Sunday, May 29, 2011

Richmond Times-Dispatch profiles vets, showing the value they bring to workplaces

From the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

During fighting in Fallujah, Iraq, in November 2004, an explosion blew a stone wall on top of Chad Ellinger (pictured).

Buried from the neck down in the rubble, knocked out, and then in terrible pain, the Marine sergeant was bleeding from a compound fracture of his right arm, his knee was broken, and his body had suffered yet more injuries internally.

"When you hit rock bottom, you can go sideways or up," Ellinger said.

"It took about 18 to 24 months to fully recover," he said. "I'd just learned to walk again before my daughter was born."

In 2007, Ellinger received one of the Virginia Department of Transportation's first work internships for wounded warriors.

"It was place to get back on my feet," Ellinger said, "and it offered a career, a place to get back to work."

VDOT's federally funded program is designed to allow veterans — who are unable to return to a former job because of service disabilities or because the position is no longer available — to revamp old job skills and develop new ones.

The state transportation department is just one of many efforts by government agencies, private employers and nonprofit groups to help former military personnel, particularly those with injuries as a result of their service, move into fulfilling civilian careers.

About a quarter of veterans who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan have a service-connected disability, according to a federal report, about twice the rate for all U.S. military veterans.

"It's been a real win-win" for the veterans and the department, said Freddie Jones, VDOT's Civil Rights Division administrator, who oversees the internship program. "The veterans bring different attitudes, very solid work ethics, and, for the most part, transferable skills."

Now, the 32-year-old Ellinger is VDOT's fleet operations manager for its far-flung Staunton highway district. He also has graduated from college — with honors.

"If the taxpayers were going to support this program, then I, as a vet who was taking advantage of the program, should give them their money's worth," said Ellinger, who was medically retired from Marine Corps in 2008. In fact, "I'd give them 110 percent."

Twenty-nine wounded veterans have completed internships so far, and the department expects to have a total of 25 interns on the job this year.

"Work is great rehab," said Dr. Shane McNamee, chief of rehabilitation medicine at the McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in South Richmond. "It's challenging, it's complicated, it's fatiguing."

On Oct. 1, the veterans hospital, which sees the most severely wounded, will start a pilot vocational rehabilitation and job placement program for patients with amputations.

"My goal is 'Sgt. Smith' spends six months with us, and on Friday he leaves the service, gets his discharge, and on Monday he's got a paying job he works into," McNamee said. "How realistic that is, don't know," he said, but, "I'm an optimist."