Getting wounded vets back on their feet

House members and staff soon will be confronted by walking reminders of the ongoing war in Iraq: wounded veterans who could find themselves working in the very offices of lawmakers who sent them to war.

The Wounded Warrior program launched by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last year aims to place 25 wounded Iraq war veterans in temporary positions on the Hill by October of this year. By October 2009, the $5 million program hopes to triple that number by placing 75 veterans in various positions in the House.

The program is intended to help wounded veterans, including those who have lost arms and legs in the conflict — which marks its five-year anniversary next week — make the sometimes difficult transition back to civilian life. It will also give members and staff on both sides of the divisive Iraq debate a touching symbol of the cost and sacrifice of war.

“It will let us know what our policy has done, show us the evidence of our policy,” said Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.), a Vietnam War veteran who was one of two Republicans to vote for a timetable of withdrawal from Iraq last year. Gilchrest lost a primary battle last month after his GOP opponent attacked his opposition to the war, and will not be running for reelection this fall.

Supporters of the war like Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas) are also strong defenders of the program, which he said would help veterans. Johnson also suggested that seeing wounded veterans will remind members and young staffers of the human cost of a war that he strongly believes is worth fighting.

“It will not only help the veterans to get back into full swing but I think it may help some of the people who don’t really know what happens over there to realize that we’re fighting an enemy for America and to preserve our way of life,” said Johnson, a veteran who was tortured in a Vietnamese war camp for seven years.

Politics aside, Gilchrest said the program can make a difference, not only for veterans, but for staffers who will learn from veterans as they work side by side.

“Regardless of your feelings on the war in Iraq, there’s a great potential that the program will give members and staff a chance to share experiences and stories with the veterans and to be able to see their wounds,” Gilchrest said.

Pelosi asked the Chief Administrative Office (CAO) to launch the program in a November letter. So far, the CAO has hired a director to run the program, and is just beginning to complete its procedures for accepting applications.

Veterans taking part in the program will not get permanent jobs, but will be on fellowships for which they will receive salaries for one year. After that year is up, the hope is that many will apply for permanent House positions, doing anything from serving as a liaison to veterans in a member’s office to being a CAO carpenter.

Pelosi has called for $5 million in funding for the program to be included in the 2009 budget. That would fund the program for two fiscal years.

In filling the positions, it is vital that the program remain above the typical politics that can bog down such an initiative, according to Dan Beard, the House’s chief administrative officer.

“We’re going to do what we always do and see that the benefits of the program flow equally to each side of the aisle, with the intent of not making it partisan in any way,” Beard said. “That would be the worst thing that could happen. These types of programs are not political.”

Political, maybe not. But working alongside wounded soldiers could prove to be more difficult than anyone imagines, as many veterans return with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can inhibit them from working. Gilchrest has a different spin: He said he thinks the program will help wounded veterans work through their wartime experiences.   

“Everyone that’s coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan has PTSD. It just varies in degree,” Gilchrest said. “Some can deal with it, some can’t.”

Former Master Gunnery Sgt. Patricia Orsini, who has been hired as the program’s director, plans to deal with the potential pitfall by using the regional Veterans Affairs offices as a filter to determine where applicants to the program could best work.

Gilchrest thinks the program will help veterans. “It’ll be a great place for veterans with PTSD because they’ll be involved and immersed within activity,” he said. “There’s a myriad of things going on here, and it’ll give them a chance to talk to other veterans. I think it’ll be immensely therapeutic”

“When you give people meaningful jobs and get them busy, that solves a lot of problems,” said Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.), ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs committee.

Orsini has approached Ryan Kules, the program manager of the military’s Warrior to Work program, for guidance on how to get Congress’s program off the ground. Kules is working to provide veterans with employment opportunities through the military program.

Kules said a problem many disabled veterans face is the perception that they are incapable of carrying out certain tasks or responsibilities because of their disabilities.

“One of the largest hurdles that comes up is some of the employers’ lack of awareness of what the capabilities of the veterans are and that there are warriors out there that are capable of doing anything that anybody else can do,” said the 26-year-old Kules, who lost both an arm and leg in Iraq.

Orsini explains that the program does not discriminate against non-wounded veterans or other potential candidates for jobs. The program is funded separately, and the positions would not conflict with or replace the standard House employment positions available to all applicants.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) likened the program’s requirement that applicants be wounded veterans to the House’s legislative page program, which requires participants to have at least a 3.0 grade point average.

Both Beard and Orsini said they want to take their time with the details and “get it right the first time,” but members like Gilchrest, Johnson and Boozman are eager to see it get started.

“It’s one of those things that we just need to jump in and do it and then if we need to smooth out some areas, then we can go back and do that,” Boozman said. “The problem with government is so much time is spent planning and talking, you just want to say, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”