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From Marine to Beauty Queen: One Veteran’s Search for a Meaningful Life

Thursday, March 12, 2020
Marine, Police Officer, Account Manager, Pageant Contestant, and Philanthropist - these are a few of the titles Orion alumna Melissa Matis has had throughout her career. A life of contrast, Melissa has continuously sought to fulfill her sense of duty while using her experience and platform to shed light on the mental health of the veteran community and opening doors for female veterans.

Melissa’s story began in childhood with a challenging upbringing.  “My biological father has been in and out of the prison system, and my mother has a 10th grade education and then went to a vocational school for welding and worked in a factory job or as a waitress as I was growing up,” explains Melissa when asked about her decision to enlist in the Marine Corps in high school, “I needed structure and regimen, wanted the opportunity to travel, have new experiences, and the opportunity for continued education. But the reason I picked the Marine Corps was because I was an All-American Varsity Cheerleader and had won a High School beauty pageant, so I thought the Marine Corps would be the biggest contrast to being a cheerleader and a beauty queen.”

Melissa enlisted in the Marine Corps nine days after the attacks on 9/11. She was meritoriously promoted after boot camp and graduated as a squad leader in October 2002.  Melissa served as an Avionics Technician (6324) at Scarface: HMLA 367 and deployed with the unit to Al Taqqadum, Iraq in August 2004 – April 2005 and was promoted to Corporal (E-4) during deployment.  She was also in Iraq during Operation Phantom Fury.

When she was promoted to Sergeant (E-5), Melissa decided to re-enlist and make a lateral move to administration (0151) in order to take an A Billet (support) for a recruiting headquarters in Denver, Colorado.  She won A Billet of the year and received a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal in 2009. 

It was at this point that Melissa thought she would separate from the military, but life had other plans. After buying a townhome right outside of Denver with the intention of separating after her enlistment was satisfied in 2010, her SNCOIC had submitted a package on her behalf for a position in Quantico, VA, at Headquarters Marine Corps at Officer Assignments, where she served at Headquarters from 2010 - 2012.

In 2012, Melissa separated and began to have an identity crisis. “When I was an active duty Marine, that was my identity.  When someone asked me what I did for work, I did not respond with my MOS. My response was, ‘I am a Marine.’” recalls Melissa. For Melissa, being a Marine was a statement, not a job. It was her identity, so when she separated from the Marine Corps after 10 years of service (more than one-third of her life at that point), she felt lost and struggled to find purpose and meaning outside of the uniform. 
 
“Many veterans go from having very purpose-driven jobs with a clear mission to figuring out what a 'new normal’ will look like for them.  I became depressed.  I was a full-time student but didn’t have the same camaraderie with my classmates that I did in the military, so I applied to become a police officer.  I was able to put the skills I acquired in the military to use, wear a uniform again, and be a part of a team that I would literally take a bullet for,” states Melissa.
 
While pursuing an undergrad in Aeronautical Sciences and maintaining a career as a police officer, Melissa realized that, while fulfilling, she no longer desired to be a part of the dangerous aspects of the job. It was at this point, six years ago, that Melissa reached out to Orion Talent, where she attended a Baltimore Hiring Conference leading to a career with Thomas & Betts as a Sales Engineer.
 
“I was competing against degreed electrical engineers who were far more qualified for the position.  After joining the team, my mentor and cubicle-mate bluntly told me, ‘You were not the most qualified for this position, but we like you, we like your background, and because of that, we will teach you what we want you to know,’” explains Melissa, “The team I worked with was technically proficient and shared with me that my technical background translated to what they needed and the fact that the military instilled a confidence for public speaking helped me land the position.”
 
This confidence even led her boss to ask Melissa to cover for him as a speaker at the North American Expert Week in Montreal, Canada. During her four years in that position, she was promoted to Account Development Manager and managed a rep channel that covered 16 states. In 2018, she started a position with ABB, Inc (parent company of Thomas & Betts).  She now manages one of the company’s largest global accounts on the US side, as the US Power Grids OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) Account Manager responsible for the GE (General Electric) Account,  and is involved with international projects. 
 
It was at this point that the Pageant Winner turned Marine turned Police Officer turned Corporate Professional decided to go back to her roots and participate in another pageant, Miss Virginia for America, with the aim of spotlighting female veterans. Calling them “the most visible service members but the most invisible veterans”, Melissa initially wanted to focus on females because, due to the ratio of men to women in the military, females are the most visible service members (When she was in Iraq, they had approximately 300 marines and sailors attached to the squadron, and only 11 were females).  “Then they become the most invisible veterans.  Women veterans typically have different social and psychological experiences than women who are private citizens.  Due to some cultural expectations of women, women leaving the military with strong leadership skills may not be as well-received in the civilian sector,” reveals Melissa.
 
But she soon decided to include all veterans in her platform of Hiring Our Heroes. The military encourages a direct communication style that many civilian workplaces don’t grasp as well as a military command.  Many veterans, both men and women, have shared with Melissa how they need to change their communication style when becoming civilians. She also explains that many veterans feel isolated during a transition into the civilian world.  “So many veterans, both men and women, aren’t aware of the resources available to them.  I would love to see better transition programs for military members considering separating from the military,” states Melissa.
 
“So many veterans transition to civilian life and struggle with finding their purpose and their identity outside the uniform. I struggled with that depression after my 10 years in the Marines,” says Melissa, “If I go on to win Miss Virginia for America and compete on the national stage for Miss for America, I will bring further awareness and champion creating resources for veterans transitioning into the civilian world.” 
 
Veteran employment coupled with veteran mental health is near to Melissa’s heart.  Approximately 20 veterans commit suicide a day, and the suicide rate for female veterans is almost double to those of non-veteran women.  “I cannot say with certainty that job placement will completely alleviate these numbers but knowing that there are companies that need their skills and support, will hopefully reduce these numbers among our military veterans,” hopes Melissa. In fact, Melissa recently had a conversation with the US Chamber of Commerce Director of the Corporate Fellowship Program for transitioning veterans to discuss initiatives in place and resources available for veterans.

In addition to her veteran causes, Melissa also works with Samaritan House, a nonprofit that provides social services including emergency housing to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and those at risk of losing their homes. She also works with The Virginia Gentlemen Foundation, an organization that champions research efforts to cure ALS, and built Camp Grom and Grommet Island for Gold Star Families, Wounded Warriors and adults and children with differing abilities. 

The Miss Virginia for America pageant will take place April 4, 2020, in South Hill, VA, at the Colonial Theater. We wish Melissa the best of luck in the competition and are proud to see an Orion alumna excel in her professional career while championing veteran causes. You can connect with Melissa on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
 

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