WASHINGTON — Lance Iunker needed plenty of help after fighting in the Iraq war.
On Sept. 10, 2007, the 22-year-old Californian was riding in a truck that went through a guardrail and fell off a 50-foot overpass, killing seven of his buddies and injuring 11. Iunker broke his back and crushed his chest and face. One of his ears was completely ripped off and had to be reattached by a plastic surgeon. It took 70 staples to put his head back together.
Nearly three years later, Iunker has emerged as a poster boy of sorts for a unique program called Operation Welcome Home.
It aims to link the 30,000 soldiers who return to California each year with veterans who can help them readjust to civilian life. So far, more than 300 veterans have been hired as part of the $20 million project.
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Officially launched last month, it's the brainchild of Governor Schwarzenegger, and Iunker and California officials are hoping it becomes a national model.
"This is a huge priority for the governor, and it's a huge priority for us," said Victoria Bradshaw, secretary of California's Labor and Workforce Development Agency. "We have the largest population of reintegrating vets and we take our responsibilities quite seriously."
Iunker, who lives in San Luis Obispo with his 20-year-old wife, Laurie, has been doing his part, accompanying state officials to promote the program in Washington. He said the program helped him plow through a maze of bureaucracy to land a job and get treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.
"I'm extremely blessed and extremely fortunate," Iunker said. "My injuries are so minimal compared to what they could have been. And I just thank God for that."
Last month, Iunker helped Schwarzenegger officially launch the program at an event in San Diego, where the governor called him "an extraordinary success story."
At the request of the governor's office, Iunker was in Washington promoting the program last week, and he's scheduled to return again late next month or in early September.
Taking the idea to Washington
In Washington, Iunker got to shake hands with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, and he even got to go inside the White House to meet with administration officials. He didn't meet with President Barack Obama, explaining that "the big man was busy." After being one of the first to go through the program, Iunker said he's in a good position to put a human face on it in meetings with federal officials.
"I kind of became their poster child or whatever you want to call it," Iunker said. "All the congressmen and congresswomen, they listen to bureaucrats all day, every day, and I'm sure they get tired."
According to Bradshaw, the program began late last year when Schwarzenegger assembled his cabinet and said he wanted the state to do something to help returning veterans, who all too often lose their jobs or homes during their active duty. By February, she said, the state was hiring veterans to reach out to returning soldiers.
"To expect somebody to come home and figure out what they need and how to go get it is not the way we want to do business in California," she said. "We believe instead that it is our obligation to go find that veteran, to have an advocate for them to help them determine what they need and how do they get it. It is shifting the obligation."
So far, the program has made contact with more than 14,000 returning veterans. More than half of them needed help getting a job, and many of them weren't even aware that they could receive unemployment benefits, said Paul Feist, undersecretary for the state labor agency.
"They fought for our country," he said. "And if anyone deserves unemployment insurance, they do."
Iunker said he was set up with a "one-stop shop" when he was assigned to a veteran who had been injured in the Gulf War. After being turned down for educational G.I. benefits when he applied on his own, Iunker reapplied with help from his case manager and received the financial aid. He's set to begin college this fall.
"The thing that's hard is I didn't know who to call or what papers to go through," Iunker said. "Now I can go to this guy and he can contact those different organizations that I might need to receive help from. It's no longer my duty to seek out that information. It's almost like they're giving it to you."