By Daniel J. CalderAfA3n, special to Soldiers MagazineJune 27, 2008
The Los Angeles District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created the Warriors@Work program to assist Guard and Reserve servicemembers injured in the line of duty to return to their homes, where they will continue to receive care locally while they are evaluated for a return to duty, a medical release or an appearance before a medical board, program officials said.
Staff Sgt. Robert Soto, an 18-year Army National Guard veteran who lives in Palmdale, Calif., broke his ankle while on duty in Afghanistan in January 2007. After being evacuated and treated for his injury, he checked in to Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis, Wash., to recover. While there, he learned about the Community Based Health Care Organization, which offers wounded or injured Soldiers the chance to be close to their families while they're convalescing, rather than in a hospital far from their loved ones.
"My family is ecstatic that I'm here," said Soto during his time with Warriors@Work in the Los Angeles area. "When I was recovering at Fort Lewis, it was difficult for my wife to come up and see me."
"We're proud to be able to take the Warriors@Work program to the troops," said Col. Thomas H. Magness IV, Los Angeles District commander. "The Wounded Warrior program is important to aiding in the recovery of our Soldiers and it's a great benefit to families. Through the Warriors@Work program, we believe the Corps can help these heroes during their recovery or transition back to civilian life."
While at Fort Lewis, Soto took a trip home to Palmdale. In a chance meeting at the airport, he met Sgt. Maj. Jeff Koontz. Koontz asked about Soto's injury and his plans during recovery time.
"I wasn't sure," Soto said. "The CBHCO helps you get back to work, but I didn't know what I was going to do
Daniel J. CalderAfA3n works for the public affairs office of USACE's Los Angeles District.
while I was in recovery. I thought I'd be at Fort Lewis the whole time."
Koontz, the L.A. District's security officer, offered Soto the opportunity to be a part of the new Warriors@Work program. Through the program, Soto began work for USACE in Palmdale, Calif.
"It's almost too good to be true," said Soto's wife, Rocio. "He was here when our daughter was born, but got activated soon after. If not for the Corps, he would have missed her first birthday. He was here for it, and he's been able to get acquainted with her."
Due to his injury, Soto's initial work with the Corps consisted of filing and assisting office members with their paperwork. In July, Soto's doctor cleared him to go out to field locations. The District has projects throughout Southern California, Arizona and Nevada, and in parts of Utah.
"He's a definite asset," said Delvin Rivas, aa electrical engineer at USACE's Palmdale office. "Sgt. Soto is always willing to complete whatever is required, and he's eager to learn about what we do here."
The work was not the only benefit to Soto. The flexible schedule allowed him to continue his treatment at a local medical facility.
Soto's experience is not unique. Already, another Soldier is participating in the Warriors@Work program. Cpl. Lance Carver, a Kansas National Guard infantryman, was injured by an improvised explosive device in Iraq. He's undergoing treatment and also working in Palmdale.
"I think this is great," Carver said of the program. "I have two daughters, and they're here with me. Both are in school right now. I'm doing my medical treatment here. But I have no idea how long I'll be here; there's a lot of medical treatment to do."
Due to his injuries, Carver will likely be fitted with hearing aids. In addition, he has a broken leg from another injury received while on duty. Like Soto, Carver will begin his time with the Corps working in the office. However, Carver said he plans to use skills he has gained over the years, both in the Army and outside, to help make improvements at the office.
"That's the whole idea of what we do," said Staff Sgt. Matthew Ahmu, who is with the CBHCO at Fort Lewis. "This program is for getting Soldiers home. Bringing it together with the Corps of Engineers makes absolute sense."
As part of Warriors@Work, Soldiers work with USACE while still on active duty. Each Soldier continues treatment and ensures the military chain of command is informed of any developments. USACE officials said this program benefits Soldiers, the Corps of Engineers and the country.
"This is the proverbial 'win-win' for the Corps and for any Soldier involved," said Kevin Inada, assistant chief for the L.A. District's Construction Division. "The Soldier can continue treatment at a facility close to home since there are Corps offices around the country; the Corps benefits from the Soldier's knowledge and work ethic; and the country benefits because these Soldiers continue to contribute to its welfare. The Corps' mission is all about service to the community and the Soldiers involved in our program will be a major factor."
Soto's last day with the Corps was Feb. 1. After taking leave, he returned to his civilian job with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Ventura, Calif.
While the CBHCO program is currently available to Guard and Reserve Soldiers in the L.A. District's area, officials are hoping to expand the initiative nationwide. Soldiers from California or Nevada interested in participating in the Warriors@Work program should contact Lt. Col. Frederick Borowicz at
(916) 830-1450. Soldiers from Arizona should contact Lt. Col. Lynn Hinckley at (801) 878-5560.
For more information about the program, contact Koontz at (213) 452-3969 or via e-mail at Jeffrey.E.Koontz.SGM@usace.army.mil.