Denita Hartfield: On the Outside

U.S. Army Veteran

I’m not what people think a disabled veteran should look like.

Denita Hartfield enlisted in 1992 with plans to be career Army. With passion she moved through assignments, as an analyst, a weapons of mass destruction team leader and leadership training in global positioning systems. She deployed to Iraq for Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Then in May 2005 in Mosul, Iraq, her unit was ambushed and her vehicle was propelled into another vehicle.

SERIOUS INJURIES. WOUNDS THAT CAN'T ALWAYS BE SEEN.

A headache indicated that Denita had suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) along with cracked ribs and tailbone. She had no visible wounds, but she knew from the pain and ringing in her ears that she was badly hurt. Still, she hid and ignored the pain, not wanting to be sent home. Two weeks after the attack, she collapsed. Fluid had built up around her heart to such a degree that it stopped beating. Then the full extent of her injuries were diagnosed. For more than a year afterward, she endured multiple surgeries and physical therapy.

In 2007, she was medically discharged with an 80 percent service-connected disability rating. In California, Denita, who has a master’s degree in criminal justice and weapons of mass destruction, accepted a job as dean of students at a local business school. She continued to face hardships on the job — not due to her disabilities, but because those disabilities were not apparent. Administrators didn’t understand her injuries, absences or ongoing medical appointments.

[PAVE]...understood the struggles of veterans who work so hard to return to the workforce.

“I’d get ridiculed every time I had to go to a medical appointment,” she said. “I’m not what people think a disabled veteran should look like.” Ultimately, when asked to postpone surgery so her boss could take a personal trip, Denita had reached her limit and left the position.

EDUCATION, EXPERIENCE AND A LITTLE HELP FROM PAVE.

Like so many veterans with catastrophic injuries, an unfruitful two-year search for employment began; meanwhile she continued volunteering on behalf of veterans and speaking to policy makers about the need to assist returning combat veterans. 

Then in March 2011 she began receiving vocational assistance from Joan Haskins, a Paralyzed Veterans of America Operation PAVE (Paving Access for Veterans Employment) counselor. Haskins recognized how Denita’s experience and education made her an attractive candidate for employment.

I get the same sense of camaraderie that I felt in the military because we are all focused on the same objective: protecting and serving America...That’s all veterans want to do—continue to serve.

“[Joan] was so encouraging and honestly understood the struggles of veterans who work so hard to return to the workforce,” Denita says. Haskins corresponded with Denita every two weeks, sending links to employment opportunities, providing support documents to increase her visibility among applicants and keeping her engaged.

“I offered information, leads and support as she sought meaningful work which would capitalize on her military skills,” Haskins says. “The whole process of thinking about jobs, researching them, applying and waiting can take such a long time. Denita continued an aggressive job hunt, and I continued to share leads. It was not too long before her résumé and application packages were in front of company HR managers who recognized what Denita had to offer.”

AN IDEAL CANDIDATE. THE PERFECT JOB.

That July, Denita accepted a position with the Department of Justice; her top secret security clearance, military experience and education made her an ideal candidate. She cannot comment on the specifics but says the job is “perfect.”

Her chief, she says, praises her dedication and sense of urgency in everything she is presented, as well as her sense of strategy and calmness in high stress ordeals. And he is proud that she continues to serve veterans despite her new job.

“I get the same sense of camaraderie that I felt in the military because we are all focused on the same objective: protecting and serving America,” she says. “That’s all veterans want to do—continue to serve.”