A bond across generations helps GI find his future
Published: June 21, 2012
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — We enlisted in different generations of the same Army, fought in different wars and met for the first time as designated drinking buddies in this harbor town on the Chesapeake Bay. This is not a story about reunions. This is about transitions.
We all have memories. Trying to remember what it feels like to be needed shouldn’t be one of them.
When your military career ends abruptly because of combat injuries, the move to civilian life can seem more like a rollercoaster ride than a transition. For the past several years, I have volunteered as a mentor — think of it as a battle buddy in civvies — with one of the programs that tries to help.
The Wounded Warrior Mentor Program (WWMP), founded in 2004 by members of the West Point class of 1958, uses a nationwide network to match those being medically discharged from any branch of the service with prior-service civilians who can help them with the transition to new careers. The WWMP network stays with the new veteran for five years after discharge because it is not a quick fix.
Staff Sgt. Jeremy Todd, an Army combat cameraman, served in Afghanistan before going to Iraq, and he was wounded near Baghdad in May 2008. Now recovered from his physical injuries, he is awaiting discharge through the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Meade, Md., not far from Annapolis.
Jeremy initially rejected the offer of a mentor, preferring to make his own way back. What he was looking for, he said, was a drinking buddy. The WWMP saw a match between Jeremy and me, a former Army photojournalist, and now businessman. The assignment, if not a match, was made in September 2011.
Jeremy graduated from the University of North Carolina, Elizabeth City, in 2003 with a degree in education and then spent what he described as an eternity teaching middle school English. Actually, he confided, it was only six months. Turning down an offer of a full-time teaching position, he found himself at the crossroads of boredom and the desire to do something equally worthwhile but more satisfying. His new direction was the Army.
He completed basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., in April 2004 and graduated from the Defense Information School at Fort Meade that December. His first assignment was Fort Polk, La. After two years and no sign the unit would be deployed, he volunteered to join a combat camera team already in Afghanistan. Just 48 hours after putting his name on the list, he was bound for Danger Land, as he called it.
Following what he describes as an uneventful tour of duty, it was back to Polk and then on to Iraq, which turned out not to be so uneventful.
He was wounded twice. The first time was when an improvised explosive device hit his dismounted patrol in the Alameen district of Baghdad, killing one and injuring five. The second “close call” was during a firefight when a coalition tank maneuvered without warning, exposing the troops using it as cover. He suffered traumatic brain injury, shrapnel wounds to his back and knee damage. He has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
I beat the draft in 1968 by enlisting. After a series of detours through the infantry and Warrant Officer Flight School, I found myself at the Pentagon with the Office of the Army Chief of Information. Not too far-fetched because I had worked as a writer for newspapers in my native Illinois since I was 18. My next duty station was Southeast Asia with Pacific Stars & Stripes, based out of Tokyo.
I was honorably discharged in 1975 through a program called Project Transition, which allowed soldiers to work for a civilian organization, prior to discharge, if similar skills were required and there was some hope of employment. I found a place with the Tokyo Bureau of ABC Television News. Arriving in New York City as a newly minted civilian, I learned there were no jobs at the network.
Unable to find a job, I started my own consulting company. Not completely content with civilian life as my sole occupation, I re-joined the Army as a reservist in 1989 and was trained as an interrogator and intelligence analyst. In 2005, at age 60, I accepted mandatory retirement.
Now, 40-some years and several precariously intertwined careers later, I was seated at a table in the garden of Cafe 49 West in Annapolis drinking Irish coffee for breakfast with Staff Sgt. Todd. So what we had at this table was a whole lot of experience looking for someone to take it and use it, and an equal share of talent and enthusiasm looking to hook up with a navigator, not a nursemaid.
Since we were both spending a lot of time in Annapolis — I belonged to a sailing club and Jeremy had his off-post quarters there — I contacted Interlux & Awlgrip Yacht Finishes division of International Paints and made a pitch for how they could help this former combat cameraman and get some great product demonstration images in the process. Interlux agreed to provide products, along with an expert, George Dunigan, to demonstrate correct surface preparation and application.
In my capacity as a Wounded Warrior Mentor Program volunteer and former news producer, I would coordinate the logistics of finding owners of vessels willing to let the work be done. Jeremy would donate his time and skills, in return for being able to use whatever he shot as part of his civilian, professional resume.
“Bo’sun” Jerry Mertz-Wallace, a Navy veteran and organizer of the marine maintenance training program for Aid Our Veterans in Annapolis, kept Jeremy focused on details and was responsible for making several vessels available for our project. Starting in January and continuing over several months, George, Jeremy and Bo’sun recorded the images needed to tell the product stories [LINK: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0qIHV1uyjQ&feature=relmfu]. Jeremy is dealing with the pressure of being needed quite well.
While awaiting his discharge from the Army — he’s hoping to be medically retired in the fall — Jeremy recently began an internship with the public affairs department at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Once he returns to civilian life, he’s hoping to find permanent work doing public affairs in the government. In the meantime, he’s building his portfolio and has set up a website to showcase his skills.
What we all share as veterans, regardless the kind of homecoming we received at dock or plane-side, is the need to complete the journey of coming home, all the way home. For ourselves, and those who are waiting for us.
Robert D. Burgener served in the U.S. Army both on active duty and in the Reserve before retiring in 2005. His career included a stint as a correspondent with Pacific Stars and Stripes in the 1970s and a deployment to Iraq as an interrogator and intelligence analyst in 2004. Based in Annapolis, Md., he is the founder of International Connections LLC (INTERNECT) and volunteers his time with the Wounded Warrior Mentor Program.