For wounded US veterans, job prospects brighter

This generation of troops is getting unprecedented help.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For Sgt. Logan Jubeck, sunbaked Camp Williams has nowhere near the excitement of his forward observation base near Kirkuk, Iraq.

Here, at this National Guard base outside Salt Lake City, he's waiting for the Army to decide if he's medically fit to remain in the service. While he's waiting, he's getting briefed on job prospects in the civilian world.

At least four contractors want to interview the Idaho guardsman for jobs. Most are offering "top dollar." And at least two universities are likely to give Sergeant Jubeck, who was an engineering student before serving in Iraq, incentives to return to school.

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"That's the scoop," says Rob Brazell of Return to Work Inc., a nonprofit organization that has started working with disabled veterans such as Jubeck.

Return to Work is part of an unprecedented effort to help wounded troops make the transition to the workplace.

Places such as Walter Reed Army Medical Center are holding job fairs. Specialists in the jobs market, such as Monster.com, are pitching in. Vietnam veterans, most of whom had no help like this, are trying to ensure that this generation of injured soldiers gets better treatment. And there is a dedicated group of people, such as Mr. Brazell, who are intent on helping other people.

"Whereas transition services in the 1970s were fairly limited, today we recognize that we have a lifetime commitment beyond [Veteran Affairs] healthcare and education benefits to broader assistance in job training and placement that contribute significantly to improved opportunities when veterans return to civilian life," says William Offutt, director of the HireVetsFirst campaign at the US Department of Labor. "This time, we're going to get this right."

As of last November, the survival rate for those injured in combat was 90 percent, the highest ever, reports Military.com. But 6 percent of wounded US troops have lost a limb, double the rate of past wars, according to the website, which quoted Maj. Gen. George Weightman, then commander of the Army Medical Department Center and School at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. (He is now commanding general of the North Atlantic Regional Medical Command and Walter Reed.)

For those who have been injured, it can mean a major change in career plans if the Army decides they can't continue in uniform. "Guys get wounded, and all of a sudden, they are faced with a loss: It's producing a lot of stress, change, and a lot of problems," says Walter Penk, a consultant in New Braunfels, Texas, who has long worked on veterans issues. "The wounded warrior faces a major readjustment, and it's important that employers be aware of their struggles."

Many of the injured are considering returning to school. Some want to figure out a way to continue working on a team with a defined mission. Many don't want to be tied to a desk job.

One of those is Lance Cpl. Chris Hahn, a husky marine from Loveland, Colo. He lost part of his leg in an accident in Iraq. But he's determined not to let that slow him down. He will be fitted with a prosthetic, he says, and will be able to run with anybody. His goal is to become a police officer. "After Iraq, I need excitement," he says.

Last month, Corporal Hahn attended a job fair with the catchy title, "Hiring Heroes," at Walter Reed in Washington. Organized by the Defense Applicant Assistance Office (DAAO), it gave injured vets the opportunity to meet some 30 government agencies and private companies.

"We have real jobs," says Karen Hannah, a human resources specialist with DAAO. "Some are temporary while the service members rehab, and others are permanent."

A double amputee, Staff Sgt. Joe Beimfohr is talking to the Department of Veterans Affairs. He's thinking about going back to college. But he can also see himself working for the VA, helping other injured service members. As he sits in the wheelchair, he looks down and asks, "Who could do the work better?"

Such a work ethic is appealing to many potential employers. "Companies are very enthusiastic about vets. They recognize the qualities of today's veterans – their flexibility, mission-orientation, teamwork, and their ability to overcome obstacles on the job," says Mr. Offutt.

One firm that's set up a booth is the real estate network RE/MAX, manned by Bill Gailbraith, a retired marine colonel. The Manassas, Va., man says he's interested in recruiting service members since they're accustomed to a disciplined life. Out of 41 troops interviewed, four were "definite" referrals. "They are not looking for sympathy. They want respect for who they are," says Mr. Gailbraith.

Gailbraith is also typical of another part of the process: He had four tours in Vietnam and "suffered the pangs" of coming back to the United States at a time when the nation was deeply divided. Now, he and other Vietnam veterans are in a position to give jobs and referrals to the wounded soldiers. "The Vietnam vets are making sure if a decision is to be made, it is going the right way," he says.

Some private-sector companies, such as Lockheed Martin Corp., are recruiting at Walter Reed because the wounded soldiers can help deliver on military contracts. "I can't find an Aegis missile technician at Georgetown University," explains Miguel Gutierrez, corporate staffing/military relations manager. "Not only can these people get the job done, but many have held on to their [classified] clearances."

Since the war on terrorism has involved the mobilization of both National Guard and Reserve troops, it's not just regular military personnel who are injured. Some of these other soldiers with medical issues – about 3 percent of activated reserves – end up at a Community Based Health Care Organization (CBHCO), such as the one at Camp Williams in Utah, which is responsible for nine states.

"Soldiers heal closer to home," says Sgt. 1st Class Douglas Dellinger, better known around the base as "Bull Dog," for his tenacity in helping the wounded. "Uncle Sam is finally doing something right. We are taking care of our injured soldiers."

Sergeant Dellinger knows the improvement firsthand: He had a tour in Vietnam. "When you came back, you had your steak dinner, the Army gave you an airline ticket and said, 'OK, go to the VA and get fixed.' "

At Camp Williams, part of the "Welcome Back" package includes an introduction to Brazell's organization, which started out by helping disabled civilians. It takes about two weeks to evaluate the soldiers, and it can take as little as a day to find the right employer, says Brazell.

Jubeck figures he has talked with Brazell about 30 times. The sergeant, who was in an engineering program at Boise State when he was sent to Iraq, has experience as a both diesel mechanic and surveyor. "There are a lot of possibilities for me," says Jubeck, who lost a finger in Iraq and developed other health problems.

At the end of Brazell's briefing on his job prospects, Jubeck thanks him for his help. "You deserve it," replies Brazell.

Contact information

Department of Defense: daao@cpms.osd.mil

Department of the Army: martha.stanley@us.army.mil

Army Materiel Command: j.p.herst@hqamc.army.mil

Census Bureau: recruiter@census.gov

Defense Contract Management Agency: nancy.adams@dcma.mil

U.S. Army Medical Command: paul.macias@amedd.army.mil

Veterans Affairs: greg.alleyne@va.gov

Injured Marines and Sailors Initiative: william.j.o'brien@navy.mil

Bill Offutt, director, HireVetsFirst campaign: (202) 693-4717

American Red Cross in Greater New York: ambrusta@arogny.org

Rob Brazell: (303) 415-9187

Monster.com: Jason.trzupek@tmp.com

Sources: Defense Applicant Assistance Office, staff

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