VIRGINIA BEACH — Sterling Hammett worked hard to become a Navy explosive ordnance disposal technician and had planned to serve a full 20 years in that role.
That was before the 31-year-old returned from Iraq in 2011 with pain in his ankle that turned out to be a genetic bone defect. He soon found himself recovering from surgery at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center and contemplating what he would do to provide for his family once he was medically discharged.
That's where Hammett met Tom Murphy, an engineer with the Navy's surface warfare center at Dam Neck Annex. Murphy had been tasked with recruiting veterans to fill some of the highly technical civilian jobs there but was finding that few vets had the required engineering degrees.
His solution: Invite wounded service members from the naval hospital to tour the warfare center in Virginia Beach; have them work there on temporary duty while they transition out of the service; and then offer them internships, and the possibility of full-time jobs, if they pursue degrees in engineering.
Hammett agreed to go on Murphy's first "Wounded Warrior Tour" two years ago. Today he's taking advanced-level courses at Old Dominion University and interning during summers at the warfare center, which specializes in developing and testing new technologies for the Navy.
"I want to encourage you guys," Hammett said while helping lead the latest group of wounded vets on a tour of the command. "If you're going to go to school, do the hard math, do the theoretical stuff."
Murphy guided the group of about 12 service members through the high-security command, where a few hundred civilian engineers are working on advanced sonar systems and 3-D printers and unmanned aircraft.
Among those taking it all in: an enlisted electrical technician with a decade in the Navy, a younger sailor who had worked in public affairs, and a former riverine who "got too many concussions and got sent to the hospital."
The Navy, Murphy told them, wants to harness their experience and work ethic to bolster its civilian workforce.
"If that's what you want to do, we'll come alongside you and mentor you so that you'll be successful," Murphy said.
It's worth it, said Hammett, who this year received a $25,000 grant that will allow him to go to school full time and support his wife and two children. He had read articles about the 200,000 unemployed veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and didn't want to be among them.
"So many veterans I know, they take their GI Bill, and they go after something easy to make ends meet for a couple years, then they get out of school and they can't find decent work," Sterling told the group. "I'm telling you, there's a better option, but you've got to do the hard work."