A decade after surviving three brain-rattling explosions and a close encounter with a mortar round that failed to detonate, Iraq war veteran Gabrielle Holcomb is still serving her country – this time by protecting Sandia National Laboratories from counterfeit products ranging from cellphone chargers to weapons parts.
Holcomb, a former Army civil affairs sergeant who spent 15 months in Iraq in 2005-2006, is the first woman to participate in Sandia’s Wounded Warrior Career Development Program, launched in 2010.
The program allows combat-injured veterans to acquire career-based skills through individualized training, mentorships and real-world work experience while contributing to the labs’ missions. It also provides a smoother transition from the military to civilian careers, and successful participants can wind up with permanent jobs at Sandia, according to the program’s website, sandia.gov.
“I wasn’t too surprised to be the first woman in the program because there aren’t a lot of women in the military,” Holcomb said in an interview last week at Sandia’s Innovation Parkway Office Center. “And I think a lot of women veterans aren’t aware of all the programs that are out there for them.”
Holcomb enlisted in the Army on March 19, 2003 – the day before U. S. and Coalition troops invaded Iraq in the effort to oust Saddam Hussein. Two years later, she was in Sadr City, a volatile Baghdad enclave known as a stronghold for the insurgent Mahdi army.
“We had two missions,” she said of her unit, the 448th Civil Affairs Battalion. “Our first, obviously, was to make sure that the military had success. And then our second goal was making sure that the (Iraqi) people were happy. If you have happy people, they’re more likely to be on our side.”
That wasn’t always easy, she said.
“A lot of time they’d blow something up or shoot at us or kill us, but we’d have to be nice to them the next day.”
She recalled handing out soccer balls to Iraqi children the day after a fellow soldier had been killed by insurgents.
“It was a difficult job emotionally, because you had to deal with things like that,” she said.
It was a dangerous job, too.
“I hadn’t been there very long when they (insurgents) began firing mortars” into Baghdad’s Green Zone – an area of relative safety set up by the military just southwest of Sadr City.
While she was running for cover between two vehicles, one mortar round exploded behind one of the
trucks, and a second one landed directly in front of her – but didn’t detonate, sparing her what would have likely been a fatal blast. “Extremely lucky” is how she describes the incident.
“After that, everyone started calling me ‘blast area’ because things would constantly explode around me,” she said with a laugh.
After surviving multiple IED blasts and three concussions within a month – which left her with a traumatic brain injury, a damaged neck and debilitating migraine headaches – Holcomb was medically discharged in March 2011.
While working as a quality control inspector at Crane Nuclear near Chicago after her discharge, Holcomb was anticipating a move to Albuquerque to be closer to her parents, both of whom were severely injured in a car crash in 2000. But finding a good job here proved difficult.
“I had been trying to get a job at Sandia for some time” before learning about its wounded warrior program, she said. “Sandia really fit in more with what I’d like to see in my career path, which is project management.”
H.E. Walter II, an information security specialist at Sandia and co-leader of the wounded warrior program, said 25 veterans are currently on Sandia’s staff, and 17 of those have been hired permanently. Another veteran will join the program soon, he said.
“The program is intended to give combat-injured veterans … an opportunity to learn a new skill, or use a unique military skill in a new corporate setting that they may not have a chance at getting into because they may not have the educational background,” Walter said.
“Sandia hiring managers have been great at providing opportunities for these warriors and helping integrate them into our workforce.”
After being accepted into the program, Holcomb joined the quality assurance program in Sandia’s Performance, Management and Excellence Assurance Department. Her role, she said, is “ensuring that we aren’t receiving any fraudulent items … or any items that could be dangerous to the safety of our workers.”
Estimates on the percentage of counterfeit goods found in total world trade range from 2 percent (International Chamber of Commerce) to 7 percent (International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition), costing consumers billions of dollars annually.
Holcomb estimates that up to 10 percent of the items submitted for inspection by Sandia personnel turn out to be “suspect” or “counterfeit.”
“An item is only determined as ‘counterfeit’ if there is definitive proof that it is fraudulent or was knowingly misrepresented by the vendor,” she said.
Items that don’t appear genuine but can’t be definitely determined to be counterfeit are considered “suspect,” she said. Regardless, “We replace them with genuine products as a precaution since suspect or counterfeit items may pose safety concerns to personnel,” she said.
“Not everything gets inspected, just critical items. We don’t look at every computer plug or those things that hold up a white board,” Holcomb said. “But when it comes to critical items, yeah, we’re going to inspect those.”
If a counterfeit item is found, she conducts an investigation and, if necessary, brings in federal law enforcement.
Citing security concerns, she declined to talk about what types of counterfeit items she has found.
Holcomb and her husband have a 4½-year-old son, and a new addition to the family is due in June. Landing a job at Sandia, she said, provides her growing family with a stability she never felt at previous jobs.
“There’s a lot of opportunity and growth potential here,” she said. “And being with a lot of other veterans, there’s a lot of understanding here.”