April 8, 2009, could not have been more wretched for Philip Martini: The date marked the third anniversary of his son's death in Fallujah, Iraq, and a steady, cold rain fell on Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Illinois, where his child, Marine Lance Cpl. Philip Martini, lay buried.
As he emerged into the dampness from his warm car, Martini noted both the solitude of the burial ground and the absence of visitors, except for two who appeared to be standing near his son's grave.
On closer look, the couple were at Philip's grave.
Martini did not recognize them but he was about to meet a man who would give his life renewed purpose – the sailor who treated Philip during his last dying moments.
"This was the corpsman who tried to save my son's life, this was the corpsman who was over my son's body [in the photos I'd seen of my son's death]," Martini told an audience recently in Washington, D.C.
According to Martini, the men talked, and he learned that the former sailor, whom he only referred to as Woody, was having difficulties getting a job as an emergency medical technician.
He had not received any offers, despite his extensive military experience.
"I thought 'No problem.' I'll call the chief, cut through red tape, get him in. That's when I found out about the impediments corpsmen and medics face when they get home" Martini said.
The Gold Star father went on to establish the nonprofit "Heroes to Healthcare" to help military medical personnel get jobs in civilian health care positions.
The problem mainly facing the roughly 8,000 medics and corpsmen who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Martini and others who spoke at the American Legion's National Credentialing Summit on Wednesday, is that state-based credentialing and licensing requirements are inconsistent and don't necessarily take the troops' vast experience into account.
The past few years have seen new programs pop up to assist veterans transfer their skills into civilian health jobs, largely in response to the 2011 Hire the Heroes Act, which required the Labor Department to work with states to allow military training to be considered for certain licenses and certifications
But obstacles, especially in the areas of education, training and state participation in programs, remain, according to those at the summit.
"If these skilled medics can provide primary care in a combat zone, certainly they can provide care in the civilian setting," said Randy Danielsen, dean of the Arizona School of Health Sciences.
The Defense Department has made a number of changes since it consolidated its schools for training enlisted military medical personnel in 2011. Improvements at the Medical Education and Training Campus in San Antonio, which instructs about 12,500 Army medics, Navy corpsmen and Air Force medical technicians a year, include a uniform curriculum that teaches recognized skills and partnerships with colleges across the country that take METC courses and skills into account for veteran students.
At the Veterans Affairs Department, a pilot program was introduced two years ago at 15 sites that hired 45 medics and corpsmen as "intermediate care technicians" in some VA hospitals and clinics, providing them jobs and a pathway to earn advanced training and degrees, according to Karen Orr, with the Veterans Health Administration's office of nursing services.
The ICT program, which allows veterans to use their combat-honed skills to run triage and assist physicians in treating patients, has proved successful and 33 additional VA facilities have requested to take part.
"We are now in the process of expanding the ICT role as a permanent specialty [employment] classification," Orr said.
Some states also are stepping up to the plate, speakers said. The National Governors Association oversees a program in six states to help service members earn credentials in three health care fields – as a licensed practical nurse, an EMT/paramedic or other occupations like physical or occupational therapy.
And as the two-year demonstration project comes to a close, NGA is crafting a blueprint from the experiences of participating states – Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, Virginia and Wisconsin – for other states to implement to help green-light credentialing for veterans who qualify.
On Wednesday, Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican physician from Louisiana, introduced a bill that would provide grants to states that work to simplify EMT certification for medically trained veterans.
The bill mirrors bipartisan legislation already introduced in the House by Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., and Rep. Louis Capps, D.-Calif.
"Veterans trained as emergency medical technicians in the service should not have to repeat the training that they've already had … This is about jobs, easing transition to civilian life and providing emergency services to fellow Americans," Cassidy said.
Another program that helps veterans transition to nursing programs is managed by the Health Resources and Service Administration, an agency under Health and Human Services.
The Veterans to Bachelor of Science Nursing program provides grants to schools to fast-track medical personnel to a nursing degree, giving them credit for their military work and granting some leeway on grade point average requirements.
Veterans advocates said they hope someday the transition for enlisted medical personnel to civilian health jobs will be as simple as it is for military doctors, who move easily to civilian positions and are considered doctors regardless of where they live.
Martini urged state governments, academic institutions and veterans organizations to get involved and improve the job prospects for these former service members.
"There's no more rewarding work than to provide gainful employment for these returning veterans," Martini said.