By PETER ROUSMANIERE, an expert on the workers' compensation industry
U.S. Marine Corps Reservist Jim Flaherty offered his professional skills in the defense of his country, and ultimately paid a price. After returning last year to his stateside employer, Sodexo Inc., his mental strength to perform his demanding job began to decline.
While Flaherty was never awarded a Purple Heart for the loss of a limb or for having suffered a debilitating brain injury, his wounds were nevertheless real, and they toll a bell that sounds for thousands of returning National Guard and Reserve troops.
It was March 2005 when the Marines called Flaherty up from retirement and assigned him to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force in Fallujah, the "Wild, Wild West" of the Iraq theater.
With hot spots flaring up in different parts of the country nearly every month and the U.S. military's commitment to go on the offensive and take the war to the insurgents, it was Flaherty's duty to help the military and its contractors manage as many as 28 Marine bases.
Part of his mission required him to help contractors operate the bases more efficiently. At other times, Flaherty and the contractors were called on to close the sprawling bases wholesale.
The job was a grind. In his first year, Flaherty went on about 180 ground combat patrols and 97 air patrols, as he moved around the war-torn nation, working with a Mississippi National Guard unit to sniff out and crack down on insurgents firing mortars on Marine bases.
Any of those missions could have gotten the 53-year-old Sewell, N.J., resident wounded or killed, not that Flaherty--nor any of the Flahertys for that matter--are easily deterred. The Flahertys are no stranger to what it means to join the Marines.
Flaherty and his wife have raised six children. His father served as a Marine in Korea. A daughter, Shannon, is in the Marines and on her third tour in Iraq and Afghanistan. A son, Kevin, is also a Marine in Iraq.
Flaherty himself joined the Marines in 1976 and after active duty stayed in the forces as a reservist. His first 12 years were in infantry; after that, he served as an engineer. He finally retired from the service in 2001 with the rank of Chief Warrant Officer.
At the time of his deployment in 2005, Flaherty was employed as a facilities manager for Sodexo, a food and facilities management company operating in 80 countries around the world. The work consisted of finding the optimum staffing and security levels for Sodexo clients building new installations throughout the Southeast.
Once a facility was up and running, Flaherty continued to manage the service contracts for Sodexo's clients on behalf of Sodexo.
Flaherty--a "20-year-old trapped in a 50-year-old body," as he described himself--recalled that he was temperamentally fit for the mission of closing down military bases 5,000 strong on the battlefield in Iraq. In fact, Flaherty said he would outperform kids half his age, due in part to his higher pain threshold.
His 50-year-old body could only take so much though. Jumping off trucks with upward of 100 pounds on his back took a physical toll, and he suffered from compression to the spine and the neck.
He returned for a second deployment in March 2006 and was assigned to Anbar Province, where he worked between May 2007 and March 2008. With the insurgency under control, Flaherty was assigned to help with the reconstruction of government buildings in the town of Ramadi.
Flaherty hired local contractors to construct as many as 78 buildings, but that hardly meant Flaherty was out of danger. "I almost got electrocuted working on one of the Ramadi buildings," he said. "I grabbed hold of a water pump, two hands on the same pipe. Someone had to kick me off, otherwise I might have fried."
During this second tour, incidents of violence were fewer but more intrusive, according to Flaherty. Ironically, it was the fledgling Iraqi police who sometimes put Flaherty in the most danger, he also said.
With their AK-47s on automatic and their fingers constantly on the trigger, accidental weapons discharges were common. Flaherty said he survived as many as nine near misses from such discharges.
Suicide bombers were a constant threat, Flaherty added. In one incident, in November 2007, he was standing 150 feet from a checkpoint when a suicide bomber jumped out of the car and blew himself up killing 23 people.
Despite the danger, Flaherty kept up the hard work. It was during this second tour that his physical condition worsened to such an extent that, following his return to the United States, the military eventually granted him a 60 percent disability. His aging body couldn't take the physical strain any longer.
Sodexo gave Flaherty plenty of support during two reservist deployments in Iraq and helped him cope with serious war-related health problems. Now back stateside, he said he expects his employer to modify his job functions so that he can continue working in spite of the injuries.
After years of overseas deployment, Flaherty's mind and body were losing the fight against the relentless wear and tear of the battlefield, and doctors eventually diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Even so, Flaherty still has a lot left to give. Sodexo, which actively recruits returning veterans for their work ethic and experience, has helped him shift to less challenging assignments.
He still has decades of experience in managing facilities, both in the civilian and military sectors, which Sodexo and its clients still value. And for this, Flaherty and his employer have much to be thankful for.
For Flaherty and Sodexo, Flaherty's journey could easily have taken a turn for the worse. Flaherty could have come back with a severe physical disability; worse still, he could have come back dead.
September 1, 2009
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