Disabled vets find respect under hoods of Humvees


Disabled vets find respect under hoods of Humvees
by Mike Barber

FORT LEWIS — Step into Kevin Ramsey’s, Russell Keel’s or Claudia Alvarado’s workroom and you first catch a whiff that evokes a grandpa’s garage, the hands-on scent of old grease and engine oil.

Stare down the perfect rows of massive steel Army workhorses, tinted in desert tan and woodland camouflage, and gape at their gutted, cowlless innards and exposed springs that resemble ribs.

They hail, it seems, from some obscure Alice’s acronym-land, a parade of HMMVWs (Humvees), HEMTTs (10-ton, eight-wheeled Heavy Expanded Mobile Tactical Trucks) and FMTVs (the lighter Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles) that make up today’s caissons rolling the Army along.

Scrambling over, under and into this array of battle trucks and generators, water-purification units and compressors is a band of skilled surgeons. The hard-used, disabled vehicles serving Fort Lewis’ Stryker combat brigades and other units, it turns out, are doctored daily by a team of mostly disabled veterans…


“It would have been harder for me to find comparable work outside. It’s a friendly environment here for a veteran with a disability,” said Ramsey, 47, an Army retiree with a 30 percent service-connected disability for a back injury.

“Hard work is good for my health. If I quit and sat down, everything would probably fall apart,” joked Keel, 70, who served two tours in Vietnam and retired from the Army with a service-related hearing disability.

“Last year, we counted up all the prior years among us. It came out to 464 years,” added Alvarado, 24, a three-year Army veteran whose special need is to care for her child. “Working with former soldiers isn’t bad because we all know where we are coming from,” she said.

The three are among 92 veterans of all ages who work for Skookum Enterprises’ fleet maintenance division at Fort Lewis. At least 58 of the division’s 120 employees are listed as having service-connected disabilities of 30 percent or more or of 20 percent with a serious employment handicap. Most, 32, are Vietnam-era veterans.

Skookum, a non-profit firm, has contracted to service the Army vehicles since 2000 at Fort Lewis, McChord Air Force Base and the Yakima Firing Range under an agreement worth about $9 million.

The fleet work force at Fort Lewis also oversees more than 2,000 types of parts in stock. They have completed jobs on nearly 12,300 pieces of equipment under strict timetables.

As units deploy overseas, the number of workers has surged to as high as 300, with employment dropping when there is less work.

The fleet division is expected to grow from 120 to more than 130 employees soon — 102 of them veterans — as another Stryker brigade gears up to deploy to Iraq and a new unit arrives from Germany.

Jim Westall, a Port Townsend special education teacher, and his wife, Elisa, founded the company 18 years ago to help mentally and physically disabled kids prepare for the working world. Since then, their work helping the disabled has won Skookum state and national awards.

Their efforts first created a vocational education program that turned into the Skookum Jump Rope Co. The colorful, beaded jump ropes are still crafted by mentally and physically disabled employees.

Today, Skookum, which to Chinook Indians means “well made” or “quality,” employs at least 500 people. More than 75 percent are so severely disabled they would not have a job otherwise. Others are at-risk, marginalized people such as battered women.

Westall said Skookum is working with the Veterans Affairs Department so disabled veterans will be allowed to use their education benefits toward acquiring skills. In the long run, the company also intends to diversify into document imaging, to avoid putting all its eggs into the defense contract basket.

“We cut our teeth doing Navy contracting beginning in 1994,” Westall said. It was from that the Fort Lewis venture evolved, he said.

At Fort Lewis, the group is responsible for keeping every Stryker brigade support vehicle in top shape. It doesn’t maintain the high-tech Stryker combat infantry carriers themselves.

“We realized when we got into Fort Lewis that, for returning war veterans, it was nice to get back into a culture that appreciates you and where you are seen as a hero — a very nurturing environment for disabled veterans,” Westall said.

Jim Winget, 64, of Eatonville, a retired warrant officer who probably has worked on every type of Army vehicle since 1959, said flatly: “I have a back problem and couldn’t have handled it out there. A lot of folks with disabilities wouldn’t be working on the outside.”

Jim Blessing, 43, a shop foreman who served in the Army from 1980 to 1986, had his knee torn up in an industrial accident 15 years ago. Working for a company not geared to disabilities might require painful standing or, perhaps, impatient misunderstandings, he said. The Fort Lewis team helps each other out of pride, Blessing said, noting a co-worker with no arm, another with one leg — “but you would never know it.”

Army and Skookum figures show that taxpayers, who dug into their pockets to buy the 105 different models of Army trucks and equipment the disabled veterans maintain, are getting more bang for their buck. In 2000- 01, motor vehicles averaged 2,200 miles of driving before they required repairs; that grew to nearly 8,000 miles by 2003.

Disabled and retired military veterans were a natural fit for the fleet contracts.

Gordon McCulley, Skookum’s inspector, is a retired Army first sergeant with a son serving in Iraq. Army vehicles have their own tics and temperament, he noted.

“When you put armor on the sides,” McCulley said, “it changes everything — weight, maneuverability, turning radius,” which can wear out springs and ball joints quickly. Most problems occur simply because “sand gets into a lot of things, and salt water from the trips overseas and back,” he said.

The state and the federal Department of Veterans Affairs help Skookum train new mechanics or auto helpers through an apprenticeship program at Bates Technical College in Tacoma.

“I was a jack-of-all-trades but was unemployed, and the unemployment office saw I was a veteran and said Skookum had a program for the disabled,” Blessing said of finding his way there.

The company currently is seeking newly separated veterans, said Michor Gentemann, Skookum’s general manager for its Fort Lewis, McChord and Yakima operations.

A University of Washington education graduate and retired Army colonel, Gentemann was a brigade commander in the 10th Mountain Division and led humanitarian operations in Somalia and in Florida after Hurricane Andrew.

Pay for mechanics, auto helpers and others ranges from $17 to $21.69 an hour, with a 401k plan and benefits, Gentemann said.

Except for special and unusual tools, workers have to buy their own tools. Sets can cost $3,000 and up, for which there are loans and programs to help, Gentemann said.

Charles Sands, 50, a 24-year Army veteran who now inspects the work of his fellow mechanics, said the fleet’s veterans and non-veterans retain a sense of worth and identity through their work.

“It’s sort of like we didn’t leave the Army. We are still serving,” he said.


Skookum is actively seeking newly separated veterans, disabled veterans and disabled people in general who might qualify to work in its fleet maintenance division.


Skookum Enterprises
2600 Burwell St.
Bremerton, WA 98312

Or phone a recruiter:
360-475-0756, Ext. 44.

Check out the non-profit company’s Web site, www.skookum.org.


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