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Army helps vets with ‘invisible wounds’ get jobs

/ Source: The Associated Press

Richard Martin keeps a rearview mirror on his desk to prevent co-workers from startling him in his cubicle. The walls are papered with sticky notes to help him remember things, and he wears noise-canceling headphones to keep his easily distracted mind focused.

Martin, an Army veteran who was nearly blown up on three occasions in Iraq, once feared that post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury would keep him from holding down a civilian job, despite years of corporate experience and an MBA.

"Here I am with this background and I'm having problems with my memory," said Martin, a 48-year-old engineer and former National Guard major who now works for Northrop Grumman, helping to devise ways to thwart remote-detonated bombs.

The defense contractor recruited him through its hiring program for severely wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. The company consulted occupational nurses on how to help him do his job without becoming overly nervous when someone, say, drops a heavy object. Martin figured out other tricks, like the headphones, on his own.

But Martin is one of the lucky ones.

Army officials say many new veterans suffering from PTSD and brain injuries struggle to find and keep a civilian job. Advocates say many employers don't know how to accommodate veterans with these "invisible wounds" and worry that they cannot do the job and might even "go postal" someday.

"There is a stigma attached to the invisible wounds, and it's largely borne out of ignorance," said David Autry, a spokesman for Disabled American Veterans. "There's a fear that somebody will go off the deep end."

The Army's Wounded Warrior Program, which helps veterans adjust to civilian life, has been reaching out to employers to educate them and encourage them to hire former soldiers with invisible wounds.

It conducts briefings to brace potential employers for soldiers who might not be able to work regular hours or might startle too easily, suffer outbursts or require time off for counseling.

About 90 severely wounded veterans have found work with the help of the Wounded Warrior Program since it began offering job assistance last year, though the Army does not break that down by injury type.

The severely wounded soldiers now returning from the wars suffer primarily from PTSD and severe brain injuries rather than lost limbs. About a third, or 1,950, of the 5,400 soldiers and veterans in the Wounded Warrior Program have PTSD as their primary injury, while about 970 are in the program because of brain injuries. About 770 are amputees.

For the invisibly wounded, the losses can be as minor as slight memory lapses and as severe as debilitating flashbacks and a hair-trigger temper. Some have blurred vision and difficulty concentrating.

Disabled soldiers qualify for disability payments, but those are often barely enough to live on, and many want to work, if only for their self-respect. The problem is that many employers are far less prepared to take on former military personnel with mental and cognitive disabilities than those with burns or lost limbs.

"Employers find it easier to accommodate those physical disabilities. They can get special equipment," said Sue Maloney, who works with veterans in the Wounded Warrior Program in the Seattle area. But "you can't always see the wounds or the injuries."

Kyle Salisbury, 21, went to work shortly after he retired from the Army last year with a brain injury caused by two large blasts in as many days.

His employer was excited about hiring a wounded Iraq veteran, but Salisbury often could not work because of severe headaches. A second job driving a truck did not work out either because of his occasional nausea and blurred vision. He quit both jobs.

"Right now my job prospects are zero," said Salisbury, who lives with his wife and 3-year-old nephew in Bellingham, Wash. He is attending community college while he decides what to do next.

With less than $3,000 a month in disability payments, "the bills take up all the money," he said. "I definitely don't live a worry-free life."

The transition for Martin, who works in Clearfield, Utah, appears to have been easier. He said minor adjustments to his office, combined with a Blackberry, rehab and medication, have allowed him to function well. He learned about the noise-canceling headphones from a fellow passenger on an airplane.

Karen Stang, manager of Northrop Grumman's hiring program, said that adjustments had to be made for veterans with PTSD or brain injuries, but company managers are happy with the new hires.

The company consults with occupational nurses about what accommodations should be made and encourages veterans to be honest about what they need.

"Give them a chance," Stang said she tells other employers. "Really, look at what they bring as far as skills and help them manage their disability so they can succeed in their job."