Giving Disabled Iraq Vets A Hand

Susan Page
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Wednesday - August 31, 2005
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Sitting on a bench outside Dixie Grill in Aiea, the young man’s prosthetic leg caught my eye.

“Did you lose your leg in Iraq?” I blurted, pretty sure of the answer due to his short hair, peak physical fitness, and that the restaurant is frequented by members of our military.

“Yes, ma’am, I did,” he answered without hesitation, trying to politely stand. Asking for (and getting) a hug, I added, “I’m so sorry for your loss and so grateful for your service and sacrifice.” My husband looked on, stunned. Unapologetic, I left wanting to know more about this soldier who had given so much for us all. What would become of him? Would he be able to find a meaningful job despite his disability?

One answer came from a friend, Loretta Herrington, who works for Dr. Roy Grizzard Jr., assistant secretary for Disability Employment Policy at the Department of Labor. “You need to know about REALifelines,” she said.


Grizzard spoke with me by phone. Launched last September by Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, the Recovery and Employment Assistance Lifelines (REALifelines) works jointly with Navy and Army medical centers (Bethesda and Walter Reed in the D.C. area, Brook in San Antonio, Texas, and Madigan in Tacoma, Wash., and hopefully, soon, Tripler). It’s a program created to provide individualized job training, counseling and re-employment services to each and every veteran “seriously injured or wounded in the War on Terrorism.”

“Going back to Vietnam, a lot of men and women fell through the crack,” says Grizzard, himself sight impaired with retinitis pigmentosa. “Our returning ‘heroes’ need longer tracking to provide job opportunities.”

He points out that, unlike Vietnam, many of our servicemen and women today are Reservists and National Guard members who leave behind established jobs to serve actively.

Today’s battlefield is different than in past wars. There are fewer gunshot wounds, but more limbs lost from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Military and medical technological advancements may save more lives, yet casualties are coming home with more seriously disabling injuries.

By the same token, while medical technology has vastly improved in the past 20 years, so has society’s attitude toward the disabled. Companies, such as Cisco Systems, which has pledged to hire a thousand returning disabled veterans, are more than willing to invest in technologies and special equipment that can offset almost any disability and, according to Grizzard, only cost on average $500.

For example, arm, hand or digit amputees can still do data entry and writing using technology unheard of 20 years ago: one-handed keyboards, typing tutorials for one-hand or missing digits, speech recognition software, largekey keyboards, the foot mouse, touch pads, trackballs and head-pointing systems.

For writing there are grip aids like writing cuffs, as well as action arm orthotic devices, and recoding devices for note taking. (Resource: Job Accommodation Network (JAN) at http://www.JAN.wva.edu).

REALifelines works like this. At the medical center, after medical needs — like fitting and working with prosthetic limbs, therapies for adjusting to blindness, and/or treatment for PTSD — are met, the veteran is assigned to a professional counselor to help him (or her) discover his “special interests and unique talents.”

Then, the counselor advises on the right career path and job training opportunities, following up to make sure the personal assistance is in place and ongoing wherever the veteran lives. It’s optional to participate.

“They can reject the program,” says Grizzard. “But guess what? Most want it, because they are ‘can-do’ type people who see the value in having someone track, shepherd and guide you through the employment process so you can reintegrate, live independently and take care of your family.”

Job training and placement are also offered to family members of injured spouses and to those who left jobs temporarily to be with loved ones during recovery.

Grizzard emphasizes that his department’s programs are available to all persons with disabilities. “We have put more funds into them and made them more robust.”

On http://www.disabilityinfo.gov, I found no fewer than 13 programs (Department of Veteran Affairs, Small Business Administration, Department of Labor) that offer help in finding employment for disabled veterans. Quantifying the success of these programs and accountability for them is something else again.

For employers, as Grizzard says, “Former military members with disabilities are those who have can-do attitudes, see missions and goals accomplished, and are team players.”

I hope one of you is fortunate enough to hire the soldier I met at Dixie Grill.

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