With grit and determination

By Manette Fisher

Photography By Rebecca Gustaf

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Army veteran fights struggles, earns career through Sandia Exceptional Warrior Program

Army veteran Mark Small
PUSHING FORWARD — Mechanical engineer and Army veteran Mark Small started as an intern at Sandia and has since earned two degrees and a staff position. He now recruits veterans to the Labs through the Exceptional Warrior Career Development Program.

Sandia mechanical engineer Mark Small was good at being a soldier.

He learned to lead and developed strong relationships with those he served within the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. In 2008, he was deployed to Iraq where he directed combat missions before returning home in 2009.

“I got back from Iraq and I thought I was 6-foot-tall and bulletproof, but when you’re still in the service, … you’re always busy,” he said. “Your mind never has time to stop and think about what has gone on in your life so when I got back, when I got out of the military, I got to New Mexico and everything slowed down a lot, and a lot of veterans struggle with that.”

Mark said he experienced multiple improvised explosive device detonations and grenade attacks in Iraq, but while he was deployed, he didn’t have time to fully process what had happened. In 2011, when he separated from the Army, those experiences were more difficult to deal with away from the Army and people who understand the military and war the way he does.

“You don’t have your brothers or sisters to the left or right of you to push you forward and keep going,” he said. “I didn’t have that when I got out, and it was hard because I felt alone.”

Mark said he fell into depression and started having problems in school and relationships. When he sought help, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Mark’s path toward rehabilitation took many steps, including counseling and working with Veterans Affairs on a path forward. A large part of that journey was finding a Sandia program that helped him move toward his goals, he said.

Mark started working at Sandia as an intern through the former Wounded Warrior Career Development Program, now called the Exceptional Warrior Career Development Program. He was assigned mentors who had also served in the military, and he learned from technical staff mentors and managers who oversaw his progress. Mark also committed to attend college and eventually earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of New Mexico and secured a staff position at the Labs. He is one of the program’s success stories, and he now works to recruit other veterans to Sandia.

“I love working at Sandia because I’m still able to contribute my service to my country,” Mark said. “I love the work that we do. It makes a special connection with me because I know how it is for our warfighters downrange, and the technology that we are developing really helps every single little bit that we can.”

From ‘Wounded’ to ‘Exceptional’

Certain stigmas come with being labeled “wounded,” which is one of the reasons Sandia’s program name changed.

“Words mean things,” said Sandia veteran recruiting specialist Tony Lona. “We want our veterans to know that their wounds don’t have to define everything about the rest of their lives.”

Tony served as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan and was injured by back-to-back improvised explosive devices. He said he knows what it’s like to come home and wonder what to do next.

“When you’re in rehab, you realize some things will never be the same,” Tony said. “Especially if you’re married or have kids, this can cause concern. When you’re going through rehab, you ask yourself if you can still do what you used to do.”

Tony is working to steer Sandia’s Exceptional Warrior Program away from using words like disability and disorder, and instead replace them with words that focus on the progress veterans make following military service and combat injuries. For example, he said, rather than focusing on PTSD, he tries to focus on what happens after the diagnosis.

“People call it post-traumatic stress disorder. We’re all familiar with it, but we’re trying to turn the page on that, and we’re trying to focus on PTG, which is post-traumatic growth,” Tony said. “That’s a clear definition of where Mark is. He had the chance and opportunity to feel sorry for the rest of his life, but Mark took a look at himself and said, ‘Hell no, this is not going to define me.’ That applies to anybody. You fight through that and work yourself through that.”

While Mark can talk about having PTSD, and he says there’s not a cure, it’s not something he fully identifies with.

“I hate the term PTSD. It gives veterans a bad rep, I guess,” he said. “Even to this day, I don’t think that something’s wrong with me, or anything like that. I had events that happened in my life that changed me. Every person out there has had things that have happened to them in their life, and they have to live with that and move forward. It’s about how you move forward and what you do for the rest of your life.”

Military leadership skills translate to Labs work

The federal veteran hiring benchmark in fiscal year 2019 was 5.9%, Tony said, and Sandia was well above the benchmark: 10% of all new hires were veterans. Tony and Mark talk to veterans about working at Sandia through recruiting initiatives such as the Exceptional Warrior Career Development Program. Mark said while many veterans don’t have degrees for a variety of reasons, they have the potential to use skills they learned in the military outside of school.

“And a lot of the stuff that I do on a day-to-day basis is not what I learned in engineering school, but it’s stuff I learned back in the military,” Mark said. “I was working on a Sandia project recently, and I was leading a 6-7 man team, and afterwards one of the leads told me, ‘Those were some excellent leadership skills.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I could lead combat patrols in Baghdad so, you know, I think I got this under control.’”

Mark said military personnel work on solving tough problems, which is a skill that can be used at Sandia every day. He also highlighted the support system Sandia provides, including managers and mentors who are there to help.

Outside of Sandia, Mark is working on building a ranch in the mountains, and he recently became a father. In the future, he envisions himself working at the Labs and connecting with other veterans who struggle, and he hopes to show them what they can do.

“We all go through struggles, and I still struggle a lot in my life, but seeing where I was and how far I’ve made it, I just keep going forward, and I’m hoping to inspire veterans out there to go down the same path that I went down or go down their own path and do great things for themselves and for their country,” he said. “I think with hard work and determination and the right people around you, you can achieve anything.”

Exceptional Warriors

To learn more about Sandia's Exceptional Warrior Career Development Program, check out the YouTube video or visit the website. The program provides employment that supports national security missions while helping participants pursue a college education and acquire career skills through training and mentoring.

Veterans who apply to the program must provide a resume and participate in a screening call where they can share their military history and explain why they are qualified. The program currently supports 40 veterans.