At 6 feet, 5 inches tall and broad shouldered, Doug Stairs looks imposing in the dark, pinstripe suit he traded in for his Army uniform.

Stairs, 27, has been out of work since his five-year stint in the Army ended in November, but potential employers were taking note of him on Thursday.

"I've gotten some pretty good leads today," he said of the Sonoma County Veterans Resource and Job Fair.

"I'm a bigger guy," he said, noting that because of that, the security companies offering employment seemed especially friendly towards him.

"I walk up and they say 'How ya doing?' " he said.

The event at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building attracted Stairs and about 400 other job seekers in the first 90 minutes.

Though not limited to former service members, it was mostly veterans who came looking for employment on Thursday.

They also had the opportunity to learn about a variety of support services for ex-military, ranging from health benefits to child care, rental assistance, loans and legal advice.

"This is the very first of its kind in Sonoma County," said Claudio Calvo, the local veterans representative for the state Employment Development Department who organized the fair. "It's getting veterans back to work."

Amid a host of new programs to help veterans find jobs, the government reported earlier this year the unemployment rate for Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans fell significantly to 9.1 percent, but was still slightly above the national average.

Calvo said there were Iraq and Afghanistan vets in attendance and job-seeking former service members from as far back as Vietnam.

Judging from the successful turnout, he said, there will be more such events.

There were about 40 companies represented, ranging from Kaiser Permanente, to the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn, Exchange Bank, Mesa Beverage, County of Sonoma and Comcast Cable.

Recruiters from the Army, Air Force and Navy also were there.

"This is one of the better career fairs I've been to in the Bay Area," Stairs said. "There's a better turnout of employers."

"I'm looking for a full-time job with benefits. I'm open to any career," said Stairs, a Sonoma State University graduate with a degree in sociology, who served in the Middle East and South Korea.

He said he also got some encouragement Thursday from employers in the wine industry, in jobs ranging from "manufacturing to transportation and administration."

Veterans are "a very special breed," said Terry Grumley, EDD veterans representative and a former Navy SEAL lieutenant.

"They can have a lot of strengths," he said, acknowledging the transition to civilian life can be very challenging.

"It's good for them to be in touch with other veterans and support groups," he said, adding that the work ethic is often not as demanding in civilian life.

"They show up on time and they produce," said Greg Harder, a financial adviser who was there in his capacity as Knights of Columbus volunteer. "I'm personally saying 'thank you' for what you guys have done for us."

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or