By Mr Paul Steven Ghiringhelli (Drum)November 16, 2011
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Because many Soldiers fighting in today's wars were once high school seniors who swapped graduation gowns for battle dress uniforms, professional warriors who are wounded in the line of duty often lose the only livelihood they have ever known.
In addition to wrestling with redefining their careers, some of these Soldiers also face a depressed economy and uncertain future.
Such hardships are a reality for hundreds of U.S. service members each year, including many of the 368 Fort Drum Soldiers attached to 3rd Battalion, 85th Infantry Regiment (Warrior Transition Unit).
In the case of one Soldier at Fort Drum, he was forced to re-evaluate a secondary vocation, too.
"I volunteered as a fireman for most of my life, but I know that I can't be one now," said Staff Sgt. Heath Schrader, a former combat engineer who was hit by multiple improvised explosive devices during a deployment to Iraq in 2006.
Now more than ever, Army leaders understand the challenges of their wounded, ill and injured Soldiers and consider it one of the Army's greatest duties to help successfully transition wounded warriors to active duty or to civilian life, according to Jim Bochette, Fort Drum WTU transition coordinator.
Most recently, Army officials rolled out WTU staff positions like the one Bochette currently holds. In addition to occupational therapists and career counselors, transition coordinators have been installed at WTUs across the Army to help Soldiers with the tough work of transitioning.
"We want Soldiers to be able to focus on their future," said Bochette, who was the fifth WTU transition coordinator Armywide to be hired this year.
"Some of these Soldiers may have cognitive issues," Bochette said. "This allows them to be comfortable with their transition when the time comes.
"Here," he added, "their whole day revolves around focusing on transitioning."
One WTU program for which Bochette has direct oversight is the Career and Education Readiness Program, which gives medically cleared wounded warriors access to education and internships. Of the 150 Soldiers currently cleared by the Fort Drum WTU to work or take classes, roughly 120 are participating in CERP.
Schrader, who reinjured his shoulder in Afghanistan in 2009 while serving as a truck driver with 710th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (LI), is one of 75 Soldiers currently involved in a CERP internship, which is promoted as an excellent way to receive on-the-job-training while also figuring out one's best career path.
At the Directorate of Emergency Services' Fire Prevention Branch, he has worked on everything from checking fire extinguishers and testing sprinkler systems to inspecting buildings and even riding with the fire chief to off-post emergencies.
"I can't be a firefighter anymore, so I wanted to find out something else in the fire service," said Schrader, who anticipates being cleared to leave the Army in just a few weeks and plans on becoming a fire inspector.
Of his upcoming transition, he said he's both excited and nervous.
"I've had this uniform on since 1995," he said. "I've done this for a while."
For those like Schrader who joined the Army at 17, the idea of starting from scratch can be extremely daunting. Bochette said some Soldiers re-classify, pursuing another military job in order to stay in the Army. But anxiety related to the reclassification process can be just as challenging.
"A lot of these kids came in when they were 17 or 18," said Bochette, who retired earlier this year from Fort Drum, where he last served as the 3-85 Infantry command sergeant major. "Even though they are only 25, this is the only work they've ever done.
"So it's just like graduating from high school again and figuring out what to do," he said.
Add the pain and stress of a physical recovery to a flood of questions over how to make a living, and it can feel overwhelming for many Soldiers.
"My initial goal coming in to WTU was to stay in the Army," said Spc. Jorden Bauder. "But they have now told me I'm unfit for duty."
Bauder severely injured his right ankle in an accident back in 2003 while readying to deploy to Iraq with 123rd Main Support Battalion out of Dexheim, Germany. Over the years, he underwent six surgeries, including bone spur and bone debris removal.
Getting well is a top priority at WTUs. Soldiers are urged to plan education and job training pursuits around their medical appointments and physical therapy, according to the Army's Warrior Transition Command, which was stood up two years ago to provide guidance and policy for all Army WTUs.
Bauder is married with three children. He said he is actively trying to "sell himself" back to the Army with hopes of being selected into COAD, or Continuation of Active Duty, a highly competitive transition option for Soldiers found medically unfit for duty.
"It's a very, very hard thing to do, but I want to stay in," he said. "(Yet) I need to tell them I'm good enough of a commodity that I should be kept. It's a long shot."
Bauder said as he continues in his physical recovery, he works at Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation's Parks and Recreation complex in a WTU-sponsored internship.
He said the mental distraction of work has paid off.
"It's a way for me to not sit still," he said. "I think if I sit still, I'll think more about the injury, and it would kind of get to me. If I'm up and moving around and staying busy, it will kind of keep my mind off it.
"I honestly think it helps keep my morale up," he said.
CERP opportunities at WTU are also a part of a Soldier's overall recovery, Bochette noted.
"This program gives them some confidence," he said. "It helps them heal, not just physically, but mentally, too. Their transition from the Army then is not such a pressure situation.
"(CERP) is used as a healing therapy, and it's used as a way for (Soldiers) to really get a feel for a particular career field."
Not only is CERP helpful to Soldiers but also to the individuals who supervise them.
After working with Schrader for nearly a year now, Capt. Timothy Mulvaney, acting assistant chief of fire prevention at DES, called him a quick learner and a "people person" who will be sorely missed at the department.
"He's a big asset," Mulvaney said. "He has certainly filled a void. He's picked up on everything we've thrown at him.
"He will be a big loss," he added. "He will leave a gap. He knows the installation. He knows the fire department. He knows the people in the office. He gets out there and meets (with the community)."
Meanwhile, Bauder's supervisor at Parks and Recreation says he is a punctual and articulate team player who helps plan and facilitate battalion- and brigade-level organization days while also assisting customers with ATV rides, whitewater rafting, geo-caching, paintball and the climbing wall.
"Jorden has been very critical in the direct support of our programming," said Gene Spencer, FMWR industrial complex manager. "He has always made a strong effort to support the redeploying units, partnering with our Warrior Adventure Quest Programs."
These are good reports that Bochette likes to hear. He said before his position was created to ensure Soldiers were meeting expectations, some Fort Drum directorates may have had bad experiences with WTU Soldiers who were not fully accountable with their time and activities.
"Some people have heartburn with the program because of that," Bochette said. "But we're trying to work through that, trying to show the positive that this program can be."
Bauder encourages all medically cleared Soldiers who are facing the prospect of re-classifying or transitioning out of the Army to consider a CERP work internship.
"There are a lot of places on Fort Drum where Soldiers can work," he said. "It doesn't matter what their injury is. If they are able to sit down, there's a lot they can do."