truck, so just learning the proper names of each piece of equipment,” said HCA Level 1 instructor Bill Devine. “But I find they pay a lot more attention because attention to detail is everything in the armed forces. Alex has done a great job. He’s continuously asking questions. He has a really good grasp on how to handle the equipment and he has a keen eye for detail.”

LaBier was enrolled so quickly at HCA, the VA has not yet processed his benefits for his basic allowance for housing, which amounted to $150 a week that he could use to feed his family. Martin said he approached Epping Bible Church Deacon Glen Cassidy, who decided his congregation should kick in the $150 a week while LaBier was at school before accepting a job.

“Glen and his wife have been so kind, and I was able to bring my family to the church last weekend for the service,” LaBier said. “They have welcomed me with open arms, and they’ve been beyond nice. It’s truly a blessing by God bestowed upon me to be able to meet these people and have this chance. I want to take this as a hand up and pay it forward.”

LaBier is joined by two other veterans placed by Veterans Inc. and many other non-Veterans Inc. former service members at HCA. LaBier said his future career in construction has given him his sense of purpose back. He said he ideally wants to find a job where he could work on a job site with his father, a carpenter, and run an excavator, or a job that requires him to travel to perform construction work.

“It’s given me my motivation, my comradery; my drive and focus,” he said. “There are a lot of veterans here and I hang out with them. The excavator is the big money-maker and I enjoy it the most. I try to apply everything the instructors tell me. They’re experts in their field, they can teach, and they take the time to explain things to you.”

LaBier said other veterans who may feel down on their luck should not give up and instead find something that instills a similar sense of purpose from when they were in uniform.