JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (NNS) -- Fleet Readiness Center Southeast (FRCSE) became the first Department of Defense activity to hire a graduate of Wounded Warrior Project's (WWP) TRACK program, Jan. 18.
TRACK is an approved 12-month academic/vocational rehabilitation and employment program specifically designed for veterans with combat-related injuries.
Purple Heart recipient Christopher Lynch, a U.S. Army veteran with service-connected disabilities, accepted an entry-level Aircraft Engine Helper position at the FRCSE Crinkley Engine Facility where he interned for a month while enrolled in TRACK.
Lynch is no stranger to mechanical equipment. From 2006 to 2007, he served as an expert mechanic in Iraq with the North Carolina-based 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.
Assigned to a five-man scout reconnaissance squad, he located disabled vehicles and repaired or towed them back to the post.
"A disabled vehicle in the field is very dangerous, especially if it has to be towed," said Lynch. "We fixed the easy stuff."
The squad's Humvee was equipped with a jamming device known as a Counter Radio Controlled Improvised Explosive Device Electronic Warfare, or CREW Duke System, to suppress radio or cellular signals and prevent detonation of roadside bombs. Unfortunately, it could not protect the Soldiers against a determined terrorist.
Lynch sustained critical injuries March 25, 2007, when an Iraqi suicide bomber riding a bicycle manually detonated an explosive device. A concrete bus stop exploded 20 feet from the truck where he sat in Baqubah, a town 30 miles northeast of Baghdad, controlled by insurgents fighting the American-led coalition during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"I was in the gunner's seat of the Humvee," he said. "I was standing up getting ready to change shifts when it went off."
The blast killed four American soldiers including the Humvee driver standing next to the structure, but the unit's squad leader also seated in the vehicle was unharmed.
Lynch's body armor stopped numerous pieces of shrapnel, including one to the helmet, but a smaller fragment penetrated his ballistic eyewear and lodged in his left temple. During his six-month inpatient recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., he learned from doctors that removing the fragment could cause more damage. It was just too risky.
While an inpatient, Lynch, then a 21-year-old sergeant, received the Purple Heart Medal July 27, 2007. The medal is awarded to members of the armed forces who are wounded, killed in action, or die from injuries received while engaged in action with a hostile enemy according to Army Regulation 600-8-22, Military Awards.
Lynch now suffers from photophobia, a discomfort caused by exposure to bright light, but even low levels can cause abnormal sensitivity and eye pain. He wears dark glasses day and night to lessen the effects. The shrapnel in his head has left him with chronic headaches as well.
Following his hospitalization, Lynch returned to Fort Bragg where he was offered a desk job. No longer fit for deployment, he decided to call it quits after serving six years in the Army.
Looking for a "fresh start," he applied for the WWP's TRACK program while still on active duty and traveled to Jacksonville, Fla., to interview for a coveted spot. Only 15 to 20 warriors are selected for each session offered twice yearly, in August and January.
TRACK offers a whole-life approach to living and learning. The program pays a subsistence allowance during the 12-months of education and training, but the veteran must relocate to Florida. All moving and living expenses are covered.
Ty Dixon, who manages the WWP Warriors to Work Program for the Southeast Region, said TRACK is "one of 16 programs offered under the umbrella of the Wounded Warrior Project and the first education center in the nation specifically catering to wounded warriors with combat-related injuries."
Wounded Warrior Project is privately funded.
"We want to ensure that the warrior has a successful transition back into the workforce," Dixon said. "FRCSE is the first government entity to hire a TRACK graduate, and on behalf of WWP, I would like to say thank you, thank you, thank you."
Veterans injured during Operations Enduring Freedom or Iraqi Freedom and who qualify for vocational rehabilitation benefits may be eligible for TRACK. Students pursue their vocational or academic goals for nine months and complete a three-month "externship" with a private or government employer to provide work experience and enhance their resume.
In November 2010, Lynch graduated from TRACK. He began his new career Jan. 18, at the FRCSE engine repair facility where he will assist engine mechanics with routine repair and maintenance tasks such as cleaning, troubleshooting, replacing and repairing engine parts.
"I have a weird relationship with engines; they are just works of art," said Lynch. "They fascinate me."
FRCSE Employee Benefits Advisor and Light Duty Program Coordinator Tammy Mullins works closely with Dixon to ensure "the best fit not only for FRCSE but also for the warrior."
Mullins said Lynch "comes to us with zero aircraft experience," and he does not have the skill level to be hired as an artisan, but his Army experience "makes him a good candidate. We didn't create a position for Chris, but we did modify the position description to accommodate his physical limitations.
"He still had to qualify for the job and pass a pre-employment physical. As he gains on-the-job experience, he will be able to compete for higher-paying positions," said Mullins.
Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) WWP Director Cmdr. Daniel Luers visited FRCSE Jan. 10, to meet with Lynch and tour the industrial facility. He also toured WWP's TRACK center where he met with staff to learn how NAVAIR can help separating service members with combat-related disabilities return to work.
"We want to take those Marines and Sailors who are still on active duty in medical hold for six months or more, and expose them to new opportunities and the jobs that are out there," said Luers. "They have a good amount of life experience, but their skill sets tend to be limited. They want to work and they have the right work ethic, but the fear factor is so high."
Luers said NAVAIR wants to set up a process on a national basis and work hand-in-hand with programs similar to TRACK.
WWP Warriors to Work Director David Ward said there are plans to open more centers nationwide, but it is always easier to start local and take it national.
TRACK's motto is "The greatest casualty is being forgotten." Lynch feels lucky to have been given this unique opportunity to kick-start his life after separating from the Army, working with a military organization that has a close connection with the war fighter it supports.
Wounded Warrior Project is a non-profit, nonpartisan organization headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla., that supports and assists injured service members.
To learn more about TRACK, visit woundedwarriorproject.org, or call toll free (877) 832-6997 or (904) 296-7350.
For more news from Naval Air Station Jacksonville, visit www.navy.mil/local/nasjax/.