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Badly wounded Marine finds a new way to serve his country

WASHINGTON — Kurtis Foster knows the cost of wartime service.

"I was wounded a total of five times," Foster said, "but I only got three Purple Hearts."

Count the causes like a cadence: Grenade. Land mine. Homemade bomb.

First, the Oakhurst, Calif., resident took shrapnel to the neck. Then he got tossed from a truck when he and his fellow Marines drove over the land mine. Then, on Foster's third tour of Iraq, in 2007, an improvised explosive device concussed the bejesus out of him.

Foster recalls vomiting a lot. Other than that, his final combat injury is mostly a blur.

"I remember little things," Foster said, "but it's like little clips."

Two other injuries came and went, unheralded. The Marine Corps added it all up and counted Foster as 60 percent disabled. His knees are bad. Arthritis ages him, all over. He has a hard time getting to sleep, and a hard time waking up. Headaches harangue him. His memory is inconstant, and it's not always his friend.

Foster is 26, and now he's reporting again for duty.

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On Friday, the Yosemite High School graduate and medically discharged Marine sergeant formally started work in Fresno, Calif., as a Wounded Warrior Fellow. The two-year congressional fellowship will support Foster's work as a veterans' casework specialist in the Fresno district office of Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif.

Established in 2008, the fellowship program provides annual salaries of roughly $40,000 to veterans who are at least 30 percent disabled, allowing them to work in House of Representatives members' district offices across the country. The fellowship also gives them a new start, doing work that hits home.

"My thing is, I want to be able to help the veterans, so they don't get so lost," Foster said, with the slight twang of his native Oklahoma. "I hope people understand I'm there for them."

Sometimes, Foster acknowledged, he also is better at dealing with fellow veterans than with civilians who have sat on the sidelines the past 10 years. It's a band-of-brothers' sentiment that could help in his new work.

"It will provide an advantage to have a wounded warrior to be able to talk to other veterans," Denham said.

Veterans' casework — chasing down checks, securing care, muscling bureaucrats — keeps a congressional office busy. Census records show that more than 210,000 veterans live in the California stretch from Tulare County in the south to San Joaquin County in the north — part of the region Denham represents.

Denham, an Air Force veteran, volunteered his office to participate in the congressional fellowship program. He's the first House member from California's San Joaquin Valley to participate.

"Our responsibility to our veterans is to make sure they have a job when they come home," Denham said.

The unemployment rate among U.S. veterans who've served since Sept. 11, 2001, hit 11.5 percent last year, compared with a 9.4 percent rate among non-veterans, according to a report last May by the congressional Joint Economic Committee.

Foster hadn't wanted to join this roll of postwar job seekers. He wanted to stay in the Marine Corps. He liked his profession as a machine-gunner. He trusted his men in Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. He looked forward to more deployments.

But after two years of rehab with the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Foster was told the infantry was no longer for him. His commanding officers offered him administrative work; he said nuts to that.

"I didn't want to be sitting there, filing papers," Foster said.

Married and the father of three children, Foster tried his hand at real estate after his April 2010 discharge from the Marines. It didn't work out. Looking for a fresh start, Foster and his family moved back to Oakhurst, where in time he found out about the Wounded Warrior Program.

It seemed to fit, like a fresh set of dress blues.

"Hopefully," Foster said, "I'll be able to say I made a difference."

 

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