Disabled employee sees job at Fort Drum as his service to country
June 14, 2012
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- When Jeffrey Files kisses his wife goodbye each morning, he leaves their Great Bend home to do what he considers his duty to country.
As a stock clerk at Fort Drum's Central Issue Facility, he is tasked with issuing, receiving and accounting for a military inventory that exceeds $45 million.
"I try to be a patriotic person," Files said. "We are getting these Soldiers ready for battle and stuff like that."
The majority of the 30 employees at the CIF who assist 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldiers every day are participants of the Jefferson Rehabilitation Center, a Watertown-based agency that has provided services and programs for persons with disabilities since 1954.
JRC has had the CIF contract for more than a decade.
A Story of Courage
Files was born with a mild form of cerebral palsy. His parents often shuttled him back and forth to specialists in Syracuse to assess his cognitive growth.
While growing up in northern New York, he suffered seizures, but even worse, Files said, was the name-calling and harassment he received from classmates.
"I used to get picked on a lot," he recalled. "It's not just name-calling -- it's the poking and the picking on and stuff like that."
Files said the word "retard" is especially personal for him.
"That's not really a good word," he said. "Even though I can tolerate it, there is a lot of people that can't tolerate it. People say, 'Names don't hurt,' but they do. They most certainly do. I can tell you that from experience."
Despite the struggles, Files said he worked hard. After graduating high school, he found a manufacturing job in Watertown at Production Unlimited, a sheltered workshop program of the JRC.
He said people with disabilities typically work at a sheltered workshop to get out and provide goods and services that benefit the community.
In addition to assembling booklets and three-ring binders at Production Unlimited, Files operated heat-sealing equipment. He said transportation to work was an issue, however, since he had not yet obtained a driver's license.
After a couple of years, Files left the facility and went to work at JRC's recycling plant in Glen Park. He said he did that for two years, until September 1990, the year JRC received its first contract at Fort Drum.
Then 26, Files was one of the first five original individuals from JRC to go to work at Fort Drum. He started in the recycling program on post and began working at the CIF in 1998.
Files said he managed to get his driver's license the year before his big break came.
"I was really, really immature back then," he said, with a chuckle, of not receiving his driver's license until his mid-20s.
As a young man, Files said he had only two aspirations in life.
"I wanted to get a driver's license and I wanted to find a woman that would become my wife to have a family," he said.
He met his future wife Laurie when they were children attending the same special needs class together. Even though it would be two decades before the two became an "item," Files said anyone looking at pictures of them together as kids would never believe it.
"You would think we had been together forever," he said. "Every picture that was taken in class, we were always standing next to each other or sitting next to each other."
Files smiles widely in noting it is now 16 years that the two have been happily married. He said they never had children, but that he is grateful for the life he is living.
"I couldn't be happier," he said. "And this is the best job I've ever had in my life."
Danielle Parker, CIF project manager, said she could not be happier with Files' performance. She described him as a passionate team player who greatly contributes to the daily success of the CIF.
"Jeff is such a standup employee," Parker said. "He's what we consider CIF to be. He's proud. His passion shows in his work. He just loves to be here.
"It doesn't matter what the situation is; he gives his best," she added. "And he serves his country in the way he can."
JRC, which was founded in a church basement by parents of children with disabilities, provides services and programs for hundreds of Jefferson County residents who live with a disability.
The organization receives government contracts, like the one with Fort Drum's CIF, thanks to a law called the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act, which requires all federal agencies to purchase specified supplies and services from nonprofit agencies employing persons who are blind or have other significant disabilities.
The law is administered by the Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled, which operates as the U.S. AbilityOne Commission. The commission has designated National Industries for the Blind (NIB) and National Industries for the Severely Handicapped (NISH) as the national nonprofit organizations authorized to assist local agencies with participating in the AbilityOne program.
According to the regulations, at least 75 percent of an agency's total direct labor hours must be performed by people who are blind or who have other significant disabilities. The other 25 percent of employees -- JRC employees at CIF for example -- are managers or work leaders.
Fort Drum and the 10th Mountain Division abide by AbilityOne guidance to contract work to organizations like JRC, which holds three other contracts on post in addition to CIF. Overall, JRC employs some 110 individuals under four Fort Drum contracts that total $7 million.
"We do the Central Issue Facility, all the (dining facility) attendant jobs, basewide custodial and recycling," said Shawn Mead, the contracts manager overseeing all JRC contracts on post.
He said since 1998, the CIF contract has more than tripled to some $2.3 million.
Fort Drum was the first post Armywide, Mead pointed out, to use a contractor from the AbilityOne program to operate a supply management concept. Since then, officials at other installations have contacted Fort Drum to express an interest in learning how they might do it too.
"When people come here, they are just flabbergasted that we are able to do what we do," he said of CIF.
"And a very important point is that they are probably the most dedicated workforce you could ever have," Mead added. "They get up and come in here every day and deal (really well) with the obstacles."
One typical difficulty encountered by employees at CIF is in having to tell a customer "no." As the first point of contact with Soldiers coming and going, JRC employees are tasked with breaking the news to Soldiers that a high-tech, next-generation item used downrange is not available back in garrison, or that a piece of gear may need to be re-cleaned.
By contract, CIF employees cannot accept dirty equipment.
"I would say it's the system that's sometimes the challenge," Mead said. "There are so many variables that people don't have any control over that can create certain outcomes."
Brian Sterner, chief of the Supply and Services Division at the Directorate of Logistics, pointed out that "legacy" gear, which needs to be used by Soldiers for the next decade or two, must be clean, serviceable and complete.
"Some (Soldiers) have different expectations," said Sterner, adding that specialty goggles, boots and other gear may not be available to troops in garrison. "This is an exercise in expectation management."
"We really can't control certain issues," added Terry Jacobs, the contracting officer's representative at the Supply and Services Division. "There are a lot of Soldiers in and out of here. The first person the Soldiers see when we say, 'We don't have that piece (of gear),' is that (JRC) employee.
"Our CIF employees have to uphold Army standards," Jacobs added. "When they tell Soldiers what that is, and they don't necessarily understand it, they may be angry."
Aside from conflicts that may arise during the issuing and turning in of gear, Jacobs pointed out that some Soldiers may not be fully aware that the person handing them a $600 enhanced small-arms protective insert (ESAPI) is a person with a disability.
"I am very proud to let everybody know that the people they deal with on a day-to-day basis, the (ones) who have the knowledge and insights on the equipment," are persons with a disability, Jacobs said.
Looking at it from a customer service standpoint, Mead said that whether they are making an appointment or going over a statement of charges, every Soldier in and out of the CIF is dealing with a person who has a disability.
"I think a lot of times, when the Soldiers come through here, they don't even know it," Mead said. "And we don't promote it. When we come here, we are all a team and working together."
That attitude of teamwork shines through the work that Files and other CIF employees perform. During each face-to-face encounter, employees appear earnest in looking to meet the expectations of Soldiers, CIF management and the Army.
"I personally take pride in giving the Soldiers the best possible piece of equipment that they can get their hands on," Files said. "If it isn't to my expectations when it goes out to them, I refuse to issue it to them. (When) I inspect the gear that the Soldiers bring in, if it isn't to my (standards), I tell them, in a nice way, to take it back and re-clean it."
Jacobs said some of the best equipment in the Army is at Fort Drum's CIF. That inventory includes everything from rucksacks, canteen cups, sleeping bags and ammo pouches to giant "Mickey Mouse" cold-weather boots, improved outer tactical vest and ESAPIs -- the latest in state-of-the-art ceramic and polyethylene technologies.
Soldiers receive the very best, Jacobs added, and JRC employees must practice great care and accountability each time they go over a Soldier's clothing record, which can run as high as $10,000.
"These (JRC employees) are very good," she said. "They are competent. It may sound corny, but they know that they can never serve their country the way that these Soldiers do. But they know this is one way they can."
Files no longer suffers petit mal seizures. He said he does daydream at times without realizing it. But the dedicated, passionate CIF employee is a proud man who appreciates what he's accomplished in life.
"It is both a privilege and an honor to work out here at Fort Drum," Files said. "I feel very proud to serve the Soldiers. This is probably one of the only ways that I will ever be able to support my country.
"With my disability, I don't think I would've been able to handle the stress of being in the military," he said. "And back then, I don't think my parents would have even allowed me to try to join the military."
Handing a Soldier a helmet. Asking how it fits. Waiting for the reply. They are small, simple conversations, but ones that matter -- to the Soldier, to the Army, and to Files.