Tackling Back-to-Work Challenges for Disabled Veterans

PVA member speaking with vocational rehabilitation counselorChris Sullivan is exactly the type of guy employers want. He’s an organized and tenacious family man with smarts and drive.

Sullivan, a member of Paralyzed Veterans of America (Paralyzed Veterans), works as a Wounded Warrior Fellow for a Louisiana member of Congress, assisting veterans returning from overseas, a job he found through Paralyzed Veterans’ Vocational Rehabilitation Program.

An innovative public-private partnership with business, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and philanthropy, the program helps veterans with severe disabilities, service-connected and nonservice-connected, and their families, develop the skills they need to compete in the job market—while matching them with businesses with vacancies. Since 2007, the program has helped almost 850 veterans with disabilities seek and find satisfying employment through its six offices located at VA medical centers across the country.

Motivation can be a big challenge for many veterans with catastrophic disabilities wanting to get back in the work force. Not only could they face a long struggle to employment— the unemployment rate for people with catastrophic disabilities is estimated to be 85 percent—they wonder how employment might affect their VA benefits.

“Unemployment is a problem across the general veteran population,” said Sherman Gillums Jr., associate executive director of the Veterans Benefits Department (VBD). “The problem becomes even more severe where disability is a factor. Part of the challenge involves identifying those veterans with disabilities who can and want to work and providing them with an avenue to employment that makes them job ready.

“This requires an understanding of the unique issues that veterans face, particularly when a life-altering disability is the result of service,” he said.

However, according to Vocational Rehabilitation program consultant Louis Irvin, an even bigger challenge to finding employment—a paralyzed veteran’s lack of belief in his or her value to employers.

“That’s the first thing you have to overcome,” Irvin said, relating the story of a 50-year-old United States Naval Academy graduate with a stellar military career. “Before we met him, he was post-injury five years, and he’d never attempted to reenter the work force. He saw no value in what he could offer an employer. When he started pursuing work, he got a six-figure job. He didn’t realize he still had value to offer an employer. When we helped him understand that he could be a value, he pursued employment again.”

After a sniper’s bullet tore through Sullivan’s spinal cord, he experienced similar feelings.

“I thought I was going to be just a problem for my family and would not be able to contribute,” he said. But while rehabilitating, he met a quadriplegic doctor. That made Sullivan start to think that maybe he could go back to work. However, “I wanted to go back out as a productive American. At the same time, I do have a family to take care of. I wasn’t going to go back to work for this or that amount of money and not be able to take care of my family.”

When talking with a Paralyzed Veterans’ Vocational Rehabilitation counselor, Sullivan found out that although he would lose some Social Security benefits, he would retain his VA benefits
Sullivan’s employment has adequately covered the loss of Social Security income, and the loss of Medicare has been offset by employer-provided insurance. The biggest payoff for him, he says, has been self-respect and being a positive role model to his children and others.

“I want to show my kids that—no matter what—you work,” he said. “I want my kids to say, “My daddy was shot in Iraq, he was in a wheelchair but he got up every day and went to work. That’s what I want to instill in my children.”

Irvin said Sullivan had the right stuff that employers are seeking, and learned how to show it.

“If you present yourself as a person who can eat adversity for breakfast, you’re going to get hired.”


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