FORT BELVOIR, Va. -- When everything is remote because of a pandemic, it's hard to see what kind of impact your efforts are having on the world. But for tens of thousands of service members transitioning to civilian service, the hard work of Cpl. Zachary Stafford had a very real impact. And Stafford did it all in just a few months while preparing to enroll in college in the fall as COVID-19 caught everyone off guard.
The Department of Labor recognized Stafford, a Pennsylvania native who served in the airborne infantry and will study mechanical engineering technology at Penn State Behrend, for his contributions while serving as an intern with the DoL’s VETS office from February through June this year. Just a month after he started, he found himself in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and found his role suddenly changed.
Stafford undertook the unglamorous but important work of fixing all the links on the VETS website so that tens of thousands of transitioning service members would have access to the resources they needed during the COVID response.
A transitioning service member himself, Stafford understood why the tasks needed to be done. He had to leave the service early due to a benign tumor in his head that required surgery, forcing him into the civilian world sooner than expected.
"The VETS program works with veterans and families with getting jobs," he said. "When they move back home, it sets up all the programs veterans can use to do things like write resumes and make different connections outside the military. For someone like me who didn't know what I was going to do, it helped me learn a lot about what was going to happen outside of the Army."
Stafford was serving in Italy with the 173rd Airborne Brigade when he underwent X-rays, prompting him to leave the 173rd in June 2018 and go through surgery that November at Walter Reed. That put him on crutches for six months and required physical therapy two to three times per week. After that, he was off to the SRU at Fort Belvoir last year for his long-term recovery.
Once there, Stafford said it was his job to recover, which he was thankful for — it allowed him to focus on recovery without having to worry about anything else.
"You do your doctor appointments, go to physical therapy, and do adaptive reconditioning stuff," he said. "I'm in a swimming class, which actually helped with my hip a lot."
Once the SRU helped him back on his feet, his thoughts turned into life after the Army. He decided to focus on getting into college, and chose to intern with the VETS program to help out others in the meantime. That's when coronavirus happened, and he switched from doing administrative tasks to helping with the most pressing need: ensuring transitioning veterans have access to the resources they need. He went through the entire VETS website to fix all critical links connecting veterans with the veteran service organizations that could help them.
Stafford's own unique experience also allowed him to provide advice on how the program could be better run. For example, he didn't have a family and so many of the things involved in the program didn't apply to him, which sparked the idea for two different programs — one for families and one for those who are single. He also helped refine the process for helping veterans transition and make it run more smoothly, he said.
Aug. 1 was his last day on active duty, and now he's gearing up for college this fall. He's already got a part-time job cleaning up metal parts for companies and doing some welding. Stafford said he's looking forward to his future, and feels confident his new life is off to a good start.