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Disabled Vets Give Thumbs Up to New VA Career Program

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 14, 2005 – A new program at the Department of Veterans Affairs is helping disabled troops train for new careers while awaiting discharge from the military, with the goal of hiring them at the VA.

The program, dubbed "Vet IT," launched as a pilot at the VA headquarters here in October, is winning acclaim as a win-win for everyone involved. Newly disabled veterans get a jump-start on new careers and, ideally, job offers with good benefits and advancement potential.

But Jennifer Duncan, who came up with the idea and oversees the VA program, said her agency gains as well, by attracting young, motivated employees who understand military veterans and their needs firsthand.

"This is the opportunity of a lifetime," said former Staff Sgt. Matthew Braiotta, who was medically retired from the Army after an improvised explosive device attack in Fallujah, Iraq, left him with severe leg injuries in October 2003.

Like many participants in the new Vet IT program, Braiotta said he had hoped to make the military a career, but found his plans abruptly derailed. He had concerns about what kind of job his experience as an Army scout might land him outside the military, but now he's a mid-level federal civilian employee at VA headquarters here, training as a budget analyst.

"The amazing thing is that I have no skills conducive to what I'm doing here, but they're giving me a chance to learn them," Braiotta said.

Former Army Cpl. Tristan Wyatt, another participant in the program, acknowledged that his resume is "short and sweet" and that he has no formal training for his job at the VA, conducting cyber-security for the agency's computer systems.

Wyatt, who lost his right leg during a firefight in Fallujah in August 2003, said he's "amazed" that the VA looks beyond this and offers him and his fellow veterans a fresh start in life. "They're willing to train us and build us from the ground up," Wyatt said. "It's one of the huge benefits of this program. I'm still blown back by how giving they are here."

But Duncan said disabled veterans like Braiotta and Wyatt bring far more to the VA than they realize. "They're disciplined and energetic, and looking forward to starting new career paths," she said.

And as they build careers at the agency, eventually to replace its aging workforce, these veterans bring a clear understanding of issues important to veterans, particularly disabled veterans, Duncan said. "Who can better understand a veteran than a veteran?" she said.

The Vet IT program helps disabled veterans, most of them wounded during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, transfer that understanding into careers where they can help their fellow veterans.

Most enter the program as volunteers while in the process of getting their medical board disability rating and military discharge. By law, the federal government can't pay them for program participation while they're still on the military rolls, Duncan explained.

While the program doesn't guarantee a job, Duncan said it's been successful so far in identifying permanent positions at the VA for participants.

The agency goes beyond offering steady jobs and valuable work experience, Duncan explained. Working through a wide range of partners, it helps participants move to the Washington area, find places to live, navigate the local transportation system and even get gift cards for work clothes and other essentials if they need them.

"This is an individualized program. It's not a job fair," Duncan said. "These are young men and women who were on a career path that due to circumstances beyond their control, they can't continue. So we're starting them on a new career path and doing everything possible to help them as they do that."

Kelly Wilson, who was medically retired as an Army specialist due to a severe respiratory disease he developed while working at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, said he was delighted to find himself in an interesting job with long-term potential.

At the VA, Wilson helps plan the operations that would keep the agency running in the event of a disaster or terrorist attack. It involves reviewing the VA's essential functions and putting plans in place to ensure they wouldn't be disrupted.

"It's certainly interesting," he said. And even with a college degree under his belt, he's convinced, "I probably couldn't have landed this job without this opportunity" provided through the Vet IT program.

So far, 27 disabled veterans have entered the program, with 10 of them being offered fulltime jobs at the VA.

Duncan hopes to eventually expand the program to other VA offices, but said the agency prefers to move slowly to be sure it gets the program right. "We want to make sure we match skill sets (between participants and their VA jobs) and that we don't make promises we can't live up to," she said.

If former Army Staff Sgt. Robert Barden gets his say, many more veterans like himself will get the opportunity to participate in the Vet IT program. Barden received a traumatic brain injury and was partially paralyzed during a mortar attack in Balad, Iraq, in April 2004. Now, thanks to the Vet IT program, he's a program analyst in the VA's information technology office.

"It's a great program that offered me a career in something I never knew I could do," said Barden. "It can definitely put you on a path to start over and begin something new."

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