Government preference to hire ex-warriors causes resentment by co-workers
An Iranian-designed bomb on a route south of Baghdad shattered Patrick Hanley’s arm, skull and life on March 29, 2008, sending the Army soldier to shifting addresses on a grueling tour of military hospitals and mental health centers that strive to make service members whole again.
Miraculously, four years later he walked into a new job as a civilian — with an unfilled left jacket sleeve affixed to a wool suit, his brain seeping fluid via a shunt to his spinal column and stomach. Mr. Hanley had been repaired as best the military could do.
Officially a wounded warrior, he took a seat as a safety official at Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington.
He soon found out it was not the place for a hero’s welcome.
Mr. Hanley, now 40 and honorably discharged on 100 percent disability, said the office’s millennials resented his war resume and the special access to federal jobs the U.S. provides returning war veterans.
He learned their nickname for him was “Lefty,” for his missing arm. Another office clique called him “Mr. PTSD,” for post-traumatic stress disorder — a mental syndrome that haunts thousands of combatants.
“I was ostracized,” he said. “People made up stories about me being unstable.”
He said managers disregarded his complaints. Then more trouble arrived. An office worker complained to his supervisor that, when Mr. Hanley responded to a malfunctioning elevator and possible injury, he did not address a wheelchair-bound employee in the proper way.
“When I learned of this,” he said, “I protested to my supervisor, saying I was unaware of a special protocol for speaking with people in wheelchairs and pointed out that I had some experience with people in wheelchairs since I had been wheelchair-bound for months myself and had spent the previous four-plus years surrounded by wounded soldiers in wheelchairs.”
Adding to his nonwelcome: He later did research into personnel policy and discovered he was unfairly denied a promotion and pay raise.
Veterans advocates say Mr. Hanley is not alone in facing a sometimes-hostile workplace in the federal government.
As one of his first acts as commander in chief, President Obama signed an order making it a top priority for the federal government to hire ex-warriors. The preference has caused some resentment.
Last spring, a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs panel held a hearing on hiring preferences, where Richard Weidman, executive director for policy for Vietnam Veterans of America, said this: “We hear from some who were hired and quit after a year or so because they were ‘bored’ or ‘did not fit in.’ It seems clear to us that those who come straight from the military into the [federal government] need a mentor, perhaps an older veteran, to start learning to negotiate the corporate culture and procedures at that agency, as well as being able to understand the feelings and attitudes of the newer veteran.”
Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he has heard anecdotes like Mr. Hanley’s.
“Ignorance and disrespect have no place in any workplace anywhere,” Mr. Davis said. “It’s just unfortunate that the military’s attitude adjustment procedures aren’t followed in the public and private sectors.”
Mr. Hanley’s re-entry to civilian life included exchanging his residence at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for a condo in Arlington, Virginia. The unit later included a rescued mix-breed Labrador named Sable. Friendly and affectionate, Sable helped him assimilate with the caninehappy population that rides Metro’s Orange Line and frequents the neighborhood’s trendy bars and restaurants.
He is truly back home, having grown up in Northern Virginia as part of a family of Democrats. His mother, Katherine Hanley, chaired the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and worked in former Gov. Tim Kaine’s administration.
He traveled a jagged road back to Virginia. His story is one vignette in America’s long war to oust Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and put down an insurgency at a cost of more than 4,400 U.S. service members’ lives. His struggle is a testament to the human spirit and to the U.S. military’s commitment to put back together a damaged body and mind.
After college and various civilian jobs, he joined the Army in September 2005 at the relatively old age of 29 and went off to Fort Benning, Gerogia, to learn the infantryman’s trade.
“I truly believed we were at war after 9/11, and Saddam, having been an enemy before, was aiding al Qaeda,” Mr. Hanley said. “But now, after having been in the Army and working for the federal government, I see how easy it is for people to lie and manipulate the system to get what they want.”
Fort Riley, Kansas, and the 1st Infantry Division were next. Then the famous Iraq troop surge. His unit — the 16th Infantry Regiment “Rangers,” 4th Brigade Combat Team — found itself in February 2007 patrolling Baghdad’s meanest streets, where al Qaeda and Iranian-backed Shiites were aiming to kill Americans.
Iran provided explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), which today the Pentagon estimates killed nearly 200 U.S. service members. Mr. Hanley stands as one of the 861 they wounded.
On March 29, 2008, Mr. Hanley’s two-vehicle convoy had a choice of two routes. A lieutenant chose “Route Florida,” according to a narration in the book “The Good Soldiers,” by Washington Post reporter David Finkel. The reasoning: They had come in on the second possible exit. Florida would be unexpected.
Mr. Finkel wrote: “‘All right,’ replied Hanley, who was about to give his entire left arm to the cause of freedom, as well as part of the left temporal lobe of his brain, which would leave him unconscious and nearly dead for five weeks, and with long-term memory loss and dizziness so severe that for the next eight months, he would throw up whenever he moved his head, and weight loss that would take him from 203 pounds down to 128. ‘Let’s do it.’”
Mr. Hanley sat in the front seat as the men approached a light post that just happened to hide the EFP. The explosion killed two soldiers and tore into Mr. Hanley and one other soldier.
“Yeah. You could tell right away that it was severe head trauma because of the way his eyes were rolled back in his head, and he was foaming at the mouth,” the lieutenant said of Mr. Hanley’s grave wounds.
Mr. Hanley provided a post-blast chronology to The Washington Times. He credits a doctor assigned to special operations troops with removing parts of his skull to let a traumatized brain expand and not rupture. He eventually would be able to think and calculate again thanks to that surgeon.
His medical notes read like a tour of military medical posts: emergency craniotomy and amputation, Balad, Iraq; treated for cerebral meningitis, Bethesda National Naval Medical Center; regained consciousness, May 2008; emergency flight back to Bethesda from rehabbing in Boston to install a shunt, fall 2008; titanium shell installed to close skull, spring 2009; sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for physical rehabilitation, 2010; transferred to Defense-VA Brain Injury Center for cognitive therapy; a medical board deemed him unfit for duty due to psychological and physical limitations.
As Mr. Hanley neared discharge in 2011, the medial board dispassionately listed the physical effects of the Iraq War, the ones he would carry to the EPA. The board noted with an X in a box that all the damage was post-recruitment: “Traumatic brain injury, severe, with residual cognitive deficits of attention”; “High transhumeral amputation”; “vertigo, fatigue, light and sound sensitivities”; “visual impairment with hemianoptic defect right eye”; “seizure disorder.”
The Army awarded him a Purple Heart and a Combat Infantryman Badge, among other medals. He is especially proud of the Valorous Unit Award — the unit equivalent of an individual Silver Star — to the 16th Infantry Regiment for “extraordinary heroism,” as the citation reads.
He was officially discharged in July 2102. His DD Form 214 reads that he was medically retired with the rank of staff sergeant and “disability, permanent (enhanced).”
That same month he showed up at a location starkly different from six years of battlefields and hospitals — the complex of concrete and glass offices known as the Federal Triangle, a place the EPA calls its “campus.”
Mr. Hanley’s mother, Katherine Hanley, attributes her son’s remarkable recovery to “Patrick’s fierce determination, as well as his stubborn persistence in fighting to overcome his injuries.”
“It has been truly amazing,” Mrs. Hanley said. “It’s been just incredible. And in doing that, he has refused to accept ‘can’t’ either from himself or from anybody else. He just decided he was going to do these things. He was going to do adjustments and recovery and not let anything stand in [his] way.”
At one point Mr. Hanley turned to family friends and fellow Democrats and Virginians: Mr. Kaine, now running as the party’s vice presidential nominee, and Rep. Gerald E. Connolly. Both offices wrote letters to the EPA over Mr. Hanley’s withheld career promotions.
In an Aug. 4 email, a Connolly aide expressed frustration that the agency was not forthcoming.
“As I’ve conveyed to you in the past, we continue to believe this case could have been handled more delicately given Mr. Hanley’s status as a service disabled veteran with limited experience with the complex human resources policies of the federal government,” the aide wrote in one of numerous communications. “Further, as you know well, the EPA and the federal government are actively recruiting wounded warriors into civilian service, and those efforts are undermined when veterans experience situations like Mr. Hanley’s.”
Patrick Hanley retired on disability after being wounded in Iraq, only to face co-worker discrimination when he entered the federal workforce.