WASHINGTON (Army News Service, July 24, 2015) – Wherever the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or USACE, has started an excavation project such as the construction of reservoirs and associated water control programs, archaeologists have been on hand to retrieve artifacts, which could be hundreds or even thousands of years old.
The project shuts down briefly while the archaeologists carefully remove pieces of pottery, sections of clay pipes, animal bones and teeth, stone tools, pieces of what were once wine or apothecary bottles along with arrowheads and even musket balls.
Most of USACE’s archaeological artifacts were discovered between 1947 and 1985. Federal law requires these collections be stored for long-term preservation, and made available for scientific research and public education.
In 2009, using American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding, USACE established a unique and beneficial program – the Veteran Curation Program – to manage the collections. The program provide temporary employment and archaeological curation training to post-9/11 veterans at laboratories in Augusta, Georgia; St. Louis, Missouri, and Alexandria, Virginia.
Since establishment of the Veterans Curation Program, or VCP, 241 veterans have been employed by the program, and 139 gained full-time, permanent employment after their five-month stint with the VCP. An additional 39 have continued on with their education at colleges, universities and in certificate programs. Presently, there are 36 veterans working in the three labs.
While processing archaeological artifacts, veterans learn computer skills, database and records management, software proficiency and photographing and scanning technologies.
Managing the Alexandria lab directly and the Augusta and St. Louis labs remotely with occasional week-long trips, archaeologist Jasmine Heckman not only oversees the collections that the veteran technicians are processing, she arranges for guest speakers to come in once a week to talk with the transitioning Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines on a variety of topics, from financial guidance to the building of resumes and holding mock interviews.
While Heckman never served in the military, she said she believes helping veterans successfully prepare for a civilian career is a good way to thank them for their service. She said those veterans, who are hired on at the lab, demonstrate genuine interest in the subject matter, and really want to be a part of what goes on in the labs.
“They all really wanted to be here and learn how to archive these artifacts,” she said. “It’s all invaluable to the Corps because many of these collections come in to the lab and they can be in really rough shape … the boxes are tattered and torn, information can be at times tough to read, but we’re able [to] archive, then rehouse these materials, re-box them and ensure that the research material is all digitized and scanned … it really is very worthwhile to researchers.”
One Army veteran, Jackie Muddiman, was medically retired as a staff sergeant in 2011, after 15 years of service. He served one tour in Kosovo and four tours in Iraq. But his body couldn’t handle the injuries he’d suffered during that third trip to Iraq in 2005. During that tour, his Humvee had been hit by an improvised explosive device. Of the four Soldiers in the vehicle, only two survived.
Today, at 35, he’s awaiting “a lot more surgeries” on his left arm and leg. He also has trouble with post-traumatic stress. But now, he said, he’s looking ahead to a different life after having been a Soldier for so many years.
“I’m gaining skills as far as the databases go, organizing documents. The archives process is so intensive that I’ve actually been able to use it in my personal life, arranging all those military documents you need for retirement. If someone calls and says they need a copy, I don’t have to fumble through 40 in folders, I can just pull it up on my computer and zap it to them,” he said.
Muddiman found out about the VCP through the Army Wounded Warrior Program while he was assigned as cadre at the Fort Drum, New York, Warrior Transition Unit.
“A counselor emailed me and asked if I’d be interested … I read the job description and said, wow, that does sound interesting because I’m a history buff,” he said.
Muddiman’s goal is to transition into a company called Mission BBQ, a restaurant chain of 18, which was founded on Sept. 11, 2011, and focuses on recognizing service personnel and first-responders.
Lab technician and former sergeant, Porsche Beale, joined the Army right out of high school. She spent nine years serving, including a hitch in Tikrit, Iraq, in 2009. She said she spent nearly her first seven years in the Army at a variety of installations, but never got to see her children. After she had her third child she left the Army and her marriage failed.
After the Army, she said, the best jobs she could find in the Washington, D.C., area were part-time and didn’t pay well enough to cover rent. Soon, she and her three children were living in a homeless shelter. But then she found out about the VCP.
“This program has been a true blessing because I’ve come into so many contacts,” she said. “I’m now in transitional housing with Operation Homefront, which allows me to build my income up again and work on my credit score. I love doing this work. I never knew what an archaeologist was before I came here, but the work has been absolutely great.”
When Beale’s internship ends, she’s headed for real estate training and hopes to open her own brokerage firm in the next three to five years.
Being homeless almost happened to 10-year veteran and sergeant Julie Comtois, who served seven years on active duty, and three years in the Army Reserve. She served as a geospatial engineer during her time in uniform, “a glorified map-maker,” she said. “The Army was one of the top-five best decisions I made in my life. It provided me with a really good skill set.”
Comtois served 15 months in Kirkuk, Iraq, back in 2006. She also did a tour at the Army Geospatial Center and auditioned for and was selected to participate in the U.S. Army Soldier Show. In the Soldier Show, she sang, danced, and played the drums.
After she left the Army, she said, she still didn’t know what to do with her life. Her life was “falling down around her.” She said she couldn’t afford to live alone any longer, nor could she afford her car or much of anything else. Then she heard about the VCP from a friend, who had served at the Augusta lab.
“This program was a life-saver,” she said. “Being able to work with veterans from other services, who understand what you’ve been through is really refreshing. I’m incredibly lucky.”
While she’s presently not enrolled in college, getting her degree is on her list of things to accomplish in the next few years.
“One of the things this program has helped me with was figuring out what it is I’m passionate about … and I’ve decided I want to work in public relations, communications,” she said. “I want to do veteran outreach, work with fellow veterans and make a difference to them.”