NAVAL SUPPORT FACILITY DAHLGREN, Va. - A Marine sergeant with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, prepares to enter another house in Fallujah, Iraq.
But, he isn’t alone. His brothers surround him. He has their backs and they have his.
It is two days before Christmas 2005, and he may not live to see it. He breaches the door and in a flash feels a searing pain surge from his legs as the force of an explosion knocks him to the ground.
Sgt. Justin Schilling received a flesh wound to his inner thigh and a severe concussion from the explosion of several grenades, which caused a traumatic brain injury.
Schilling, a Nanty Glo, Penn. native, ended his active duty service in the Corps in 2006 after a year of recovery with the Marine Corps’ Wounded Warrior Detachment. He tucked away his uniform and traded it for a new one. He returned to his home state and found a job as a corrections officer.
“Things just were not going the way I had wanted after leaving the Marine Corps,” Schilling said.
Schilling received a phone call from one of the coordinators from the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment. The coordinator asked him, if he had updated his resume. Schilling put it off for a while, but eventually gave in to the persistent coordinator and found himself with a new employment opportunity.
“Putting out my resume is what got me too where I am at today, “ Schilling said.
Schilling was accepted into a program with Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division located aboard Naval Support Facility Dahlgren, Va. The center designs and improves equipment and technology for sailors and Marines.
“Any time you have war efforts spanning more than a decade you are creating a lot of veterans, many of these are wounded veterans,” Michael Purello, the head of chemical, biological and radiological defense division with Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division said. “They get out and they do not necessarily know where to go or what to do in the civilian sector.
“We had a real opportunity to allow these folks to come on board.”
Schilling skills were assessed to match him with several divisions. Each division works on different types of technologies including CBR equipment, communications and vehicle upgrades.
“From the first time I came down here and I saw what they are all about and how they provide immediate support for the warfighter, I knew this is what I wanted to do,” Schilling said. “Ever since I left the Marine Corp all I ever wanted to do was get back in. I know that I cannot operate in the capacity that I did when I was wearing the uniform, but I still wanted to find a way to give back to my brothers and sisters in uniform.”
The injured Marine sergeant’s combat experience made him a good fit for a division that was developing upgrades for mine resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPS.
“I ensured that the vehicles were equipped with the latest and greatest armor improvements, “Schilling said. “The Marines I dealt with on a daily basis were all for the improvements being made to the MRAP.
Schilling has deployed has deployed twice two Afghanistan as a civilian employee. He was the lead government employee on site for Joint Project MRAP. During his first deployment he worked with the Army. The most recent deployment had Schilling working closely with the Marines with 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward).
“ He thrives off deployment — he has been awesome,”Purello said.
Purello said sometimes-technical people, like the scientists at Dahlgren, who work in labs become a little bit detached from the war fighter. Employees like Schilling can bridge the gap between scientists and the troops who use the gear.
“Somebody needed to educate the younger guys,” Schilling said. “They believe in the armor and the outfitting, but they needed an explanation.”
Schilling managed all of the maintenance, which contributed to armor upgrades for the mine resistant ambush protected vehicles. He also ensured installation of safety equipment for gunners and improved safety communication capabilities.
“I brought my military experience and what I learned at Dahlgren to be an interface between the [Department of Defense] and my position and explain these upgrades at a military level for those guys,” Schilling said. “They were receiving the information from one of their own.
“In the Marine Corps we are all still brothers and sisters whether in or out of the uniform. When I came into this I learned everything I could so I could educate my brothers who are over there using these vehicles.”
Even on the days Schilling struggles, his love for his fellow service members pulls him through. Schilling looks up at a poster on the harder days.
The poster is right behind the ever-locked, security doors. It depicts a group of Marines. Their uniforms are from the same era he served in, and they are preparing to charge into a room, much like Schilling did nearly a decade earlier. The words on the poster read, “We work for those who fight for us.”
“It makes me realize that when I am having a bad that one of my brothers or my sisters is having a really bad day,” Schilling said.
Long after his uniform was folded and put away, Schilling still strives to take care of his own.
“I don’t have to wear a uniform and I can still give back,” Schilling said. “If there is anything I could say to the guys and girls who are struggling out there, who think that this is it. I’d say ‘There is a light at the end of the tunnel. There is someone out there, who needs your experience.’”