You’re more than just disabled, and this group will pay you to prove it

Matt Saintsing
July 02, 2018 - 5:46 pm

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Dan Gade was recovering from a “nearly catastrophic” improvised-explosive-device (IED) blast that struck his Humvee just outside of Ramadi, Iraq on January 10, 2005. He was left with a broken neck, ripped abdomen, and eventually had his right leg amputated at the hip.

When he arrived at Walter Reed, Gade, a U.S. Army tank company commander, was both dismayed and stunned at what he was witnessing during his recovery. He saw veterans “stuck in the rut of being disabled,” and an “unhealthy identity around disability” in ways that shocked him. They weren't working because they couldn't, they were, instead, caught up in a system that pays disabled vets to stay sick, and encourages them to stay that way. 

If incentives can entrench wounded warriors to stay in the VA disability system, can they be restructured in a way that encourages work and rewards financial success? Today, Gade is doing the latter. 

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Now a retired Lt. Col., Gade is part of the Independence Project, a privately funded national research effort that aims to get transitioning veterans relying on a disability check working in jobs they want, and not staying home. The heart of the project is that if people are working, they’ll have better outcomes than if they're waiting for the disability check to arrive.

To sweeten the deal, they’ll literally pay you to look for jobs, pay bonuses for any earned income, and give thousands of dollars for whatever you think may help you land that dream job. 

Wait, what?

Here’s how it works:  hundreds of service members and veterans will take part in a study where selected participants will get custom-fit job coaching, and an all-expense paid trip to Atlanta, Ga., an in-person skills assessment, and access to thousands of dollars they can spend on anything they think will help them get the job of their dreams (more on that in a bit).

To qualify for the study, participants must meet the following criteria: be interested in getting a job; been discharged from the military in the past year OR have a future discharge date in the next eight months; served at least six months on active duty; been an enlisted service member (sorry, Warrant and commissioned officers); Have applied for VA disability rating; and be under 45-years-old.

If you meet all these requirements you can complete a brief online survey, here.

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The idea is to get veterans into the workforce as quickly as possible so they begin to feel the immediate benefits of meaningful work. And they’re not just paying vets to survive, they’re paying them to thrive.

“We believe the current system pays people to be sick and pays them more, the more they stay at home,” says Gade. “To override that incentive, the Independence Project will pay a bonus on earnings up to 25 percent of what they’ve earned.”

So, if a participant makes $2,000, they’ll get a check in the mail for an additional $500. If they earn $4,000, they can expect a check for $1,000, and so on. The incentive then becomes to get the best job you can and work as hard as you can.

“The idea is to demonstrate to the veteran that just as in every real-world job, the harder you work the more you get paid,” says Gade.

And they’re attempting to set up those veterans for success, with access to a “human capital fund” where they can access thousands of dollars for anything they think will help them with their job search. Need a new suit for a big job interview? Go for it. Want a faster computer to apply to more jobs? No problem. Require a certification before you can start earning money? It’s covered.

The idea is to reduce the barriers of entering a particular field, so the veteran will have pretty much free rein to pay for whatever they think will help them get the job they want. And yes, you’ll need to get big dollar items approved, so no going on a shopping spree to Best Buy.

And when it comes to disabled vets, he’s got some skin in the game. Literally.

At Walter Reed, he met a Staff Sgt. with a missing left eye he lost in 2003, his only injury. “By the time I was starting to get better in 2005, this guy had been at Walter Reed for 2 years,” he says. After 10 months of treatment and recovery, Gade went on to earn a master’s degree in public policy, then landed a job in the Bush administration focusing on veterans' policy.

He returned to Walter Reed in 2009 for a routine check-up. That Staff Sgt. was still there. For six years, that non-commissioned-officer stayed in the hospital not because he was unable to work, but because the system had convinced him he could only aspire to reach disability status.

Plenty of anecdotal evidence shows when veterans leave military service, they often feel lost. “We think a lot of that has to do with the distortion of identity when you get out,” he says. Some wounded vets never really intend to get out of the military, so when they do their life is upended, all while trying to recover from unexpected injuries that make life harder. 

“You have this really positive thing, and you’re part of a team, a thriving workgroup, and then all of a sudden you get thrown into the big bad world that doesn’t really care about you. And then you have people telling you ‘oh yeah, you’re disabled.’ So you start sitting at home with a glass of whiskey thinking you’re broken,” says Gade.

“We can break that negative feedback loop.”

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