In 2010, Booz Allen Hamilton senior vice president Carl Salzano brought together leaders from across the company to establish a strategic framework, organization and structure for employee-led volunteer veteran activities.
“We weren’t going to interfere with letting a thousand flowers bloom, but we wanted to bring a strategic focus to these efforts, and as an institution, we wanted to partner with important external organizations, ” Salzano told Executive Mosaic.
Alongside a group of colleagues including senior vice president Charlie Zuhowski and senior associate Bob Seitz, who each served in the Vietnam War, and associates Patrick Clancy and Benjamin Story, who served in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Salzano saw an opportunity to extend Booz Allen’s internal emphasis on mentorship and integrating veterans into its workforce to benefit severely wounded soldiers more broadly in their transition to civilian careers.
It was an idea that eventually led to a program that this year won the firm’s highest honor, the Booz Allen Excellence Award in Community Partnerships.
“Mentoring was one of the foundational pieces from the very beginning, ” Salzano said. “We’ve got a very large mentoring program and that fits in with a culture that believes strongly in mentoring and coaching our staff and taking a long-term view on their careers. We felt like we had the innate skills to be able to successfully participate in programs with veterans.”
After working with the Booz Allen team to stand up a broadened volunteer framework on behalf of veterans, Salzano retired in March, but not before discussing the journey to the new partnership.
As the group sought out organizations to align with Booz Allen’s efforts, Salzano said they learned about a 501(c)(3) nonprofit group called the Wounded Warrior Mentoring Program (WWMP).
WWMP was founded in 2004 by a senior group of retired West Point graduates led by Lee Miller. Many within the MMWP leadership had dealt with overcoming their own combat experiences in Vietnam, and after regularly visiting injured veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., two things became clear:
- hospital staffs were under mounting stress to physically treat the wounded
- the severely injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan required more than physical care to successfully reintegrate into society.
The group saw a need for a more holistic approach for long-term recoveries. That meant providing mentorship around the soldier’s life planning, guidance on how to navigate important life choices, and facilitating the soldier’s connections within civilian networks.
“Our returning soldiers were traumatized and most of the badly wounded were to be ‘medically retired’, ” Salzano said. “So, the question becomes, ‘what are they going to do next in their life? What’s the next big thing, in terms of career, training, employment and education’”?
“Many of these folks have known only the military command and control structure, and that requires a successful orientation of moving from one thing to the next. In the civilian world, there are more variations of how jobs are performed, ” Salzano added. “It’s a bit daunting.”
One of the first contributions the Booz Allen group realized it could make to help advance the WWMP’s vision was to assist in developing the organization’s strategy and infrastructure support. This aimed to complement and build upon WWMP’s expertise in areas including conducting skills inventories and assisting wounded warriors in optimizing their military benefits.
“Booz Allen helped WWMP envision the future, ” Salzano noted, by creating a strategic plan; building IT infrastructure; providing logistical and training support; and working with exec-level military hospital commanders in support of the program.
Booz Allen also dedicated efforts and resources toward helping grow the number of mentors in the program, and improving the mentorship process itself. Salzano said that this required more than a “clinical approach.”
“We discovered that success was far less clinical and much more focused on the heart side of the mentoring equation, ” Salzano said. “We assumed that if we had all the information, it was just about making a series of optimization choices. The reality is much more complex.”
“There’s so much going on in these folks’ lives just to get through the recovery process that the amount of time they actually have to stop and think and focus down on their transition is fairly limited. And then the transition comes up on them pretty quickly.”
The numbers indicate Booz Allen has helped drive notable gains for the WWMP program. Through its support as a “trusted advisor, ” WWMP has added 150 mentors ― around a 100 percent rate of growth. Booz Allen volunteers make up 115 of the 250 total mentors participating in the program.
The company said most of the mentored veterans are now in college or have full-time or intern jobs, including a number of participants who joined the program at two new locations in California and Texas.
When a U.S. soldier is seriously wounded in combat, he or she receives treatment at one of three specialized centers ― Walter Reed; Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas; or the Naval Medical Center San Diego, also known as Balboa.
“We knew that there were large populations at the Burn Center and at Balboa without a similar program, ” Salzano said. “There had been a couple of attempts to get those programs spun up, but they hadn’t gone too far.”
WWMP’s Miller asked Salzano if he would take the lead on expanding the program in San Antonio and San Diego. Salzano enlisted Del Eulberg, the head of Booz Allen’s San Antonio office and former head of Air Force civil engineering, to move the ball forward.
Salzano went to San Antonio equipped with a “strong endorsement” from the Warrior Transition Brigade commander at Walter Reed and met with hospital leadership in San Antonio alongside people “who had done it on the ground” on behalf of WWMP at Walter Reed.
“They explained how the program operates and how we don’t interfere with the responsibilities and duties of the medical officers, the leadership and military chain of command, ” Salzano said.
“Initially, they were somewhat skeptical that ‘here comes another organization that wants to do good but is just going to create a situation when there’s less time for us to get our job done.’ When we left, they were convinced the WWMP approach was something that was unique, that was desperately needed, and that helped us get the green light to go forward.”
“Then, we did the same thing with the Booz Allen leadership team in our San Diego office. I encountered an equal amount of enthusiasm, and they’re off and running.”
As the company and program continue to plan on how to best magnify the impact of their partnership, Salzano said you will not see lots of marketing or promotion for their efforts.
“We don’t plug it in any way that may make veterans feel like they’re being pressured or pushed, ” Salzano noted. “It’s just getting the word out around the hospital and doing a little bit of recruiting. The thing just grows on its own.”
In that vein, some of the individuals who have gone through the program shared their thoughts on what’s it done for them.
“The mentoring program played an integral part of my recovery at Walter Reed, ” said Captain Aaron Palmer, U.S. Army, who was wounded in 2010. “The mentoring program was a lighthouse that guided me through the darkest and most uncertain time of my life.”
“The Wounded Warrior Mentor Program was a very influential part of my husband’s 2.5 year recovery, ” added Eliza Palmer, Aaron’s wife. “The injuries they sustain require them to redefine who they are and what they are able to do.”
“The relationship with my mentor started with a simple phone call, ” explained Marine Corps Sergeant Cory Gritter, who was wounded as a scout sniper in 2009.
“It turned into lunches followed by weekly meetings after a few short months. I received guidance on my resume, housing, schools, degree programs along with internship opportunities and ultimately the successful startup of SDVOSB Gritter-Francona, Inc., which is currently in a mentor-protégé agreement with Booz Allen Hamilton.”
“The cybersecurity trade is a vastly growing and high-demand field that many people, including myself, feel I am well-suited for, ” added Corporal David Bixler, U.S. Army, who was wounded in 2010 and participated in a Booz Allen Cybersecurity Internship between 2012 and 2013.
“After spending many hours learning new skills and testing them in the (Cyber Operations Center) environment, it’s given me a new confidence in that trade, ” Bixler said.
“I feel I have a bright future now.”