Wounded Warriors Find a Safe Landing

Posted November 6, 2009 at 6:27pm

To this day, nearly five years after the explosion, Ismael Vasquez still doesn’t quite understand what hit him that day in Iraq. All he knows is that a teenage insurgent threw an object at him during a firefight, and he soon felt an intense heat followed by a prickling feeling all over his back.

“It could have been a pipe bomb,— says the Army infantryman. “The concussion of the blast threw me back and I hit my head on a metal seat, and the force of the blast caused my ear membranes to rupture. … I had to continue to fight because we were heavily engaged.—

The blast left Vasquez with permanent traumatic brain injuries that made it impossible for him to return to his job as a police officer in Texas and left him struggling to find work. To this day he suffers from terrible migraine headaches and has a very short attention span and almost no short-term memory.

“They said they have no idea if it’ll ever get better or not, but it’s been four or five years and I’m still struggling,— he says.

During his job hunt, Vasquez came across the Wounded Warrior Program, which provides fellowships in the House of Representatives for veterans with a service-related disability of 30 percent or greater as determined by the Department of Veterans Affairs or a military Physical Evaluation Board. The $5 million program falls under the umbrella of Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, who last week met with the most recent hire, Dirk Konopik, who served as a Navy petty officer second class and is now working for Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.). The program was conceived by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.).

“I remember I kept seeing these job postings about a fellowship with Congressman so-and-so and I thought, ‘Man that is something I’d love to do,’— Vasquez says.

Vasquez began working for Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas) in September and is part of the newest wave of fellows to join the program. The program launched last year and will have a total of 21 fellows placed in Congressional offices by the end of the month. Most of the fellows do casework for veteran constituents and their families. Fellows work primarily in district offices, but a handful of them — such as Bill Collins, who acts as an adviser to Pelosi — work on the Hill.

“Being able to speak the same language— as veterans is helpful, says Collins, who spent more than a decade in the Marines before being medically retired. Constituents “are excited to see a veteran in the Speaker’s office.—

Typically, fellows spend their days speaking with soldiers, veterans and military families about their needs. Vasquez says he has been spending the majority of his time helping veterans get their education benefits.

“It’s surreal, but I’m enjoying it,— he says. “I’m trying to live my life in a way that I think my fallen brothers would have wanted to live their lives. I’m trying to do everything that they don’t have a chance to do now.—

The Wounded Warriors’ injuries vary from crippling physical injuries to post- traumatic stress disorder, an often-misunderstood debilitating psychological condition that many soldiers suffer on their return from the front.

“What comes out of PTSD is a lot of depression, anxiety, lack of sleep, flashbacks of not-so-enjoyable events, and that kind of affected my job a lot,— says Alberto Velasco, who began working in Rep. Peter Roskam’s (R-Ill.) district office two months ago and suffered from the disorder after serving two tours in Iraq. “Without sleep and walking around with depression and anxiety — it doesn’t help. Work was being affected, my home life was affected, it was straining my family.—

After he returned home from Iraq, Velasco, a Marine reservist, was in a car accident that severed his spine and left him paralyzed from the waist down. His injuries left him unable to return to his job as a police officer and left him and his wife without medical insurance. His two children were able to get insurance through a state program.

“I was actually referred to the Wounded Warriors Program from the Paralyzed Veterans Association,— Velasco says. “They referred me to Congressman Roskam, I sent them my résumé and I went to the three interviews and I was blessed with working with the Congressman.—

Roskam says Velasco is an asset to his staff and that he has gotten a lot of positive feedback from veterans who are happy to have one of their own to speak with.

“He’s a natural,— Roskam says. “He’s a good listener and he cares about people and that comes through. You can’t buy that — it’s just him.—

Velasco says connecting with and helping other veterans has breathed new life into him. While he once had to depend on his family to take care of him, he is now able to provide for them.

“I feel back to normal,— he says. “I’m working, I have an income for my family, I’m supporting them. Every morning I thank God because every morning we wake up, we get dressed, I take my 5-year-old son to school and then I’m off to work. I can’t even tell you how phenomenal that feels to be able to help my family.—