A 15-month deployment, especially a first deployment, does not typically involve tours in three different countries. For Staff Sgt. Travis Barnett, a Soldier from Callahan, Fla., deployment to conduct general aircraft maintenance took him to Iraq just before the drawdown. He then moved on to Kuwait, and finally to Afghanistan last year to fill a critical maintenance gap caused by contractor issues.
While in Taji, Iraq during his first few months of deployment, Barnett suffered a spinal injury. He visited doctors, chiropractors and physical therapists, all of whom deemed the injury nothing more than a pulled muscle. The pulled muscle persisted throughout Barnett’s entire deployment, landing him in a warrior transition unit (WTU) at Fort Stewart, Ga. WTUs are located at major military treatment facilities around the world and provide support to those who require at least six months of rehabilitative care and complex medical management.
WTU doctors thoroughly examined Barnett, and the results showed two herniated discs and an impinged nerve. He eventually transferred to a community-based warrior transition unit (CBWTU) in Jacksonville, the unit closest to his home. The CBWTU functions as a WTU for Soldiers, providing primarily outpatient care management in their community.
In February 2013, Barnett’s platoon sergeant told him about Operation Warfighter (OWF), a Department of Defense program that places active duty service members in internships with federal agencies during their recovery. It provides opportunities for those service members to build their resumes, develop job skills, explore employment interests and gain federal government work experience. In addition to the DoD-sponsored OWF program, non-governmental organizations in the Jacksonville area, such as the non-profit Wounded Warrior Project, provide support to wounded veterans including career, marriage, education and other types of counseling as well as activities such as fishing trips. Local allied veterans’ outposts also provide wounded service members with support groups.
Barnett immediately applied for OWF. Several agencies showed interest in Barnett, but he must remain in Florida until his medical issues are resolved. The Corps was one of two agencies in Jacksonville that wanted to hire Barnett, and Operations Division’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program was the first to interview and offer him a job.
While deployed, Barnett’s job had involved repairing Blackhawks and Chinooks. These large military helicopters have almost no similarities to the 11-pound Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) the Corps operates. However, Barnett’s fabrication skills and ability to understand small electronics gave him skills that were instrumental in upgrading the UAV payload, according to Larry Taylor, program manager.
“I assist the UAV team, working on ground stations, and have begun flight trainings,” said Barnett. “I am learning a lot about digital mapping and the technical side of what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does.”
The UAV program provides high-resolution aerial imagery that is much higher resolution than traditional aerial photography. The UAV can accurately repeat flights over a specific area, which allows users to monitor change over time. It can be used to monitor environmental conditions such as flooding, beach erosion and restoration and changes in vegetation or wildlife utilization. The high-resolution images allow scientists to conduct biological monitoring.
Barnett has traveled to Gainesville, Fla. to visit Altavian, where the district’s UAVs are made, and he saw the UAV in action at the SJ-1 site near St. Augustine, Fla.
“Travis integrated well with our team, which is important when there are only three of us,” said Taylor. “His experience extends far beyond his formal resume. We hope to keep him on board permanently.”
Barnett makes quarterly visits to his regional CBWTU in Orlando, to keep his training current. While deployed, Barnett and several other Soldiers were given the opportunity to re-enlist. He reaffirmed his commitment to the U.S. Army by joining the Florida National Guard. Currently, he is attending prerequisite classes at Florida State College of Jacksonville, with a goal of completing an engineering degree at the University of North Florida and working for the Corps full time.