Facebooking = A New Career for One Wounded Warrior

Portrait of SSgt. Justin and Kimberly Watson

SSgt. Justin and Kimberly Watson share a moment as a happy Marine family. When medical problems ended Justin's career and Kimberly endured double lower extremety amputation shortly after delivering their second child, the family faced unemployment and homelessness.

As a career planner, Marine Staff Sergeant Justin B. Watson regularly advised his young Marines on how to avoid becoming a negative transition statistic if they decided to leave the service.  He had never imagined he would be one of those worst case scenarios, and he definitely never imagined that social networking could help save his family.

Wounded Warrior transition success stories often highlight former Wounded, Ill or Injured Service members who accomplish amazing feats, such as conquering mountain ranges, despite their loss of a limb or achieve business successes that would make Fortune 500 CEOs envious.

However, for many Wounded Warriors, success and pride can often come from just being able to utter the words, “I survived today.”

Whether they survived an injury, illness or a devastating financial handicap as a result of their injury, being able to resume a normal day to day existence after their transition from the military is just as important as scaling Mt. Everest or becoming a millionaire.

Each day counts, and each day surviving is a victory.

In 2005, Justin B. Watson was a hard-charging Marine sergeant looking forward to a long and storied career in the Marine Corps. The Florida native had joined the Marines after September 11, 2001 because he wanted to as he put it, “be in the fight.”

“I always wanted to serve in the military,” said Watson. “The first time I talked to a Marine recruiter and I learned about esprit de corps, that’s what I wanted to experience. I learned Marines were the first to fight and that’s what I wanted.”

Lance Cpl. Watson (left) and fellow Marine Sgt. Allan R. Anderson, take aim as members of the Marine Forces Japan Rifle Team at Camp Hansen, Okinawa in 2004.

Lance Cpl. Watson (left) and fellow Marine Sgt. Allan R. Anderson, take aim as members of the Marine Forces Japan Rifle Team at Camp Hansen, Okinawa in 2004.

After beginning his career in 2001 as a bulk fuel specialist, Justin moved to a billet as a marksmanship instructor before reenlisting as a career planner in order to pursue an interest in human resources management.  He served tours of duty in Cherry Point and Camp LeJeune, N.C.; MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.; Okinawa, Japan; South Korea and Bahrain.  His future was determined.

Then in 2005, during  a training exercise at Camp LeJeune preparing for deployment to Iraq, Watson was pinned under the heavier weight of a fellow Marine he was carrying during a drill, and suffered a permanent back injury.

Over the next five years, his health deteriorated: he sustained hearing loss and a second back injury. By 2010, SSgt. Watson was a Wounded Warrior facing a medical discharge.

“It was blindsiding. I knew my back was messed up. The doctors even put a limitation on me that I couldn’t lift more than 30 pounds. That meant I couldn’t even play with my kids without risking becoming paralyzed,” he said. “I was taking it one day at a time. But truthfully, I never in a million years would have thought that I would be medically discharged out of the military. But, life happens and those were the cards I was dealt.”

Despite his injuries, Watson had a strong desire to continue serving in the Marine Corps, but he received news that he would be medically discharged, and Watson fell into a deep depression.

“I don’t even have the words to describe how it made me feel when I found out it was a definitive ‘yes’ that I was getting out of the Marine Corps. I was an emotional wreck,” he said.

Six weeks after having their second child, Watson’s wife, Kimberly, had her left leg amputated. She soon lost the other leg, and the family was solely dependant upon TRICARE, the military healthcare plan.

“After my (medical) board appeal came back denied, they only gave me seventy-something days to transition.  It was my wife, two kids and me.  And all of a sudden, I am looking at no career and being homeless. It was a pretty sad situation.”

Watson’s life might have ended up a somber sea story Marines tell to each to pass the time if it had not been for the power of social media.

“I became acquainted with SSgt. Watson from an electronic feed on the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) Facebook page where we were placing job opportunities,” said David DuBois, TAP Operations Director for the Office of Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy (WWCTP).  “I ended up getting contacted by him through an e-mail based on a posting he had seen on the Facebook page. Based on that e-mail, we connected and we exchanged e-mails back and forth so that I could determine what services he had received and who he had connected with. In his case, who he had not connected with.”

Watson now works at the Naval Audit Service as an HR Specialist thanks to direct intervention by the TAP Operations Officer at WWCTP sparked by Watson's visit to the TAP Facebook page.

Watson now works at the Naval Audit Service as an HR Specialist thanks to direct intervention by the TAP Operations Officer at WWCTP sparked by Watson's visit to the TAP Facebook page.

Communicating solely through e-mail and Facebook, DuBois helped Watson develop a resume, provided career and transition coaching, connected him with contacts that helped him appeal his disability rating and provided him with employment leads that eventually got him a job at the Naval Audit Service as an HR Specialist in employee development.

According to DuBois, Watson is typical of Service members who are not provided with proper transition coaching.

“Some of the transition information he had heard, but he hadn’t heard it in terms that were applicable to him — in terms that he could act upon,” DuBois said. “Part of his success story is that he hadn’t built a network.  So, once we started building a network for him and started doing the virtual introductions in the network, his post-military career picked up.”

Although still a Wounded Warrior with serious physical ailments, Watson is embracing his new career with the tenacity of a Marine.

“I am quite happy doing what I am doing. I could not ask for a better organization to work for and I plan to stay here as long as they permit and just take it one day at a time,” he said.

If you LIKE this story, be sure to visit Dave and the rest of the Transition team at www.facebook.com/DoDTAP Who knows who you might meet, and how they might be able to help.

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