When Sergeant Major Karen Bolden lost her sight in 2010, she thought her world had ended. Medical care and an internship with the State Department have given her a chance to envision a new future for herself.
A Sudden Change of Plans
Bolden has served in the Army Chaplain Corps for 27 years, with satisfying assignments that have taken her around the world. When she lost the sight in her left eye to optic neuritis in 2000, she adapted to the change and went on with her career. But ten years later, while stationed in Korea, optic neuritis struck again, and she went totally blind in her right eye, too.
"It was a scary time. I didn't know what my future would hold," Bolden said.
Korean doctors brought back her eyesight three times with steroids, only to have the sight fail again when she went off the drugs. For continued treatment, Bolden was transferred to the Warrior Transition Unit at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. Her transition stateside was difficult.
"Things were very stressful for me. I had nothing to do but recover, and being alone in my house all day was not good. It begins to take a toll, and you spend a lot of time worrying," she said.
Preparing for "Plan B" with Operation Warfighter
When Bolden first returned home, she optimistically set goals that focused on getting well and returning to active duty. But after three months, when the prognosis on her eyes was still uncertain, she was ready to face the fact that she might have to leave the Army.
"I realized I better have a Plan B," she said.
A nurse case manager encouraged Bolden to consider an internship, so she began to learn about Operation Warfighter (OWF), a program that places wounded, ill, and injured Service members in valuable internships with U.S. federal agencies. In recent years, OWF has placed more than 2,200 Service members in federal internships, helping them build their resumes, explore employment interests, and gain federal government work experience to prepare for the future.
Bolden went to an OWF internship fair and distributed her resume, interviewing with several agencies and learning that her skills were in demand outside the military. She was pleased to get calls right away from NCIS, the Pentagon, and the State Department.
A Place in the State Department
The State Department was Bolden's top choice: The location was convenient for public transportation and best of all, the position as a wellness coordinator would use skills she had developed in the chaplain corps.
She started at the State Department in December 2010. Under the supervision of Judy Ikels, the Division Chief for Employee Programs in the Office of Employee Relations, Bolden attended meetings and advised employees on wellness. She also created an employee fitness walking course at the main State Department building in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
"I thoroughly enjoyed my time there with the Worklife Division," Bolden said. "It was much more than I expected. I got some great experience and got to work with a lot of different people, and it taught me new things and opened up my options more."
Like many OWF participants, Bolden also discovered that the internship helped as much with emotional recovery as it did with career readiness. For recovering Service members who are used to the camaraderie of a military unit, the chance to meaningfully contribute in a supportive work setting can make a tremendous difference in their recuperation.
"Working at the State Department gave me something to look forward to each day," Bolden said. "My stress levels went down. My first thoughts were no longer of my eyesight, but of going to the State Department and doing what I could to help them out. It turned things around for me."
This spring, doctors at Johns Hopkins informed Bolden that her eyesight was improving and she could return to duty. While she awaits a new Army assignment, she will start a second OWF internship, this time with the Armed Forces Chaplain Board in the Pentagon.
Realizing New Possibilities for her Future
One of the most valuable benefits of her internship came early on, when Bolden was introduced to a visually-impaired co-worker at the State Department.
"I was looking around his cubicle, and he had all this awesome equipment to help him work. I said, 'Man, I would love to have something like that!' And he said, 'Well, we can get that for you!'"
Within a week, Bolden's workspace was equipped with a reader, voice-to-text and text-to-voice software, an oversized keyboard, and zooming software. It made her work life much easier, and it got her wondering whether the Army could offer the same support.
"I started inquiring and found out that I could indeed get that equipment," Bolden said. "All of a sudden I knew so much more about my potential to keep working even if I lost my sight. The State Department introduced me to possibilities that I had no idea I had access to. Now I know I can look for jobs that will accommodate these needs."
Army Occupational Therapy has since equipped Bolden with all the software and equipment she needs. It will be her own to keep whether she stays in the Army or moves on to civilian employment.
The State Department's support for differently-abled workers changed Bolden's view of her future.
"At first when I lost my eyesight, I really thought my world was ending," she said. "But to be in that office and see other people with disabilities still working, still vibrant, it really motivated me and got me thinking. It makes me say, there is life after the military, even with my disability."The State Department is an active participant and supporter of the OWF program. Coordination of the program for the Department is managed through the Bureau of Human Resources, Office of Employee Relations, Disability Reasonable Accommodation Division (DRAD). DRAD serves as a centralized resource for Reasonable Accommodation requests for employees and applicants with disabilities, provides disability awareness training and outreach to Department employees worldwide, and aims to foster an inclusive environment where employees with disabilities can be successful. The OWF program is one of many programs that DRAD manages in addition to the Department's responsibility to comply with President Obama's Executive Order (EO) 13548, Increasing Federal Employment of Individuals with Disabilities. For more information on DRAD or the State Department's initiatives to help recruit, hire, and retain more individuals with disabilities, please feel free to contact DRAD at SelectivePlacement@state.gov.
Michael Wolfe is a Human Resources Specialist in the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Human Resources, Office of Employee Relations, Disability Reasonable Accommodation Division. Colleagues at the U.S. Department of Defense Operation Warfighter Program also provided input for this entry.