Lance Cpl. Christopher Johnson lost his right arm to machine gun fire when his squad of Marines was ambushed by enemy fighters near Fallujah in Iraq last summer. Now the 20-year-old Pennsylvania native is on a different kind of mission, trying to start a new life back home and help fellow wounded veterans do the same.
Johnson, who joined the Marines after high school, is training to be a counselor as part of a small, experimental program at the Veterans Affairs Department that provides skills, work experience and the prospect of a VA job for wounded soldiers whose injuries will force their exit from the military.
The VA's Jeannie Lehowicz is a mentor to Lance Cpl. Christopher Johnson, who lost his right arm in Iraq and wants to find work as a counselor.
(Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
The program began last fall and is run by a small cadre of VA staffers, who volunteer to train and mentor participants in addition to their regular jobs. The effort has brought 27 service members into the department as volunteer interns, with nine becoming full-time hires, VA officials said.
Jennifer Duncan, the VA manager who devised the program, said the intent is to help wounded military members get a fresh start while recruiting veterans into the department's ranks. Veterans make up about 31 percent of the VA's 232,000 employees, officials said, but many are from the Vietnam War era and are nearing retirement.
"We're really proud that we're repopulating the VA with veterans," said Duncan, the director of management and programs within the VA's Office of Information and Technology. "This is their agency. . . . We have a lot of people retiring, and this is replacing them with the next generation."
The effort, known as the "Vet I.T." program, began as a volunteer attempt to provide seriously wounded war fighters at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda with information technology skills and training that could help them land jobs at the VA. It quickly grew into a wider program open to injured service members with a broad range of occupational interests, including counseling, budget preparation and federal acquisitions work.
The program augments the VA's Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Service program, which helps veterans with service-connected disabilities get further schooling and jobs and live independently, but narrows the focus to employment at the VA.
In the new D.C.-area program, service members shadow a VA mentor on the job, get help with housing and using the Metro and, in many cases, divide their time between the VA and a military hospital so they can continue therapy and medical treatment.
Johnson, who is awaiting discharge, said the program has helped give new direction to his life -- and a way to give back to his fellow service members. Johnson plans to apply to the University of Maryland and eventually earn a master's degree in counseling.
He has spent the past few months interviewing wounded soldiers and Marines at Walter Reed and in Bethesda. He takes down vital information about their time in military service and their plans for the future, and tries to answer their questions.
"It's connecting on a one-to-one basis with somebody," Johnson said. "The vets can kind of look at me, the guys getting back, and be like, 'Wow, this guy is missing his arm, but he's pretty holly-jolly.' . . . I can kind of give them advice. I can tell them what they should expect."
A full-time job with the VA is not guaranteed. But under federal employment preferences for veterans, federal agencies may hire, without competition, veterans who are rated as being at least 30 percent disabled because of a service-related injury or illness.
"We can't promise them a position, but the ultimate goal is to put them in a position where they can qualify to be hired if there is an opening," said Paunee Grupe, a program volunteer and VA workforce planner.
"We make sure they have the tools they need to be successful," said Jeannie Lehowicz, Johnson's mentor and the director of early intervention programs in the VA's vocational rehabilitation program.
Michael Walcott, 32, a sergeant and mechanic in the Army Reserve, was in Iraq for three months before suffering injuries to his back and legs in a mortar attack. Now, with four bulging disks in his back and nerve damage in his legs, he is learning to do acquisitions work at the VA and undergoing physical therapy at Walter Reed. He doubts he will be able to return to his job in the transportation division of the sheriff's office in Richmond.
"I used to stand 14 hours a day, and I couldn't go back to doing that," Walcott said.
Jennifer Belokon, 23, a mapmaker in the Army, was stationed at Balad air base north of Baghdad when she began feeling weak and bruising easily. Belokon, a private first class, said she gained 60 pounds in two months for no apparent reason, until doctors diagnosed Cushing's disease, a hormonal disorder that required the removal of her adrenal glands and ended her military career. Now she is at the VA training in information technology, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, and hoping for a career in the federal civil service.
"All of the people here are very nice, and they make you feel welcome," Belokon said. "You go to the private sector, and they could care less, probably. It's also stable, and that appeals to me -- I'd always have a job."
For 10 months, Matthew Braitta, 23, of Smithtown, N.Y., was an Army scout in Iraq -- until a roadside bomb outside Fallujah exploded near him, sending shrapnel into both of his legs and damaging his Achilles' tendons. Braitta said many badly wounded soldiers simply want to go back to their home towns and put their lives back together, but he relishes the opportunity to work at the VA.
"I was running around blowing stuff up, and now I have a chance to work in budget in Washington," Braitta said. "Who knows veterans better than other veterans? Civilians have no idea what a veteran goes through every day. . . . They are going to trust us because we can say, 'Look, we went through everything you went through, and not too long ago.' "