The Department of Defense announced April 5 that a total of 36,082 members of the U.S. military had been wounded in action or killed in Iraq since the war began in 2003. Of these, nearly 4,500 were deaths and 31,950 were wounded.
Once they return from the war zone, injured soldiers face a multitude of physical, emotional and professional challenges, the least of which is a startlingly high unemployment rate.
In 2005, the jobless rate for veterans between ages 20 and 24 was 15.6 percent, more than triple the national unemployment rate of 5.1 percent, and a number that skyrockets for the injured.
Carl Stephenson, coordinator of a training program at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington that helps injured soldiers at Walter Reed get back on their feet, said he has seen this unfolding firsthand.
"When they're discharged, they've got the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] on one side of them and the Department of Labor on the other and they're stuck in the middle. Some fell through the cracks. I wanted to know what we could do to help," Stephenson said.
Walter Reed's EEOO (Equal Employment Opportunity Office) offers classes to help prepare injured veterans, individuals who may not have otherwise been able to go back to work, for careers in IT and tech support. The soldiers, Stephenson said, were more than ready for ways to use their time constructively.
"Some of them had been at Walter Reed for close to two years, and they were bored to death. There was nothing to do but to heal," Stephenson said.
The pilot program launched 18 months ago with 12 students who were using Microsoft-provided materials to learn to be entry-level desktop service technicians. However, Stephenson quickly realized that the students-many of whom had memory problems, post-traumatic stress disorder and other challenges-were getting lost and frustrated.
"We knew if we were going to get them through the certification exam, they'd need more help. We had to redesign the course to accommodate the disabilities we had in the room-we put in more screenshots and went over points much more thoroughly," Stephenson said.
The Walter Reed EEOO announced April 14 a partnership with Cisco's WebEx Communications, which is providing its Online Classroom application to continue veterans' education post-discharge.
"These veterans were doing some of the coursework and then being discharged and couldn't finish up what they started. What Walter Reed is doing now [is] reaching out to these vets at home too," Bob Lee, manager of Learning Solutions at WebEx, told eWEEK.
The program is now far more than a path to Microsoft certification. Injured soldiers can stay on and get as many certifications as they need.
"Most members are retired officers who have little experience in a corporate environment, and are trying to survive on what little they do know. We're hoping to make this as easy as possible," Stephenson said.