These are Our Stories.
These are Our Stories.
Watch Chris and Stephen’s Video
‘Two people. Two paths. A common thread of serving in the military and manufacturing products for the defense industry.’
Stephen Hilliard was raised in Anderson, South Carolina, a small town in the western part of the state. Three hundred miles northeast and over the neighboring border, Chris Lucas grew up as a pastor’s son in Coats, North Carolina, a country town of 2,000 people. Both were middle children, Hilliard flanked by two brothers and Lucas with two sisters.
Hilliard and Lucas grew up listening to stories of their families’ time in the military. Lucas’s grandfather served in the Korean War and his uncle was in the Air Force. Hilliard said, “I always knew I’d go into the military. It was in my blood – as far back as I looked I had family in three out of four branches of the armed services.”
‘One was interested in intel. The other played war in the woods.’
Lucas spent his youth plowing fields on his grandfather’s farm, fishing, and helping out in the community – where his father was not only the pastor but also a local business owner. “As a kid I was extremely analytical. Instead of toys, I had a pile of parts that used to be toys because I kept taking them apart to see how they worked,” he said. Post Sept. 11 and just after graduating high school, one of Lucas’ friends joined the Army. “Seeing the sacrifice he was making, I realized I wanted to do my part too,” he recounted. “I started researching branches of the military and given my interests, I joined the Air Force as an Operations Intelligence Apprentice.”
For Hilliard, the path toward the military stemmed from the pastimes of his youth. “As a kid, I loved to hunt, play war in the woods, and build model tanks and airplanes, but I also had an artistic side and played drums in the band.” While in college, Hilliard enrolled in the Army reserves, which he described as a natural fit. He spent five years in the reserves before choosing to go active duty, where he was stationed at Fort Campbell in Kentucky with the 101st Airborne Division, and was later deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
‘I’m a former end user turned designer and can sew and draw in CAD. That’s a fairly rare combination in this industry.’
While he was stationed at Fort Campbell, the Army began issuing an equipment system with modular pouch attachments (MOLLE) for soldiers to carry military gear. At the time, there weren’t many commercially available accessories for the system. Hilliard saw a market need and teamed up with a local military gear shop owner to develop and produce a MOLLE compatible backpack. “That was the first chance I had to design military equipment,” Hilliard said. “We originally produced 50. Since then they have sold thousands.”
Not long after leaving the Army, the same gear shop owner approached Hilliard about a job. The owner sold his company to a larger firm that was looking for a designer and developer of military tactical equipment. The new firm purchased a sewing machine for Hilliard and over the course of the next year, his creative side continued to flourish, as he taught himself to sew and used the machine to design products for the company.
‘I started as a welder and today I’m leading an exceptional team’
After leaving active duty, Lucas wanted to build a career where he could be part of a team that produced tangible products. He learned to weld from a family member and was hired by a manufacturing company that built custom luxury yachts, where he refined and learned a variety of skills from welding to reading blueprints.
He and his wife then moved to Savannah and Lucas began working at JCB, a global equipment manufacturer in Pooler, Ga., that had won a government and defense contract to build the first armored backhoe loader that could be used on the battlefield to clear roads, set-up the bases, build berms, and engineer bridges. Lucas says, “The government and defense HMEE (High Mobility Engineer Excavator) project is what initially attracted me to JCB.” He continues, “I was excited to work on a product that helped the military”.
‘Through manufacturing, Hilliard and Lucas continue to be a part of the military.’
Lucas began at JCB fabricating the arms of the backhoe on the HMEE line, which at the time had produced 20 machines. After five promotions in seven years, Lucas is now the production manager for the fabrication department at JCB, where his team has manufactured more than 900 HMEEs for the military.
Lucas continues to serve in the Air Force, though now as a reservist. To meet his annual service requirements, his manufacturing responsibilities shift to other team members, when he’s on reserve duty. JCB has a deep commitment to the armed services. More than a third of the company’s executive staff and nearly the entire government and defense division has served in the military. JCB also supports and compensates all reservists employed at the plant by covering the difference between their regular salaries and their military pay. As well, JCB bridges up to a 12 month salary gap for individuals called to service for long-term duty.
Seven years ago, Hilliard’s friend, Ashley Burnsed, offered him an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. Burnsed, the founder and CEO of Blue Force Gear, a manufacturer of military weapon slings and load carriage equipment, asked Hilliard to join the team in Pooler, Georgia, a Savannah suburb, as the director of product development.
Since then, Hilliard and Burnsed have used unique technologies and fabrics to create the strongest and lightest load carriage equipment in the market. “Through a unique process called Helium Whisper, we created a one-piece vest, eliminating inconsistencies in the design,” Hilliard said, adding, “when you are in combat in full gear, ounces add up to pounds and pounds add up to pain. We redeveloped this vest, using an exclusive fabric blend, creating a lightweight material and shaving off more than two pounds per vest.”
By working for these companies and on these particular product lines, both Hilliard and Lucas have said that the most important thing for them is continuing to serve their country.
‘Producing products that protect our fellow servicemen and servicewomen’s lives is an incredible honor.’
Hilliard recounted a particularly moving letter he received from a Marine who had been injured in combat. The Marine was severely injured, losing several fingers, on the battlefield, but because of the design of Blue Force Gear’s Trauma Kit NOW!, he was able to immediately start applying self-aid, which ultimately saved the Marine’s life.
Lucas had an equally moving experience. “We received a similar letter from a soldier who drove over an IED (improvised explosive device) in one of JCB’s HMEEs. He said the outside of the vehicle was heavily damaged, but he walked away without a scratch,” Lucas said. “His letter thanked our team for taking the time to build a product that saved his life.”
Hilliard added: “You can’t get a better reward than using our hands to make items that protect the people who protect us.”
‘Military skills translate very easily into manufacturing.’
Both Hilliard and Lucas see many parallels between life in the military and careers in manufacturing. Manufacturing is similar to the military in that it follows a course of action, Lucas said. “In the military, you have to be ready to work in all types of environments. In manufacturing, you also have to be able to react and adapt to a situation, but here it’s about economic factors and not the combat zone.” Hilliard concurred, adding: “The traits I’ve been able to carry over from military life to manufacturing are my adaptability, consistency, and flexibility. At a moment’s notice, I’m able to shift my focus and provide support in areas needing help.”
JCB is on the board of the Georgia Tech Professional Education, Savannah campus, where the nation’s first internship program was created to help veterans transition from military to civilian life. As a state-approved workforce program, there is no cost to service members to participate. The program combines classroom training customized for each company with onsite work at the plant, providing the companies and veterans with a 21 day, hands-on job interview.
“Since its inception, all of the VET2 program graduates have received job offers from the companies participating in the program,” said James Wilburn, director of the Georgia Tech Veteran’s Education Training and Transition (VET2) Program.
Hilliard recognizes people are wired differently with varied professional interests and talents. “Manufacturing has very regimented jobs within the manufacturing process and those can be a great initial transition, but it also provides extremely creative avenues as well, in product design and process improvement areas,” Hilliard said.
Lucas agreed, adding that manufacturers seek “smart, analytical people that are good leaders, with a specialization. The military has engineers, welders, IT personnel, communications experts, and more and all of these jobs translate to industry.”
Hilliard said he’s fortunate to be able to do something professionally to which he is not only committed, but deeply enjoys. “Life’s too short to punch a clock,” he said. “Find something you are passionate about and build a career around it.”
About Blue Force Gear
With a construction background and an eye for design, Ashley Burnsed founded Blue Force Gear in 2004. Based in Pooler, Georgia the company employs 45 people and contract manufacturers along Coastal Georgia to help produce its line of weapon slings and load carriage equipment. In the process of moving from a six thousand square foot facility into one nearly 30,000 square feet, Blue Force Gear is continuing to use innovation in technology and material to support the military in war, natural disasters, and respond to countries in need. The company continues to make financial, resource, and time donations to law enforcement service organizations and charitable organizations supporting the services.
Founded in Great Britain by Joseph Cyril Bamford in 1945, JCB has grown from one man in his garage creating a backhoe loader into a privately held, multinational company, with 22 plants on four continents, commissioning more than 11,000 people. Built on a philosophy of constant innovation, allows JCB to continue to push the limits in research, design, and testing. The North American headquarters, located in Pooler, Ga., less than a mile from Blue Force Gear, boasts a 500,000 square foot state of the art facility and manufacturers all 18 models of the world’s safest skid steer and compact track loader, one of a range of the world’s best-selling backhoes as well as the home of HMEE designed and manufactured for the U.S. Army and allied nations. JCB supports military efforts through paid reserve duty, targeting veterans for job fulfillment, and through local charities and national humanitarian efforts, including sending equipment and machines into natural disaster sites.
About Georgia Tech Veteran’s Education Training and Transition (VET2) Program
The VET2 program is a one-of-a-kind initiative created for active duty service members and veterans. The four week, fully-funded program, with no cost for service members, ties professional education with job experience by bringing together service members with local employers to receive classroom instruction and on-the job training. Upon completion of the first week of academics, veterans and active duty service members participate in a three-week internship with a corporate sponsoring, allowing them to demonstrate their skills and capabilities. For more information, visit pe.gatech.edu/savannah-campus/courses/military-programs