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VA intern program helps injured veterans transition from service

Oct. 4, 2012 - 06:52PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 4, 2012 - 06:52PM  |  
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When Anthony Hawley joined the Marines five years ago, he planned to devote his life to the service and retire as an officer. But during a tour in Afghanistan in 2010, Hawley stepped on a bomb. Thirty percent of his body was burned, ending his military career and shortening the list of job possibilities in his future, he said.

"I had no clue what to do," said Hawley, 23. "I thought I'd go through the medical process and live on disability, just stay at home."

The Veterans Affairs Department, however, sees Hawley and other injured vets as a solution to a problem.

VA has launched a program to recruit and train wounded vets to become government contracting officers, something the department is sorely lacking. Veterans such as Hawley have valuable military experience and an understanding of veterans needs, making them ideal candidates for such a program, said Lisa Doyle, chancellor of the VA Acquisition Academy.

In December, Hawley and 22 other combat-injured vets kicked off a new VA program called Warriors to Workforce.

"They thought they would be in a career for their life, and now things have changed and now they really have to find a different career path, something that they are suited for and still able to do with the injuries they have sustained," Doyle said. "It's really an opportunity for us to help them become infused into the workforce from the battlefield."

VA uses Veterans Recruitment Appointment authority to hire veterans, who start off as GS-5 contracting officers. Ideal candidates are military veterans who have service-connected disabilities and little to no post-high school education.

Veterans leave the military thinking the world is going to open up to them, but work options can be limited if they went straight from high school into the service, said retired Army Spc. Michael Shull, 35, an intern who retired in 2006 with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"As an infantryman, pretty much the only career field you can transfer into is a police officer," he said. "Then you realize you have to get an education, if that's not what you desire. And that's very daunting to look at."

Contracting officers in grades GS-5 through GS-12 need a bachelor's degree or 24 college hours in certain business-related fields, such as business writing and business math.

Warriors to Workforce interns spend the first year taking acquisition training and college-level business courses, and working on acquisition scenarios they might encounter in the field.

"We simulate that sense of urgency, that accountability, for managing themselves and managing their workload," Doyle said.

In the second and third years, the interns move to VA offices and medical centers around the nation, where they help spend the agency's $15 billion annual procurement budget on building leases, information technology, medical equipment, pharmaceuticals and other items.

At the end of the program, Warriors to Workforce interns are promoted to GS-11 and sent to a VA acquisition office.

The three-year Warriors to Workforce Program costs $97,489 per intern. Costs for the business credits, provided by a local accredited university at the academy, are covered by veterans education benefits.

VA created its own acquisition academy to handle the training requirements of its workforce, which includes 3,500 contracting officers, 12,000 facility managers, 10,000 logisticians and 5,000 program managers.

The 23 Warriors to Workforce interns are in addition to 150 interns who go through a two-year program. The next Warriors to Workforce group is expected to start within 18 months.

Warriors to Workforce interns receive special "peak performance" training — with mental games and puzzles — that helps improve critical thinking skills during stressful situations. A full-time psychologist is on hand to work through stressors unique to their military experiences.

Skills learned in the military, such as the ability to manage and work on a team to accomplish a task and handle high-pressure situations, are especially helpful in this field, said Joanne Choy, vice chancellor of the academy's internship school.

"When you get out, a lot of things are set up for failure unless you have the mental and physical abilities and determination to get it done," said retired Army Spc. Adam Campbell, a Warriors to Workforce intern who was injured in Iraq in 2005.

Campbell worked in management positions at home improvement stores and fitness centers.

"I had the ability to manage and I made a paycheck, but that was not a career, that was not something I loved to do or I believed in doing," he said.

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