Drilling Down & Building Up: A Son & Army Sergeant Remodels His Life

by Stephanie Zerweck

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United States Army Sergeant 1st Class Kareem Mills graduated from HBI’s Transitioning Military Program, Fort Stewart location, on December 13, 2019. However, just as “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” this modern, American, The Home Depot Foundation-sponsored centurion didn’t arrive at his ultimate career overnight.

Stage 1 – Early Planning

Mills said carpentry has been a part of nearly his whole life—first with his uncle, a trained carpenter, and his mother, a self-taught carpenter, by-way-of progressively more intricate do-it-yourself projects.

“She is the first female that I [had] ever seen in my life that was doing what men pretty much normally do—way back when I was eight, nine, 10 years old,” said Mills. “And the funny part is, I hated it, because my house was always a mess and […] a construction zone, so I really wasn’t able to bring my friends over. It was, ‘don’t step here, don’t go here,’ but, you know, at the end, when the project was complete, the bathroom was completely remodeled, the kitchen was awesome, and she did everything herself.”

Barely able to carry a box of tiles, Mills remembered helping his mother and not only how that influenced his career interests, but his ability to later renovate his own house and his sister’s career trajectory as a real estate agent.

Stage 2 – Budgeting (Time)

Budgeting for time spent in the military, he originally wanted to see the world beyond his then-Brooklyn, New York, home. Enlisting at the age of 19, Mills spent roughly 23 years in the military, much of the time as a drill sergeant. During that time, he and his wife had three children—now aged 4, 10 and 16. While planning for his impending retirement, Mills determined he didn’t want to have another nine-to-five job—he wanted the ability to be available as a parent.

“They’re in a lot of stuff—sports, a lot of after-school activities and I want to be there and participate and go to functions for my kids,” said Mills.

This in mind, at the age of 42, Mills enrolled in HBI’s 12-week-long Department of Defense (DoD) SkillBridge Program—known in the Army as Soldier For Life Transition Assistance Program (SFL-TAP). Offered in service members’ last 180 days in the military, the program helps those soon to separate or retire from the military train for a civilian career. In the case of HBI’s Transitioning Military Program, this also includes career placement.

“Once I started the retirement process and I went through SLF-TAP,” said Mills, “and I started learning about the [career skills programs], and they had a program for carpentry, I immediately knew that that’s what I was going to do. I just figured, it’s a more structured program that would pretty much sharpen the skills that I already have and that I’ve already developed.”

During his time in the program, Mills worked towards the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s certifications in OSHA-10 and OSHA-30, as well as, those for electrical and carpentry trades—a career in renovation and remodeling always on his mind.

“The hands-on. I enjoyed the hands-on. Once we got to the hands-on portion, to me, it was just natural. Like I said, I’ve had experience, so using the tools and cutting wood and doing things of that nature, it was just natural. It didn’t feel like work for me, so. But, to have that instructor behind you, giving you little tidbits of information and little corners here and there, it just made whatever I didn’t know before HBI, it just made it stick even more, because now I have someone who’s even more experienced than I am giving me [the best way] and teaching me things, so it made it much easier for me to remember all that I learned going forward.”

Stages 3-5 – Demolition, Construction, Final Touches

Ending his military career with retirement from the military, Mills intends to go into home renovation and remodeling, changing more than his career in the process.

Emblematic of Mills’—and other graduates’—career change, guest speakers at his graduation included Fort Stewart-Hunter Army Airfield Command U.S. Army Garrison Sergeant Major Rebecca M. Myers, as well NAHB Third Vice Chairman of the Board Jerry Konter and Home Builders Association of Georgia retired President Lamar Smith.

“You make a living out of what you get,” said Smith. “You make a life out of what you give.”

For Mills, part of the giving has been a continuation of service in the form of information and advocacy on behalf of the HBI program to other transitioning soldiers, including at least one stationed as far as South Korea.

“Depending on who I’m talking to and what it is that they dabble in, I have a few avenues that I can talk about, because the program is so robust.”

In the renovation and remodeling profession, carpenters may find themselves restoring a structure to the image of its past or giving it new life by altering to a new form. For Mills, in teaching his children as he was taught as a child, and now as an adult, he’s looking forward to a bit of both.

With plans to first stay local to the base’s Savannah, Ga.-area, Mills was hired by JGCM Enterprises LLC owner Jason Gillespie. Mills said, he and his wife—also a business owner—are strong advocates for teaching their children to go into business for themselves, so he wants to help pave the way for his children by next starting his own business. According to Mills, it allows him to somewhat replicate what his mother did for him.

“We moved around a lot, and every home we lived in, she was doing something to the house, she was renovating it, making it better,” said Mills. “Now that I’m able to do those types of things on my own [it’s] just awesome.”