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Staying Power: Seriously Wounded Warriors Return to the Fight

Sailor Cooks up Right Recipe for Wounded Care
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

Navy Senior Chief Jim Pitts
Navy Senior Chief
Jim Pitts  Hi-Res

PALO ALTO, Calif., Nov. 1, 2008 — Navy Senior Chief Jim Pitts was not exactly what the doctor ordered when the leaders of Safe Harbor called and interviewed him for a job to be an advocate for wounded warriors.

Pitts had none of the typical experience that would make him a likely candidate. He had no medical background. No psychiatric background. Not even a social work background. Pitts was, in fact, a cook.

"You really don't meet any of the criteria," Pitts said the interviewers told him during his job interview.

But Pitts responded with a simple question. "Why would I need these backgrounds if I'm in a non-clinical position?" he recalled telling them.

"Evidently that sank in, or they didn't have anybody else apply," he said.

Although he started with nothing the Navy thought it was looking for, Pitts is now hailed as one of the best Safe Harbor non-clinical case managers.

"He is a super star. He walked in with no real expertise and has done a great job," said Navy Capt. Key Watkins, commander of the program.

"You wouldn't think that a cook was well-suited for this kind of work, but it just shows that you don't need a medical background," Watkins said. "Anybody who's motivated to do it, can; anybody who loves their fellow sailors and is willing to work for them."

Texting off a Ledge

The Navy's Safe Harbor program has five case managers with a mix of specialties who are reservists on two-year tours. There are plans to expand to 15 case managers deployed nationwide at all the local fleet concentration areas, major military treatment facilities and at the four Veterans Affairs polytrauma centers.

Pitts is the Navy's non-clinical case manager at the Palo Alto Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center here where he has worked since June 2007 full-time alongside his Marine and Army counterparts. An Air Force liaison checks in a couple of times a week.

The group works about 35 veteran and active-duty cases in the area. Pitts also works other Navy cases across the United States.

Once on board, it didn't take the Navy long to see the value in hiring the cook.

A former sailor living in Chicago was having severe post traumatic stress disorder problems. The local VA representatives said they felt he was suicidal and they couldn't reach him, Pitts said.

"I don't know how it happened but this guy became mine. They said 'Senior, we need to see what you can do with this guy,'" Pitts said.

More than 2,000 miles away, Pitts went to work on the phones. But the sailor was not easy to reach, most likely intentionally.

He didn't answer the phone and Pitts had no e-mail address. Looking through the case file, Pitts noticed the next day was the sailor's 22nd birthday. So, the next day, Pitts sent a text message to the sailor wishing him a happy birthday.

"Happy birthday I just wanted to let you know I'm your new case manager," Pitts wrote.

"From that text to him, he called me up and we connected. I talked him down from where he was and encouraged him to get into a treatment program," Pitts said. The sailor voluntarily entered a PTSD treatment program, Pitts said.

But Pitts' efforts didn't stop there. The sailor's home had been burglarized and ransacked. He no longer felt safe, Pitts said. So Pitts again worked the phones and found a couple of agencies willing to help. The apartment was cleaned and repaired and a new apartment was secured for the sailor. Pitts also got the sailor enrolled in technical school and the local Veterans Administration office hired him part-time to work in the same field.

Remarkably, the former sailor's life was turned around, and yet Pitts has never even seen him face-to-face.

"He was a messed up kid. I don't know that he would have been suicidal, but he probably would have done harm to himself," Pitts said. "Best case scenario he would be living with his mother. Worst case scenario, he would be a [newspaper] headline."

Leading Folks Where Leadership is Needed

Pitts carries a cell phone that is on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He manages 41 cases from across the United States. Most are veterans; seven are still on active-duty. He gets calls at all hours and works parts of every weekend. Pitts took the job on orders for six months. Now he is serving on orders that will likely keep him there until May 2010.

Pitts is a reservist who was working as a sanitation manager for a commercial bakery in southern Georgia. He had served on active duty and, after 9/11 Pitts tried on several occasions to join the fight overseas.

"I would love to go. I will dig latrines. I will cave dive. I will do whatever you want me to do. Just get me over there," Pitts said he told a friend in charge of mobilization after the terrorist attacks. "There's got to be something for a chief cook to do."

He served in a couple of administrative positions while activated before returning to civilian life. Pitts continued to give his name to anyone he knew heading overseas in hopes of finding a slot.

"I wanted to lead folks where leadership is needed," Pitts said.

Pitts finally landed a job and was headed for Kuwait in 2007 when Safe Harbor called. In the end, the career sailor made the choice he felt was best for the Navy, he said.

"I know I'm making a bigger impact here. I'm making a bigger difference in the lives of sailors and their families than I would have serving in theater," Pitts said.