DoD Allowing More Wounded Troops to Remain on Duty
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 14, 2004 The Defense Department has long been a leader in providing employment opportunities to people with disabilities -- but it's taken a major step forward by allowing disabled veterans to remain in the military if they want to and can continue to perform, DoD's disability program manager said here Oct. 13.
As DoD observes National Disability Employment Month, this year's theme, "You're Hired! Success Knows No Limitations!" takes on particular relevance for servicemembers wounded during the war on terror, Judy Gilliom said during an interview with the Pentagon Channel.
Gilliom said servicemembers with disabling injuries used to be automatically turned over to the Department of Veterans Affairs. If they returned to the Defense Department, it was generally after being medically retired, then hired as civilian employees.
"Now there is much more interest at the very highest levels in keeping anyone who wants to remain in the service as an active-duty member," she said. "And there are some very striking examples of how that has been done."
"With advances in medicine, technology and rehabilitation techniques, we are making every attempt to return willing service members back to duty," said Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness David S. C. Chu. "We are increasing that capability with advances in amputee care, new prosthetic devices, and the new Advanced Amputee Training Center established at Walter Reed (Army Medical Center in Washington)."
President Bush shared this new vision last December during a visit to wounded troops at Walter Reed. "Americans would be surprised to learn that a grievous injury, such as the loss of a limb, no longer means forced discharge," the president told the soldiers.
"In other words, the medical care is so good and the recovery process is so technologically advanced, that people are no longer forced out of the military," Bush said. "When we're talking about forced discharge, we're talking about another age and another army. This is a new age, and this is a new army. Today, if wounded servicemembers want to remain in uniform and can do the job, the military tries to help them stay."
Marine Corps Sgt. Chris Chandler is an example of that new age and new military. Three months into his deployment to Afghanistan in 2001, Chandler stepped on a landmine, which blew off his left foot and lower leg.
But the 23-year-old Marine said he never entertained the idea of a medical retirement. "I never considered it for a second," he told a reporter from The Bayonet newspaper at Fort Benning, Ga. "Before I could even start to feel sorry for myself, there were people who'd lost their legs who came to talk to me and tell me I could do it."
Last December, Chandler proved them right, becoming the first servicemember with a prosthetic limb to graduate from the Army's Airborne School at Fort Benning.
Another example is Air Force Lt. Col. Andrew Lourake, who injured his left leg during a 1998 motocross bike accident and ultimately had to have it amputated. Lourake, now fitted with a computerized artificial limb, was cleared last summer to return to flight status and will soon be back in the pilot's seat.
"(This will set a) great precedent for the Air Force," Air Force Brig. Gen. Scott Gray, 89th Airlift Wing commander, told a reporter for the Capital Flyer newspaper at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. "It shows how well the Air Force takes care of their own and how far technology has come to enable this to happen."
Chu called the spirit of these and other wounded servicemembers intent on remaining in the military "an enormous tribute to America's all-volunteer force." Gilliom said examples like these -- once almost unheard of -- are occurring with increasing frequency as the military looks beyond traditional conceived notions about what disabled servicemembers can and can't do.
"If you can do it, you can do it," she said. "It's important to let people achieve whatever potential they have to perform."
That, she said, is the whole idea behind the theme to this year's National Disability Employment Month: Success Knows No Limitations!
"There's a lot of interest in being sure that we facilitate that process and help people do what they want to do to adjust to any injury they may have acquired in the course of the global war on terror," she said.