Whether it's in politics, the military or the private sector, Joe Rice loves being the liaison between communities.

Now a colonel in the Army Reserve, Rice juggled military service and his duties as mayor of Glendale, Colorado. He went on to serve as a Colorado state representative, with four of his five Iraq tours occurring during that time.

His overseas service helped prepare him for a new civilian career — one that's letting him get something more precious out of life.

Rice joined the military at the age of 17, enlisting while still in high school. He earned his associate degree from New Mexico Military Institute in 1987, then his bachelor's, in history, from Metropolitan State University of Denver while serving in the Colorado Army National Guard.

In 2011, he accepted the position of director of government relations for Lockheed Martin Space Systems. Lockheed Martin Corp. is one of Military Times' Best for Vets: Employers 2016.

"When I got hired by Lockheed … that really was my transition," Rice said. "For the first time in eight or nine years, I wasn't involved in the campaign or serving in the military."

While deployed to Baghdad in 2011, he interviewed with Lockheed Martin via Skype. At the time, Rice didn't know when he'd be able to return to the U.S. — but that didn't matter to Lockheed.

"My boss who hired me at the time said, ‘You’re the right person for this job. You’re worth waiting for,’" Rice said. It was clear his military duty wouldn’t be held against him.

Connecting communities

A big part of Rice's role is working with state and local elected officials in places with a space systems presence.

"If people don't know all the ways that, say, GPS benefits their lives, we can't blame them if they don't support funding for the space programs," he explained — for example, how GPS enables farmers to improve crop yields and lower costs.

Making those kinds of connections has been a constant throughout Rice's career — finding out what people need, listening to them, learning from them, then implementing it.

Most of his duties while deployed to places such as Bosnia and Iraq involved working with the locals.

While in Baghdad in 2003, Rice was assigned to work with the State Department to set up the Baghdad City Council because of his experience as mayor of Glendale.

Glendale had 5,000 people, whereas Baghdad had 5 million.

He was told, "It's only a few zeros."

"A lot of times, I just functioned as the honest broker while [the Iraqis] figured out their own system," he said.

He's often served as liaison between the military and civilian worlds.

"Those are the lessons I've learned and the skills I think are very important to Lockheed," he said.

Spreading the word

Even after five years at his job, Rice said he still learns something new every day, and he enjoys sharing that with others.

"How cool to be able to talk to people about weather satellites, and how the images you see on TV are from those satellites," he said. "We're building the next generation of those."

One of his favorite things about the job is going on mini road trips to Colorado communities outside the metro area where he works.

He's one of a group of aerospace experts who meet with schools, chambers of commerce and businesses. They scout for supplies and subcontractors, but another goal is to pass along information about the aerospace industry.

"That trickles up to their elected officials," Rice said.

"We also talk to a lot of kids on what things they need to do if they want to become an engineer."

'A normal life'

Rice said one of the struggles for transitioning troops is finding that same kind of purpose again.

Now a colonel in the Army Reserve, Joe Rice's Iraq deployments involved working as a liaison between the military and civilian communities, skills he believes are important in his civilian career.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Joe Rice

"You're a 24-, 25-year-old squad leader in Iraq or Afghanistan, and you've had eight or nine people you were responsible for keeping alive," he said. "Then you come back here, and you're offered assistant manager at a convenience store. How do you find something that channels your passion?"

Getting involved with veterans groups, and not becoming socially isolated, are important, he advised.

When he started at Lockheed, Rice said he was welcomed by the employee veterans group, which offers guidance, mentoring and resources for those reentering the civilian workforce.

"If we can't find a place for someone at Lockheed, we help them get involved in any number of networking activities" in the community, he said.

About 24 percent of Lockheed Martin's employees are veterans, with Lockheed Martin Space Systems employing more than 1,800. The company's online military skills translator helps troops and veterans find compatible positions.

Rice said Lockheed provided him with the stability he needed. He’s also reconnected with his passion for history as an adjunct professor in the subject, teaching for University of Phoenix.

"After all the years and years of military stress, I wanted to start a normal life where I go home at night with my family."

Charlsy Panzino covers veterans education, employment and transition issues, as well as travel, entertainment and fitness. Email her at cpanzino@militarytimes.com