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Staying Power: Soldier’s Recovery Delivers Perspective, Contentment

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

MONTEREY, Calif., Nov. 5, 2008 – Spend the day with Army Capt. D.J. Skelton and you may just get a little jealous.

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Army Capt. D.J. Skelton, commander of Company E, 229th Military Intelligence Battalion, stands in front of his company with his first sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class James O. Bishop. Skelton was seriously wounded in Iraq and chose to stay on active duty. DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III
  

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Skelton lives near the beach in northern California and spends his off-duty time camping, rock climbing and learning to surf.

His sunrise runs take him five miles along the beautiful coastline here.

He speaks fluent traditional Chinese and, at 30, Skelton is a company commander with a promising future that includes graduate school and a tour in China as a foreign area officer.

Life is short, Skelton says, and he feels blessed for a second chance. His first chance ended in November 2004, when a rocket-propelled grenade smashed into his chest during a patrol in Fallujah, Iraq.

It was the coalition’s second battle for the city, and Skelton, an infantry platoon leader, was hit on the first day of the offensive when his 50-man patrol was ambushed. Skelton had dismounted the vehicle when the RPG struck. Instead of exploding, it shattered, sending shards of shrapnel into his face and body.

Before his body even hit the ground, Skelton was sprayed with rounds from an enemy AK-47 assault rifle. He doesn’t know how many bullets hit him – he didn’t count them, he jokes now.

Skelton’s left eye was blinded as it served as an exit point for the pieces of metal that blasted through the roof of his mouth. Shrapnel nearly amputated his left arm. As he faded out of consciousness, Skelton said, he heard the voices of his platoon’s radio man and medic.

“Oh my God, the lieutenant’s dead! The lieutenant’s dead!” they shouted.

Accepting His Disabilities

But Skelton wasn’t dead. He awoke weeks later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He could bend his left arm, but could not control his left hand. His left eye was destroyed, as was the roof of his mouth, and he had no bone between his right knee and ankle.

The doctors worked to rebuild his body, repairing muscles, replacing his eye and mouth with prostheses and rebuilding the lower half of his leg.

“It was like being a real-life version of Mr. Potato Head,” Skelton said.

But the limitations of Skelton’s body didn’t hold back his recovery, he said, as much as the damage to his attitude did. For the next five months Skelton would not leave his hospital bed, and he went to physical therapy only the week before he left the hospital, he said

While he was at the hospital, Skelton said, a soldier from his company who had lost both of his legs in the war visited him in his room to try to motivate him.

“I just didn’t want to hear it,” Skelton said. “I didn’t want to accept the fact that our lives were forever changed, and what I used to think was true was not.”

Skelton now admits he couldn’t accept being disabled, because it didn’t equate with his ideas of success and good looks.

“I spent 27 years looking the other way from the same population that I was now a part of -- the disabled population,” Skelton said. “When was the last time that someone said ‘Hey, that person with one arm is good looking?’”

Skelton said his mother asked his comrade one day how he could be so happy after suffering the loss of both legs. The soldier responded, “At least I didn’t lose an eye. I don’t know what I would do,” Skelton recalled.

“And here’s a kid that lost both his of legs,” Skelton said. “It kind of grounds you. The situation might not be ideal [for you], but there is always something worse. So let’s be grateful for what we do have.”

The lessons from that soldier and others at Walter Reed shifted Skelton’s perspective and left him feeling somewhat ashamed, he said.

“Here I am supposed to be a leader in the United States Army, and I’m learning lessons from all ranks,” he said. “From young Americans who don’t have a lot of experience in life, but who have learned some amazing lessons right off the bat.”

Still, Skelton said, he struggled with the idea of being disabled until the examples of those around him finally sank in.

“I woke up one day and was like, ‘What am I doing?’” he said. “Why am I so negative, and why can’t I look at the positives of what I do have? I still have life. I still have my family who was there the whole time. And friends that came and visited me, and strangers that came and took care of my family.”

But while Skelton’s attitude toward recovery began shifting, what he didn’t know was another struggle loomed ahead.

Taking Notes on Wounded Warriors

Skelton began his recovery early in the war, when Walter Reed was getting flooded with wounded. The support systems were overloaded and, eventually, all but ineffective, he said.

“There was really nobody there to help out my family outside of the family and communities that I had created,” Skelton said.

For most of the time that Skelton was in the hospital, he couldn’t write, because both of his arms were being operated on. He couldn’t speak, because his mouth was being repaired. So for months, he said, he sat quietly, just listening and taking mental notes as families talked about their problems.

Skelton left Walter Reed in April 2005 to return to his home post of Fort Lewis, Wash., where he checked into the rear detachment because his unit was still deployed. All he knew about the medical board process was that it took a long time, Skelton said, so he volunteered to help at the unit.

“I could still function. I still wanted to contribute,” he said. “I didn’t want to sit in a hospital for six months or a year and do a medical board and just sit there. At least I could have that sense that I was contributing, that I was helping my unit.”

Skelton learned to walk and talk again. When he wasn’t in therapy, he helped out the rear detachment with whatever was needed. He also used the time to create a program for the brigade to track its wounded soldiers. With his remaining down time, he began writing down all of the mental notes he had taken at Walter Reed.

One day, Skelton said, one of the wives from the family readiness group approached him and asked what the group could to do to help the troops. They were tired of bake sales and fundraisers, she told him, and the group wanted to do something that would really make an impact.

In response, Skelton gave her the list he’d compiled from the conversations he’d heard at Walter Reed. “Here’s 500 questions,” he told the family readiness group representative. “Help me answer them.”

At the end of the project, the group had developed the “Hero Handbook,” the first comprehensive consolidation of material explaining how to traverse the Army’s recovery system and transition process. The group has since distributed 50,000 copies and made the handbook available electronically.

‘Too Broken’ for Service?

By then, Skelton was into his medical board process, and his prospects didn’t look good.

“Everyone along the way said, ‘Thanks for playing, but you’re too broken. There’s no way you can stay in the Army,’” he said. But during his recovery, Skelton said he had met many injured troops who were going on to do amazing things in the civilian sector after being discharged.

Skelton said he knows the Army “isn’t a charitable organization” and that it can’t keep people in uniform if they’re physically incapable of being soldiers. But, he added, capable wounded warriors were being discharged.

“I was frustrated that we weren’t trying to keep soldiers in,” he said.

Skelton had crossed paths with others who were seriously injured, but stayed on active duty and continued highly successful careers. Skelton points to soldiers such as Retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, a partial-foot amputee, who served as the Army’s 34th chief of staff, and Army Gen. Frederick Franks, who commanded the Gulf War coalition’s 7th Corps and is a below-the-knee amputee.

But they and others had simply found ways to stay in, Skelton said, because the Army had no system in place for seriously injured soldiers to petition to stay on active duty.

Skelton’s evaluation board determined he could not be retained, and he couldn’t understand why.

“I want someone to explain to me why I can’t contribute to any mission in the U.S. Army,” Skelton said he told officials. “I’ll go wherever you want me to go. I’ll do whatever job you want me to do. But the last I checked, I do have a degree. … I do have a good military career, and I speak Chinese fluently. How can you tell me that you’re going to invest this much time, effort and money in training me and then you’re going to let me go?

“No one could answer that,” he said.

Buying Time and Turning Heads

Not yet ready to leave the Army, Skelton said, he found a commander in missile defense who would give him a job. He drove to Alaska, checked into Camp Greeley, called Department of Army officials and told them he was there. It wasn’t the infantry, so it wasn’t a perfect solution, but Skelton knew it would buy him some time, he said.

At that point he dug into learning how the Army works, Skelton said. He started studying policy and regulations and the relationship between the Defense Department and the Army. He also studied congressional procedures and how they relate to the military.

Skelton started writing recommendations on how to keep soldiers on active duty and how to improve wounded warrior care, and began e-mailing them to everyone he had met during his recovery. He also was becoming well versed on the medical board process, the relationship between unit commanders and hospitals and the transition between active-duty care and the Department of Veterans Affairs care system, Skelton said.

Then, an opportunity opened for him to travel to the Pentagon and talk with then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. His homework had paid off.

“I could very effectively point to where some of these issues were,” Skelton said. “If we didn’t act on it then, it was just going to grow worse, because our population was not dwindling any time soon.”

After the meeting, Skelton was offered a job in Rumsfeld’s office as the first person at his level to look hard at the gaps in care. Skelton sat on multiple committees and served as a military advisor to Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England.

Skelton had a front-row seat to history-making changes in wounded warrior care that swept across the Defense Department and, to an extent, the Veterans Administration. He regularly spoke with top DoD and congressional leaders, and even the president.

Improving Himself – and the Army

Skelton said officials appreciated his blunt, educated, straightforward recommendations. But he still had no promise of a career. For all of his efforts, Skelton said, he was still on borrowed time. Army officials had not said he could stay on active duty.

“There was no plan,” Skelton said of his career. “I would do whatever it took to buy more time.” Though he thought that eventually he would be forced out of the Army, he said, “I wasn’t ready to quit.”

And, he added, he was giving back to an organization he loved.

“I couldn’t give back as a platoon leader in the infantry … so this is one way, indirectly, that I could fulfill the obligation that I had and those promises that I made when I was first commissioned,” he said.

While helping DoD improve its care for wounded warriors, Skelton continued to adapt on a personal level. He learned how to resume his life-long passion for rock-climbing using only one arm.

“I realized … that I’m not going to be able to do the things that I used to in the way that I did them. Things change,” Skelton said. “It doesn’t mean I’m going to have to put those dreams aside. I’m just going to have to go about them a little differently.”

He went on to host a rock-climbing clinic for other amputees. Leap-frogging from that idea, Skelton formed a nonprofit group that helps wounded warriors participate in extreme sports.

But despite his successes, Skelton said, he woke up in October 2007, looked at his life, and felt kind of down. He regularly spoke to groups about reaching goals and chasing passions, Skelton said, but he still was not meeting any of his own goals.

“I really wanted to [stay] in the Army and continue with my career,” he said.

With his physical limitations, Skelton said, he knew he couldn’t return to the infantry. He was a former enlisted interrogator and had a passion for American-Chinese relations, so he decided he wanted to return to the Army in the foreign area officer program. He could continue his education and learn advanced Chinese.

When Skelton approached Army leadership about staying on active duty this time, he received a different response. The request was granted almost overnight.

“It wasn’t a charity decision. It wasn’t ‘Give the wounded guy a break and put him over there to make him feel good,’” Skelton said. “It made sense.”

Seeing Clearly – Through One Eye

The Army’s new attitude of care is more reflective of its values, Skelton said.

“The Army ethos is to never leave a fallen comrade behind. What better way to live that ethos than to show the force out there in the fight that, God forbid, if something happens to you … we will not leave you?” he said.

Skelton now commands Company E, 229th Military Intelligence Battalion, at the Defense Language Institute‘s Foreign Language Center here. When Skelton finishes his command, he said, he likely will move on to study advanced Chinese, or learn another language, and then go on to in-country training. From there, he said, it will probably be graduate school and then he will qualify as a foreign area officer.

Skelton said he still feels the pain of his injuries every day. He has to have a neighbor or a friend button his sleeve, because his left hand will never improve. He doesn’t wear an eye patch, he said, because he wants people to see the scars of war.

Still, life is good, Skelton said.

“I’m having fun. I’m being challenged intellectually. I’m being challenged physically and mentally,” he said. “I look forward every morning to putting on the uniform and coming to work.”

Also, Skelton said, he has found that fellow soldiers are inspired by his continued service and are more inclined to come to him with their problems, knowing he has had to work through his own.

“We all go through struggles in life,” he said. “And none are more severe or bigger than others. They’re just different.”

Despite his positive outlook, Skelton said he is not sure he would want to go through the experience again. But, then again, he wouldn’t rule it out. It has given him a perspective that promises hope and contentment in life, he said.

“Someone once said to me, ‘You see things more clearly with one eye than I do with two,’” Skelton said. “I believe that each and every one of us should do what we love to do. And if you wake up one day and you don’t love what you’re doing, think about changing.”

(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles about wounded warriors who are returning to active duty).

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Related Sites:
Army Wounded Warrior program
Hero Handbook

Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Capt. D.J. Skelton, commander of Company E, 229th Military Intelligence Battalion, works in his office at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, Monterey, Calif. Skelton did not want to end his career after being seriously wounded in combat in Iraq. He went on to serve on multiple wounded warrior care committees and served as the military advisor to Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England. DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III   
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