By Ian Graham
The 8,000 soldiers under the U.S. Army Warrior Transition Command are in a struggle to overcome their injuries and transition back into civilian life. The Army Wounded Warrior Program and people like Roberta Berry help ease their stress by helping the Army find jobs for its wounded men and women, and by helping employers learn how best to hire and work with wounded servicemembers.
“One of the commitments I made to my dad was that the young men and women who risked and gave their lives the way he did in Vietnam wouldn’t come home to the kind of environment he did,” Berry said. “I committed to making sure the veterans are being taken care of.”
Berry, an Army brat and the wife of a disabled U.S. Navy veteran, acts as the functional lead for private business and non-profit relations in the Army Wounded Warrior Program, helping private firms understand the rewards and risks of hiring the Army’s wounded.
Berry said that no matter what, proper healing should always be the first priority when an injured soldier is considering joining the workforce. She recommended volunteer work, maybe 15 hours weekly, to start, because the mental stresses of full-time work could potentially wreak havoc on someone who’s dealing with traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress, causing regression.
“We try to teach them not to be in a hurry, and to seek professional advice to help make the transition smooth,” she said. “Soldiers need to know themselves well enough to know when they’re ready, but they should take their time. The Wounded Warrior Program, the job opportunities, they’ll all still be here.”
“It’s a commitment I’ve lived myself,” she added.
Berry and her coworkers create networks by going to job fairs and trade shows, as well as talking directly with government agencies. For some federal jobs, Nichols said, they can get a pay grade changed to fit an injured soldier’s needs. Between 100 and 150 companies have approached Berry’s office (she has two coworkers who liaise with other industries and sectors of the job market); about 50 or so are what Berry called the “loyal few.”
“Often we’ll get companies who come in looking for the tax breaks you can get for hiring a wounded warrior, but don’t understand the work it takes on their part to understand and properly handle a disabled veteran employee, so we have to weed them out,” she said. “But we have a lot of companies who are serious about it and take the time to learn, and they end up being our repeat customers.”
Sometimes, she said, simply the idea of having someone with post-traumatic stress can be a big hurdle to an employer. It’s important to remind them that it’s just another form of disability, she said. Some employers back away from it, but many are willing to take the risk to “do the right thing,” Berry said.
“The same way when you see someone in a wheelchair, you step aside and give them a little extra room to move around, you can do little things to help a wounded warrior on the job site,” Berry said. “Sometimes it’s giving them a place to sit or stand where their back isn’t exposed, sometimes it can be as simple as writing down instructions so they don’t forget.”
She added that some firms go so far as to hire a wounded warrior to be a liaison between disabled veteran staff members and management. That way veterans can talk to each other, their “brethren,” Berry said, instead of taking complaints or questions directly to a manager.