Military skills don't help in a tough economy
HAMPTON, Va. (AP) - Navy corpsman Jason Martines earned his chops on the Afghan battlefield, patching together wounded Marines in the war-ravaged Helmand Province.
Army medic Mathew Vance witnessed the birth of homemade bomb attacks as a convoy medic during his first tour in Iraq. On his second deployment, he worked on a trauma helicopter, perfecting his life-saving medical skills.
David Theibert spent 20 years as a Navy corpsman. He treated detainees at Guantanamo Bay, where he learned a lot not just about medicine, but also about the human condition.
But after they left the military, Martines, Vance and Theibert had few marketable skills. In the civilian medical world, they were virtually unemployable.
"Everyone was like, 'Come back to us when you have a license,'" Theibert said.
At the close of 12 years at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. servicemen and women are leaving the military in large numbers.
As they transition to civilian life, many are finding that the skills that sustained them for the past decade won't help them find work in a tough economy back at home.
The Department of Veterans Affairs took on one small piece of that problem with a new program that gives former medics and corpsmen a chance to work in their fields while earning a professional license.
The yearlong Intermediate Care Technician program opened 45 positions in 15 VA emergency rooms across the country. At the Hampton VA Medical Center, those jobs went to Martines, Vance and Theibert.
Vance, 30, spent five months and sent out more than 50 applications looking for a health care job when he left active duty and moved to Newport News last year with his wife, who's in the Air Force.
Then he went on the VA website and saw an ad for the new program. It was a lifeline for the medic, who feared he might have to start a new career from scratch.
Vance first went to Iraq with the Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in 2003. As a convoy medic, he was responsible for as many as 70 lives at a time, and when insurgents started hitting the soldiers with improvised explosive devices, Vance became adept at what he calls "civil war medicine, or, stop the bleeding."
Vance was out of the Army and serving as a medical supply officer with the Texas National Guard when he deployed in 2008 with a mobile trauma crew. It solidified his devotion to trauma care.
"Trauma is my bread and butter," he said.
He got his paramedic certification in Texas but hit bureaucratic snags when he moved to Virginia.
"The civilian sector - they don't know what we are capable of," he said.
Vance, a new father, is working on his physician assistant license while in the program.
The three medics say the program helps both them and the veterans they serve.
The emergency ward sees approximately 50 patients a day. With 12 beds and four nurses on duty at a time, patients often complain about the slow pace of care, Vance said.
Now that the medical technicians can handle some of the patient care, nurses can move on more quickly to the next bed.
"I have vets saying, 'I can't believe how fast you got me in here,' " he said.
Martines, 25, was attached to the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune. He first deployed with the amphibious ship Bataan to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, providing medical care to a village.
In 2011, his company deployed to Sangin, a hotbed in southern Afghanistan.
There were "lots of casualties" and it was not a fun place to be, he said. But Martines came home determined to get his medical degree.
When the VA opportunity came along, he dived in. The father of two works nights at the medical center and goes to college during the day to earn the credits for medical school. He hopes to get the military to pay for medical school in exchange for several more years of service.
"For me, this is kind of a steppingstone," Martines said. "I know that all my buddies who are corpsmen would jump on this opportunity. Many would want to get out of the Navy but fear they won't have a job."
Theibert did two three-month stints in Guantanamo during his 20 years in the Navy and said he saw "hints of humanity" in some of the detainees. For him, medicine is about the personal care.
After he retired in 2005, he spent years trying to find a position in the medical field while working odd jobs. This program gave him a second chance.
Theibert plans to get his physician assistant license.
He hopes to stay at the hospital in Hampton. It's a place where veterans care for veterans, he said, creating an instant bond between patient and provider.
"They are veterans, they are putting their trust in my hands," he said. "Like you trust a mechanic. You know your brakes aren't going to fail. They seek out vets to take care of them."