Labor department employees use real-life experience to help others

New Mexico Department of Labor employees Matthew Barela, left, and Luis Flores work with veterans at the New Mexico Department of Labor. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Andy Jackson: CNJ staff writer

Matthew Barela came back home to Clovis in 1993 changed forever after his spinal cord was injured in a land mine explosion in Desert Storm.

The veteran army sergeant suffered partial paralysis on the right side of his body as a result of the blast and also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I felt alienated at the beginning as a disabled veteran, lots (of veterans) do at first,” Barela said.

Barela, a single father of two, is a veterans employment representative with the New Mexico Department of Labor in Clovis. He works to help others that have been disabled in the military find work in the community.

There are 1,440 veterans registered with the Clovis Department of Labor office, Barela said, of which 120 are disabled and looking for work, he said.

In January, Barela saw four of five veterans come in with really tough disabilities, he said.

Through the Labor Department many veterans attain work at Lowe’s, the Southwest Cheese plant, Wal-Mart, car dealerships, information technology companies and Cannon Air Force Base (civilian and contracted jobs), Barela said.

“As of last year, we had a big push,” Barela said, after Gov. Bill Richardson made November “hire a veteran first month”.
Many veterans have a difficult time overcoming disabilities and entering the workforce. The most common disability right now, Barela said, is post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We’re seeing people coming back from Iraq have post-traumatic stress disorder,” and some have lost limbs, he said.

The New Mexico Department of Labor refers many disabled veterans to the VA hospital for mental health assistance, he said.

Luis Flores is an employment representative for the disabled veterans outreach program, and he remembers when Barela came into the Clovis office, looking for a job, he said.

“He had to sit with his back to the wall,” Flores said of Barela.

Barela’s post traumatic stress disorder made him uneasy around people and easily agitated.

“I didn’t want to work around people, but I wanted to get back (to work) right away,” he said.

Post traumatic stress disorder, the most common disability amongst veterans that Barela and Flores see, affects people differently. But a common thread is that the disorder never goes away, they said.

“It usually stays with you. It can be controlled, but it will never go away,” Barela said of post-traumatic stress disorders.

The disorder brings trauma, emotional numbness, nightmares, painful memories that can be pushed back into the mind and then surface again with a smell, a sound or a sight, Flores said.

Barela said many people in the community don’t understand that many veterans are coming out of the military with post traumatic stress disorders.

“More awareness about what’s going on with veterans (is needed),” Barela said.

“They (the community) are closed-minded, they don’t see what’s happening to people in the military when they’re coming out. It’s always been a hush-hush thing,” he said.
Barela is not bitter. His injuries have not stopped him from leading a good life, he said.

“If I could work back in the army I would. It wasn’t by choice, getting out and getting injured. I miss the Army,” he said.