Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 10, 2017.
Aaron Harper asks a simple question, one which emerged from his experience transitioning from the U.S. Marine Corps to the civilian world. It may be a question every veteran has asked of themselves at one point.
How do you come up with a new dream?
A retired Marine sergeant and veteran of Operation Desert Storm, Harper has spent a majority of his post-military life strengthening his community by connecting the threads of his military experience to his civilian life.
As the manager of Military & and Veterans Affairs for Carolinas HealthCare System, he is living his new dream of serving the veteran community by aligning its power with one of the largest, most-integrated not-for-profit healthcare systems in the nation.
But to understand Harper’s journey from military to civilian service, a Carolinas HealthCare System doctor and retired Navy officer had to ask a more difficult question of his superiors five years ago: Why didn’t Carolinas HealthCare System have a strategy to increase the hiring and support of veterans, especially those with medical training?
The type of people who solve problems
Carolinas HealthCare System emergency physician Dr. David Callaway considers himself more of an “instigator” when it comes to the origin of its award-winning work with veterans. According to Callaway, he was involved in a meeting with “some really receptive C-Suite people” when he asked them about the lack of a larger veteran strategy.
“My question is, ‘How do we do it better? If we can track down a terrorist in rural Afghanistan and if we can build $18-billion fighter planes and Navy ships, why can we not transition military medical professionals into great professional civilian medical careers?’” Callaway said.
For the Charlotte-based health care organization with more than 36,000 employees spanning North and South Carolina — states which are home to bases representing all five military branches — Callaway felt it was unacceptable for Carolinas HealthCare System to maintain the status quo.
He cited one statistic which will come to define the future of health care in America:
“We’re going to be short 45,000 primary care doctors by 2020,” Callaway said.
If Carolinas HealthCare System could bridge the gap between veterans and medicine, then it could take the lead in transforming the health care system itself by translating veterans’ training and experience into jobs matching those skills.
Callaway said that military medical professionals with combat experience operating in Afghanistan and Iraq were being moved laterally into jobs where they were overqualified.
They had the experience of working in some of the most demanding environments, but it was little more than “an extra-curricular check on a CV” compared to those who went through medical school in the United States.
“We want people who can operate in a complex environment because that’s what health care is. Who better than military veterans who have spent all this time in these complex environments trying to rebuild society, protect their team, protect women and children,” said Callaway. “These are the type of people that we want solving problems with us.”
One of the “C-Suite people” who understood what Callaway was pitching was Carolinas HealthCare System Chief of Staff and Executive Vice President Debra Plousha Moore, herself the spouse of a retired Air Force officer. She also wanted to expand its role in veteran outreach beyond its Annual Veterans Breakfast.
“We were focusing on being able to determine, and to execute, and to build upon a veteran strategy,” Moore said. “We had to determine what were our shortcomings and one of our shortcomings was not having the ability to translate [veterans’] skills.”
Moore had to create a job position which would address not only how Carolinas HealthCare System hires and trains veterans to work in the civilian realm but how it can provide support to the veteran community at large. It presented a logistical nightmare. But when Moore asked her husband about the type of veteran who would be the best fit for the job.
“I knew I needed to hire an incredible veteran, to make sure that we were able to translate vocabulary, he was able to role model all of the specific characteristics that make veterans valuable in the workplace. I went to my husband and said ‘How do we do this?’,” Moore said.
As she went down the list of the job requirements, she said he knew who could take on this daunting task.
“He said, ‘Absolutely. That’s a Master Sergeant. They always make sure that everybody is engaged in work, they know everyone’s names, they’re able to translate between being military, community, and the civilian community. They’ll be the person who will help you translate every single resume, and train your team to do it,'” Moore said.
Callaway also suggested that a non-commissioned officer (NCO), would be the answer.
“The first thing I told them was to hire an NCO. Because if you want to build and execute on something it is the non-commissioned officer that does the work,” Callaway said.
Callaway had one veteran in mind to fill this position, a veteran who had made the successful transition into civilian life and was now connecting veterans to apprenticeships in Charlotte.
Changing the dream
As an air traffic controller for the Marine Corps in the early 1990s, Harper acquired the logistical skills he would need in his future line of work, he just didn’t know it at the time. He had experience with the entire system of multiple moving parts running smoothly and the ability to turn it into “a hornet’s nest.”
But Harper expected to enjoy a long military career. That was until an Iraqi rocket attack during Desert Storm would change his destiny and his dream forever.
“During one of those attacks, I ruptured a disc in my back, and I didn’t fully understand what was going on. I am just thinking I’m not getting out [of the Marines], and doing as much physical training as I was used to getting,” Harper said.
The continued exertion on his spine would ultimately confine Harper to a wheelchair and require multiple surgeries. He was medically retired from service in 1993.
It was a devastating blow to his psyche, but the injury presented another problem for him entering a civilian air traffic controller job. Repairing the ruptured disc would be accompanied by pain medication and could complicate his transition.
Harper would have to take a different path in life. With the Marine Corps in the rear-view mirror and the GI Bill’s promise of free college education, Harper changed course and attended North Carolina State University. He completed his studies and taught middle school for a time, but with further surgeries, it became “too difficult” for him to continue teaching.
During his time as a teacher, Harper discovered he had a passion for youth leadership. Falling back on his military experience, he began guiding teenagers into the Civil Air Patrol, North Carolina Wing, an auxiliary branch of the Air Force.
He said that he wanted to pass on the leadership skills he learned during his time in the Marines to at-risk youth. To build the program, Harper would then write a grant — he picked up grant-writing skills as a college student — which would secure state funding for this work and connect him to North Carolina’s policymakers, including the governor.
Harper saw the program grow from 600 adult mentors and youth participants to 1,600. It drew national recognition and led to Harper joining the state government in the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. But life intervened again after he met his future wife, a helicopter pilot for the Army National Guard.
“I lived in Raleigh, she lives in Charlotte so we had to figure something out and a job came open within the Department of Labor,” Harper said. This was another grant-writing job, but now he was creating job opportunities for veterans.
“Veterans that weren’t using their GI Bill for school, they get to use their GI bill for the apprenticeship program. So I was starting to get plugged in into this community, starting to get even more wired in with the military community in Charlotte,” Harper said.
Through more twists of fate — including his wife’s deployment which led Harper to move to part-time grant writing work at Belmont Abbey College so he could care for their first child — Harper would continue to network with more veterans, one of which introduced him to Duke Energy’s former president & CEO Jim Rodgers. Rodgers would offer him a job working in his office.
“We had some goals to do some solar research, some other energy initiative research and then at the same time [Rodgers] said, ‘Hey, let’s keep pushing the envelope with the military and veterans. Let me introduce you to my friend Dave Callaway,’” Harper said.
While with Duke Energy, Harper would continue applying a holistic approach to veteran outreach, something more than handing a veteran a job opportunity.
“You hire this veteran, what about their husband or wife or what about their children,” Harper said. “How do we look out for them? How do we make this more of a caring model?” Harper said. His research into developing this model spread to Charlotte’s corporate leaders, one of which was Carolinas HealthCare System Chief of Staff Debra Moore.
“You want to support the overall mission to take care of veterans and their families. I’m sharing this information with no intention of trying to move when [Debra] asked, ‘Would I be interested in helping them with their strategy?’ I was like, ‘Why not. Let’s see where this next change will take us,’” Harper said.
The winding path Harper would take after 1993 would keep him in contact with his military past. His experience in operating within different social circles while building a network around him would make Harper the ideal candidate for Carolinas HealthCare System. His new life would mirror his old life, now he was managing a veteran community instead of an airspace.
“The new dream now is that I get to help military members, veterans, and their families. I get to be a part of that. That’s Dream B, Dream Part 2. I get to live it,” Harper said.
Climbing above and beyond
Within one year on the job, the Department of Defense recognized the Harper, Moore and the Carolinas HealthCare System team with the 2016 Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award for their work in supporting veterans and reservists. It is the highest recognition given by the DoD to employers for veteran outreach.
Part of Carolinas HealthCare System’s holistic strategy to care for its reservist employees and their families is a hand-written card from Moore and gift basket to the families of reservist employees who are called to duty. Carolinas HealthCare System also hosts military networking events twice a year where military members, veterans, and their spouses have the opportunity to network with Carolinas HealthCare System human resource representatives.
Carolinas HealthCare System is also set to launch a pilot program in 2018 which directly trains current military personnel in-house to align their military medical training and skills with the demands of a civilian hospital setting.
Their mission is deeply ingrained within the surrounding Charlotte community and their region. Carolinas HealthCare System works in partnership with governmental and nonprofit veterans agencies such as the North Carolina Division of Workforce Solutions, Veterans Employment, NCServes, and Veterans Bridge Home.
“People don’t normally look at health care systems as being the movers and shakers for military and veteran programs. It’s not the norm, so when you engage all these awesome teammates, who truly care military and veteran affairs and they’re passionate about it, that’s a big deal,” Harper said.
In the five years since Carolinas HealthCare System’s veteran engagement strategy was merely a suggestion at a meeting, the company now has around 1,600 self-identified veterans.
One such employee, Ben Breckheimer, a former Army operating room specialist turned combat soldier, was recruited to Carolinas HealthCare System by Harper through the recommendation of his superior officer, Dr. Joseph Hsu, who is now working at Carolinas Medical Center in orthopedics.
Breckheimer’s path to Carolinas HealthCare System could be considered as serendipitous as Harper’s and his story reinforces how strong the bonds between service members can be when they support one another.
On his first deployment to Iraq in 2006, Breckheimer worked in Hsu’s operating room assisting with some of the worst casualties of war, where limbs were taken from soldiers through Improvised Explosive Devices or I.E.D. Breckheimer was impressed by Hsu, a West Point graduate who went from medical school into a war zone.
“When he came in, you knew he knew what he was doing. The level of care and love he had for the soldiers, it was always going above and beyond,” Breckheimer said. “Someone that probably could have had an amputation, he was giving them every resource they had to try and keep their leg or foot or arm. I knew that was the kind of person I wanted to work with.”
The two developed a mutual trust and Breckheimer modeled his work ethic and passion to serve on what he observed from Hsu. “Once Dr. Hsu gained the trust in you, he gave you all the tools that you needed to do your job well,” Breckheimer said.
But after witnessing the bombing of a home in the Baghdad Green Zone, Breckheimer felt that he needed to do more than work in an operating room. He left the medical service to become a combat soldier and was deployed to Afghanistan.
“It gave me exactly what I was looking for. Doing my part to try and, you know, take someone else’s spot that could have been on the OR table,” Breckheimer said.
He ultimately would end up on that table during another “regular day” in Afghanistan. While on patrol. Breckheimer was severely injured by a pressure plate I.E.D. in 2009. He suffered multiple injuries, including a broken pelvis, a perforated eardrum and severe damage to both legs. He was medevaced back to the United States to the Audie L. Murphy Memorial Hospital in San Antonio, Texas.
In the time since leaving Hsu’s operating room, the two men would reunite under different circumstances. Coincidentally, Hsu was working at the same VA hospital when Breckheimer was admitted. Hsu took over responsibility for Breckheimer’s care and started him back on the path to rehabilitation.
“[Breckheimer] had what we call a mangled right leg. So, basically had a near amputation of his right leg that required multiple operations over the period of 3 years to get him back to where he could walk and function,” Hsu said.
Breckheimer’s journey back to health was more than surgeries and physical therapy. He also had to contend with the weight of his military experience and the PTSD which followed. Breckheimer reached his lowest moment which has come to many of his fellow soldiers. Instead of taking his own life, Breckheimer changed his whole outlook on life.
“Something flipped in my head where I look at things from a whole 180 from then, now. I appreciate my family. Instead of taking my life and hurting others, I live my life to inspire other people,” Breckheimer said.
He decided to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on Earth.
“I knew growing up, Mt. Everest was always something I admired. I never had a desire to climb it before, but I felt like I needed to prove something to myself,” said Breckheimer, “I just took a leap of faith, got into climbing. My initial goal was just to do Everest, but I decided to step it up a notch.”
After summiting Mt. Elbrus in Russia, he set his sights on becoming the third Purple Heart recipient to stand at the top of Mt. Everest in Nepal. While attempting to climb Everest in 2015, Breckheimer and his Sherpa survived the 7.8-magnitude earthquake and subsequent avalanche, one of the most catastrophic days in mountain climbing history.
Breckheimer’s experience made national and international news and he began speaking about his journey from combat soldier to mountain climber while remaining employed in a Florida hospital. His life would change again when Harper and Hsu, empowered with a veteran strategy, recruited him to be on the team as a medical technologist.
“The reason why I thought it was important to bring Ben here was I thought that he’d be a great member of the team. He’s the kind of guy who just sees no limits, no limits to what he can do mentally, physically and professionally,” Hsu said.
After joining up with Carolinas HealthCare System, Breckheimer was integrated into the operating room team and was a natural fit. “The teamwork concept of CHS welcomed him in and really made him part of a team,” Hsu said.
Breckheimer said that the rush he feels from a new patient entering the operating room is the same as what he felt when he was healing soldiers back in Iraq.
“You are mentally prepared for it. You know what to do because you’ve done it so many times before. It feels good to get back, to have a mission and a purpose,” Breckheimer said.
His determination and drive are a testament to his work at Carolinas HealthCare System and to his dreams. In May of 2017, Breckheimer returned to Nepal and conquered Everest.
Veterans like Harper and Breckheimer bring the total of their life experience and military training to their civilian life. Whether they acquired skills that translate into civilian jobs or just have the leadership qualities companies need, Debra Moore said veterans and reservists bring these qualities to their new roles and make Carolinas HealthCare System and its communities stronger.
“As I work with other employers that recognize veterans, it’s about respect. Respecting service and respecting sacrifice and providing them an opportunity to serve at the highest level,” Moore said.