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Convention dispatches: Coast Guard veteran hopes for a return to public service

Filed by KOSU News in Public Insight Network.
September 12, 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C.  – Mark Brisson has a job, but he’s ready to start a career  – preferably one that puts him back in public service.

I met Brisson, a 30-year-old U.S. Coast Guard veteran, at a watering hole near his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Mark Brisson, 30, attended the University of North Carolina at Charlotte on the GI Bill, after serving in the Coast Guard. Now, he's got a job at an REI store but says he hopes to begin a career in public service. (Photo by Dave Gustafson | Patchwork Nation)

Mark Brisson, 30, attended the University of North Carolina at Charlotte on the GI Bill, after serving in the Coast Guard. Now, he’s got a job at an REI store but says he hopes to begin a career in public service. (Photo by Dave Gustafson | Patchwork Nation)

Over the past two weeks I’ve been at and around the political conventions in Tampa and Charlotte, discussing federal spending and politics with Public Insight Network sources who have played Budget Hero  and with people who live nearby. (Budget Hero is an online game developed by PIN that allows players to try their hand at controlling the U.S. budget.)

Brisson has worked at a local REI outdoors store for nearly a year. He tells me he became interested in how the government spends money while he studying political science — his major at UNC Charlotte.

“One of my political science professors taught me that once you start a program, it’s hard to take it away from people,” he says.

A few months ago, Brisson played Budget Hero and tried to delay the federal government’s budget bust while maintaining programs he supports. He says his understanding of budgetary issues deepened once he played the game.

“I took away from it that it’s a complicated issue, and there are a lot of competing views and competing needs,” he says. “But is the political will there to make these kinds of changes to the federal government?”

Brisson, who grew up near the Virginia border in Reidsville, N.C., says he’s attracted to the idea of working in state or federal government, or as a research associate at a think tank. His LinkedIn profile touts his love of public service and respect for citizens’ taxes:

“Serving something greater than oneself is something we all instinctively strive for, and I want to serve the public through more efficient use of taxpayer dollars for continually better services. Especially interested in economic development, energy use, and transportation.”

Four years as a Coast Guard electronics technician didn’t do much for him professionally, he says. He started basic training just a few weeks before Sept. 11, 2001. He was never deployed to the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, but said there was always a lot of uncertainty.

Brisson says his service did offer him some adventures in Alaska and elsewhere before he headed to college on the GI Bill. Early on, he contributed $1,800 toward his education, and later received $45,000 for tuition plus a living stipend.

Brisson says he never seriously considered re-enlisting, but pointed out that he’d be more than halfway to retirement and a pension if he’d stuck with the Coast Guard.

He doesn’t have health insurance now, but says he could get some coverage through the Department of Veterans Affairs. REI offers insurance for its employees, but Brisson skipped the yearly enrollment period, thinking he wouldn’t be there very long. Plus: “I’m healthy enough now,” he says.

He’s exploring the federal government’s Pathways Programs, which help recent college grads find work, and another program that’s focused on finding jobs for veterans.

Brisson says looking for jobs, especially government jobs, is a time-consuming task after working nearly 40 hours a week at REI. Instead of blanketing potential employers with resumes, he’s decided to target specific openings, putting extra effort into the cover letters and skills questionnaires he sends.

Amid all of his job-searching, Brisson says he’s optimistic that the economy is headed in the right direction.

“Opportunity is everywhere,” he says. “If you can’t find it, sometimes you have to go out and make it.”

>> How would you control the federal government’s spending? You can play Budget Hero here. <<



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