A year ago, Shane Ekman was 31 years old and adrift.

Leaving the Marines had been tough. He'd spent four years taking orders, including two tours of Iraq as a machine gunner, then a squad leader. He missed the feeling of purpose and the structure. Worse, he kept hearing about military friends dying by suicide.

"You get out of the Marines, and you're like a lost puppy," Ekman said.

After a stint as a military recruiter, the Lake Elmo native wanted a civilian job — but had no idea what. It was at last year's annual Veterans Career Fair when Ekman connected with AVA, a modular construction company in Albertville with 21 veterans among its 100 employees.

Ekman will be back at this year's Veterans Career Fair, put on by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development's CareerForce Veterans Employment Services, from 2-6 p.m. Wednesday at the Heritage Center in Brooklyn Center — except this year as a recruiter for AVA.

"My outlook was a little negative a year ago: 'Is there light at the end of the tunnel?'" Ekman said. "Now life is awesome for the first time in a while. Everything's looking great, almost like when I first hit the Marines. Even my parents and family have noticed the change."

The transition from military life to civilian life is littered with challenges — a transition that studies have shown has become increasingly difficult during the post-9/11 era. There are the mental health struggles from high-anxiety deployments, which in the most tragic cases can result in suicide. The veteran suicide rate increased by 36% in the two decades after 9/11.

There are everyday personal challenges as well: re-establishing a family role, and relating to those who don't understand the military experience.

But finding the right employment can be a foundational part of that transition.

"It's very difficult for veterans to articulate who they are individually, because they were part of a team," said Ray Douha, director of DEED CareerForce Veterans Employment Services. "And in the military, you have 100% support. In civilian life you're missing that support, missing that guidance."

Mike Wolbrink — a former Airborne Ranger who owns Azule Professional Services, Minnesota's largest service-disabled, veteran-owned business staffing company — has helped thousands of veterans find employment. The problem he sees is that veterans get a job instead of the job. His internal data shows 94% of veterans leave their first civilian job within 18 months, and 84% leave their second job within a year.

The biggest challenge, he said, is translating military-specific skills to civilian work.

"I had a guy who ran a sign shop in Edina who wanted to hire a veteran," Wolbrink said. "He wanted to come in, give the employee direction and get the projects headed down the right path. Then he'd be able to go work on things like marketing. I told him, 'You need a tank commander.' Until you get someone who speaks that language, a tank commander at a sign shop in Edina makes no sense. But it doesn't matter if it's tanks or making signs or running four plumbing crews — it's the leadership that matters."

Ekman had wanted to be in the military since he and his brother were shooting BB guns and playing G.I. Joe as kids. (His brother is an Air Force pilot.) But when Ekman went to the Veterans Career Fair a year ago, he had no idea what he wanted. He and his girlfriend had broken up, and he was moving back to Minnesota while struggling to sell the Wisconsin house he'd renovated himself.

He figured the military had given him two skills — pulling a trigger as a Marine or recruiting with the Guard. So he guessed he'd get a job in security or in marketing. When he told the AVA recruiter he'd recently remodeled his house, he was hired as a carpenter. He felt lucky: he'd found the perfect job and he was surrounded by fellow veterans — the plant manager an Army Ranger, the human resources manager a Marine.

"It didn't feel like a job. It felt like I was back in the smoke pit, like a family," he said. "I know how frustrating it can be, the anxiety, sense of hopelessness, lack of direction. Been there, done that. When I recruit, I share my story and tell them, 'Your purpose isn't over just because you got out of the military.'"