Monday, May 9, 2011

University of Kansas program aids disabled vets in getting advanced degrees, jobs

From the Army Times:

Life would never be the same for Ari Jean-Baptiste. In 2006, in Kirkuk, Iraq, he was co-piloting a Kiowa Warrior OH-58D that suffered engine failure and fell 400 feet to the earth. Shattered bones in his left ankle, right foot and lower back left him in chronic pain and unable to walk.

In 2010, he graduated from the University of Kansas with a master's degree in political science and a teaching job waiting at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He had worked on his body, learning to walk again, and he had worked on his mind through a program called the Army Wounded Warrior Education Initiative, or AW2EI.

Each year for the last three years, a handful of severely injured soldiers from the Army Wounded Warrior program such as Jean-Baptiste have received advanced degrees from KU and been placed in Army jobs as civilians or active-duty soldiers.

In exchange for a six-year commitment to the Army, the participants get free tuition and school supplies, and a salary as either active-duty Army or federal civil service employees.

“Going in, I thought this is a great opportunity; I’ll have the master’s degree and be an instructor here at a world-class institution, teaching military leaders,” said Jean-Baptiste, 38. “But it was also therapeutic ... realizing that I could go through and produce work and realizing there’s nothing too big for you to accomplish.”

Best of all, Jean-Baptiste’s children saw him go from a hospital gown to graduation robes.

“I remember my son saying, ‘All my daddy does is watch TV and sit in the bed,’ ” he said. “From that, to be able to contribute, to be in school, and be back in [my children’s] lives, it gave me an opportunity that I wouldn't have gotten.”

AW2EI is recruiting candidates for its fifth class. It is open to soldiers who have sustained a career-altering combat injury and pass both the university’s and the program’s application processes.

Each year, AW2EI offers 10 slots, five for medically retired veterans and five for soldiers who are in the Continuation on Active Duty program. COAD allows severely injured soldiers who would otherwise be discharged to continue on active duty to reach their scheduled or mandatory retirement date.

“Their military careers have been taken from them. We’re trying to give them an opportunity to be successful in the government’s service and to be competitive,” said Warren Dewey, program manager of AW2EI.

The program was the brainchild of Lt. Gen William Caldwell and Brig. Gen. Mark O’Neill, then the commandant and deputy commandant of CGSC, who were looking in 2007 to fill shortages among history instructors, Dewey said.

With the support of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and then-Army Secretary Pete Geren, the program was funded through fiscal 2016 at a cost of about $100,000 per student.

In three years, 18 people have enrolled, 13 of them medically retired and 11 of them from officer backgrounds. Of the 13 degrees the program offers, the students have gravitated most toward history and curriculum development. Of the eight graduates, five have gone on to teach at CGSC.

“All of the guys in the program have their own unique story,” Dewey said. “We have Silver Star recipients who have fought their way out of tough, tough combat, of course Purple Hearts, and Bronze Stars, a significant amount of accolades among these folks.”

Col. Gregory D. Gadson (pictured), chief of the Army Wounded Warrior Program, told participants during a recent visit to Kansas that the program was “about treating folks with dignity and respect.”

“It's about understanding that we as people have value and something to offer regardless of our circumstances,” he said. “And while the Army’s still trying to get their mind around all the implications, you all are going to break down barriers and enhance that.”

Gadson, who lost both of his legs to a roadside bomb in 2007 and knows something about inspiration, said the Army is, for its money, retaining uniquely inspirational people who want to continue serving.

“You can’t purchase those kinds of credentials,” Gadson told Army Times. “So on the outside you see the cost, but these guys are bearing fruit in ways we can’t ever measure.”

Dewey, noting President Obama’s mandate to hire more wounded warriors to government jobs, said he would like to see the program expand to all services.

“If we really want to bring quality folks into the Department of Defense, then we need to look at those parameters to ensure that all veterans are eligible for the program,” he said.

Yet for all of the program’s promise, it has had some trouble recruiting soldiers. Eligible soldiers tend to be fresh amputees who have struggled physically and have young families. For them, the academic rigors of graduate school in a new location may seem too big a step.

“They may not be ready to do that right now,” Dewey said. “Not to say they won’t be when they redefine themselves and say, ‘I lost my military career, what am I going to do now?’ Some people make it through that transformation process quicker than others and say, ‘I still want to contribute and I still want to be part of a team.’ ”

Even for star student and aspiring Paralympics athlete Kortney Clemons, it took a leap of self-confidence for him to apply for graduate school.

“Coming here was a big step for me, and you don’t know what you can do,” Clemons said. “It can take guys a while to know what they can do. No one wants to come back after losing a limb and fail at something.”

Since losing a leg to a roadside bomb in 2005 while providing medical aid to a comrade in Iraq, Clemons has gone on to win a gold medal in the above-the-knee amputee long jump at the U.S. Paralympic World Trials. He hopes to compete in the 2012 Paralympics in London.

With a family to support, Clemons said the University of Kansas was an attractive step toward a career beyond sports. Clemons works out with the university track team and studies education. He aspires to become a curriculum developer at Training and Doctrine Command, or an instructor.

“The running thing is to keep me alive, keep me fit,” said the soft-spoken 30-year-old. “But the education thing, I don’t ever want to stop learning. The day I think I know it all is the day I’m in trouble.”

Having taken that leap, Clemons encouraged injured soldiers who might be “playing it safe” to stretch their goals.

“They may have set a goal to walk, and then they get there,” he said. “I always was told you never want to keep your goals behind you, you always want to keep them in front of you.”