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Wounded Veterans Recover in Their Dream Jobs

Spc. Terry Rajsombath remembers the moment after he was shot.

He was vaguely aware of fellow platoon members calling his name down an Afghan village road. And he recalls feeling angry at the prospect of dying in a Taliban ambush. Mostly, he felt the “red-hot dagger shredding my muscles,” he said.

The bullet was lodged in Rajsombath’s left thigh, shattering his hipbone and femur. It would eventually trigger several aneurysms and blood clots and keep him from walking for more than three months. Six months later, he has had 10 surgeries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He is still living and recovering on the campus.

In the midst of what seems like a nightmare, Rajsombath, 24, is pursing his dream job: photojournalism.

He’s the new intern at the Senate Press Photographers’ Gallery, the office that acts as a liaison between photojournalists and Congress.

Since Nov. 30, Rajsombath has been snapping pictures of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Members during Senate and House hearings. He’s shadowing photographers from various news outlets and learning how they became Hill photographers.

Gallery Director Jeffrey Kent said the internship is a chance to watch and learn.

“We give him exposure,” Kent said. “The internship is mostly an opportunity for him to see how photojournalism works and if he’s interested in doing it as a career. He’s observing and meeting some of the best photographers in the world.”

For the past two years, the Senate Office of the Sergeant-at-Arms has been offering internships to wounded veterans convalescing at Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Rajsombath is one of a dozen wounded Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans to participate in the Sergeant-at-Arms Armed Forces Internship Program, which helps wounded soldiers beef up their résumés in preparation for life after the service.

“The outgrowth came from our sense that we should be doing something to try to help these young men and women out,” said Pat Murphy, the office’s director of human resources. “We thought maybe we could work with the people in rehab at Walter Reed who are still in the service — we could provide them with professional experience here in areas where they have real interests.”

For Rajsombath, that interest was photography, a passion inspired by a cross-country road trip.

“I took my father’s old 1985 point-and-shoot and used Google to teach myself about shutter speed, white balance and different types of film,” Rajsombath said. “I’d take pictures, then drive around the nearest neighborhoods until I found a wireless signal on my laptop. I’d look up the nearest store and pull off the road to develop the films. I wanted to document everything.”

Years later he did the same thing while backpacking in Europe, even snapping pictures while participating in Spain’s Running of the Bulls.

Photography isn’t the only option for participants in the internship program. The Office of the Sergeant-at-Arms has the largest staff and budget of any Senate agency and oversees a wide array of jobs, so applicants have a variety of internships to choose from.

Soldiers interested in law enforcement have interned with the Capitol Police, working in firearm training or the K-9 unit. One double-leg amputee interned in the information technology unit and spent his time away from Walter Reed sniffing out hackers and viruses in Senate computers. Another, a college history major, was put to work with the Senate historian.

“The internship gives them a chance to pursue something they’ve always wanted to do, or they can keep up their skills and learn new ones,” Murphy said.

Master Sgt. Ross Bagwell, who served 23 years in the infantry and as a combatant in Iraq, found himself in Walter Reed for five months last year after sustaining severe back and nerve injuries. After recovering, Bagwell, 41, was placed in the Radio-TV Gallery because of his computer skills and master’s degree.

“I was trying to find things to do while recovering, and the gallery turned out to be an inspiring place to work,” said Bagwell, who cited meeting CNN anchor Dana Bash and Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer as highlights. He was eventually recruited to work at NASA.

“If you have a long-term situation and you can get out, away from Walter Reed, you want to,” he said. “I remember thinking it was great to wear a suit and tie again.”

Jean McComish, Sergeant-at-Arms senior human resources administrator, recruits soldiers to the internship program at Walter Reed job fairs and by searching websites listing wounded veterans’ résumés.

Many soldiers at Walter Reed and the Naval Medical Center, some of whom have lived on hospital campuses for more than a year, have serious injuries that necessitate a career change. Many retire from the military on disability because of conditions ranging from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder to coping with prosthetics, McComish said. The main goals, she said, are preparing wounded soldiers for jobs and keeping them optimistic about their futures.

“It’s not so much that they intern with us as getting them to realize there are opportunities for them and a world full of choices,” she said. “We want to help them see what their future might hold.”

The transition from active duty to civilian life is hard for many soldiers, especially with an unemployment rate for young veterans at 21 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some soldiers have little or no experience in civilian jobs, making an already tough job market even harder to crack.

Rajsombath, who studied automotive mechanics and joined the National Guard in 2006, had no work experience with photography before his internship. He enjoyed photography as a hobby and even itched to snap pictures of Afghan villages and women in burkas, but taking pictures was not exactly part of his job description as a machine-gunner.

Now he hopes to work as a combat photographer.

“Photography is definitely going to be my future,” Rajsombath said. “This has been an invaluable experience — you can’t Google this stuff.”

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