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In Congress, injured vets signing on for duty

A new Congressional internship program aims to give injured veterans a chance to work on the Hill and to serve as a reminder to corporate America that vets can be excellent workers.
Image: Bill Collins
William J. Collins Jr., 43, a lawyer and retired major in the Marines who did two tours in Iraq before being medically evacuated for kidney problems exacerbated by his service, works as a veterans adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Dan Lasko swore his oath to join the Marine Corps early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 — just before the terrorist attacks. As he watched the towers fall and the Pentagon burn, he knew his service to his country would be more vital than he could have imagined.

Just a month into his deployment in Afghanistan, in the spring of 2004, Lasko's vision of his service was violently disrupted again. Exiting a rocky canyon, his Humvee rolled over two makeshift bombs.

"Everything is in slow motion," he recalls. "Two big blasts. You can't see anything. Everything is foggy. Sand and rocks and everything is thrown around. I knew right away I was injured. I saw my uniform was covered in fuel, and I was covered in blood. I tried to get up. I grabbed my gun. But I couldn't get up. I looked down at my left foot."

It dangled by a few fleshy threads. The next year was filled with the private heroism of rehab and recovery. He got a prosthetic foot, a medical retirement, an associate's degree in criminal justice, he ran the Marine Corps Marathon.

And then Lasko confronted the existential question faced by thousands of veterans too injured for active service: What now?

"Anybody coming back, any young veterans coming out, you're saying, 'What next?' " says Lasko, 26. It's not easy getting established in the civilian world. "You did your time in the military. In our cases, we're injured, so we're at another disadvantage."

Lasko found his way to one of the more unusual internship programs on Capitol Hill. He's in the middle of a two-year stint as a veterans affairs caseworker in the office of Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.).

Called the Wounded Warrior Fellowship Program, it's designed to give injured veterans a chance to work for Congress, and to serve as a reminder to corporate America that veterans can be excellent workers.

Finding work and building résumés remain a challenge for veterans, despite many initiatives across government and the service branches to support returning personnel. The unemployment rate among the nearly 2 million veterans 18 and older who served since 9/11 was 11.6 percent last month, compared with 9.3 percent for non-veterans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This week, President Obama announced the creation of a Council on Veterans Employment, to be led by Cabinet members, to raise veterans' employment in the federal government.

The fellowship program is too small to put a dent in employment statistics, but congressional supporters hope it will set an example and enhance understanding of veterans' issues.

Established last year on the House side, the $2.5 million program will support the salaries of 50 two-year fellows in the offices of members of Congress. So far, 21 have been hired. Another 21 or so are in the pipeline. The available openings are listed on the Wounded Warrior Web site. The fellows receive annual salaries averaging about $40,000 for caseworkers. Those with special skills, such as a law degree, can earn more.

In the Senate, the sergeant-at-arms office is coordinating a smaller program to offer unpaid, part-time internships in Senate offices to wounded service members who are undergoing rehabilitation around Washington but are still in the military.

The House fellowships are supposed to yield contacts and experience for permanent jobs later. For now, the veterans say their presence on lawmakers' staffs is appreciated by other veterans.

"I think some people do have a stigma about coming for assistance," Lasko says. "Once a veteran comes through the door, and they see my Marine Corps flag and American flag on my desk, they think, 'Awesome!' and they come right over. They feel more comfortable talking veteran to veteran."

Schwartz, Lasko's boss, says that men and women with recent experience in a war zone are "able to make a connection between that service in the military to public service here at home."

William J. Collins Jr., 43, a lawyer and retired major in the Marines who did two tours in Iraq before being medically evacuated for kidney problems exacerbated by his service, works as a veterans adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In his cubicle in the Cannon House Office Building, his computer wallpaper is an image of the Marines raising the flag over Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in 1945. Taped to his computer is the admonition, "We must not mistake symbolism for substance."

"I didn't just want to be a symbol; I wanted to have impact and substance in the work I do," he says.

More than a symbol
Collins got confirmation this week that he's more than a symbol. He was asked to draft material related to Tuesday's memorial service to shooting victims at Fort Hood, Tex., and he made the trip to the service with Pelosi. In his months on the job, he has attended hearings, tracked legislation and help do groundwork for veterans-related events.

The last time he visited a speaker's office, Tip O'Neill was the occupant and Collins was high school junior on a tour. He never thought he'd be back. "There's definitely a sense of guilt at not crossing the finish line" as a Marine, he says.

His assignments in Iraq included advising commanders on the application of military law to combat situations and helping to reestablish the Iraqi court system. When he sent out his résumé last year, he had little luck -- in part, he suspects, because veterans, even those with law degrees, have trouble conveying how military experience has value in a civilian context.

"Hopefully, by being in this fellowship we can serve as a conduit between the two communities," Collins says.

Zachary Guill, 29, walks with a cane after his back and right leg were injured by a makeshift bomb during a patrol in Iraq in late 2006.

"It was hard finding work," he says. "Being a combat arms soldier makes it more difficult. . . . What can you put on your résumé? You ran around with a machine gun for six months? No business knows what to do with that."

He does veterans casework in the office of Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.). "No one thinks they'll work for Congress," Guill says. "It was really a blessing."