MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
For soldiers injured in Iraq, the road to recovery isn't just physical.
Many are now looking for ways to return to civilian life with jobs that can accommodate disabilities. As part of a new program called Helping Heroes, the Pentagon is holding special career training and job fairs for sick and injured soldiers.
NPR's Robert Smith attended one of those events at Fort Dix in New Jersey.
ROBERT SMITH: It's a little less rigorous than basic training - how to write a resume, how to sell yourself to an employer - but the soldiers here tackle it like an obstacle course.
LITO FRANCO: My name is PFC Lito Franco. I (unintelligible) to hire because I'm highly motivated, and I have the leadership skills to do what I want to do.
ROBERT JAMES BOYD: Yeah. My name is Sergeant Robert James Boyd. Whatever the job is, I will give 100 percent.
RICKY BOONE: I'm Staff Sergeant Ricky Boone from the 69th Infantry. They have trained me very well. And I'm definitely the man to hire.
SMITH: But for these guys and 100 more at the job fair, the very act of walking into an interview is a physical challenge. All have been injured, either in training or in Iraq. They walk on crutches, have body braces. Private Franco wears a neck collar from the spinal surgery he had after a Humvee accident in Baghdad. He's looking for an office job for when he's discharged.
FRANCO: It will be difficult to make the transition.
SMITH: Do you feel like it's difficult for employers to sort of look pass your neck brace and your (unintelligible).
FRANCO: I imagine it's extremely difficult for them to oversee that. It's there. It's a fact.
SMITH: This is the eighth job fair the Pentagon has sponsored specifically for injured soldiers. Karen Hannah, the program manager, says that they've had 70 confirmed job offers from the events. It may not seem like much, she says, but much of the point to the program is to build up confidence.
KAREN HANNAH: Sometimes, this is the first time that they've come outside of the hospital. They may have severe burns. They may be amputees. And it makes them feel good. There is somebody here that is willing to hire me, looking out for me. I may not be able to get a job today, but those same companies will be there six months to a year from now when I'm ready to get out.
SMITH: There is a feel-good vibe to the program. The military specifically brings in companies and public sector organizations that already have disability recruitment programs and want military personnel. For the soldiers, it's a job fair where they aren't up against recent college graduates in three-piece suits. Everyone's wearing fatigues, there are many casts and crutches. Sergeant Eliza Vierra(ph).
ELIZA VIERRA: Most of us came back from theater, so it kind of gives them a relaxed mode, being in a natural environment in uniform.
SMITH: A few hundred soldiers attend the program at a time, the tiny step the organizers can see when faced with more than 20,000 soldiers injured in Iraq. And the selection of jobs on offer is fairly limited. Most of the organizations that come to the military job fairs or other government organizations like the CIA or the Department of Homeland Security, or military services companies. IBM and Comcast are here, as are telephone survey companies in police departments.
ANGELO GRANDELI: For the young soldier, it's a great opportunity. For old farts like me, eh.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SMITH: Angelo Grandeli has done medical planning in operations for the Army for decades. He injured his shoulder and knee in Iraq, and was hoping for a few more private sector companies to show up.
GRANDELI: That's who I thought I was going to see; companies like Raytheon, KBR, Halliburton, some of the, you know, the big defense contractors. But I know that they're out there. I was hoping to see some of them because I've got some background or experience that, you know, I know is going to be of interest to them.
SMITH: But Grandeli says he doesn't worry. He's a military logistics guy. He knows how to go out and make things happen.
Robert Smith, NPR News.
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