Back to Basic Training
Wounded warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan recalibrate for civilian IT careers while recovering in the hospital
May 27, 2008
By Bill Roberts
A freak accident during a hellish sandstorm in Iraq shattered Gorman Penn's life, but the Navy Seabee didn't know how shattered it was until six months later. While recovering in a Naval hospital in San Diego, Penn learned of his impending medical discharge from the Navy. He didn't see that coming anymore than he saw the plywood that hit him.
"I started to cry," he recalls. "I loved the military. It was like they were taking my life away. I'm still trying to make peace with it."
As part of that peacemaking, Penn, 45, began a career in information technology (IT) after he left the Navy in August 2007. "I have a lot of passion for it," he says. "I like the fact that IT changes all the time."
Gorman's enthusiasm was ignited by a program that gives Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with service-ending wounds and injuries an introduction to IT training in the hospital and encourages them to pursue civilian IT jobs and further education. The Department of Labor, the Naval Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD) Career Training Center and Cisco collaborated in a pilot program last year.
The partners hope to position the veterans to take advantage of demand in a career field without adequate supply. A recent study by technology research firm Ovum, a Datamonitor company, forecasts that 25 million IT professionals in North America will retire over the next 12 years, while only 5 million new IT workers will enter the workforce during that same timeframe.
"It is completely different. I've taken a negative and turned it into a positive."
Called the "Transition Training Academy," this 12-week program consists of 18 hours of in-class instruction and 18 to 24 hours of Web-based instruction. The TTA offers veterans the chance to learn skills in networking, computers and desktop applications as well as a venue for exploring new career opportunities. Courses are conducted in hospitals on a flexible schedule to meet students' medical and duty requirements. Students also receive assistance with enrollment in other IT training, if desired. Penn recently completed the first phase of training as a Cisco Certified Network Associate.
Penn was one of 16 students to complete the pilot program and graduate in August 2007. Six, including Penn, received immediate job offers. Penn benefitted from a Cisco effort that matches available talent to its channel partners who are seeking qualified individuals. A second class of 21 recently graduated at NMCSD. Besides continuing in San Diego, organizers plan to launch TTA at Army hospitals in Fort Lewis, Wash., and Fort Sam Houston, Texas, this year. They hope for total enrollment of 1,800 in 2009, according to Richard Reynolds, Director of TTA and its first instructor.
The goal is to open veterans' eyes to careers in a field with significant job opportunities. "On the one hand, this training allows them to use their time productively, while on the other hand, they can obtain meaningful employment in a career they love," says Joseph Moran, an assistant director for the Labor Department's Veteran's Employment and Training Service for the San Diego area. "It also gives them a window of opportunity to the next step in life-it's about creating options and possibilities for those who have sacrificed much for their country."
"Gorman is the classic example," Reynolds says. "He was going to go back to Missouri, and for medical reasons couldn't get his old job back as a truck driver. He had taken other courses while in the hospital, but had no direction. He took the TTA courses and decided to pursue an opportunity in the IT world."
Inspiration and Dedication
Toward the end of the pilot program, a Cisco human resources director conducted a one-day workshop in resume writing and job interviewing. Bronwyn White's instruction was exceedingly well received by TTA students and a version of it will be incorporated into future programs. Reynolds also says that Celia Harper-Guerra, Cisco global partner talent lead, "felt Gorman's excitement, and hooked him up with a Cisco partner willing to train him."
The partner, Universal Understanding LLC, of Jacksonville, Fla., was established in 2005 under a federal program to help veterans start companies. Universal Understanding installs office networks and other systems. Penn works from his home in Blue Spring, Mo., as an account manager and in sales and end-user training.
"My company wants to make me an engineer," Penn says. "They're figuring it will take me 18 months. The sky is the limit. I can learn as much as I want."
Penn gave a speech at the graduation ceremony for the second TTA class, and he hopes to inspire others. "Maybe I can be an advocate for other people who have been injured."
Born in Illinois and raised in Missouri, Penn was a 17-year-old high school graduate when he joined the Army in 1980. He served in Germany, drove trucks in Iraq in the Gulf War, attained the rank of staff sergeant and quit after 14 years to try civilian life. But after several years of operating heavy equipment and long-haul trucking, he missed the military. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks clinched Penn's resolve.
"I was thinking about reentering the service before 9/11, but that broke the camel's back," he says. "It really angered me."
Army recruiters failed to follow up his queries, so Penn went to a Navy recruiter. In February 2004, at age 40, he joined the Naval Mobile Construction Battalions (Seabees) as an Equipment Operator 2nd Class, one grade lower than his highest rank in the Army. He volunteered for Iraq and shipped out in late August 2005.
Initially based at Al Asad Airfield, about 100 miles west of Baghdad, Penn drove supply trucks, coming under heavy fire once. After a month, he was sent to a construction supply depot near Fallujah. As a yard boss, he supervised the loading and unloading of convoys.
On Jan. 20, 2006, Penn and a crew were loading polystyrene plastic foam insulation slabs, when a sandstorm came out of nowhere. "Fifty mile per hour winds, and dark like an eclipse of the sun," he recalls. Penn urged them to stop, but orders were to keep loading.
Each lightweight slab was like a sail in that wind, so Penn and another man stood on the flatbed to hold down slabs until all were loaded. Suddenly, the wind picked up a heavy piece of plywood from nearby. The plywood flew 15 feet, and hit Penn. "I got smacked in the head and saw stars," he says.
When he came to, "I couldn't feel anything from my head down. I feared I would be paralyzed for life." Penn was quickly evacuated to Germany, where he spent five days in ICU, before going to San Diego. Diagnosis: Traumatic brain injury, a bulging disk against his spine and a severely injured left shoulder.
Now Penn walks with a cane. He has pain in his left arm, dizzy spells and some memory loss. Still, his medical discharge was a blow. "My goal was to stay in the Navy until I was so old they had to force me out. I lived for that uniform. I am proud of what it stands for, and proud of what my country stands for," he says.
Nonetheless, Penn looks forward to advancing in his IT career. He sees other positive aspects in his situation. For example, by working from home he can spend more time with his wife and their four-year-old daughter.
"I'm so excited. It is new. It gives me the opportunity to watch my child grow," Penn says. "It is completely different. I've taken a negative and turned it into a positive."
Bill Roberts is a freelance writer based in Boston, Mass.