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Face of Defense: Wounded Warrior Begins Second Career

By Alison Kohler
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORT RILEY, Kan., Nov. 24, 2009 – A former soldier who spent about 16 months in the warrior transition battalion here now looks forward to a rewarding career as an Army civilian.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Erik Stewart discusses preparations for an upcoming higher-headquarters assessment with Ward Philips at Fort Riley, Kan., Nov. 6, 2009. Stewart was a soldier in Fort Riley's warrior transition battalion who transitioned to a civilian career with the Fort Riley garrison. U.S. Army photo by Alison Kohler
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Former Army Capt. Erik Stewart advises other warriors in transition not to rush the process.

"Make sure you're healthy and as whole as you can be," Stewart said. "It's all about your attitude. If you have a positive attitude and you work with the doctors, it goes well."

Stewart, 38, from Wakefield, Kan., currently on leave, saw his Army career of more than 19 years officially end Nov. 18. He now has a promising future ahead of him working in the plans, mobilization, training and security directorate here as an emergency management specialist.

Stewart uses his 15 years of experience as a military police officer and four years as an engineer in his new job.

"There's some stuff I'm still learning, but the emergency management aspect of it, it works out," he said.

The married father of four said he spent a lot of time looking before he landed the GS-12 civil service position. Learning to navigate the online civil service application process was tough, he acknowledged.

"In the Army, you get orders [and] you show up,” he said. “You don't have to bring your accomplishments with you. You don't have to worry about that in the military. That was stressful."

His civilian job has him preparing emergency management plans and, if necessary, assisting in emergency response. He’s in charge of Fort Riley's Ready Army program, currently concentrating on the post’s management of H1N1 flu.

Though he misses the Army’s unit camaraderie, he said, working as a civilian has its advantages.

"No more deployments, and no more alerts,” he said. “[You] come home every weekend and every night.”

Stewart was wounded by a roadside bomb in the tenth month of his third deployment. For a while, he tried to tough it out, he said.

"I got to where I was trying to get in and out of a vehicle and I couldn't do it, and I was in pain all the time - my back, my groin, my head and my arm,” he said. “I was having trouble holding on to my rifle, and I couldn't wear my gear without my back or my groin hurting. I was having trouble concentrating."

He was sent here through the Army’s regional medical center at Landstuhl, Germany, and was assigned to the warrior transition battalion.

"[I was] scared at first, because I've been doing this since high school,” he said. “When I first got there, I was just going to appointments, and that was OK at first, because I had been gone for like 39 months with deployment, home, deployment, home. Then I realized I was bored; I needed to find something to do."

He tried to take college classes, but ended up having to withdraw three times, he said, because he couldn't focus and study. Stewart completed an unpaid internship with a nature center and looked into a welding program at a technical college. His wife mentioned looking for a job on Fort Riley, so he began to learn about applying for civil service positions.

Though he expected a long wait after he interviewed for his current position, he said, he was selected the following day, and he has been on the civilian payroll since September.

He advises other warriors in transition to make a plan, including financial plans, for what they need to have and where they will be in three months and in five years.

"They can't just [say], 'I'm going to get out and live at my folks' house’, or ‘I'm going to move home,'” he said. That's not a plan."

But before they make plans for life after the Army, Stewart said, soldiers should first get all the help they need.

"Don't get out just to get away from it all," he advised.

Most importantly, he added, warriors in transition need to take a step back when everything seems overwhelming.

"It's easy to get caught up in 'Woe is me,' and it's easy to go to the dark, depressed place,” he said. “Take a big problem and break it down. It's like a wall, but if you take it down a brick at a time, eventually the wall's gone."

(Alison Kohler works in the Irwin Army Community Hospital public affairs office at Fort Riley.)

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