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Working With Artifacts Offers Vets A Bridge From Battlefield To Civilian Jobs

Michael "Sonny" Trimble directs the archives and artifacts collection of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio

These days, Marine veteran Ryan Schatz works a quiet job, painstakingly photographing Native American arrowheads and shards of ceramic pottery unearthed decades ago during construction projects by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Marine veteran Ryan Schatz makes digital images of arrowheads and artifacts collected by the Army Corps of Engineers during the construction of reservoirs and locks and dams.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Marine veteran Ryan Schatz makes digital images of arrowheads and artifacts collected by the Army Corps of Engineers during the construction of reservoirs and locks and dams.

Schatz, 33, is employed by the Veterans Curation Program, a Corps initiative that hires veterans as temporary lab technicians, while teaching them employment skills to help them transition to the civilian workforce. The digital images he is making will eventually be shared online as part of an ongoing effort to preserve and catalog the Corps’ massive collection of artifacts and photographs.

Schatz, who says he was a “combat arms kind of guy” during the 13 years he served with the Marines, likes cataloging these fragments of history. He also appreciates working with other veterans -- most in their late 20s and early 30s -- who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Schatz enlisted when he was 18 and was among the first Marines to push into Iraq in 2003 during the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

“It’s definitely good to work around other veterans that share some of the same experiences,’’ he says. “That was the big thing when I was getting out -- worrying about how am I going to transfer my skills? How am I going to adapt? This is definitely making the transition to civilian life a lot easier.’’

The Veterans Curation Program is a unique employment opportunity for post-9/11 veterans. The little office-like lab in the Robert A. Young Federal Building in downtown St. Louis appears as unrelated to the battlefields of the Middle East as the work the veterans are now doing with archaeological specimens collected during the building of U.S. reservoirs and locks and dams.

The missing link, so to speak, is Michael “Sonny” Trimble, 62, a civilian archaeologist with the Corps who spent two-and-a-half years in Iraq excavating the mass graves of Kurds killed by Hussein’s regime in 1988.

Trimble, who’s been with the Corps for 28 years, directs the Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections, which is headquartered in St. Louis. The center was established in 1994 to inventory, catalog and preserve Corps’ artifacts stored in museums and institutions across the U.S.

Credit Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District.
Michael "Sonny" Trimble at an excavation site of mass graves in Iraq.

In 2004, Trimble was tapped to lead a team of archaeologists and anthropologists tasked with finding physical evidence to support charges of genocide against Hussein. Trimble’s grim testimony at Hussein’s trial in 2006 was well-publicized: Most of the victims they found were women and children who had been killed by machine guns as they stood huddled together in trenches carved out of the desert.

The Veterans Curation Program grew out of Trimble’s appreciation for the soldiers and Marines who watched over his team.

“They guarded us every single night,’’ Trimble says. “Even when we were on an Army base, there were still guys up on a wall guarding us. The people that supported us on an everyday basis were just regular soldiers and Marines, mostly lower-level enlisted personnel, men and women. You’re eating with them every single day in the chow hall. You’re eating with them out in the field, joking with them.’’

Struggle On The Homefront

When he returned home, Trimble was troubled by the number of young veterans struggling to find jobs.

With the nation mired in recession, the unemployment rate for veterans who served after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was disproportionately high. In 2009, unemployment for post-9/11 veterans topped 11 percent, compared to 9 percent for nonveterans in the same age group. Even now, the jobless rate continues to fluctuate for these veterans; it was 6.9 percent in December 2014, compared to the overall national average of 5.6 percent.

Military training doesn’t translate easily to the civilian job market, Trimble says.

“A lot of them had gone into the military when they were 18 or 19. They have combat arm skills. Who wants combat arm skills? Nobody, but law enforcement. Nobody,’’ Trimble says. “Some had PTSD. Others didn’t believe they could compete with young kids in college. They’re completely wrong. My message to them is, ‘You can out-compete these guys. You have all kinds of skills and discipline that most 19-year-olds can’t even come close to.’ ’’

Trimble devised the Veterans Curation Project to serve as a bridge between the military and civilian worlds. There are three labs -- in St. Louis, Augusta, Ga., and Alexandria, Va. -- where small groups of veterans are employed for five months as lab technicians, working under the supervision of trained archaeologists.

The St. Louis lab will celebrate its fifth anniversary on Feb. 12, with a ceremony and visit from Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Army veteran Tim Taylor says the best way to help returning military is by employing them. His hands were severely damaged by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

Being A Part Of Something  

About 200 veterans have been employed by the labs since 2009, according to program statistics. Nearly 70 percent of them have now found permanent employment, and 20 percent have enrolled in college or certificate programs.

Trimble says it’s important to keep the groups small -- squad size.

“Any more than 10, you’re not helping them any more. They’re like our family,’’ he says, smiling. “I yell at them all the time. I want them to use their G.I. bill to get an education.’’

Trimble says the program adapts to meet the needs of participants.

“When a vet says to me, ‘I want you to teach me how to write a resume’ – boom. That’s now part of the program. When a vet says to me, ‘I can’t read all this stuff because I have PTSD, and I can’t read and concentrate on your protocols. Could you make it more image-based -- like a car manual?’ We’ve redone the manual twice already.’’

Kate McMahon, a program manager, says it’s not about making archaeology a career.

“There aren’t enough jobs in that field for everybody,’’ she says. “It’s giving them the skills they need to get into the career of their choice.’’

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Army veteran Faneshia Nesbitt processes artifacts for the Veterans Curation Program.

The program carves out time for the veterans to focus on professional growth and development. That might include resume-writing and even mock job interviews.

“We assist them in any way we can to find the career of their choice,’’ McMahon says.

Army veteran Tim Taylor, 29, of Florissant says the program helps former servicemen and servicewomen get work experience -- and job references.

“This gives us an opportunity to get office experience we don’t have – to have people go to bat for us,’’ he says.

A box of artifacts that will be processed by the veterans.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
A box of artifacts that will be processed by the veterans.

Taylor was 20 when his hands were severely damaged by a roadside bomb in Iraq. He lost the fingers of his left hand and has undergone a dozen surgeries to repair his broken right hand.

“I was just a kid,'' he says. "I realize that now that I’m 29 and have kids of my own.’’ 

On this day, Taylor was entering data for artifacts collected by the Corps of Engineers at Gull Lake in Minnesota in 1995. He is able to type and says he refuses to let his injured hands keep him from physical activities -- he even plays hockey.

Taylor says the best way to help veterans is to help them get paychecks.

“Get him working for it,’’ Taylor says. “How can you help him mentally? Make him feel like he’s needed. Make him feel like he’s a part of something -- and that’s what this program does.’’

The Veterans Curation Project was initially funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal economic stimulus package approved by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009. Since then, the Corps of Engineers has funded the program through its budget for curation.

The Corps is a federal agency of the Department of Defense that is made up of civilians and military personnel. Trimble credits the Corps’ leadership in St. Louis, as well as in Washington, for continuing to back the concept.

'You Have To Wall Off Your Brain'   

Trimble understands why some veterans hesitate to share their war experiences with civilians. His own experiences in Iraq were documented at the time in news stories by national media such as The New York Times and CNN, and he says he doesn’t talk much about them anymore. He dealt with re-entry issues of his own, though he calls his own experience “baby PTSD” compared to what some veterans go through.

Credit Photo Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/St. Louis District
Michael "Sonny" Trimble with a soldier at Camp Slayer in Iraq. Trimble says American soldiers kept his team of archaeologists safe.

Trimble's resume includes some unusual career experiences. When he was an archaeology student, he helped excavate mass graves of battlefields hundreds of years old on the Great Plains of North Dakota. As an archaeologist with the Corps of Engineers, he has participated in the recovery of the remains of U.S. military personnel, found years after the Vietnam War. But Iraq was different, he says, because the skeletons his team found were still clothed. Usually, clothing disintegrates fairly rapidly -- but not in the desert soil.

“You have to kind of wall off your brain. You’re looking at 150 to 200 people who have been machine gunned, 60 percent of which are children under the age of 9 years old. It was very difficult for all of us to deal with,’’ he says.

Trimble says it was clear that the victims believed they were being relocated. Many were found with bags of clothing and cooking utensils.

Credit Photo by Timothy Bradsaw / Courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense
Trimble and a team of archaeologists unearthed mass graves of Kurdish people killed by the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

“They all had machine gun bullet holes in their clothing. You could see where they had bled,’’ he says. “You’re looking at these children in the graves and they all have clothes that you recognize. A lot of them had tribal clothes, but a lot of them had little jackets on like my daughter used to wear.’’

Hussein targeted the Kurds of northern Iraq, who are of Iranian descent, toward the end of the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988. Human Rights Watch estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 Kurds were killed.

The Anfal trial that Trimble participated in was the second for Hussein, who had already been convicted and sentenced to death for the execution of 150 Shiite residents from the village of Dujail in 1982. After Hussein’s death by hanging on Dec. 30, 2006, the Anfal trial continued. Five other defendants were convicted, including Hussein’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid al-Tikriti, who was nicknamed “Chemical Ali” for his use of poison gas to kill Kurdish civilians.

Trimble, who testified for hours, has vivid memories of Hussein who was allowed to question witnesses directly.

“He came right up to me and tried to intimidate me,’’ Trimble says. “I found him kind of a beat-up old guy at that point. But Chemical Ali -- he made me extremely uncomfortable because you really realized you were in the presence of a stone cold killer. No question about it. If he could get close enough to grab you by the throat he would do it.’’

Want To Know More?

* To read more about Trimble’s experiences in Iraq:

“Witness To Genocide,” January 2009, Archaeology, a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

"CSI: Iraq," Sept. 13, 2006, Riverfront Times.

Credit Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/St. Louis District

* For more on the Veterans Curation Program -- or to apply for the program, visit the website.

* Veterans working in the St. Louis lab helped preserve a comprehensive collection of photographs from the historic Flood of 1927 that inundated cities and farmland in a 26,000-square-mile area of the lower Mississippi River Valley.

To see a slideshow of the photos:

Historic Flood of '27 Photos Shared Online By Corps of Engineers

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.