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A Wounded Warrior Embraces the New Normal: Part Two

The second of a three-part series that tells the story of a catastrophically wounded service member, from his injury to his recovery to his search for employment.

Ed. note: This week, will feature the story of a catastrophically wounded Service member and his saga of recovery to employed Veteran.  In an effort to highlight what our wounded veterans can offer to private and public organizations, we chose to focus on retired Army Master Sergeant, Jeffrey Mittman.  His story is one of conviction and the dogged determination necessary to continue with his recovery and his successful transition to civilian and veteran life. 

In order to bring his story full circle, we have invited his wife, Christy, and his employers from the DoD’s Defense Finance and Accounting Office (Indianapolis) to give their account of what this journey has meant for them as well. We began the series with Christy Mittman’s account of her husband’s injuries and how her family’s life was changed forever. The second post in the series tells the story from Jeffrey's perspective.

Jeffrey Mittman spent 22 years in the Army, including four combat tours, and he is fond of saying that he only had one bad day in his whole military career.

That day was July 7, 2005.

Deployed to Iraq as part of an eight-man advisory team, Jeffrey and five team members were moving out to meet up with their Iraqi counterparts. It was Jeffrey’s day to drive the up-armored humvee. So, when a roadside bomb blast came through the driver’s side window, Jeffrey took the worst of it. The blast was big enough to leave a hole in the side of the humvee the size of a man’s fist. It took off Jeffrey’s nose, lips and teeth. He was left with only peripheral vision in one eye. His right hand and arm sustained irreparable damage.

“I woke up a month later at Walter Reed to the sound of my wife talking to me,” Jeffrey said.

Jeffrey would spend another two-and-a-half months in the hospital before he could finally go home to Indianapolis, Ind., though it would take a total of 40 surgeries to repair the damage that had been done. Jeffrey spent five-and-a-half-years—the last quarter of his military career—recovering. 

There wasn’t much question that Jeffrey’s time in the Army was over—“They don’t need too many infantrymen who can’t see and have no trigger finger,” he quipped—but doing nothing was also not an option.

“I had the responsibility of taking care of my family,” said Jeffrey, who has two daughters. “I couldn’t just sit back.”

And so, Jeffrey went to work. During his recovery and transition he completed one master’s degree and started on a second. He began sharing his story at speaking events and on Capitol Hill. After hearing him speak at an event, the National Industries for the Blind offered Jeffrey a job. In January of this year, he started a new position in the corporate communications department of the Defense Finance and Accounting Services (DFAS).

Jeffrey credits his recovery to several things. One is the grace of God. The second is the high-quality military medical care he received, including the skills of the combat medic who stabilized him in the moments following the blast. Next comes his family, his wife Christy and his two daughters, who are now 14 and 9 years old. And last, but not least, is the community around him.

“I’ve been given a lot of opportunities that I wouldn’t have been able to succeed without,” Jeffrey said.

But that’s not to say there aren’t serious challenges for wounded warriors and disabled veterans as they transition back to civilian life, civilian communities and civilian jobs. In the employment market, misperceptions are often the hardest thing to fight against.

“People think ‘There’s no way a disabled person can do this job,’” Jeffrey said. “But take my job, for instance. I need specialized software and that’s it. If you were talking to me on the phone or communicating electronically, you wouldn’t even know I had a disability.”

Jeffrey said many wounded warriors and disabled veterans also face a stigma that they are disgruntled, unstable or unsafe to be around.

“Those misperceptions are really the barrier to these kids finding employment,” he said. “I truly believe that, because there’s no other reason why they can’t take the leadership skills they have to a job when they get back.”

From his own experience, Jeffrey said humor and emotion are a good way to combat those misperceptions. Wounded warriors and disabled veterans also have to take the initiative to get out and prove people’s misperceptions wrong.

“It’s very easy to roll up in a dark room, sit in a corner and not come out,” Jeffrey said. “But you have to. I think these wounded warriors and veterans have the responsibility to get out and take positive control of their recovery.”

Jeffrey said employers should also have an open mind when considering wounded warriors or disabled veterans for a position, especially because every veteran brings leadership skills and loyalty to the job.

“Here’s someone who has deployed around the world away from their family for an organization,” Jeffrey said. “What makes [an employer] think they won’t work late or come in on a Saturday to help them get the mission done?”

But Jeffrey emphasized again that wounded warriors and disabled veterans have to be willing to get out into their communities and market themselves. He concedes that can be hard for people who spent their whole military lives putting the team before themselves, but he also stresses that it is key to success in civilian life.

“You can’t just say, ‘I’m a vet, come get me.’ It doesn’t work like that,” Jeffrey said. “But if you’re willing to keep fighting, it always comes out. It’s just like anything you faced in the military.”

Read part one of the series here, and stay tuned tomorrow for part three, where we hear from Jeffrey Mittman’s employer about the asset he is to the DFAS organization.

Frances Johnson is a Strategic Communications Analyst in the Office Of Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy at the Department of Defense.