Army Sgt. Stephen Stewart was evacuated back home after five months in Afghanistan. He was suffering from symptoms of extreme post-traumatic stress disorder, and in February he was medically retired from the Army after 18 years.
"You don't expect that you're gonna be wounded and then put out on the street," he says. "Who's gonna help me? It can be very scary, when you are out there and there is nobody to really help you out."
Back in Fountain, with a family to support and facing the challenge of forging a new career, he found the National Organization on Disability's Wounded Warrior Careers Program. It helped him identify his inherent skills and interests, plot a long-term career goal, and re-calibrate his résumé into one geared toward civilian work.
Last week, Stewart and his wife, Cinthia, joined six other veterans on a trip to Washington, D.C. to lobby for federal support of the program. He met with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, and with staff for U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island.
Bennet, one of the program's top supporters, this year introduced legislation to support continuation and expansion of the program, and he's working to make it a very low-cost amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill.
NOD started the program in 2008 after privately raising $5 million to fund three test locations over three years. It currently assists 245 veterans and their families in Colorado, Texas and North Carolina, anticipating 300 by the end of 2010. Administrators hope for federal support to allow 12 sites; NOD estimates the expansion would cost between $2.5 to $5 million a year.
"There is a growing appreciation that veterans who leave the military with a disability deserve to move into civilian careers, and prosper," says director Richard Stark. "...But it's challenging on a number of fronts. Most veterans are very unfamiliar with civilian careers. ...They come from a fairly paternalistic system — and the longer they serve in the military, the more they are expecting the employer to direct their career path — and the more harsh it is to realize that civilian employers don't do it that way."
Plus, civilian employers sometimes don't value the skills men and women gain in the service, Stark says. "Take Stephen as example. He has 18 years of experience that uniquely qualifies him for promotion in the military, but only part of which might be directly transferable in a way that a civilian employer might be attracted to it." Add to that an injury, such as PTSD or brain trauma, and the challenge can become overwhelming.
But Stewart, for one, had a pair of job interviews lined up for this week.
Bennet's bill calls for a Pentagon analysis of the Wounded Warrior program, in conjunction with NOD, presented to the appropriate congressional committees. It would include "information on job placement and retention of wounded warriors who participated in the program," a "description and assessment of the career services" available, and an analysis "of the financial costs resulting from the failure of wounded warriors to gain employment or achieve self-sufficiency."
Stark argues that beyond being morally right, the program is cost-effective. The process of a successful transition can be between two to five years, and the cost per veteran is $3,000 to $3,500 a year, nominal when you consider the costs to the community, state and federal organizations, and local governments to care for veterans who fail to transition successfully.