“Lord, Please Let Me Provide for My Family: A Wounded Veteran’s Story”

2013 Cicero Speechwriting Awards Grand Award-winning address by NEIL COLOMAC; delivered at NISH Grassroots Event, June 4, 2012

I’m Neil Colomac. And I’m a wounded
veteran
from Operation Enduring Freedom.
I’m here to talk to you about how my
injuries
made it hard for me to get a job.
But with the help of a special
regulation,
I was able to get back into the work
force.
My hope is that by sharing my story
today,
I can help other veterans and other
people with disabilities.
I was deployed to Afghanistan
with the 864th Engineer Battalion of
the U.S. Army in 2006.
It was around September second,
2007
when my unit was in the Paktika
region of Afghanistan.
This is a mountainous area known for
periodic attacks
on Coalition soldiers and bases.
A previous convoy had mistakenly
dropped a conex,
which is a metal container, with sensitive equipment inside.
Our mission was to provide security
for the unit dispatched to recover it.
We were in a Humvee and there were
five of us.
My job was turret gunner, so I was like
a prairie dog,
sticking my head out of the top
with my 50 Caliber machine gun
pointed out.
I was looking around for any signs of
danger.
We were returning to base after another truck had picked up the conex
when I noticed that there was something not right about this valley.
The truck in front of us was kicking
up a lot of dust,
so it was hard to see.
All of a sudden,
there was an explosion about 15 feet
behind our Humvee.
I could feel the shockwave through my
entire body.
Since my head was exposed,
I got hit in the face with shrapnel and
fractured a joint in my jaw.
We found a safe place to pull over
and stopped the convoy to assess the
damage.
I held my jaw with one hand
while I filled in the incident report
with the other.
We returned safely to base and I went
to the aid station.
I received stitches and antibiotics and
went back to my unit.
About three weeks later, on September 21, we had another incident. We
were on a mission to retrieve supplies
from another base.
We had to travel through territory
that had not been declared safe by a
Route Clearance Patrol
for some time.
We didn’t normally do this.
As we drove to the area,
I got that same feeling that something
wasn’t right.
It was a small city with a fair amount
of buildings,
but no locals showed up to greet us…
not even to throw rocks at us.
There were bicycles, parked vehicles,
and trash that normally accumulates
in an active market place.
But no people. I relayed my observations to the convoy commander. He
ordered us to get out of the city as quickly
as possible.
We drove over a bump in the road.
We landed on an IED, and it exploded.
My helmet and radio headset were
blown off,
and I was knocked unconscious.
I was hanging out of the top of the
vehicle
until my Lieutenant pulled me
back in.
The Humvee was so badly damaged
that it lost power and would not start.
We were in total darkness,
wondering if this was the end for us.
Fortunately, the driver was able to get
it started again.
So our Humvee limped its way out of
the danger zone
at about five miles an hour.
We used a chain to connect to another
Humvee from the convoy
and got towed safely back to base.
We were all injured but we survived.
I thought we were all going to be OK.
Just another close call.
What happened next changed
everything.
I got a headache from the blast. Aside
from that, I thought I was fine.
However, the doctors were concerned.
They said that two head injuries in
three weeks
could cause serious damage.
So they told me I had to be medivaced
to Bagram Hospital.
I felt ridiculous going to the hospital
for a headache.
I wasn’t bleeding. I had my arms
and legs.
I only went because it was a direct
order.
I got to the hospital and was waiting in
a tent for my appointment.
While I was waiting,
I had a strange coppery taste in my
mouth that I never had before.
I stepped out of the tent to get a bottle
of water.
And then it happened. I had a grand
mal seizure.
It felt like one minute I was outside
drinking a bottle of water,
And the next minute, I was laying in
the dirt.
My water bottle was crushed in my
hand.
I had a lump on my forehead. And I
had wet my pants.
I was wondering if someone sucker
punched me.
Two soldiers were standing over me.
They told me I had a seizure.
They seemed kind of freaked out
and they ran off.
I wasn’t sure if I should believe
them.
I was actually wondering if one of
them hit me and knocked me down.
I was in a daze. So I saw the doctor.
And he told me that these seizures
can be caused by traumatic brain
injuries.
The doctor recommended I go to
Landstuhl hospital in
Germany for more tests.
At Landstuhl they did an MRI.
The MRI showed a sac of spinal
fluid in my brain
where it should not be. It’s called an
arachnoid cyst.
These can be caused by trauma to
the brain.
To simplify it … when you bump
your arm,
you break blood vessels that make a
bruise under the skin.
The bruise heals and the blood gets
absorbed back into your system.
With an arachnoid cyst,
a trauma pushes a bubble of fluid
into your brain that makes a cyst. And
because the brain is enclosed so tightly
in the skull,
the bubble can get trapped in there.
It’s vacuum sealed in.
And it puts pressure on things
that should not have pressure on
them.
In some ways it can affect your brain
like a tumor.
For example,
an arachnoid cyst can have different
symptoms for different people.
It depends on the size of the cyst
and what part of the brain it’s
touching.
Some of them cause no symptoms
at all,
and some can paralyze or kill you.
Mine is the size of a grain of rice
and it causes seizures.
Also like brain tumors, some cysts
are treatable by surgery,
some are not.
They would have to open my skull
to take it out.
Sometimes just getting to the part of
the brain where the cyst is
can cause more damage than leaving it there.
The doctor told me that, on a cellular level, the brain is like jello.
If you jiggle it a little bit, it’s the
same.
But if you do something to really
disturb it,
like smash it against a wall, or set off
an explosion next to it,
the cells will be damaged on a microscopic level.
You might not be able to see the
damage right away,
but the damage is there.
And in time, cell by cell,
you will be able to see that it’s not the
same as it was before.
So I was sent to America to recuperate.
I was expecting to heal and then
come back to Afghanistan.
I didn’t want to leave my unit, the
585th.
I knew that my unit was short
staffed. They really did need me.
I felt a personal responsibility for the
operation
and a bond with the other soldiers.
I just wanted to heal as fast as I could
and get back there to help.
On October 2, 2007, I came home
on a plane
with about 50 other wounded vets.
Some had head wounds bundled up
in gauze.
Some were missing arms or legs.
Some were in cots hooked up to
respirators.
And some were not even conscious.
We touched down at McChord Air
Force Base in Tacoma.
The medical flights don’t get the
same homecoming you see on TV.
Crying spouses. Children jumping
into their parent’s arms.
Red, white and blue balloons.
American flags waving.
That would be dangerous around all
the medical equipment.
We were greeted by: an Army chaplain, a full medical staff,
and a line of ambulances waiting on
the tarmac.
Each one of us was taken directly to
Madigan Army Hospital.
The doctors did a full assessment of
my injuries.
In addition to the brain damage,
which they call TBI for traumatic
brain injury,
I have a shoulder injury requiring
surgery,
and a compressed disc in my lower
back.
As a result of the evaluation, I was
reassigned to a new unit—
the WTU or Warrior in Transition
Unit.
I was shocked. I didn’t think I would
be reassigned.
I got a sinking feeling in my stomach.
I asked, “So as soon as I get better,
will I return to my guys in the 585th
of the 684th?”
They said, “No it’s not guaranteed.
Your next assignment will be based
on Army needs.”
That’s when I thought, “Maybe this
is real.”
As far as my health was concerned,
my injuries didn’t get any better but
didn’t get any worse either.
I had seizures about once a month.
I was placed on multiple seizure
medications
as we tried to figure out the best one.
After about seven or eight months of
doctor appointments,
I heard the four words that broke my
heart
and changed my life forever.
Those words are: Not. Fit. For. Duty.
My case manager warned me this
might happen
so it wasn’t completely unexpected.
But it was still hard to hear.
I had such a good record as a soldier.
I had excellent marksmanship skills.
I had a history of taking on extra
responsibilities and getting promoted.
I had won the Van Autreve Award,
— Engineer Solider of the Year.
It might seem foolish, but I hoped
they might see my record
and let some of my injuries slide by
and let me go back.
I still felt that I had tons of abilities.
I could still patch someone up.
I can still carry a solider away from
danger …
I might hurt my back more- but in
my heart, I felt I could still do it.
On the other hand, I understood
why they classified me that way.
You can’t hold a gun if you have
seizures.
You can’t drive a Humvee if you
have seizures.
You can’t protect your fellow soldiers.
In fact, you are a danger to them.
You are: not fit for duty.
So,emotionally, I wasn’t done being
in the Army.
But the writing was on the wall…it
was done with me.
So, like it or not, I had to change
my focus.
I started planning a transition to
civilian life.
The WTU is an assignment for
soldiers
who are recovering and trying to
figure out
if they will be leaving the military
or going back to active duty.
Between doctor appointments and
physical therapy,
I worked on my resume and attended classes
on things like interviewing skills
and computer software.
I was told that as of December
2008,
I was being placed on the TDRL,
or Temporary Disability Retirement List.
This means that the Army wants to
wait
to see if your injuries gets better or
not.
I will get an evaluation in five
years–
which will be December 2013—to
see if I can re-join the Army.
During this time, I keep my military
benefits like health coverage,
but my salary is decreased by about
45 percent.
My wife had our first son while I
was deployed,
and we were expecting another
baby, so I had a family to support.
I had to find a civilian job to
supplement my income.
It was July, and I had to have a job
lined up for January.
The economy wasn’t in the best
shape,
but I thought I would be able to
find something by then.
All I needed was to get one job.
But I found out it wasn’t that easy.
I had a few years of experience in
construction.
But because of my seizure disorder,
I couldn’t use a chain saw or power
tools.
I can’t walk on roofs, on scaffolding,
or on any high buildings.
So construction jobs were out.
I had experience as a vocational
nurse,
but to get licensed in a new state,
I would need to spend at least a
year in training.
We needed income immediately. So
that was out for now.
On top of this, in the state of
Washington,
anyone with a seizure disorder is
not allowed to drive a car
until they are 6 months seizure-free.
I have never had this.
The longest I have ever gone without a seizure is one month.
To this day, I am not allowed to
drive a car.
So I needed to find a job that I
could get to without driving.
I had some strengths on my side,
though.
I had a good work history.
As a noncommissioned officer,
I had some skills and experience in
administration and leadership.
I set my sights on another federal
job or a job with the prison system.
I probably sent out 200 resumes.
I don’t know if I wasn’t qualified,
or if I am just a bad resume writer.
But I didn’t get any calls or interviews for about five months.
My wife and I were really worried.
We cut down on all our expenses.
We would only buy things that were
a necessity.
And even then we didn’t always
have the money.
We started using a credit card to
pay for basic essentials.
We racked up thousands of dollars
in debt.
We were excited about having a
new baby but also terrified.
I used to pray to God every night,
“Lord, please let me provide for my
family.”
I started to panic and I sent resumes everywhere.
I applied to work at fast food restaurants and retail stores.
I even applied to wait tables in
restaurants.
Out of the 200 resumes I sent out,
I got exactly 2 phone calls back.
One was a rejection for a management position at McDonalds.
But even a rejection call was better
than nothing.
And the other was to set up an
interview at a Sears retail store,
as a salesperson in the tools department.
I went to the interview at a Sears
store in Lacey, Washington.
The interview went well and they
offered me the job on the spot.
I remember I got in the car to go
home,
and I was so happy I cried.
I breathed a sigh of relief and
thought, “Thank you, God.”
The pay was pretty low.
It was below minimum wage, but
with a commission.
Even if I were the top salesman
there,
My entire paycheck for the month
would not cover our mortgage.
Not to mention food or electricity
or diapers.
CICERO 2013
005
But at least I had something coming in
while I looked for a better paying
job.
I started a few days later.
What happened next is something I
think was meant to be.
Someone came in to Sears looking
for a combination kit
for a drill driver to work on his roof.
When I was processing his order,
he gave me his work email address,
which ended with skookum.org.
I asked him, “Is that the same
Skookum
that operates the central issue facility at Fort Lewis?”
He said yes.
I told him that I recently retired
from the military
and turned my equipment in to his
company.
He explained to me that Skookum
hired people with disabilities.
I told him a little bit about my
injuries.
That’s when he gave me his business card and said
“We have some job openings, and I
think we can help you.”
He asked me to come in for an
interview the next day.
My wife and I said a prayer that
night.
I interviewed with Skookum, and I
got a new job on the spot
as a Supply Clerk.
My responsibilities were to process
and issue parts received
for the repair of military vehicles.
I recieved OSHA training and
learned some new job skills.
It was safe for me work there if I
had a seizure.
So far I have not had a seizure at
work but I have come close.
When I feel one about to come on I
take medicine,
eat some crackers and follow my
doctor’s instructions.
I got some more good news in
2011.
I applied for a promotion at Fort
Meade, Maryland, and I got it.
Skookum paid to move my family
to Fort Meade,
just about 30 miles from here.
I am now the Safety, Quality and
Environmental Officer.
I am responsible for making sure all
the safety equipment
at Fort Meade is fully stocked and
up to date.
I develop, implement and monitor
quality control programs
and conduct inspections.
My family has a three bedroom
home next to base, so I can walk to
work.
We just had a new baby in April—
another boy.
My wife is a stay-at-home mom to
our three sons.
I have paid off all of our credit
card debt, and I can pay all of our
bills.
We take advantage of living in a
new place.
We go sightseeing in Washington
D.C
And visit family on the East Coast.
My life did a 360 degree turn after
I got a job with Skookum.
I don’t just think about surviving
the here and now anymore.
I plan for the future. I can relax
again and enjoy life with my family.
We are even helping out a family
member
who is living in our house now.
It’s a great feeling to be able to help
someone else.
And that brings me to the reason
why were are all here today.
We are here to plan for the future.
And as a group, have a lot in common.
Everyone here, including me,
has overcome the obstacle of having a disability and getting a job.
And while all of our stories are
different,
in some ways they are all the same.
We have all had our share of difficult times.
When it came to getting a job,
our struggles caused us to feel
frustrated.
Hopeless. Depressed. Even embarrassed.
I didn’t like feeling that way.
And I don’t want anyone else to feel
that way.
Another thing we have in common
is The Abilityone Program.
This Program helped all of us get
jobs.
I don’t know about you, but my job
makes me feel productive.
It makes me feel useful.
It makes me feel confident and also
proud.
We could just complain about how
hard it was to get a job.
How difficult it is to have a disability.
How unfair life can be.
But instead, we are doing something about it.
We have joined together to be part
of an important movement.
I understand that here are 29 self-
advocates here today.
Every person’s contribution is important this week.
And all of our stories are valuable.
Because when we bring awareness
to our struggles,
we make it easier for the next person who comes along.
This week is not about us.
We already have our jobs.
We overcame that obstacle.
It’s about the future now.
Does anyone here have a child with
a disability?
How about a family member, or a
friend with a disability?
We are here this week to help
them, and every other person in
America who has a disability and
needs a job.
We are going to meet with our congressmen and congresswomen,
look them in the eye, and tell them
that there is a program
that needs their support.
And they might not want to give us
their support right away.
That is our next obstacle.
And if there is a group of people
who can overcome obstacles,
I know it’s us.
Good luck this week.
Thank you.

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