By Ed Lopez, Fort Monmouth Public AffairsAugust 21, 2009
FORT MONMOUTH, N.J. -- While working at the Pentagon as an Active Guard Reserve Lt. Col. Dennis Walburn grew accustomed to the luncheons and tours offered to severely injured Soldiers and the common practice of office workers streaming out to the hallways to greet and support them.
"Seeing that kind of put a heavy burden on my heart because I had never deployed," Walburn recalled.
A few weeks after one of those Pentagon tours, Walburn volunteered to deploy to Iraq as part of the Army's Rapid Equipping Force.
Walburn was on patrol on May 28, 2005 with a unit of the 25th Infantry Division's 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team. The patrol had stopped to inspect a suspicious car that turned out to have only women and children as passengers.
The patrol began to load back into the Strykers when a decision was made to search other cars that had been stopped.
"I had just left the Stryker vehicle after getting back in it," Walburn remembered.
"I was at the edge of the ramp ... and there was a sergeant in front of me who had turned around and the next thing I feel is this big blast of heat, the worst pain I ever felt, and I saw blood splatter on the sergeant's chest in front of me. I thought at the time that it was his blood, but in retrospect that was probably my blood splattered on the guy," he said.
The blast from an improvised explosive device ultimately caused Walburn to lose his left leg. The explosion also claimed the lives of an American Soldier and eight Iraqi civilians, three of them children.
When Walburn woke up about a day and a half later at Landstuhl Air Base in Germany, he found out that his left leg was gone. Doctors in Iraq tried to save it but the leg was too badly damaged and kept bleeding.
Today, Walburn, who medically retired from the Army in November 2006, is back at the Pentagon as an Army civilian with Army G-8 as a Missiles and Rockets Staff Synchronization Officer.
As a participant in the Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2), Walburn recently related his experiences during a talk here at Gibbs Hall as part of the 14th Annual Intern Professional Development Day.
The AW2 program assists and advocates for severely wounded Soldiers and their families. AW2 advocates serve as benefits advisers, transition specialists, family assistants and life coaches. They also provide information on career and education options.
In the summer of 2008, there were 3,300 Soldiers enrolled in the AW2 program. At the beginning of August, the number stood at 5,000.
An important element in rebuilding the lives of severely ill and wounded Soldiers is obtaining meaningful careers and participating in education and training programs.
While in the AW2 program, Walburn took advantage of Operation Warfighter, a program sponsored by the DoD in collaboration with Walter Reed Medical Center, Washington, D.C., to provide wounded and injured warriors with temporary work assignments in local DoD and other federal agencies.
Walburn urged the interns at Gibbs Hall to be on the look-out for employment possibilities that can help wounded Soldiers transition back into a regular lifestyle.
"That is really the greatest thing that you can do for our returning veterans to get them going again and just support them," he said.
Walburn also asked interns for patience and understanding if they ever get a chance to work with a Wounded Warrior.
"For a couple of months, just trying to manage a few Powerpoints and keeping up with my email was kicking my butt, and I thought I was pretty squared away," he said.
"I'm telling you that because if you get a new Soldier that is injured right at the beginning of a [new] career, they're not going to have the office skills, the maintenance skills, or the logistics skills. But they can develop them if given a chance," he said.
Arlethia Royster, an AW2 advocate at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Baltimore, Md., and a case manager for 48 Soldiers and veterans, underscored the pressing need for jobs.
"The primary concerns of Wounded Warriors are integrating back into their family and looking for employment that works around their injuries. That's a huge deal," she said. "There's also a financial aspect. We work with service members who are medically retired, so their pay isn't what they were getting when they were on full active duty.
"A big need right now is any employment opportunities from the private sector or any federal agencies that we can partner with. That is definitely one of the things that we're looking for." In addition, there is a need for outreach opportunities that might include recreational activities or a chance for Wounded Warriors to speak about their experiences.
"We try to get them out of the house as much as possible so that, despite their injuries, they know that they can have a normal life," Royster said.
Potential employers interested in hiring a Wounded Warrior can call 1-800-237-1336 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Employers can also go to the AW2 web site, www.aw2.army.mil, and click on the link for "Career & Education" and then "Career & Education Contacts."