When Staff Sgt. Clodomiro Espinoza tells his Soldiers that he understands what they're going through--the medical appointments, the career uncertainties, the challenges of recovery-- he means it literally. He just made the transition himself from a Soldier in Transition to a squad leader, so he knows the physical and emotional aspects of recovery.
"The Soldiers look at me and then say, 'He was here too at one point, so he knows what I'm feeling," said Espinoza, who became a cadre member for Alpha Company at the beginning of November.
Successfully returning to duty after being medevaced here from Kuwait due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament took more than a year filled with surgeries and rehabilitation. But he knew he wanted to go back to regular duty from the beginning.
"They fought them dropping the (medical evaluation board) on me because they knew that I would rehab fine," said Espinoza, a medic by trade.
In between surgeries, he passed his physical training test, qualified for the range, and completed the Army Basic Instructor Course. By staying on top of training, staying certified in his field and finding a worksite agreement that gave him rated time as an assistant squad leader, Espinoza fell right in line with the guidance from leaders like 1st Sgt. Lawrence Shurman on how to successfully RTD.
"If a Soldier wants to go RTD, he needs to prove that every day, not necessarily to me or the cadre but to himself," said Shurman, his former first sergeant in Charlie Co., whom Espinoza credits along with his former commander for supporting his desire to stay in the Army.
His RTD process started, however, with his surgeon. Espinoza needed his surgeon's consent, as well as his physical therapist's consent, before his primary care manager could remove his medical profile and allow him to change assignments. He also let his leadership know of his desire to RTD.
"When I explained to them that it's not a question of whether I'm going to stay in or not, I'm going to stay in, they were really helpful about doing it. We were always on the same page," he said.
When he started looking for jobs, Shurman helped set up a meeting with Madigan Army Medical Center's Command Sgt. Maj. Matthew Brady to ask him to consider Espinoza as a cadre member here.
"He blew Sgt. Maj. Brady's socks off with the interview," said Shurman.
Shurman said that Espinoza's background as a Soldier who just completed his own transition and recovery process helps him to be a better squad leader.
"It gives him more tools to deal with the Soldiers who are in transition, like a unique perspective. He's been there and he's done that. He knows all the uncertainties and all the fears; he knows the game first-hand," said Shurman.
"You have guys that come from doing great things for the Army, where they're heroes, and then they're injured and they're pretty much living day to day walking with a cane… just worried that you're never going to do it again," said Espinoza, who was named noncommissioned officer of the year for his unit in 2011, and then found himself unable to walk six months later. "You're at the top and it's a long fall down."
But he knows how to pull himself back up, and he urges his Soldiers to stay positive and do the same.
"I'll always tell them it's your career path; you have to want it and have to choose it. All I can do is support you and give you guidance along the way," Espinoza said.
"Stay focused on what your goal is at the end and push forward; just keep moving towards it."