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Staying Power: Seriously Wounded Warriors Return to the Fight

Soldier's Recovery Delivers Perspective, Contentment
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

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
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  Hi-Res

MONTEREY, Calif., Aug. 1, 2008 — Spend the day with Army Capt. D.J. Skelton and you may just get a little jealous.

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?'"

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. Army Capt. D.J. Skelton

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.