May 16 2007

Taking Care of Its Own

The Veterans Affairs Department gives injured soldiers a chance to explore new career paths when they return home from Iraq.

Photo: James Kegley
Tristan Wyatt, former combat engineer

When Robert Barden arrived in Iraq in 2003 for a tour of duty with the Army, he was proud to be defending his country halfway around the world in a dry barren desert where his fellow troops were engaged daily in deadly battles.

But the 28-year-old former staff sergeant's life changed forever when a mortar round exploded five feet from him. Barden suffered traumatic brain injuries and found himself suddenly disabled. Barden was disappointed that he could no longer serve his government. The Army moved him to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington as he tried to overcome paralysis, and speech and memory loss.

While at Walter Reed, the former Army mechanic learned of a new Veterans Affairs Department program offering soldiers injured in warfare a civilian federal career path and fresh outlook on life. VA's Office of Information and Technology had started giving wounded service members a chance to learn about information technology programs and apply those skills in government jobs.

"It has been a huge success," says Jennifer S. Duncan, OIT director of management and program support. "The service members are coming to VA and getting new careers. It is a win for us because we are placing vets in careers."

Barden, a mechanic most of his life, now works as a VA program analyst putting together government manuals.

"I have only been here a few months, and it is a great place to be," he says. "I plan on moving up the ladder."

A crucial part of the Vet IT Program is training: Many of the vets OIT expects to hire have no experience in IT, Duncan says. The vets take competency tests and VA matches them with mentors to help assign them jobs that mesh with their tests results and interests. The program also provides training.

For instance, Barden recently took a department course to learn how to write in a friendly tone and in short, concise sentences.

Path Ahead

These opportunities, Barden says, will help build his resume and make him more marketable. "I have been a mechanic my whole life," he says. "Now I am learning that there is different technology out there."

VA also provides former service members with the assistive technology to make their workdays easier and, in some cases, simply possible.

Barden, who has difficulty typing with his left hand, uses a computer with a voice recognition application. "It has opened a lot of doors for me," he says.

"When I came back
from Iraq, I didn't have any job skills. My only job skills were
jumping out of
airplanes and shooting a rifle."
— Tristan Wyatt

Like Barden, Tristan Wyatt had little experience with computers before the Vet IT Program.

The former Army combat engineer and private first class lost his leg during an ambush in Fallujah in 2003. Wyatt, 22, is now an IT specialist working on VA's cybersecurity team.

"It means everything to me," Wyatt says. "When I came back from Iraq, I didn't have any job skills. My only job skills were jumping out of airplanes and shooting a rifle."

Although this is not a career path he foresaw when he was in the Army, Wyatt says, he enjoys working with other veterans. "They take care of their own. They were willing to train me."

In Fallujah, 23-year-old Matthew Braiotta's life and career plans also took a dire turn.

After more than 10 months successfully dodging enemy fire, Braiotta was wounded by an improvised explosive device, that left shrapnel in his leg and eye.

Braiotta says he is definitely benefiting from his new job as a VA budget analyst. He likes working on the department's budget programs because it helps him stay on top of VA's top priorities and initiatives.

"This is where I want to be," Braiotta says. "It will help me in the long run because I want to be politically savvy. My main focus is to keep my mind busy and give back to the community. My life's calling was to work in the government and serve the people."

Transition Begins

Jeannie Lehowicz, director of early intervention for the Veterans Benefits Administration, usually is the first point of contact for veterans who enroll in the program. Lehowicz says she tries to meet with disabled service members soon after they arrive at Walter Reed from Iraq.

After the vets receive medical care, Lehowicz makes sure they have everything they need for the transition to a new work world. From making sure they have lunch money to new suits for job interviews, Lehowicz is there to help.

A constant among participants in the Vet IT Program is commitment to the new jobs, she has found. "They need something to think about the future," Lehowicz says. "Through this program they are gaining experience, and they have something creative to do."

The Vet IT Program is less than one year old. VA began it to simultaneously help disabled veterans gain work experience and become familiar with the department's services, says Duncan and Paunee Grupe, IT workforce planner in the department's OIT. The ultimate goal is to open new career opportunities at VA, Duncan says.

While the vets benefit, so does VA.

Duncan, who has worked for VA for 30 years, sees the program as a way to attract young people to work at the department. By focusing on veterans who have just left the service, VA will gain a new and youthful workforce for another generation, she says.

"We don't think there is any greater mission than serving our vets," she says. "My intention is to fill the ranks of VA with the next generation, which should include vets."

Service members can enroll in the program while they are outpatients at Walter Reed and are completing their physical therapy sessions. Initially, they are OIT volunteers because they are awaiting their medical board disability ratings and discharge from the service.

During the first phase of the program, 19 disabled service members became volunteers. Of that group, five have been discharged and are working at VA. Another 11, still awaiting discharge, are pending hires.

"These men and women are just waiting to be discharged," Grupe says. "They do various things. Some have interests in congressional affairs and some in IT."

Although they began the program before being discharged, most of the veterans had been out of the hospital for several months. Duncan says that they are generally ready to take on new careers and put their injuries behind them.

Can-do Attitude

"These service members are disciplined and have a high eagerness to start their new lives," she says. "The common thread is their willingness to learn a new profession and a strong, disciplined work ethic that they carry forward from their military training. They are able to build up their resumes. That translates into practical work experience."

The program's early results are positive, Duncan says. Besides Barden, Wyatt and Braiotta, two other vets now work at VA jobs in the Office of Acquisition and Material Management and at the National Cemetery Administration.

Lehowicz points to the morale boost these careers provide as one of the best benefits for everyone taking part in the program—both vets and the career feds.

"The vets have options when they come to VA," she says. "They have the ability to move up within the organization. We help them identify where they might fit best."

For Braiotta, the Vet IT Program came along at just the right time, as he was struggling with the fact that he could not continue serving his country in Iraq. Being able to give back to veterans is comforting, he says.

"This is a great program. Not only does it help the vet get back on his feet, it helps the vet feel better about himself. We are all still young, and we are able to give back to other veterans."