Military service is full of uncertainties, the most fundamental of which is being injured in service of the country. For wounded warriors, the first question after “Am I all right?” is usually “What comes next?”
What comes next most often depends on the severity of injuries or illness. Approximately 50 percent of wounded service members return to duty in their former jobs or are reassigned to different duties. The remainder transition out of the military. Whether wounded warriors return to duty or separate and begin civilian careers, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) offers formal and informal support, helping ease their transition from service or providing some timeout while they recuperate.
Each of the services has its own wounded warrior program. The Army’s AW2, the Air Force’s AFW2, the Navy’s Safe Harbor, and the Marines’ Wounded Warrior Regiment provide support to wounded service members returning to duty, those separating from the service and, where eligible, to wounded veterans.
The Army sends its Soldiers to Warrior Transition Battalions (WTBs), the Marines to Wounded Warrior Detachments, the Air Force to Patient Squadrons, and the Navy to Safe Harbor units. USACE supervises the design and construction of many of the facilities housing these WTUs, from new barracks at Fort Benning, Ga., to a new hospital at Fort Hood, Texas.
Across the United States and abroad, injured service members are sent to Warrior Transition Units (WTUs) after sustaining injuries or contracting illness. WTUs support service members who require mid- to long-term rehabilitative care and complex medical management.
The Army sends its soldiers to Warrior Transition Battalions (WTBs), the Marines to Wounded Warrior Detachments, the Air Force to Patient Squadrons, and the Navy to Safe Harbor units. USACE supervises the design and construction of many of the facilities housing these WTUs, from new barracks at Fort Benning, Ga., to a new hospital at Fort Hood, Texas.
In addition to overseeing the construction of wounded warrior facilities, USACE makes assets it manages, from lakes to campgrounds, available to injured service members and their families free of charge. USACE personnel frequently act on their own initiative to reach out to warfighters on the front lines. A mix of organized and spontaneous support for wounded warriors demonstrates USACE’s appreciation for Americans who go into harm’s way.
Operation Warfighter (OWF) is a temporary assignment internship program developed by the Department of Defense for service members who are recovering at military treatment facilities throughout the United States.
The program provides wounded, ill, or injured soldiers with meaningful activity outside of the hospital environment. Through OWF, wounded warriors have the opportunity to gain experience and professional development with federal agencies, including USACE. As active military personnel, OWF interns are compensated by their respective service branch. The agencies with which they work gain motivated individuals who do not affect their budgets during the internships.
Wounded warriors interning with USACE through OWF can be found across USACE regions nationwide, but the Fort Worth District provides a particularly good example. There, Kevin Burgin, USACE project coordinator for the Fort Hood Medical Center, also acts as wounded warrior program liaison.
“When there’s the prospect of having a wounded warrior take part in one of our projects, I’ll get a call,” Burgin said. “Most of my work is with transition coordinators at the Warrior Transition Battalions. They oversee the work and education programs at the units. When a coordinator has an individual who wants to do something with the Corps, [the coordinator] will send me a resume and a completed application for the Operation Warfighter Program.”
Burgin is a good fit for the role. A former Army infantryman, he was injured in a 2005 training accident, losing sight in his right eye. The injury failed to dent his fighting spirit, and he deployed to Iraq as an operations support specialist with the 4th Infantry Division in 2007. After completing the deployment in 2009, he returned home, whereupon his eye had to be removed. Sgt. 1st Class Burgin was subsequently assigned to the WTU at Fort Hood, eventually going through a conventional retirement from the service.
As a liaison, Burgin matches OWF applicants’ skills to open USACE positions.
“We look at different factors. Some people may not have a lot of experience in construction, but we will put them in positions where they can get that experience through on-the-job training. We also try to put them in positions where there is a lot of contact with private contractors.”
On-the-job training includes not only learning the ropes of the specific position, but the opportunity to acquire professional certifications in a particular field. Contact with the contractors and small businesses USACE districts routinely work with increases an OWF intern’s potential for finding employment in the private sector.
“I was all for it,” Hamm said. “It sounded like a great opportunity. It turned out to be an awesome opportunity.”
“As an example,” Burgin explained, “we have a concrete lab here that’s dedicated to the new hospital and other projects across Fort Hood. The people we’ve had work in the lab will come out with three or four certifications. They’ll already be dealing with the civilian concrete labs in the area. Civilian contractors get to learn about the transitioning warfighter, see their work ethic, and understand the certifications that they gain while here. That makes the warfighter extremely marketable.”