Wed March 31, 2010

Partnership Helps Army's Most Severely Wounded in Colorado

Editor's Note: This article was published on 2010-03-31 on a previous version of KUNC.org.

Finding a job is not easy in today's economy for those men and women returning from military service in Iraq and Afghanistan. But for those who have the most severe injuries, returning to the workforce takes on a whole new level of difficulty. Now two national organizations are teaming up to help the Army's most severely wounded in Colorado.

Shattered Dreams
For as long as he can remember, Aubrey Jollotta wanted to serve in the Army just like his father and grandfather before him. He served for eight years. But an IED blast in Iraq ended that dream in 2007.

"I'm 90 percent disabled, so I can't really work a job because I have problems with my back," he says.

and his head. Jollotta was diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury, a condition that some organizations estimate up to 19 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans return home with. Many cases are mild to moderate. But Jollotta's was severe enough that he was assigned to the Army's Wounded Warrior Program.

Christine Cook is an advocate with the program, who met with Jollotta one year ago.

"When he came and I initially made contact with him, he obviously was in a low place," she says.

Part caseworker and part counselor, Cook works in Denver helping the area's most severely disabled Army veterans transition back to civilian life.

"The goal is to help them help themselves to eventually get to that stable place in life for as long as it takes," she says. 

And a huge part of that, she says, comes from establishing a new purpose and a new career. Since 2008, the Wounded Warrior Program has partnered with the National Organization on Disability in Colorado on a pilot program. 
NOD President Carol Glazer:

"This program not only helps these young men and women, but expects them to go back and lead productive lives and pursue a career upon returning home," she says. "Whether it's a part-time job, volunteer work, going back to school, getting trained, getting retrained for something new." 

A New Purpose
Because of the pilot program Aubrey Jollotta was able to work with a career specialist who helped him understand there were restrictions on what he could do.

"Because of the traumatic brain injury I received, it's hard for me to remember things," he says. "But if I work with my hands for some reason I don't ever forget it." 

So one year ago he enrolled at the Lakewood-based Colorado School of Trades. 

On this day about 50 gunsmithing students are busy sanding and cleaning different types of guns at cluttered work stations. Jollotta is measuring Dean Sanchez for a custom rifle he plans to build in the coming months.

Like Jollotta, Sanchez was injured during a firefight while serving with the marines in Iraq. That left shrapnel permanently lodged in his right shoulder. 

Jollotta shows Sanchez a second firearm he's building for another wounded veteran. Sanchez calls it a work of art.

"It's not buying off the rack, it's like getting a suit tailor fit," he says. "And the fact that it's one of a kind, I'm at a loss for words." 

When finished, each of the rifles' wooden stocks will have intricate patterns hand-carved around the soldiers' Purple Heart awards. You can sense there's something deeply personal about this project for both men. For Jollotta, it adds excitement to what he hopes will become a new career. 

"They're wounded like me. They're moving on with their life. But the position I'm in I can give them something I made with my hands," he says. "So it makes me happy every day." 

The National Organization on Disability program is also paying to send Jollotta to a gunsmithing career fair in Iowa next month. 

Great Expectations
National Organization on Disability President Carol Glazer estimates they will help 220 veterans nationally by the time the pilot program ends in 2011. But that's a small percentage of the 6,000 people currently in the Army's Wounded Warrior Program. And even smaller compared to the 35,000 veterans from all branches who have returned home since 9/11 with some form of injury. 

"When you start having scale and impact, that's when you really can start changing people's expectations," she says. 

Glazer hopes her organization can continue to build on the momentum for its program. NOD is seeking $28 million dollars in federal funding to expand to nine more sites in the coming years.

To see photos of the Wounded Warrior Program, go to our Facebook page HERE.