As a 21-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corp, James Rodriguez had extensive experience transitioning wounded warriors back into the workforce and civilian life after rehabilitation. As the Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Commanding Officer of Wounded Warrior Battalion West at Balboa Naval Hospital, Rodriguez was responsible for the transition, development and education of veterans with service-connected disabilities. When he retired from the Marine Corp, BAE Systems approached him to create and implement a new program to recruit, retain and advance military veterans. Created in 2009, the Warrior Integration program seeks to facilitate the employment and reintegration of veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have acquired disabilities as a result of their service. James spoke with EARN staff about the significant impact this program has had on the veteran workforce at BAE, as well as the return on BAE’s investment and the company’s commitment to employing veterans. EARN: Can you tell me about the Warrior Integration Program and how veteran employees benefit from it? J. Rodriguez: The program was designed to employ wounded warriors from Iraq or Afghanistan campaigns with a 30% or greater disability from an injury sustained in combat or in direct support of combat operations. We wanted to support that population because we understood that they had the highest unemployment rate of all veterans and we wanted to find opportunities to assist them. At the time we did have some military recruiters that assisted other veterans but nothing specific toward that particular population. The population most affected by unemployment was the young enlisted men and women, particularly between the ages of 22 and 26, so I developed the program based around that target group. I wanted to find opportunities within our business to support long-term employment for the men and women that fit that category. I also wanted to make sure we had a program in place that was sustainable in the long-term. Our goal at first was to hire one person in 2009 and make sure that we could keep him or her within the position, and that we had the right support network to do so. Fortunately, just 6 months after we started the program, we hired 16 wounded warriors from July to December of 2009. Every year thereafter we more than doubled our numbers. Subsequently, we now have employed 141 wounded warriors. These wounded warriors have been hired at 36 different BAE Systems locations across the country, including Hawaii, and we are continuing to expand employment numbers and locations each year. EARN: Prior to your coming on board and creating the program, was there a process whereby someone identified the business benefits to support veterans with service-connected disabilities? Can you tell me a little bit about the process and how the need was identified? J. Rodriguez: We have a business practice called the IBP or initial budgeting process phase. During this process, the senior leadership team decides on new initiatives to work on as a corporation in a coming year. Through that process Doug Stewart, a Vice President and a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel, broached the idea with the other senior leaders–some of whom were veterans themselves–about establishing a wounded warrior employment initiative. Prior to the meeting, Doug was approached by a wounded warrior from a non-profit organization seeking internship opportunities for wounded warriors at BAE Systems. Based on that conversation, I was hired to create a program to support employment for veterans with disabilities, starting originally with the idea to bring a wounded warrior in as an intern. As a result of this internship position, we developed an employment model which could be replicated across the entire business. EARN: Are there any mentoring activities taking place as part of this program? J. Rodriguez: Yes. The unique thing about the program is that when I created it, I wanted to make sure that it was sustainable and beneficial for the wounded warrior as well as the business; that every wounded warrior that came through our business received a veteran mentor who was already a BAE Systems employee to guide them along the transition phase from the military to civilian community, so everyone would be paired with a veteran mentor. I also knew that many of the young enlisted men and women were not educated beyond a high school diploma; a lot of them do not have a college degree. We wanted to make sure they have the opportunity to go to college, so we partnered with a couple of higher education institutions that were willing to support their individual needs. For example, the University of New Hampshire has a veteran support program which works with our wounded warriors employed in New Hampshire, and we make sure they have the internal support to pursue college degrees. Most of them utilize the GI bill, however the company also provides tuition assistance if needed. The other piece of our mentoring support is community service. Most men and women, when they get out of the military, miss the camaraderie of their fellow brothers and sisters in arms. Our company does a lot of community outreach with the local military institutions and national non-profits that support military families. I wanted to make sure our wounded warriors also participate in charity events so they stay connected to the military community. We also wanted to make sure that the families are able to contribute as well, if they choose to. EARN: What advice would you give to other employers who might be considering developing a similar program for veterans within their workforce? J. Rodriguez: I think the most important piece of advice is to locate and identify the correct type of positions where wounded warriors can have a long-term career and have an immediate impact within the business itself. You want to find positions that are identifiable with an individual’s ability to translate his or her military skills into that position. In most cases, many positions are directly relatable to some of the skills that the men and women have developed in the military. However, it is important to note that in many instances, there are things that these men and women did prior to joining the military that can also lead to a different career path than their previous military experience. For example, somebody who was in the infantry may have had a previous background in finance or accounting prior to joining the military. But based on their military service, they are often stereotyped for infantry-related jobs such as security even though they can be equally as successful in a career in finance. That’s really the most critical piece–finding the right types of jobs, and providing support that facilitates long-term career goals and opportunities for advancement. This is the same process as in the military: to get to the next promotion, service members continue to develop their skills to achieve career longevity. EARN: What are some elements that are most critical to the success of the program? J. Rodriguez: Internal education is important. What we did from the start of the program is go out and do formal presentations to our leaders, managers, and our HR teams about challenges that are associated with our men and women transitioning out of the military. There’s a misconception in the civilian community that men and women coming out of the military have post-traumatic stress or physical injuries that are going to cost a lot of money to accommodate. I provided presentations to educate our employees on what post-traumatic stress is, what traumatic brain injuries are, and to talk about the actual costs of accommodations if required. We still continue to provide this training across our business and try to get all our employees educated about military transition so they know what to expect when these men and women come to work with them. At the same time, we informed our leaders, managers, and HR team about the process for addressing possible challenges in the workplace that could potentially arise with wounded warriors due to their injuries in order for our managers to understand what resources were available to assist them if needed. They know what resources we have in place to address these challenges both internally and externally. This has allowed us to create a more welcoming environment, an environment where wounded warriors feel comfortable transitioning into our company and begin careers that are really fulfilling and sustainable. I think it’s very important for the public to understand that just because the wars are over or winding down, there will continue to be a need for employment opportunities for men and women as the military prepares to draw down their service numbers. It’s important for corporations to tap into the knowledge, skills and abilities that the men and women in uniform possess, and recognize the value they can bring to any company. It’s not only good for veterans; it’s good for businesses. For more information about hiring veterans with service-connected disabilities, visit EARN’s website resources.