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National Organization on Disability (NOD) focuses on employment

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

It’s a problem with which we’re all too familiar: More than 500,000 veterans have received disability ratings from the VA over the last dozen years, many severe enough to be life altering.

According to a study by Rand Corporation, as many as one out of every three of the 2.4 million troops that have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan will be returning home with Post-Traumatic Stress or Traumatic Brain Injury, the war’s "signature" injuries.

These disabilities often demand a long and difficult period of recovery and adjustment – but they need not be a barrier to civilian employment, income, and independence. Too often, seriously wounded service members lack the training and resources to adapt their military experience and new disabilities to successful civilian careers.

Since retiring from the Army, I have been privileged to serve on the board of the National Organization on Disability, known as NOD.

For more than 30 years, NOD has promoted the full participation of America’s 56 million people with disabilities. Our focus is on employment.

What I have come to understand from my work with NOD is that the wasted talents and abilities of veterans with disabilities, and the impact on thousands of their families, is a completely preventable national tragedy.

In 2007, the Army Wounded Warrior (AW2) program asked NOD to assist in developing a way to help wounded, ill, and injured soldiers transition to civilian life.

The result of this collaboration is the Wounded Warrior Careers Demonstration, in which hundreds of the most severely injured veterans and their families have begun planning and preparing for careers, enrolling in school or training programs, taking jobs and moving ahead.

In four years, the Army and NOD have built a scalable model and helped hundreds of veterans and their families successfully reintegrate.

Many companies are recognizing the value of hiring our nation’s veterans when they return home from combat and are beginning to make a dent in the veteran unemployment rate.

But, too often, these programs don’t target veterans who’ve returned home with disabling conditions.

Through Wounded Warrior Careers, NOD uniquely operates at that nexus between unemployment and disability. Few other organizations – public, private, or corporate – do that.

We’re showing that with the right support, even our most seriously disabled veterans can, and do make a huge contribution to our country’s workforce while regaining a sense of dignity and purpose that comes with a career.

The transition from the regimen of military life to the free-form competition of the civilian labor market is difficult for veterans under the best of circumstances.

But for wounded warriors, suddenly and violently separated from a career to which, in many cases, they had planned to dedicate their lives, and thrust into a civilian job market where their skills may be poorly understood and undervalued, the transition can be far more forbidding.

Add in the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury – conditions that complicate planning, learning, and confidence, the most basic requisites of starting a new career – and the need for support grows much deeper.

The standard model of self-directed employment programs is much less likely to work for injured veterans. Something fundamentally different is required.

That is the reason for Wounded Warrior Careers.

The program began as a demonstration intended to test various ways of meeting the needs of injured veterans who are ready, willing, and able to re-build their careers after retiring from the military with a disability.

Since the program’s inception, NOD has drawn from direct experience working with wounded warriors and their family members in three locations chosen to provide a variety of economic and employment conditions – North Carolina, Colorado, and metropolitan Dallas, Texas.

Through the use of an evaluation that was designed to determine the most effective approach, NOD developed an Intensive Career Transition Support model.

This model is designed to provide personalized, consistent support throughout the career transition until the wounded warrior is established in their new career

NOD’s career specialists are the key to the service. Career specialists are responsible for providing each wounded warrior with support and guidance to help them identify and achieve their career goals. The program begins when AW2 Advocates refer wounded warriors who are ready to begin the transition to career specialists in their area.

A close working relationship between the career specialist and an advocate is essential to the process. Advocates typically enjoy a strong confidential relationship with injured service members, and a good working knowledge of their readiness and determination to begin thinking about a civilian career.

This "warm referral" brings the veteran to WWC with an expectation of trust and partnership that is essential to a relationship that may need to last for several years and through multiple stages of planning, preparation, and course-correction.

A trusting relationship is particularly important considering the kinds of injury that are most common among veterans in WWC.

Until properly treated and managed, the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury in particular can seriously complicate the process of building clarity, confidence, and determination about a career path.

Consequently, the relationship between the wounded warrior and the career specialist incorporates six essential qualities: It is personal (veteran-centered), proactive, prolonged, holistic, results-focused, and collaborative.

This means that career specialists deal with each veteran’s opportunities and challenges as an individual, unique case.

They take the initiative to keep the discussion going, often meeting with veterans in their homes and communities and making certain that momentum is maintained throughout the process.

The relationship extends not just to employment, but well beyond the first job to ensure that momentary setbacks or frustrations don’t derail progress. Career specialists work not with veterans alone, but with their families and, later, with their employers to ensure that career goals are integrated with other aspects of family life, health and well-being.

Everything the veteran and career specialist do together is organized around a succession of milestones, designed to produce concrete accomplishments at every step of the transition. WWC unfolds in four stages:

Career Planning, in which veterans envision their path from military to civilian careers, explore their interest and ambitions, formulate goals, identify obstacles, and sort through the steps and available resources that could help them overcome the obstacles and reach the goals.

This stage ends with the development of a Career Action Plan, a long-range roadmap, covering five or more years, developed jointly by the veteran and the career specialist.

Career Preparation, when the veteran translates the career plan into actual activity: enrolling in education or training, making use of resources and benefits, pursuing referrals to services and supports, and, when appropriate, taking a step into transitional or supported employment.

Job-Seeking Support, where career specialists guide veterans through the actual work of translating interests, abilities and skills into employment, including helping them develop a résumé, introducing them to prospective employers or job-search programs, helping them plan and negotiate accommodations they may need on the job and seeking out job opportunities that might match their goals.

Post-Placement Support, an extended period of guidance and problem-solving after the veteran takes a job, tackling issues such as housing, ongoing job coaching, interacting with employers, on-the-job performance, and general advocacy on the veteran’s behalf.

Along the way, WWC tracks data on these accomplishments and aggregates the data to learn what methods are most successful and what needs or problems deserve more attention.

The program, however, is not intended to provide all services. Career specialists seek out partnerships with expert organizations including education, training, workforce, and health providers to make certain that various activities are part of a coherent whole, consistently leading to the goal of satisfying, long-term careers.

As the field of workforce development becomes more familiar with the needs of veterans with disabilities, more and more organizations are beginning to offer programs tailored to their needs. NOD has, therefore, committed itself to encouraging and enriching this development, with efforts to expand avenues of communication, consultation, and networking among the various programs and organizations that seek to serve veterans.

This includes a vigorous effort to track our own progress, measure outcomes, document what we learn, and share that information as broadly as possible.

In January, NOD released the results of "Hiring America’s Best," a four-year study of its Wounded Warrior Careers program. What it found is stunning.

In its first four years, NOD has served 275 seriously injured veterans, of whom 70 percent progressed to jobs, education or training. Among wounded warriors not enrolled in the program, that comparable figure is between 30 and 40 percent.

NOD’s Wounded Warrior Careers program has developed a model that works, at a sustainable cost of about $3,500 per veteran, per year. NOD is encouraging the federal government, particularly the departments of Defense, Labor and Veterans Affairs, as well as providers of career services to disabled veterans all across the nation, to embrace this model and expand its reach to many more deserving veterans.

The successful transition of wounded warriors into satisfying civilian careers provides an invaluable opportunity for the United States to continue benefiting from the dedication, talent, and leadership of its bravest young people.

But more fundamentally, making sure that this transition is successful is the ultimate debt we owe to those most severely injured in their country’s service. The question therefore is not whether such an effort is called for, but how creative, smart, and effective that effort can be.

To learn more about the Wounded Warrior Careers Demonstration report, visit NOD.org.

(Editor’s note: Lt. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, USA, Ret., is a former deputy chief of staff for personnel, Department of Army, and served as the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point from 2006 to 2010.)