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Afflicted Soldier Exemplifies ‘America’s Heroes at Work’

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 20, 2008 – After being medically retired from the Army last year as a result of mental wounds he suffered in Iraq, Michael Bradley faced a daunting challenge that would later prove pivotal in his recovery: holding down a job in the civilian world.

But a new education campaign, America’s Heroes at Work, aims to make employment a less intimidating transition by teaching bosses and managers how to accommodate workers like Bradley -- a pool of productive, capable employees who are afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.

Bradley, who today joined officials from the departments of Labor and Defense and industry representatives at a news conference to kick off the new program, shared his story with American Forces Press Service.

With six years under his belt as an active-duty medic, Bradley’s move back to civilian life was precipitated by a roadside bomb in Baqouba, Iraq, that detonated under his vehicle.

“I was driving a high-profile individual,” recalled Bradley, a former staff sergeant with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division. “All I remember is that I saw the flash, and I pulled him to get him out of the way of the blast. That’s all I remember.”

Moments later, a 155 mm mortar struck the driver’s seat. “A piece of shrapnel had taken out my seat where I was sitting; it probably would have killed me,” he said. But the preceding blast that knocked him unconscious had caused him to slump over and out of the way.

Though he escaped the horrific scene without serious physical wounds, the scar tissue on the former staff sergeant’s mind is still fresh. His memories are so raw that the sound of a slammed door makes him edgy and on guard.

“I went to Disneyland, and the cannons starting firing off the ship,” Bradley recalled. “And here I am low-crawling across the ground, knowing full well that I’m in Disneyland, but my body’s reacting.

“My mind is saying, ‘Get up you fool.’ But my body’s saying, ‘No. I’m not going to do it,’” he said.

Intense physiological responses to harmless stimuli often are a hallmark of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury -- known as PTSD and TBI -- afflictions that affect Bradley and an estimated 20 percent of U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a report by the Rand Corporation.

But Bradley, who was hired as an analyst with Halfacre & Associates in February, has found that, in addition to dispelling his fears that the skills he learned in the Army wouldn’t translate into a civilian job, his employment also has helped on the road to recovery.

“To get back into the work force and be able to see that I can succeed [and that] what I wrote down on my resume is true, and that I can do it, and I have a lot to offer … has really decreased stress,” he said. “To overcome those obstacles, and being able to be out in the work force, has really helped emphasize that I can do it and I can succeed.”

Bradley, 27, credits his patient boss for exercising understanding when Bradley takes occasional brief breaks from work to mitigate problems stemming from his ailments. Common symptoms can include dizziness, headaches and anxiety, according to the Department of Labor.

But in most cases, employers need only make modest and inexpensive changes -- most totaling under $500 -- to adapt a workplace to fit the needs of an employee with similar mental afflictions, said Neil Romano, assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.

The mitigation of minor symptoms, which in some instances can take the form of basic accommodations like providing better-lit office space or a quieter work area, can pay huge dividends, Romano said. Eighty percent of the time, he added, effects of mild TBI cases disappear in about a year.

“We can’t lose their productivity; we can’t lose their skills; we can’t lose their value to society,” Romano said last week. “These are human beings that deserve the opportunity to continue doing what it is they want to do, which is to continue to be productive in society.”

Romano noted that while the America’s Heroes at Work initiative applies to a wide range of Americans suffering from PTSD and TBI, the nation has a special obligation to its returning veterans.

“An initiative like this is terribly important, because if you’re going to have one in five veterans coming home with this, they’re just not people we can afford to forget or lose,” he said. “They didn’t forget us, they did their job. And we can’t [forget them].”

The Labor Department spent almost a half-million dollars developing the program’s Web site, americasheroesatwork.gov, Romano said, adding that additional contributions have come from interagency and business partners.

David S. C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said the Labor Department-led effort is to create the kind of environment that “promotes resiliency.”

“What Labor is trying is to do, in my judgment, is help employers understand [that] if you support [the employee], he’ll perk back up again,” Chu said. “It’s a bit like being on team with a good coach. You’ve got a good coach, that performer somehow finds an extra amount of energy, an extra effort.

“What we’re hoping to do is to give each one of these veterans a little bit of extra coaching, a little bit of extra help that will get them to the finish line,” he said.

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David S. C. Chu

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