PATUXENT RIVER, Md. (NNS) -- Six months.
That's the timeframe retired U.S. Marine Corps Master Sgt. Ken Cadena says injured veterans have to find meaningful employment following their discharge. The alternative, becoming dependent on government assistance, is a path that once traveled, "involves too many variables hindering your ability to turn back."
Cadena bases that six-month period on his own experience as a wounded warrior and subsequent transition to a job at Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), where he works as an operations officer in the H-60 Multi-Mission Helicopters program office.
Cadena is one of several veterans who will share their transition experiences at the 2015 Wounded Warrior and Veteran Hiring and Support Conference May 19-20 in San Antonio, Texas. The conference will connect employers from DoD, federal agencies and the private sector with qualified wounded warriors and veterans. To learn more, visit www.HireAVet.navy.mil.
For Cadena, the end of that critical six-month window is when wounded warriors tend to reach their proverbial fork in the road, at which point they've found meaningful employment or potentially are headed down a spiral of depression that too often ends in suicide.
"They just want to isolate themselves, get away from people," Cadena said. "After everything they have been through with their rehabilitation, both physically and socially, they are hesitant about what the future looks like for them and are very intimidated by the next step."
A veteran of multiple combat deployments, Cadena continues to deal with pain from singed retinas and spinal injuries that require regular pain injections. On his days off, he undergoes cognitive maintenance training and physical therapy at the Veterans Administration Medical Center, in Washington, D.C.
"This is the life of a veteran with disabilities. There is no reprieve," he said. "You just have to accept yourself, realize that you are okay, and decide you will not let this take over your life and beat you down."
Cadena isn't sure he would have taken "that next step" following his retirement had fate not intervened in the form of NAVAIR recruiter Nancy Starks who asked Cadena "Do you want a job?" when he walked past her booth at a 2012 veterans recruiting event at Brooks Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.
"I might need one eventually," Cadena replied, and the two started talking.
Cadena was merely passing through the event on his way to another appointment and lacked the motivation he needed in finding a new career. Like many injured veterans, he bore "invisible scars" and feared he might fail in the civilian sector as he felt he had in the military.
"I was on the ropes of doing what everybody else was going to do, just going home and getting away from everything," Cadena said. "You're already depressed. You're on medication. You already feel that you failed your military because you got hurt. The last thing you want to do is take another chance and maybe fail at something else."
But Starks' "kindness and perseverance were too overwhelming to ignore," he said. "She was different from everyone else. She didn't ask for a resume; she actually wanted to talk and hear your story. It's a 99 percent chance I would not be where I am now were it not for her."
It was precisely the push Cadena needed. Months later, he followed up with Starks and, once it was determined he met the requirements, was soon offered a position at Pax River.
"It wasn't a given," Cadena said, but Starks emphasized that NAVAIR would teach and work with him in his new job.
"It was the fact that I was given hope. I thought, 'Hey, maybe I can do it,'" Cadena said.
But not all veterans receive that added push. Cadena said more needs to be done to ensure wounded veterans successfully make the transition from military to civilian life.
"You have to focus on the transition, where wounded warriors go from a position where they're in charge and have a lot of responsibility to suddenly having nothing," Cadena said.
While wounded warriors must be willing to help themselves, Cadena said employers must also be willing to work with veterans as they transition into civilian life.
"Patience is the key when it comes to these veterans," he said. "I remember the first day coming [to Pax River], I was so terrified. I would look at the computer for the first time and I remember my hand shaking. I thought, 'How am I going to do this?'"
Cadena credits his coworkers and supervisors at Pax River with helping him through the process and allowing him the time to adapt to his new career.
"It really is about loyalty and commitment to the vets. If you show a veteran that you are committed to his excellence and development, in return he will show devotion, gratitude and loyalty forever. That is the key to their transitional success," Cadena said.
If he could give back anything to fellow wounded warriors, it would be to impress on them the importance of that initial six-month window.
"You've got to try. When everything tells you to give up and just go home and sleep, you can't do that. You've got to get up on your feet and make it work for you," he said.
Cadena is glad he took that path.
"When you are physically or mentally hurt, you lose the four most important aspects a human needs to function - self-esteem, self-confidence, self-respect, and lastly, self-motivation. I am forever grateful that the people of NAVAIR gave me that opportunity to prove to myself that I can succeed again, and that I can still make a difference in this world."
For more news from Naval Air Systems Command, visit www.navy.mil/local/navair/.