Wounded vets working their way back into world
by Kristen Alloway/Star-Ledger
Sunday December 14, 2008, 9:11 AM
When he returned from deployment in Iraq last March, 1st Sgt. Paul Wilcock couldn't walk because of back and neck injuries sustained in roadside bomb attacks.
Yet the 39-year-old Andover man who joined the Army when he was 17 is determined to return to his reserve unit next year. In the meantime, he has a regimen of doctor appointments, medical tests, and several hours of physical therapy each week.
Wilcock also has a job at Picatinny Arsenal's Quick Reaction Task Force, making him one of the first soldiers to work at the Army base in Rockaway Township while recovering from war injuries.
Another wounded soldier, Sgt. Adriel Gonzalez, just started working in the ammunition division at Picatinny. Gonzalez, an Elizabeth native who served two tours overseas, suffered a severe knee injury in a roadside bomb attack in Afghanistan in March 2007 and expects to be transitioning soon to civilian life.
With 2,800 members of the New Jersey Army National Guard currently serving in Iraq, Picatinny officials expect there may be more wounded troops who will need similar assistance in the future.
"If we can help a wounded warrior out, we want to do that," said Paul Manz, a senior acquisition officer at Picatinny who coordinated the effort at the base.
If they are able, every wounded soldier is assigned a job, internship or takes continuing education classes during their recovery, said Col. Jimmie Keenan, chief of staff of the nation's Warrior Care and Transition Office. The goal is to place troops in jobs that match existing skills, help them learn new ones, or, if an injury means they need a new career, help them find one.
Nationwide, 10,875 injured and ill troops are in Warrior Transition Units, which the Army created to manage soldiers' health care after questions arose last year about the poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Some are recuperating at home, others at army bases.
In New Jersey, about 20 wounded troops who are able to recuperate at home are continuing their education or have been placed in jobs at National Guard armories, Fort Dix and Veterans Administration medical centers and elsewhere, said Maj. Mark O'Clair, commander of the Army's Community Based Warrior Transition Unit, or WTU, in Massachusetts.
Last year, the Army began finding other opportunities for injured soldiers, even jobs outside the military. Convalescing soldiers are working for FEMA, U.S. Department of Agriculture, even the Internal Revenue Service, Keenan said.
"It may be for just a few hours a week, maybe for a few days a week," Keenan said. "It gives the soldier the opportunity to think about what other job opportunities are out there after the Army."
Not all soldiers are able to able to participate, however. At Fort Campbell, Ky., the second-largest WTU in the country, a small percentage of the several hundred recovering troops have injuries or behavioral health issues that make working while recovering impossible.
"Their job is to heal," Col. Richard Thomas, a physician and commander at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital at Fort Campbell, said of injured soldiers. "Having outside work is good, but it's not going to take place of medical therapies or behavioral health services."
Wounded soldiers also are at a higher risk for suicide than other troops, said Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, adult and forensic psychiatrist in the Army Medical Department. The Army has instituted several programs to lower the rates, which have been on the rise since 2001, she said. Currently, suicide rates among soldiers are 20 per 100,000 troops per year, which is similar to the civilian population of young men, she said.
O'Clair said he, too, has seen soldiers whose injuries prove too much, and he has had to pull the soldier from a work site and return him to a WTU at a major military installation that offers more supervision.
"It's once a quarter where we'll have somebody where we'll have to find something more appropriate or excuse him from work because medical issues or mental health status doesn't make them successful," O'Clair said.
The key to a successful work placement is ensuring that the employer has a job that suits the soldier, and the soldier has the needed skills and knowledge to do the job.
"We have a need, they have a skill set. We have an interest, they have an interest," Manz, of Picatinny, said. "It has to fit, just like any other job."
At Picatinny, Wilcock is a good fit, Manz said.
Wilcock served two tours in the Middle East, first training the Iraqi army, later working in civil affairs, helping Iraqis build water lines, sewers and schools.
He's now working 20 hours a week at Picatinny helping to get soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan everything from longer-lasting batteries to sturdier computers they can use on the fly.
"He's doing relevant, real-world things where we can harness his expertise to help us do a better job helping a soldier," said Manz, who helped Wilcock find a job at Picatinny.
Disabled American Veterans, a group that was critical of the Army after poor conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center were described in a Washington Post story last year, said it is pleased with the workplace program.
"I know of someone working in Army logistics. Some are working for the Department of Veterans Affairs," said David Autry, the DAV's deputy national director of communications. "We see good examples of where it works well."
As a totally disabled Army veteran I am proud to see that there are jobs that these wounded veterans are being retrained for
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Wounded vets working their way back into world