Wounded Warrior focuses on future after Army
February 10, 2012
FORT SILL, Okla. (Feb. 10, 2012) -- Staff Sgt. Louis Thompson remembers the day that he saw the end of his active-duty military career.
"The doctor told me that I couldn't do my military job any more. I sat in the doctor's office and cried. Forty-one years old and I'm sitting there crying like a baby because all of a sudden my life is about to change in a way that I wasn't prepared for," Thompson said. "I felt like my feet had been kicked out from under me and I had no purpose as far as the military was concerned. You know, you're done for here."
Like a lot of Wounded Warriors, Thompson felt sorry for himself, because all of his hopes and dreams of a military career were taken away from him. He said he went though every stage of grief before he accepted the change.
"I said to myself, 'Wait a minute, I've got one of two choices. I'm either going to sit here feeling sorry for myself or I can figure out a way to make the most of it," Thompson said, adding that he realized that it was up to him to make the most of the situation.
He was medically evacuated out of Iraq in 2008, and has had six operations since then. He's had problems with both of his knees and his feet.
"They've reconstructed both of my knees using my own bone and cartilage. They won't do a total knee replacement because they tell me I'm too young," Thompson said.
So when he came into the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Sill he was looking for a plan for the future. He found it in Operation Warfighter. OWF is a temporary assignment internship program developed by the Department of Defense for service members who are recovering at military treatment facilities throughout the United States.
The program provides wounded, ill or injured Soldiers with meaningful activity outside of the hospital environment.
Stacey Dancy serves as transition coordinator for the Fort Sill WTU. Part of her task is giving the Wounded Warriors work therapy, but also extending that program into the Operation Warfighter program, where she arranges for Soldiers to go out into federal agencies and do internships.
"OWF is for active-duty Wounded Warriors who have not finished their medical hold or retired. What we are trying to do is get with Soldiers who are transitioning out and give them the premium spots, by letting them work in an internship that is non-paid, because they are already getting paid as Soldiers. And so it is really a win-win for both parties, because the agency gets someone who is really excited to do the job," said Dancy.
It didn't take Thompson long to see that OWF was what he was looking for.
"As a Soldier I'm going to take advantage of every opportunity that they have to help me because I've got a life after the military to think about. So I went to Miss Dancy and said, 'I want to go to work with the Corps of Engineers," he said.
Working with the Corps of Engineers was a perfect fit for Thompson, who owned his own business for 12 years while serving in the Oklahoma National Guard on weekends.
His company did construction on military and government installations worldwide under government contracts.
"The majority of the work I did was military contract work and run by the Corps of Engineers, so I am very familiar with them. I felt like I had something to offer again," he said.
"A lot of time we associate our value with our job and especially as a Soldier, when you can't do your MOS (military occupational specialty) you have a low image of yourself," Dancy stated. "So it was great for Sergeant Thompson to get a position working with the Corps of Engineers."
Thompson has been able to work through the Corps' quality assurance and project management programs at Fort Sill, because of his background in project management and safety.
But it hasn't been easy for Thompson to adjust to the new situation.
"I went around with one of the quality assurance guys for a couple of weeks, and the problem with that was, because of my injuries, being on my feet so much really wore me out, because those guys are on their feet constantly. It was tough," Thompson said. "I got to meet with the safety manager and it was a match. It was perfect. I can use my experience, my construction background and military background as far as safety management goes. I can go out and do something when I get out of the Army," he added.
Thompson has been in the program for six months, working with Frank Howe, safety representative for the Corps of Engineers as they oversee the building of Fort Sill's new Advanced Individual Training barracks east of Reynolds Hospital.
"Sergeant Thompson appreciates the role of the safety officer and keeping workers safe. He has a good eye for being able to do hazard identification in the field," Howe said.
He has received his disability retirement rating and is looking at retiring at the end of March. He will finish his degree at Cameron University and complete all of his safety training and certificates so that he can become a safety manager, preferably with the Corps of Engineers.
"The opportunities are out there, and Soldiers who have been in the Army for a while, who are mature and know what they want have to take advantage of them. Sergeant Thompson came in and said, 'I heard about this OWF program and I want to do it.' He pretty much developed his own plan. I set some things up for him and he took it from there," said Dancy.
While Thompson is waiting for a job to develop he has applied for an internship in Korea.
"I really love it in Korea. They are doing a lot of construction over there, building the new facilities at Camp Humphreys and Camp Carroll, and it's a non-paid internship to where I get the experience of working and doing on-the-job training," he said.
"I know that a lot of Soldiers who are coming back are hurting, and the last thing they want to hear about is another program. But as they work to get back into a normal routine and be a part of society, there are programs they will be able to look at and take advantage of," he added. "If I could give one message to every Soldier it would be that nobody is going to give it to you if you don't get out and look for it and take advantage of it yourself."