By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 8, 2008 - Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England praised the work and contributions provided by disabled Defense Department contract employees at a Pentagon award ceremony today. "I'm here to say thank you for your great, great work," England, the event's host, told a group of disabled employees hired through the federally managed AbilityOne program. The event was held in conjunction with National Disability Employment Awareness Month, observed each October.
This year has witnessed "a significant increase in the number of severely wounded warriors transitioning to the AbilityOne program," England said, which "provides these brave men and women with opportunity to continue to serve their country."
Formerly known as the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act, AbilityOne works with private and public groups to provide goods and services to the government and jobs for the blind and other people who have severe disabilities, including wounded veterans. The program is administered by the Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled, an independent federal agency.
England introduced former Army Spc. Nathan S. Short, 28, the ceremony's guest speaker. Short is a medically discharged Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran who was severely injured April 20, 2004, during a truck accident in Kuwait. Short, a native of Mustang, Okla., spoke of his nearly two-year struggle to find work after recovering from severe injuries that included a badly damaged right ankle and a fractured pelvis.
In 2006, Short was hired for an AbilityOne-affiliated contracted position as a truck-fleet manager at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla.
"Just because somebody has a disability doesn't mean that they can't perform a job," Short said in an interview before the ceremony. "They deserve a chance to have a career and be successful instead of having to sit around and draw a disability check."
AbilityOne is a great program, Short said, that provides a way for severely injured veterans to rejoin the work force.
"I think Nathan is absolutely fantastic. ... He does a great job," said Vicki Hoppes, Short's supervisor. "He was just so ready to go back to work for the military. He was pretty shy, but now he is definitely an extrovert."
More than 1,300 wounded military veterans are part of AbilityOne's 43,000-strong work force. The Defense Department is the program's largest customer, as it purchases more than $1.3 billion in goods and services each year, including laundry services, uniforms, office supplies, grounds maintenance and more.
AbilityOne employees Gregoria Reyes, Edith Portillo and Jerry Eley each received DoD job performance awards at the ceremony.
Reyes was born in El Salvador and suffers from depression. She has lived in the United States for 18 years and has provided cleaning services at the Pentagon for about five years.
"This program is very nice," Reyes said of AbilityOne. "There is no problem with my disability."
Portillo, who suffers from depression, has been in the United States 12 years and says she has a good job providing cleaning services at the Pentagon. Portillo, too, is from El Salvador and she has also worked at the Pentagon for five years.
AbilityOne enabled her to obtain a full-time position after years of part-time work at other jobs.
Portillo's supervisor, Sylvia Hammett, had high praise for her employee's work ethic. Portillo "always volunteers to help me out whenever I'm short-staffed," Hammett said.
Eley, who hails from Suffolk, Va., has worked as a purchasing agent at the Pentagon's office supply store for three years. A childhood accident, he said, destroyed the vision his right eye. Eley praised the AbilityOne program and said he feels comfortable working in the supply office.
"Anything I need to help me along with my work process, all I need to do is ask," Eley said of his work environment, noting he'd asked for and quickly received a magnifying glass to help him read small print at the supply store.
Defense Department civilian employee Linda Wright, the associate director for the small-business program office at the Naval Facilities Engineering Command at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., was recognized for providing AbilityOne-affiliated employment for more than 1,000 people who are blind or have other severe disabilities.
"We really like supporting AbilityOne," Wright said. "We're constantly working to grow the program and to improve the opportunities for people with disabilities."
Dennis Dudek, deputy director of customer operations for the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia, also was recognized for supporting AbilityOne employment initiatives.
Shay Assad, DoD's director for defense procurement, acquisition policy and strategic sourcing, accepted the first Osborne A. "Oz" Day AbilityOne Awareness Award at the ceremony for DoD's efforts in support of the program. Day, who died May 20, was a private-citizen member of the Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled, the federal agency that oversees AbilityOne operations.
The committee, along with the National Industries for the Blind, and NISH, formerly known as National Industries for the Severely Handicapped, form a triad of support for AbilityOne. The present-day committee chairman, Andrew Houghton, has headed the body since July 2006. He praised DoD for its support of AbilityOne.
"I'm honored by the extent of our military's combined leadership and support of the AbilityOne program," Houghton said at the Pentagon ceremony. "And, thank you all for the difference you've made, and the difference you will make in the future for people with disabilities."