JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Washington. It may not take long for service members to get dressed for work in the morning. They regularly put on their uniforms, belts, boots and blankets and then report to work. After leaving the military, many look for work, but finding affordable clothing for job interviews can be a stressful dilemma.
Suits for Service Members was created at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in 2011 by the late Mary Findlay, who was a former Army wife and was inducted into the JBLM Civilian Hall of Fame in 2019 for her work with the program.
She saw a need in the service members she worked with, said Paige Dahlke, director of Suits for Service Members. As they left military service, they struggled to dress, as they had worn uniforms their entire career.
The program offers two complementary suits for service members who are within six months of transitioning from military to civilian employment. All branches of the military are eligible, including active duty Guard and Reserve members.
Findlay started out helping the military out of her home, but as the program grew, it was moved to Steilacoom Town Hall until Findlay’s death in 2018. In 2019, the program, in partnership with the Association of the United States Army, has found its new home at America’s Credit Union on JBLM.
The program kept growing and the need was still there, Dahlke said.
The program has also expanded to provide military spouses with work clothes.
If a spouse comes with their service member, they can also use our services and receive two free items, Dahlke said.
The organization receives most of its costumes through private donations as well as commercial stores. Costume donations must be made within the last 10 years and be in good condition.
With so many telecommuters, many major suit carriers are reducing inventory, Dahlke said. The good thing about our program is that we can tailor our inventory to the current needs of service members.
Dahlke said that in addition to suits, they receive donations of collared shirts and polo shirts, long-sleeved button-up shirts, pants and other more casual workwear.
I first learned about this program in a skills course at the Hawk Center, said Spc. Drake Lampman, an Apache helicopter mechanic with 4th Attack Reconnaissance Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, who plans to go to college to become a pilot once he leaves the army later this year. They said there was a closet downstairs where I could get two free suits for interviews.
Dahlke doesn’t run the program alone, she has three volunteers who help her make sure every member of the service is taken care of.
I went to a volunteer fair before I retired from the Navy and met Mary, Denise Holdridge said. A volunteer for Suits for Service Members. After 38 years in the military, I had no idea things like which suit top matched which bottom, so I knew I could use his help.
Holdridge said she could just feel Findlay’s passion for the program and wanted to be a part of it.
After volunteering for a short time, I knew we needed a male perspective, and that’s when I reached out to my husband, Holdridge said.
Denise and her husband, Michael Holdridge, have volunteered with the organization for three years. Unlike the Holdridges, Jamie Combs, who has volunteered with the program for two years, has never served in the military.
Although I have never served myself, I have many family members who have served and are currently serving, Combs said. I love the idea of helping military members look and feel better outside of their normal uniform.
Service members not only have several clothing options to try on in the locker room, but also the ability to let Dahlke and his team see them in them.
Each service member receives four or five clothing options, Dahlke said. I tell them that they can come and ask for our opinion, if they wish, but that they are not obliged to do so. I would say 99% of them do and we love it.
The program has distributed more than 10,000 pieces of clothing to more than 6,000 service members from all over Washington and even Oregon.
We are passionate, because Mary was passionate, said Denise Holdridge. She worked on this program until the day she died.
In fact, the day before he died, Findlay suited his last retired service member, 1st Sgt. Your Sheep. Today, Mouton is the Transition Assistance Counselor for the Transition Assistance Program at Hawk Center. She is also the closet coordinator.
I get chills every time I think about it,” Dahlke said. I’m just glad we’re able to maintain Marys program and her passion for helping service members will continue for years to come.
Service members interested in using the program can register through the Hawk Transition Center or email [email protected]
For more information about JBLM, click here.
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