Denita Hartfield is a profile in courage. Dennita planned to be career Army. She enlisted in 1992 to “serve my country and see the world.” With enthusiasm and passion, Denita moved from one role to another. She held positions as an analyst and assisted leadership training in state-of-the-art global positioning systems. As a weapons of mass destruction team leader, she maintained 100 percent accountability for sensitive items in excess of $3 billion. She led, coached, and mentored team members in sustainment training.
In the years after 9/11, she deployed with the 1st Infantry Division to Afghanistan and Iraq for Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Then in May of 2005 while serving in Mosul, Iraq, her unit was ambushed during a recovery mission.
“One of our convoys had gotten attacked and (insurgents) were set up and waiting for us,” Denita says. “There were explosions and gunfire. Several people were wounded. I had a headache right away.”
That headache indicated that Denita had suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI), along with cracked ribs and a cracked tailbone. She had no visible wounds, but she knew from the headaches, body pains, and ringing in her ears that she was badly hurt.
In spite of her injuries, she hid and ignored the pain so she wouldn’t be sent home. Two weeks after the attack, she collapsed. Fluid had built up around her heart to such a degree that it stopped beating, a condition known as pericarditis. Then all of her injuries were diagnosed. The next year and a half was spent enduring multiple surgeries and physical therapy.
“My motivation throughout my entire recovery was returning to full duty status,” Denita says. “I negated that my injuries were prevalent enough to end my career because there were so many other soldiers that were killed in action, *or* lost limbs. Those guys are the real heroes. I had to return to combat in their honor and there was nothing to convince me that I was not going to return.”
Eventually, however, in 2007, she was medically dis-charged with an 80 percent service-connected disability rating. She used her medical severance to move to a home in Bakersfield, California, to be near her grandmother.
Denita, who has a master’s degree in criminal justice and weapons of mass destruction, accepted a job as dean of students at a local business school, but faced hardships on the job—not due to her disabilities, but because those disabilities were not apparent. Administrators at the college didn’t understand her injuries, absences, *or* ongoing medical appointments.
“I’d get ridiculed every time I had to go to a medical appointment,” she said. “I’m not what people think a disabled veteran should look like. ”Several times a week she had to travel to Sepulveda and West Los Angeles VA hospitals to treat the TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which caused insomnia and nightmares. Her boss complained every time she needed to be out of the office. Denita compensated by working 12- and 13-hour days. She couldn’t sleep, so she would work. She met every deadline and had exceptional performance reviews, despite her struggles. But that didn’t satisfy her superiors. Ultimately, when asked to postpone a surgery so her boss could take a personal trip, Denita had reached her limit. “You know how difficult it is to schedule a surgery through the VA,” she explains.
Then, like so many veterans with catastrophic injuries, a long, unfruitful search for employment began. She could not rely on VA disability payments because those still hadn’t begun. It took two years before she began receiving them, putting her in a precarious financial position.
She went without work for two years, but continued her volunteer efforts on behalf of veterans. “I was disabled, but I could still provide for my country,” she says. “That’s all veterans want to do—continue to serve.”
Denita held PTSD meetings for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, addressed policy issues on Capitol Hill, and spoke to boards of supervisors in various counties to educate policymakers on the need to assist returning combat veterans.
Then in March 2011 she began receiving vocational assistance from Joan Haskins, a Paralyzed Veterans Operation PAVE (Paving Access for Veterans Employment) counselor. Haskins recognized Denita’s advocacy experience and helped her apply for a position with U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy as a veterans’ constituent for California. “(Joan) was so encouraging and honestly understood the struggles of veterans who work so hard to return to the workforce,” Denita says. “Although I did not start in the position due to funding limitations, I continued to serve and support the veterans of California.”
Meanwhile Haskins corresponded with Denita every two weeks, sending links to employment opportunities, providing support documents to increase her visibility among applicants, and keeping her engaged.
In July Denita accepted a position with the U.S. Marshal’s Investigations Operations Division, her top secret security clearance and her military experience and education made her an ideal candidate for the agency. She cannot comment on the specifics of her work but says the job is “perfect.”
“I get the same sense of camaraderie that I felt in the military because we are all focused on the same objective: protecting and serving America,” she says. And no one questions her injuries *or* ongoing medical needs. “As veterans we are more than our combat in-juries,” Denita says. “We are assets to help restore stability to America.” She explains that veterans are mission driven, have leadership training, and work under high levels of pressure. She emphasizes that veterans’ leadership abilities and training can yield positive results in a time when financial constraints can hamper extensive training.
Denita exemplifies the value veterans can provide to the workplace and, like Paralyzed Veterans of America, believes employers should look to veterans first.
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