Two Recovering Marines Help Shape the Future of Wounded Warrior Programs

Aug. 17, 2011 | By paulchen
[caption id="attachment_1787" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="From left to right: Patrick Brick (OWF Program Manager), Sgt. Gabriel Ledesma, Cory Hixson (OWF National Capital Region Coordinator), 1st Lt. Blake Hogan "]
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The Office of Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy (WWCTP) is proud to highlight the work of two recovering Marines who are sharing their experience and expertise to help shape key programs that benefit wounded, ill and injured Service members. Meet First Lieutenant Blake Hogan and Sergeant Gabriel Ledesma.

1st Lt. Blake Hogan

First Lieutenant Blake Hogan overcame many obstacles to become a Marine Corps officer, only to have an injury in training derail his plans. Operation Warfighter gave him an opportunity to continue contributing and realize that what he really wanted from military service was to be part of something bigger than himself. Persistence Pays Off Blake Hogan spent years dreaming about the Marine Corps. A self-described “bad test-taker,” he took the Armed Service Vocational Aptitude Battery test for Officer Candidate School repeatedly in college, always scoring one point below the necessary score for acceptance. Discouraged by the test scores, he tried pursuing other dreams, including working at a summer camp in Colorado and a horse ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. But something kept him coming back to the Marines. When he returned to school after a summer working with horses in Wyoming, Hogan visited the Selection Officer who had helped him with his previous tests. The recruiter encouraged him to take the test one more time, that same day. That time – “lucky number seven,” he says – Hogan passed. Hogan was ecstatic. For him, serving in the Marines meant a chance to show gratitude for all the opportunities he had received as an American. The Unexpected Change of Plans So imagine Hogan’s disappointment when, three or four months into training at The Basic School, he received a foot injury that just wouldn’t heal. After weeks of ignoring the problem, Hogan finally spoke to a doctor about his foot. “I spent two years going back and forth between Walter Reed and Bethesda trying to figure out what was wrong. I was just hoping to get out and finish and finally serve,” he said. Every wounded, ill, or injured Service member struggles to accept that their military career is not going to work out as they had planned. For those like Blake Hogan who get injured in training, the disappointment is especially keen. “I never got to lead Marines in combat like I signed up to do,” he says. “My friends were all going to war, and I was stuck. I was a happy guy up until I was injured, but after two years of that, mentally, I was shot.” Work and Wellness Go Hand-in-Hand Throughout his recovery, Hogan tried to stay busy with whatever work assignments he could get. Then he heard about Operation Warfighter (OWF). Hogan signed up with the intent to work in the White House, but while he was awaiting security clearance for the assignment, another opportunity presented itself. It was a chance to blend his love of the Marines with his cowboy experience, helping to create a therapeutic horseback-riding program for wounded, ill, and injured Marines. It was exactly what Hogan needed, professionally and personally. After living in the barracks for years during medical treatments, with six guys to a room, it was a lifesaver to have a reason to get out of a little room, do satisfying work, and feel like a human being again. “It has been an absolute blessing for my own mental health to be busy and contributing again, and do what I came here to do, which is serve Marines,” Hogan said. A Bright Future of Service The therapeutic horseback riding position evolved into another internship working on wounded warrior programs. Hogan is now working on the Warrior Athletic Reconditioning Program within WWCTP, and assisting with the growing education to employment initiative. He has the chance to share insights from his own recovery and help shape these programs for other wounded, ill, and injured Service members. Now that he is going through the Medical Evaluation Board process and preparing to separate from the Marines, “I’m thankful that I’ve had great mentors and this program to make my time here purposeful,” Hogan says. To help prepare for his transition, Hogan attended the Entrepreneurial Boot Camp for Veterans at Syracuse University last month, and he is making plans to start his own business. “OWF is going to be what I tell my grandkids about. I couldn’t go to war, but when I look back, I’ll be able to say I did something that mattered to a lot of people,” he said.

Sgt. Gabriel Ledesma

For Marine Corps Sergeant Gabriel Ledesma, a combat injury taught him to discover new possibilities and to make the most of his opportunities. Now he is helping to develop programs that will help other wounded, ill, or injured Service members make the same successful transition. Three Deployments and One Injury Ledesma joined the Marine Corps right out of high school in 2005. Assigned to artillery, he served in the 2nd Battalion 10th Marines out of Camp Lejeune, and deployed twice to Iraq. He loved the physical nature of his work, the challenge of new assignments, and the opportunity to be outside. But Sgt. Ledesma’s work changed forever during his third deployment, when on September 9, 2009, he was injured by a suicide bomber outside Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan. He was rushed to the joint medical facility at British Camp Bastian, then medevaced to Landstuhl and finally onto Bethesda. As his injuries were assessed, Ledesma learned he was covered in shrapnel wounds and had multiple fractures to the left side of his body. Recovery and the Choice to Move Forward The months of recovery were difficult for Ledesma. As a lifelong sports lover and outdoorsman, being stuck in bed was physically and mentally draining. He also craved the sense of meaning and partnership he had with his Marines. “When you’re hurt, it brings you to this level where you feel like, I don’t have a purpose in the Marine Corps, and I’m not needed anymore. You sink into self-pity,” he said. “It’s hard to make yourself get up and stop sitting around wasting time.” At an Operation Warfighter event, Ledesma met Cory Hixson, the OWF Coordinator for the National Capital Region. Cory told him his own story of transition and gave him information about the program. “I got a lot of insight and positive feedback, and reassurance that I could do it,” he said. Most importantly, “as soon as I started getting off my butt and actually going to interviews, life got better.” Rocking an Office Job OWF staff helped Ledesma fix his resume and arranged interviews with multiple agencies. After pursuing several options, Ledesma decided to take an internship with WWCTP working on a wounded warrior education and employment initiative. He was inspired by the program’s goal to improve employment outcomes for transitioning wounded warriors. But he did have one hesitation: It was an office job, and he had always envisioned himself in a more physically demanding career. However, because it was only an internship and not a lifetime commitment, Ledesma accepted the position…and ended up loving it. “I never thought I’d like sitting at a desk and coming up with ideas all day,” he said. “It caught me off guard, but I really like it.” How An Internship Changed His Recovery OWF did more than teach Ledesma that he could love a desk job; it helped him get back his previous energy and ambition. With the mentorship of a great supervisor and the camaraderie of a team at the office, he found himself feeling ready for the changes ahead. Being treated like part of the staff and surrounded by people who know military culture is an important component of Ledesma’s job satisfaction. “I’m back in the same structure, and it feels great,” he said. “It makes me feel like, ‘I can do this, and I will be able to do anything I want. This is totally possible.’ For more information on Operation Warfighter internship opportunities, contact WarriorCare@osd.mil.