After medical retirement, James had to find a new way to serve.
One of the hardest parts of being a veteran is adjusting to a new identity and career in the civilian life. The goal for many is to find careers where they can use their specialized skills and talents. For James Fitzgerald, a serious accident during his deployment made his search for a new identity even more complicated.
Fitzgerald, a veteran of the U.S. Army and the 101st Airborne Division, was on a mission in Afghanistan when he was shot and fell down a mountain. He suffered several broken bones during the fall, and he knew he would never be able to serve his country the same way again.
He faced a daunting task: “I understood then that my military life was going to be vastly different,” says Fitzgerald. “I can’t deploy. I can’t do the things that I’ve been training the last six years to do … so now what do I do?”
Finding His Identity After Military Service
Fitzgerald always found a lot of purpose and meaning in his military work. For that reason, it’s no surprise that his new role didn’t stray far from the Army. He became a teacher at the Maneuver Center of Excellence in Georgia. Here, he was able to teach tools, skills, and knowledge to service members who were not yet deployed.
He also became involved in community service. “Selfless service is one of our Army values,” says Fitzgerald. “For me, this one kind of translated into me moving down to [Washington] D.C. for a position inside of the Obama administration.”
Helping Veterans Nationwide
Then-First Lady Michelle Obama had an initiative for the veteran community called Joining Forces. As part of this team, Fitzgerald worked on a program that focused on employment, education, and wellness for veterans. “It was just an extreme honor for me to take part in that program,” he says.
Joining Forces provided a way for him to use his military expertise, but that wasn’t the only thing that made the opportunity special. He felt particularly at home with the Obama administration, thanks to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. This was a piece of legislation that had banned “openly” gay, lesbian, or bisexual Americans from military service for nearly 15 years. With this new official policy, Fitzgerald no longer had to hide his sexuality.
“For me to join the Joining Forces team [after the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell], it gave me the affirmation that I’d been making the right decisions,” says Fitzgerald. He was able to speak to the First Lady and let her know how much he appreciated the work that went into allowing LGBTQ members the opportunity to serve openly. He called it “one of the most profound experiences” of his life.
Fitzgerald’s success story at finding new ways to serve his country may offer hope to all veterans. Luckily, for veterans who struggle to find a new path after deployment, or aren’t sure how to proceed, there are organizations that can help, including the Transition Assistance Program.