The doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center call Wayne "Mike" Nelson "a walking miracle." A U.S. Army veteran, Nelson was, not too long ago, paralyzed from the waist down. He courageously climbed out of immobility, and now he's helping other veterans by giving them the same chance he was given through the Operation Warfighter (OWF) program. Under Nelson's leadership as the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) veterans employment program manager and coordinator for OWF, ICE has brought 40 veterans on board from October 2009 through August 2010 and is leading the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the program.
Nelson helps veterans navigate the federal application process and ensures they have all the required documents to be considered for an internship at ICE. He intercedes on the veteran's behalf by matching the veteran's skills to ICE's needs and directly contacts the appropriate ICE hiring authority.
OWF, originated by the Department of Defense in 2004, is a means for "warriors-in-transition" to be a part of the mainstream of work activity while they recuperate from injuries or illness. These veterans often have significant down time as they are recovering. Besides the career benefits of gaining valuable federal government work experience, productively working provides "tremendous physical, psychological and social benefits for recuperating service members," says Patrick Brick, the Armed Forces Services Corporation program coordinator for OWF.
Convalescing veterans who transition to work through the OWF are still being paid by the military. They are an asset to any organization not only because of their dedication and skills, but because "they are disciplined and have been trained to work long and hard," says Nelson.
To see Nelson now, walking down the hallway, reaching for his phone across the desk and typing notes into an Excel sheet no one would suspect he had been severely physically challenged from January until May 2009 when he had no use of his legs.
Nelson's entire adult life has been connected to the U.S. military. He retired from the U.S. Army after 22 years of service and was called back to active duty in December 2007 to serve in the Fatal Accident Branch. Nelson, along with a U.S. Army chaplain and a unit commander, visited family members of veterans who had been killed either from an accident or from friendly fire. With the official U.S. Army investigative report in hand, Nelson explained to family members what happened to their loved ones. "They welcomed me," said Nelson. "They wanted to know exactly how their son, husband, wife or daughter had died."
In an even tone, Nelson recounted heartbreakingly tragic mishaps that snuffed out the lives of some of America's sons and daughters while in service to their country. With his mellifluous tone and calm demeanor, one could understand how Nelson might be a port in another's storm.
In January 2009, Nelson suffered his own sea of troubles. A bone spur lodged in his spine caused him to collapse. Two operations, a continuous intravenous stream of antibiotics and five intensive months of grueling physical therapy later, Nelson defied the odds and got back on his feet.
Nelson recalled the words of one of his doctors, which he attributes in large part toward making his way toward his current ambulatory status. Examining the results from electrodes attached to his legs, the doctor said, "Mr. Nelson, I don't know what's wrong with you. But whatever it is, it's fixable. You've got good nerves in your legs." Nelson hung his hopes high on the word "fixable," saying, "that's what kept me going."
In October 2009, while still convalescing, Nelson applied for employment at DHS through OWF. "I wanted to be part of the DHS/ICE team," said Nelson. He received a call from the ICE Chief Diversity Officer who said, "I'll give you a chance." Nelson seized the opportunity and never looked back. He was hired as a full-time federal employee at ICE in March 2010.
Today, Nelson is helping other veterans to be given the same chance that was given to him. He liked his job at ICE immediately saying, "Everything I was doing was geared toward veterans-making life better for veterans-giving them an opportunity through OWF."
Nelson waxes philosophical when advising recuperating veterans. "A job is like an apple. Your object is to get that apple. You take a big bite out of the apple when you apply." Nelson says. "I help veterans take the second bite of the apple, which is to get them to the hiring official."
Nelson says the best thing people can do for wounded veterans is to "give them a chance to show their skills. If your office is short-handed, think about bringing a veteran on board. If you like them, hire them."