Disabled veterans find challenges and opportunities in their return to the civilian workforce
Transition to civilian life is often difficult for our nation’s veterans. A growing pool of resources can bridge gaps and smooth the path
“I want to set a precedent so that no one will shy away from hiring a veteran because of his or her disabilities” – Jorge Narvaez, Northrop Grumman
By Arthur Schurr
General Douglas MacArthur said, “The soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” For many soldiers, those wounds and scars, whether seen or unseen, are most keenly felt once they transition to civilian life. After more than a decade of war, there is no shortage of returning veterans facing that tough transition. And today, many veterans also face another challenge: finding employment.
According to the latest Department of Labor statistics, approximately 720,000 veterans still seek work, a slight improvement over previous figures. Recently passed legislation like the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012, the Vow to Hire Heroes Act and the Transition Assistance Program have helped reverse that trend.
But for one specific segment of veterans, the employment challenge is even greater. With advances in everything from military medical technology to logistics to body armor, many more severely injured soldiers leave the battlefield alive than in past conflicts. And more disabled veterans return home, looking to get on with their lives and their professions. According to the Department of Labor, approximately 633,000 veterans, or one out of every four of the 2.3 million men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, have a service-related disability. Disabilities can range from moderate to severe, and manifest in many ways. No matter the degree of disability, finding employment presents a challenge for disabled veterans. But thanks to an increasing number of leaders and organizations who place a priority on matching veterans with employment opportunities, hope and help are growing.
From deployment to employment
Founded in 2002, the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) began as a program to provide comfort items to wounded service men and women, and has evolved into a comprehensive program to assist warriors returning and re-adapting to civilian life. WWP programs are free to disabled veterans and their families, with support coming from corporate sponsors. Recently, the WWP celebrated its 100th warrior placement through its Warriors to Work program. But according to Rick Willis, the director of WWP’s Transition Training Academy (TTA), that milestone has only inspired the WWP to do more. Through the TTA, that’s exactly what he is doing.
“When I came on board in 2009, we had been offering courses via PowerPoint presentations. We started looking into what more we could do. We opted to bring in CompTIA certification courses. We started out with the A+ course. Then we went to Network+ and Security+. Now our warriors receive highly marketable skills they can use to get jobs,” Willis explains. CompTIA is a nonprofit IT professional association offering vendor-neutral and technology-neutral certifications.
The initial certification courses were offered at eleven Warrior Transition Battalions across the U.S. More than 1,100 warriors participated successfully in 2012. One key to this success, Willis says, was the customized delivery of the material, carefully planned with warriors’ special needs in mind.
“Because of the invisible wounds our population often suffer from, such as PTSD and TBI (traumatic brain injury), we developed our courses to be given in bite-sized pieces over longer periods of time. It’s very high touch, hands on, and repetitious.”
He reports with pride that not a single student failed the introductory courses. Seven 2012 students received perfect scores.
WWP Warriors to Work IT specialist Matt Sumrack points out some other key elements of the program, also tailored to disabled veterans’ needs.
“We have an at-home work experience situation with an organization that’s looking for entry-level IT support like hardware/software troubleshooting; this offers our warriors flexible scheduling so they can continue their TTA courses while getting invaluable work experience and earning money.
“When we say ‘warriors,’ we’re not just talking about veterans,” he adds. “We offer our classes not only to warriors in the Warrior Transition Battalions, but also to their spouses and caregivers. A number of our warriors are classified as 100 percent disabled; they may not be able to work at all. Someone has to sustain the family, so we make this training available to spouses and caregivers.
“It’s important to ensure that IT is the right fit for each warrior and family. We want them to be comfortable and successful in what they’re doing.”
Helping Air Force vets transition and succeed
The U.S. Air Force, determined to take care of its own wounded warriors, prides itself on its Air Force Wounded Warrior (AFW2) program (San Antonio, TX). Founded in 2006, AFW2 provides service and assistance to wounded warriors before and after transition or retirement.
AFW2 has helped more than 100 warriors to date make the transition. Its mission is to ensure that wounded airmen receive guidance and support to successfully navigate their way out of the Air Force and into civilian life. The Air Force has another method to help its wounded warriors: hiring them as civilians. Enter the Palace Acquire (PAQ) program.
Designed to help veterans gain employment through the Air Force Civilian Service (AFCS), the PAQ provides full-time work combined with a comprehensive
formal training plan to veterans who meet the rigorous educational requirements. Once the participant is accepted and completes training or a degree, he or she can move to a permanent position within the AFCS.
USAF IT specialist Albert Jones: transformed by the military experience
Albert Ray Jones, Jr is a wounded warrior who benefited from the Air Force PAQ program, earning both bachelors and masters degrees in IT. Before joining the Army, Jones worked as a barber, warehouse worker, restaurant host, theme park ride operator, and call center representative. He joined the Army in 1998, and served as a logistics specialist through 2002. Though he suffered from foot injuries during basic training that continued throughout his military career, he says his army experience was positive and transformative.
“The military was more than an experience; it was a lifestyle that I adopted and excelled in. I gained integrity, respect, honor, discipline, the ability to perform selfless service, and a new level of love for this country and those of us who defend it,” says Jones.
He now serves as an IT specialist in personnel systems operations at Randolph Air Force Base (San Antonio, TX). Jones’ disability presented few adjustment challenges in the workplace. In fact, working for the U.S. Air Force/Department of Defense felt familiar and comfortable.
“People in my organization have made the transition process painless. When I first arrived, I was assigned a mentor. She has been by my side helping me with every issue or question I had. I wasn’t used to that in the private sector jobs I had. With support from the Air Force, I would like to get my CISSP certification before completing the PAQ program. I would also like to obtain a top secret security clearance and transition into an INFOSEC position, where I can work in the field of my major.”
Corporations provide opportunities and resources to veterans
Nonprofits and military groups are not alone in their efforts to support returning veterans. Corporations are a key provider of vast employment opportunities and supportive programs to wounded and non-wounded veterans. Former military personnel are often seen as model employees who bring skills like leadership, discipline and respect to the table.
Ingersoll Rand: hiring disabled vets is good business
Ingersoll Rand (Davidson, NC) is a $14 billion global diversified environmental and industrial company that employs more than 5,000 veterans around the world.
Veterans work in key leadership positions in everything from supply-chain logistics to security; now Ingersoll Rand is expanding its outreach to new veterans, and giving veterans within the company greater networking opportunities. On Veterans Day 2012 the company launched a global veterans’ employee resource group.
“We look to better support and engage our veterans, and the veterans’ employee resource group is an important element in that effort,” explains Ingersoll Rand’s director of strategic initiatives and U.S. Army veteran Mark Arell. “Another key intent of the veterans’ group is to seek out opportunities to partner with external organizations, like the Wounded Warrior Project.
“There are a couple of avenues for veterans interested in opportunities at Ingersoll Rand. A veteran, like anyone else, can go to our website and look for opportunities. But we also want veterans to gain entry through relationships, so the veterans’ employee resource group provides a network of veterans in the company that other veterans can reach out to.
“We know that veterans get extensive training during their service. And there are a variety of military occupational specialties that line up very well with jobs at Ingersoll Rand. We know veterans will come to us very well trained within a specialty, and that gives us a strong foundation to build from.”
“The other thing we know is that veterans receive leadership and ‘soft-skills’ training, so they come to us well prepared to work in teams, to lead, and to build teams,” adds Neddy Perez, Ingersoll Rand’s vice president of global diversity and inclusion. “Our first step was to launch the veterans’ group. Now, we’re in the early stages of focusing even more on veterans with disabilities.”
Northrop Grumman’s Operation IMPACT reaches the century mark
At Northrop Grumman (Falls Church, VA), Operation IMPACT (Injured Military Pursuing Assisted Career Transition) provides career transition support to military service members severely injured in the global war on terror. Operation IMPACT, an award-winning grassroots program, celebrated the hiring of its 100th severely injured veteran or family member last June. Operation IMPACT is augmented by the Network of Champions, a group created by Northrop Grumman that includes more than 100 companies committed to assisting severely wounded service members and their families in finding career opportunities.
“Veterans and individuals with disabilities are all part of our commitment to diversity and inclusion,” explains Sandra Evers-Manly, vice president of corporate responsibility at Northrop Grumman. “Veterans comprise a large percentage of our or- ganization. Operation IMPACT is our way of recruiting, hiring, and supporting wounded warriors and their families. But we also think it’s important to help our wounded warriors even if we don’t have opportunities here at Northrop Grumman. That’s why we started the Network of Champions.”
Jorge Narvaez: “Excellence is what we do” at Northrop Grumman
Former U.S. Navy Petty Officer Jorge Narvaez specialized in avionics and electrical repair until the jet blast from a flight deck accident caused him traumatic brain injury along with multiple injuries to his back, hip, and legs. Most of his experience in the military had centered on aircraft and helicopter maintenance. But Narvaez also had served as a basic life support instructor, trainer, and divisional career counselor.
Today Narvaez works as a procurement analyst for Northrop Grumman in Apopka, FL. He recently earned a BS in technical management, and now also serves as his worksite’s small-business liaison and purchasing card administrator. Narvaez cites his military experience as important preparation for success in the corporate world.
“Culturally, the differences are drastic in terms of urgency; ‘life or death’ doesn’t quite mean the same thing in the corporate world. And as quick as the pace may seem, it’s never quite as intense as the military, which makes this much less stressful. I feel like I can handle just about anything I come across. And at the end of the day I get to go home.
“But there are also subtle differences in how people interact. Politics plays a larger role now. The experience varies with individuals and organizations. I’ve been able to adapt well, but that may not be the case for everyone,” he says.
Narvaez credits Northrop Grumman for creating a work environment where veterans assimilate seamlessly. “I don’t believe I’m treated any differently. Everyone has been welcoming. And I hope to represent this organization as well as I did my uniform, so that others may have the same opportunity in the future.
“I want to exceed any expectations my employers had of me when I was hired. And I want to continue to set a precedent so that no one will shy away from hiring a veteran simply because of his or her disabilities.
“Given the opportunity, I feel most any veteran, regardless of their background or specialty, even if they lack the required education, can enhance an organization by their sheer will to succeed and dedication to excellence. That’s what we do.”
Rockwell Collins makes disabled-veteran recruiting a priority
Communication and aviation electronic solutions company Rockwell Collins (Cedar Rapids, IA) employs more than 20,000 people, with veterans and disabled veterans making up a significant portion. This company demonstrates its belief in the value of hiring disabled veterans in many ways.
Timothy J. (Tim) Carson is diversity manager and corporate lead for veteran and disability initiatives at Rockwell Collins. He spoke passionately before members of Congress in October 2011 about the company’s aggressive veteran recruitment strategies and its comprehensive internal programs and external outreach to veterans.
“We are grateful for their service, and are dedicated to helping them successfully transition from their military lives and bring their skills and experiences to the civilian workforce,” Carson, a veteran himself, affirms. “Rockwell Collins has always prioritized the hiring and retention of veterans, and encourages businesses across the state and nation to do so as well. We also believe it’s important to partner with local and national organizations to ensure that veterans receive the job counseling, training and guidance they need to make the most of employment opportunities.”
Rockwell Collins’ Paul Gillilan: from using radios to designing them
Before entering the military, Paul Gillilan was working toward an engineering degree at LeTourneau University (Longview, TX). But in 2003, Gillilan left school to join the U.S. Army. In 2007, as a staff sergeant and squad leader on patrol in Iraq, Gillilan lost his right leg. Undaunted, he returned to LeTourneau and earned his degree in electrical engineering. Today, he works as a systems engineer at Rockwell Collins headquarters. But it was his work in the army that led him to his current specialty.
“I was a radioman for about a year. The radio experience piqued my interest. Now, I have a unique advantage in knowing exactly how our end product is used in the military. I also know the types and personalities of the people using them. And I have a profound understanding of what’s at stake if things don’t work right.”
Though adjustment to civilian life was challenging, Gillilan finds the culture at Rockwell Collins both understanding and supportive.
“The big adjustment was going from the military to civilian corporate culture. In the army, everything is a group activity. In civilian life, a lot of it is individual work and then you get together and share what you’ve done.
“There are a number of veterans I’ve worked with here at Rockwell Collins and that’s been really nice. I can talk to them and they understand what I might be going through now. It’s helpful to know there are other people coping with the same problems I’ve been facing. That’s also why I joined the military and veterans employee resource group (ERG). The ERG is an opportunity to get together with people of similar backgrounds. It builds the same kind of camaraderie that you have in the military.”
Next Generation Security’s Lance Timmsen likes the company he keeps
Entrepreneurship is a creative solution for veterans who want to “control their own destiny.” U.S. Army captain Timothy (Lance) Timmsen, along with business partner David Campbell, did just that, creating Next Generation Security (NGS, Colorado Springs, CO), an engineering firm. Though new, this disabled veteran-owned small business boasts more than forty years of security design experience between its two principals.
Timmsen’s work experience began when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1993. Timmsen attended officer candidate school and rose from enlisted soldier to captain. Deployed to Afghanistan with the Army Corps of Engineers, he provided construction quality assurance for a project to build an Afghan National Army base. Just two months before his deployment was scheduled to end, Timmsen blew out his knee during an organized exercise event at a forward operating base. After surgery and extensive physical therapy, Timmsen opted to return to civilian life and electronic security systems design work. But the transition was not easy.
“I was deployed for two and a half years, which had a significant impact on my civilian career. And my injury made it difficult to travel and maintain project site inspections. Cramped planes, long car drives, and project site walks made my knee swell and caused a lot of pain. My boss at the time allowed me to reduce my travel, but I felt that hurt my career.”
Contrast, and a creative solution
Though Timmsen credits corporations for their work with disabled veterans, he understands the challenges that many veterans still face in the corporate world.
“It was difficult coming back to my civilian career. The military culture is based on mission completion and success. There are no time cards to fill out or project numbers to bill to. Soldiers are not measured on utilization numbers; they are measured on their ability to lead, achieve, and succeed.”
Seeing that disparity, and wanting to control his own destiny, Timmsen decided to work with partner Campbell to create his new firm. And he plans to use the skills he gained in the military to guide the company forward.
“As a military leader, engineer, and manager, I find myself excited about our new venture. It was the planning, organizing, and managing experience I got in the military that prepared me to push forward and develop my new firm. And my greatest success will come from repeat clients. I want client referrals to be the one thing, more than any other, that wins work for us.”
COMPANIES ACTIVELY RECRUITING DISABLED VETERANS
Check website for current listings.
|Company and location
|Harris Corporation (Melbourne, FL)
|International communications and IT for government and commercial markets
|Ingersoll Rand (Davidson, NC)
|Solutions for commercial, residential and industrial applications
|McKesson Corp (San Francisco, CA)
|Distribution of pharmaceuticals, healthcare
products, equipment and technology
|Naval Research Laboratory (Washington, DC)
|Basic and applied research in scientific disciplines for national defense
|Northrop Grumman (Falls Church, VA)
|Rockwell Collins (Cedar Rapids, IA)
|Communication and aviation electronics solutions for commercial and government applications
|Textron Systems (Providence, RI)
|Aerospace and defense
|Union Pacific Railroad (Omaha, NE)
|Transportation and logistics
|U.S. Air Force (Washington, DC)
|National defense in air, space and cyberspace
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