Wounded Warrior fellowships help give injured vets a working hand in Congress

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dan Lasko swore his oath to join the Marine Corps early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 -- just before the terrorist attacks. As he watched the towers fall and the Pentagon burn, he knew his service to his country would be more vital than he could have imagined.

Just a month into his deployment in Afghanistan, in the spring of 2004, Lasko's vision of his service was violently disrupted again. Exiting a rocky canyon, his Humvee rolled over two makeshift bombs.

"Everything is in slow motion," he recalls. "Two big blasts. You can't see anything. Everything is foggy. Sand and rocks and everything is thrown around. I knew right away I was injured. I saw my uniform was covered in fuel, and I was covered in blood. I tried to get up. I grabbed my gun. But I couldn't get up. I looked down at my left foot."

It dangled by a few fleshy threads. The next year was filled with the private heroism of rehab and recovery. He got a prosthetic foot, a medical retirement, an associate's degree in criminal justice, he ran the Marine Corps Marathon.

And then Lasko confronted the existential question faced by thousands of veterans too injured for active service: What now?

"Anybody coming back, any young veterans coming out, you're saying, 'What next?' " says Lasko, 26. It's not easy getting established in the civilian world. "You did your time in the military. In our cases, we're injured, so we're at another disadvantage."

Lasko found his way to one of the more unusual internship programs on Capitol Hill. He's in the middle of a two-year stint as a veterans affairs caseworker in the office of Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.).

Called the Wounded Warrior Fellowship Program, it's designed to give injured veterans a chance to work for Congress, and to serve as a reminder to corporate America that veterans can be excellent workers.

Finding work and building résumés remain a challenge for veterans, despite many initiatives across government and the service branches to support returning personnel. The unemployment rate among the nearly 2 million veterans 18 and older who served since 9/11 was 11.6 percent last month, compared with 9.3 percent for non-veterans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This week, President Obama announced the creation of a Council on Veterans Employment, to be led by Cabinet members, to raise veterans' employment in the federal government.

The fellowship program is too small to put a dent in employment statistics, but congressional supporters hope it will set an example and enhance understanding of veterans' issues.

Established last year on the House side, the $2.5 million program will support the salaries of 50 two-year fellows in the offices of members of Congress. So far, 21 have been hired. Another 21 or so are in the pipeline. The available openings are listed on the Wounded Warrior Web site (http://cao.house.gov/wwp-about.shtml). The fellows receive annual salaries averaging about $40,000 for caseworkers. Those with special skills, such as a law degree, can earn more.

In the Senate, the sergeant-at-arms office is coordinating a smaller program to offer unpaid, part-time internships in Senate offices to wounded service members who are undergoing rehabilitation around Washington but are still in the military.

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