Innovative Programs Give Vets a 2nd Chance

New government programs help veterans meet employment challenges.

November 11, 2008, 12:12 PM

BALBOA PARK, Calif., Nov. 11, 2008— -- Army Sgt. Joe Gracia had always dreamed of becoming a police officer after he completed his tour of duty in Afghanistan, but while on patrol in 2006, his tank hit an IED and his plans were derailed. He sustained a traumatic brain injury and other severe wounds, and had to have his right leg amputated.

"I thought, What am I gonna do? Where am I going to live?" Gracia told ABC News' Bob Woodruff.

Gracia believed he might never be able to work again, but during his recovery at Naval Medical Center in San Diego, Gracia was presented with an unusual opportunity. He was approached to take part in the Transition Training Academy, a program created by the U.S. Department of Labor, the Naval Medical Center, Cisco Systems, and the Wounded Warrior Project, among others, to train wounded veterans in computer IT support.

"I call it 'IT light,' " said Richard Reynolds, director of the TTA. "What we're doing is introducing interested veterans to IT, giving them basic IT skills."

Watch "World News with Charles Gibson" TONIGHT at 6:30 p.m. ET for the full report.

Since October 2001, approximately 1.64 million U.S. troops have deployed to support operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many have been exposed for prolonged periods to combat-related stress or traumatic events. These invisible wounds of war have posed challenges for returning service members trying to find new careers.

To ensure that these service members succeed, the Department of Labor recently created a Web site called America's Heroes at Work, which addresses the employment challenges that face those living with the wounds of war.

The courses taught at the TTA are tailored to the specific educational needs of the wounded service members.

"We found TBI patients don't retain things as well as they used to, so sometimes they need to hear it more than once or twice," said Reynolds.

To work around this challenge, the TTA offers each class multiple times so that students with memory problems can take full advantage. "They would come and take the full class on Thursday morning, come back and take the full class Thursday afternoon or Friday morning, and it helped," said Reynolds.

Now, three times a week, right after his physical therapy, Gracia learns computer skills -- skills that he hopes will lead him to a new career in technology. After the trauma of his injuries, this new opportunity has proved emotional. "I'm actually happy," said Gracia. "I know that this is a good field. This is a job you can advance with."

By the end of 2008, more than 200 active duty military personnel will have completed the TTA program. It currently exists at three sites -- the Naval Medical Center in Balboa Park, Calif., Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and the Eisenhower Medical Center at Fort Gordon, Ga.

Thirty percent of these graduates have gained civilian employment following separation from the service; 15 percent have returned to service in an IT-related military occupational specialty, while the remaining 55 percent are still continuing with their medical recovery.

"These guys have not completed their mission, and they will tell you that. So now they don't want to become a burden on this country. They want to participate in the growth of this country," said Reynolds.

For some, that mission has always been serving their country. Marine Sgt. Guillermo Nava lived for the Marine Corps and was preparing to return to Iraq when just days before he was to redeploy, he was involved in a serious motorcycle accident that sidelined him from service.

"When I found out I could not stay in the Marine Corps I was devastated," said Nava. "I did not know what I was going to do. I never had time to go to school. I didn't have a background in anything except what they had trained me in."

Nava was not sure he could learn new skills, or how he would support his family. "I was very worried. I didn't know what I was going to do. I had my wife and son. I thought I would not be able to provide for them. I felt like I was wasting away."

Nava also suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in Iraq, during which he said he was involved in two or three near-miss explosions, and his unit came under mortar fire "almost every night." To this day, Nava's tour of duty continues to haunt him.

"I hear sounds sometimes, or smells, and it brings me back to a moment over there in Iraq," he said. Nava has also had incidents in which he feels as if he is being followed, only to realize he is no longer in Iraq but safely in his home.

While recovering from his accident at the Balboa Park facility, Nava began treatment for his combat-related PTSD, which he said has improved greatly.

He also enrolled in the Transition Training Academy.

"I had no set expectations," he said of the class. "But I picked it up real fast." So fast that Nava is now a special test equipment engineer for Northrup Grumman. He is now able to provide for his family, and his work is helping him heal.

And he's thankful to Northrup Grumman and the TTA program for giving him a renewed sense of purpose.

"I'm not necessarily boots on the ground like I was before, but I'm helping," he said. "They gave me a future."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events