Face of Defense: Wounded Warrior Focuses on Future
By Ben Sherman
Fort Sill Public Affairs
FORT SILL, Okla., Feb. 14, 2012 Army Staff Sgt. Louis Thompson remembers the day that he saw the end of his active-duty military career.
Frank Howe, safety representative for the Army Corps of Engineers, talks with Army Staff Sgt. Louis Thompson about identifying hazardous situations on job sites at Fort Sill, Okla. Thompson, from Fort Sill's warrior transition unit, is getting on-the-job experience through the Operation Warfighter program, an internship program for service members recovering at military treatment facilities throughout the United States. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"The doctor told me that I couldn't do my military job anymore,” Thompson recalled. “I sat in the doctor's office and cried. Forty-one years old and I'm sitting there crying like a baby because all of a sudden my life is about to change in a way that I wasn't prepared for.
"I felt like my feet had been kicked out from under me and I had no purpose as far as the military was concerned," he added.
Thompson said he went through every stage of grief before he accepted the fact that his military career was over.
"I said to myself, 'Wait a minute, I've got one of two choices. I'm either going to sit here feeling sorry for myself or I can figure out a way to make the most of it,’" Thompson said.
Thompson had been medically evacuated out of Iraq in 2008 and has undergone six operations on his knees and feet since then.
"They've reconstructed both of my knees using my own bone and cartilage,” he said.
When Thompson entered the warrior transition unit here he was looking for a plan for the future. He found it in Operation Warfighter, a temporary assignment internship program developed by the Defense Department for service members recovering at military treatment facilities throughout the United States. The program provides wounded, ill or injured soldiers with meaningful activity outside of the hospital environment.
Stacey Dancy serves as transition coordinator for the Fort Sill WTU. Part of her job is work therapy for wounded warriors, and she extends those efforts into the Operation Warfighter program, where she arranges for soldiers to do internships in federal agencies.
"OWF is for active-duty wounded warriors who have not finished their medical hold or retired,” Dancy explained. “What we are trying to do is get with soldiers who are transitioning out and give them the premium spots by letting them work in an internship that is nonpaid, because they are already getting paid as soldiers.
“It is really a win-win for both parties, because the agency gets someone who is really excited to do the job," she added.
It didn't take Thompson long to see the doors Operation Warfighter could open for him.
"As a soldier I'm going to take advantage of every opportunity that they have to help me because I've got a life after the military to think about,” he said. Thompson told Dancy he wanted to work with the Army Corps of Engineers.
The corps was a perfect fit for Thompson, who owned his own business for 12 years while serving in the Oklahoma National Guard. His company took on construction jobs on military and government installations worldwide under government contracts.
"The majority of the work I did was military contract work and run by the Corps of Engineers, so I am very familiar with them. I felt like I had something to offer again," he said.
Dancy agreed that it was a good fit for Thompson. "A lot of time we associate our value with our job and especially as a soldier, when you can't do your [military occupational specialty] you have a low image of yourself," she said. "So it was great for Sergeant Thompson to get a position working with the Corps of Engineers."
Due to his background in project management and safety, Thompson is working through the corps' quality assurance and project management programs here.
While thrilled at the opportunity, Thompson first had to confront some challenges. "I went around with one of the quality assurance guys for a couple of weeks, and the problem with that was, because of my injuries, being on my feet so much really wore me out, because those guys are on their feet constantly,” he said. “It was tough.”
Challenges aside, Thompson said he’s enjoying the work. "I got to meet with the safety manager and it was a match,” he said. “It was perfect. I can use my experience, my construction background and military background as far as safety management goes. I can go out and do something when I get out of the Army.”
Thompson has been in the program for six months, working with Frank Howe, safety representative for the corps, as they oversee the building of Fort Sill's new barracks for soldiers in training.
"Sergeant Thompson appreciates the role of the safety officer and keeping workers safe,” Howe noted. “He has a good eye for being able to do hazard identification in the field.”
Thompson has received his disability retirement rating and is looking to retire at the end of March. He will finish his degree at Cameron University and complete his safety training and certificates so that he can become a safety manager, preferably with the corps, he said.
"The opportunities are out there, and soldiers who have been in the Army for a while, who are mature and know what they want have to take advantage of them,” Dancy noted.
To increase his job opportunities, Thompson has applied for an internship in Korea.
“They are doing a lot of construction over there, building the new facilities at Camp Humphreys and Camp Carroll,” he said. “And it's a nonpaid internship to where I get the experience of working and doing on-the-job training.”
Thompson encouraged other soldiers to find out about programs and resources available to help them transition to civilian life.
"I know that a lot of soldiers who are coming back are hurting, and the last thing they want to hear about is another program,” he said. “But as they work to get back into a normal routine and be a part of society, there are programs they will be able to look at and take advantage of.
"If I could give one message to every soldier,” he continued, “it would be that nobody is going to give it to you if you don't get out and look for it and take advantage of it yourself."