November 11, 2012

COMMENTARY: Connecting jobs, sports, American dream on Veterans Day

Sherman Gillums

Some might say jobs and sports make strange bedfellows. But for many veterans with disabilities who are determined to regain a complete sense of identity, the two are linked without question.

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So when more than 600 veterans in wheelchairs descended upon Richmond, Va., last summer for the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games, it presented at least 600 opportunities to help disabled veterans go from the athletic stage to the workplace.

DeMarlon Pollard, U.S. Navy veteran, represents one story among many.

In 2004, DeMarlon had heard about the Wheelchair Games to be held in Milwaukee while undergoing intense rehabilitation after a crash that damaged his spinal cord, leaving him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Like many catastrophically disabled veterans, seeking to establish a new sense identity, he saw sports as an outlet; one that offered him the opportunity to stoke his competitive passions while defying his limitations.

This mindset placed him into an arena filled with like-minded veterans sharing the same personal journey. Some were paralyzed, some with missing limbs, some young, some old, some novices, some seasoned competitors.

For DeMarlon, the games represented the end of a gut-wrenching journey, where he had achieved his greatest possible potential after injury and rehabilitation. Or so he thought. Little did he know that his greatest potential was imagined 70 years earlier by a physician he would never meet, but to whom all people with disabilities owe a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Sir Ludwig Guttmann pioneered the notion that people with spinal cord injuries could be productive, self-sufficient members of society. After escaping Nazi Germany, he founded the world-renowned spinal injury hospital Stoke Mandeville and the Paralympics in his adopted country of Britain.

His mission to turn his spinal cord injured patients into taxpayers challenged convention -- in the minds of his fellow clinicians and patients alike. But it was a mission made possible by making sports a key aspect of social, physical and occupational rehabilitation, which culminated into self-sufficiency and independence.

This visionary view of empowerment -- sports as powerful rehab, rehab leading to a rewarding career -- is still changing lives to this day.

For veterans in wheelchairs, like DeMarlon, who remain driven by the thrill of victory, no greater sense of fulfillment will rival the self-pride one gets from putting on a suit or uniform every day, earning a paycheck, and enjoying a good career.

This was the epiphany that led him to explore working after he competed at several Wheelchair Games, collecting countless medals and amassing confidence in his abilities. He took action by contacting a counselor for Paralyzed Veterans of America's PAVE (Paving Access for Veterans Employment) Program and began the step toward true self-actualization that Sir Guttman had envisioned for all people sharing DeMarlon's circumstances.

Comprising a nationwide network of counselors, the PAVE Program connects directly with injured veterans at VA spinal cord injury centers and empowers them with the tools they need to secure good careers. The program also engages employers and educates them about the benefits of hiring veterans with disabilities while dispelling any concerns they have about adapting their workplaces.

For DeMarlon, this resulted in an offer letter for a position as a National Service Officer with Paralyzed Veterans of America, an achievement that outshined any medal or trophy on his mantle. His journey through disability to rehabilitation to sports to a fulfilling career is one of many stories that serve to change what we should expect from people with disabilities, especially those who have already demonstrated the courage and character to stand ready to defend our country.

Stories like DeMarlon's are being told across the country. The PAVE Program is currently working with more than 1,600 hard-to-place veterans and has helped more than 500 veterans achieve vocational fulfillment. More than 450 employers have committed to supporting PAVE by hiring more disabled veterans. And this Veterans Day comes at a time when our collective conscience compels us to remain acutely focused on putting men and women who have served back to work, regardless of disability or occupational impediment.

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