A pair of rocket-propelled grenades saddled Pvt. Robert Wild with back, neck and leg injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury. None of that discouraged 45 employers Tuesday at Camp Lejeune's first job fair for injured troops.
Such job fairs are new for the Marine Corps. The Corps held the first two in Virginia and California this year and plans to make them regular events, said Richard Waller, a civilian Marine Corps worker who came to Lejeune to help organize the event.
"Instead of making them go looking for employers, we wanted to bring the employers here to them," said Waller, who is with the Virginia-based Wounded Warrior Regiment, to which injured Marines are assigned while they recuperate and prepare for discharge.
Nearly all 42 Marines in Lejeune's Wounded Warrior Barracks attended, some hobbling from booth to booth or cradling an arm in a sling. Many, including Wild, wore "smart phones" on their belts, programmed to alert them to appointments because brain injuries had damaged their short-term memories.
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Wild was injured when his unit's small outpost south of Fallujah in Iraq's Anbar province was attacked by insurgents. In less than two weeks, he will leave the service and he had little idea what he would do next, until the job fair.
"It gives you hope that once you get out, it's not the end of the world, that there are people out there who want to hire us," he said. "Until I came here and talked to some of these guys, I didn't know my options."
After talking Tuesday to a representative of Werner Enterprises, a Nebraska trucking company, Wild thinks that driving an 18-wheeler might be the best choice.
There are more troops like Wild almost every day; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created the highest ratio of wounded troops to those killed in U.S. military history. Advances in medical treatment and body and vehicle armor have allowed troops to survive attacks that in earlier wars would have been fatal. In August 2007, CQ Review, a weekly print and online report, said that about 3,100 troops had been severely injured in Iraq or Afghanistan, based on insurance records.
Employers said they hadn't come to the job fair out of charity, but because veterans, injured or not, can make top-notch hires.
John F. Moore, himself a former Marine, has recruited almost 50 from Camp Lejeune for Werner.
Veterans stick it out
Often civilians hear that they can make $50,000 a year driving a truck and think it's easy money. They drop out quickly when they discover it's not, he said. That doesn't happen as often with former service members; they're used to even tougher conditions, and time away from home on the road doesn't trouble them as much.
As long as a disabled veteran can pass the mandatory DOT physical and the requirements for a commercial driver's license, the company can hire him, Moore said. It has even taken on amputees, with DOT waivers. If they can't drive, they can be mechanics or perform other work for the company, he said.
Other veterans and their families were allowed in to Tuesday's job fair, but first two hours were reserved for wounded troops.
Cpl. James Parris, 24, who was injured in Iraq after being thrown from a flipping Humvee into a concrete barrier, said the variety of employers helped him see the range of things he could still do, despite a traumatic brain injury and other wounds.
Staff Sgt. Dominico Washington, 31, was heartened that employers were interested in enlisted Marines, not just former officers.
"There have been a couple of job fairs I've gone to where they were just looking for people with college degrees, and the junior Marines would go, and it really got them down," Washington said. "It's like, so we went out and served our country and this is what there is? Some guy saying, no, you can't have a real job, all you can do is maybe run a Xerox machine."
Washington was a bomb magnet in Iraq. Five improvised explosive devices detonated near his Humvees on different occasions, he said, four times when he was in the vulnerable position of turret gunner.
He was left with an accumulation of injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. He wore his right arm in a sling Tuesday after a shoulder operation; the left shoulder is next.
The job fair was sponsored by the Wounded Warrior Regiment. The regiment, the job fairs and the employers' interest are measures of how attitudes about veterans have changed, inside and outside the military. They are partly a reaction to the shoddy treatment of many troops returning from the Vietnam War.
"I have very vivid memories of coming home," said Duane Hardesty, a retired Army colonel who did a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969 and now recruits injured veterans for defense contractor Northrop Grumman. "There wasn't anything here for us. We were shunned, and some are still out on the street with a cup, begging.
"Well, not on our watch," he said. "Not this time."
(News researchers Susan Ebbs and Brooke Cain contributed to this report.)