America's Heroes at Work Veterans Hiring Toolkit
Veteran Department of Justice
Arthur Rizer is an attorney with an advanced law degree and a member of the Army Reserves. A veteran from the war in Iraq, Rizer works at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) where he serves as a prosecutor in the Criminal Division working on narcotics and dangerous drug cases. He is married and has two young children. And he is also a survivor who copes with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the effects of a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) that he sustained in 2005 when he was just two weeks into his deployment in Iraq. Rizer's vehicle was in line behind another that was destroyed when an improvised explosive device (IED) hit the convoy. He credits his ability to come home and get right back to work to the support he received from family, his supervisors at DOJ and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs vocational rehabilitation program, VetSuccess.
"The most important thing," Rizer says, "is to go to work. Don't think you're limited because of your disabilities. Set a goal and get there." And that's exactly what Rizer has done. His story epitomizes the U.S. Department of Labor's America's Heroes at Work project and clearly demonstrates how Veterans living with PTSD and/or TBI can successfully reintegrate into the civilian workforce.
"Veterans put their lives on the line defending our way of life, and they deserve the best possible help as they make the transition back to civilian life and civilian work," says Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis.
Rizer comes from a proud military family. He joined ROTC in high school and completed his basic training during the summer between his junior and senior years. Then he went to college, joined the Army Reserves, where he is still serving, earned a law degree, and went to work in 2005 at DOJ. And six weeks after he began the job, he was deployed.
"Between us," he explains, "my family's four generations have earned three purple hearts, one from World War I, another from World War II, and mine, earned on August 22, 2005, when my vehicle was hit by the IED."
After the explosion that fateful day, Rizer says he knew something bad had happened to his head. He doesn't actually remember what happened, but people have told him that, after the explosion, he looked dazed for a minute. Then, with two other men, he ran to the burning vehicle and began to try to get the men out. He does remember that he couldn't hear. He was essentially deaf for the nine days after the incident, but his team mates had visible, third-degree burns over their bodies. And at the time of the attack, these physical injuries were so obviously critical that neither he nor his supervisors thought of Rizer's injuries as comparably serious. So despite Rizer's hearing loss, he went back out on patrol, never questioning his ability to do so or his unit's need for him to do the job that needed to be done.
When he saw a doctor nine days later, the doctor confirmed his TBI. Rizer was given steroids which restored 40 to 60 percent of his hearing, and he went back to work training the Iraqi Army. His was a relatively small unit, and after so many had been injured in the attack on the convoy, every able person was needed to do the job. He completed his tour of duty as an Armor and MP officer with a special operations mission. His tour lasted 450 days.
Rizer's combat experience was life changing. "People just assumed when I got deployed that I'd be with an Armor or MP unit," he said. "I had trained for that, but my tour was really, really hard. Everybody's tour is hard, but I was 'living outside the wire,' as they say, every single day, 24 hours a day. I saw more death than I could have possibly ever imagined. It was so hard, and I wasn't really prepared for it."
The trauma, combined with the serious injuries that destroyed tissue in Rizer's brain, took their toll. When he came home, he experienced terrible, debilitating headaches. He still has frightening nightmares and trouble sleeping, and he faces some cognitive deficits and short term memory problems. But with the help of doctors, counselors and an employer who understands workplace accommodations, Rizer is succeeding in ways that would have been hard for him to imagine when he first returned from Iraq.
When Rizer came home from his deployment, he sought treatment for his injuries. That treatment includes taking the time to meet his medical needs and attending weekly counseling sessions which let him know that he's making progress. He also spends time with his wife and young children and takes pride in the work he does at DOJ and as a part-time professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
Rizer uses a service dog which helps him cope with the chronic symptoms of his multiple injuries, and he has a standing desk at work, which helps alleviate his back issues. He also uses a Kurzweil 3000, a piece of assistive technology that allows him to scan and read text, and whenever he needs time for medical appointments or consultations, his supervisors give him the time he needs.
Rizer has found the Criminal Division at DOJ especially willing to accommodate his disability-related needs. They are appreciative of his contributions and have welcomed him as a returning veteran and wounded warrior. Last November 11, Rizer says, Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer called him on the phone. "He called to acknowledge Veterans Day," Rizer explains. "He said he knew that I was in Iraq, that he knows I'm a wounded vet, and he appreciates my service." Such support means a lot to Rizer, who is especially grateful to his supervisor, Dave Dalton, as well as other co-workers in his unit.
"You know," he says, "I'm a 34-year-old man. I was an officer, and I was in combat. And, I came back and I felt mentally weak and broken. I felt embarrassed. I didn't want to ask for accommodations. You don't want anyone to think that you're anything but a hundred percent. And, to have the kind of support that I've had here, to [work with people who] literally bend over backwards to keep me from feeling like I'm less than a hundred percent contributing and getting the job done, that kind of support is so important!"
What advice would Rizer offer other wounded warriors returning to civilian life after experiencing serious injuries like TBI and PTSD? "Take it one day at a time," he says. "And go back to work as fast as you can! I went back to work pretty fast, and it really helped me because it made me feel normal. It gave me something to focus on."
At the same time, Rizer urges others to become aware of accommodations and strategies that work for wounded warriors and to take advantage of the therapeutic, educational and job related strategies that are available.
"Don't be too hard on yourself," he says. "But keep your expectations high."
Arthur Rizer is part of the America's Heroes at Work success story campaign, which highlights the successful reintegration of Veterans living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and/or Traumatic Brain Injury in the civilian workforce.