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Blind Marathoner Honored as Outstanding Civilian Employee

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

BETHESDA, Md., Dec. 10, 2004 – Eileen Aukward, 81, said when she was growing up in the nation's capital in the 1920s and 1930s, people didn't pay any attention to persons with disabilities, except to feel sorry for them.

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"Being treated with respect and dignity is very important for people with disabilities," said Joseph P. Aukward, a budget analyst for the Naval Sea Systems Command at the Washington Navy Yard. He was among the 17 employees honored at the 24th DoD Disability Awards Ceremony and 17th DoD Disability Forum in Bethesda, Md., on Dec. 7. Photo by Rudi Williams

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

"They might have had schools for the blind, but I think they just stayed with their families and that's the way they were," said Aukward after attending the 24th DoD Disability Awards Ceremony and 17th Disability Forum here, where her blind son was an award recipient. "But now, they're all God's children, and I think it's wonderful."

The octogenarian credits recognition programs with helping to increase awareness about people with disabilities and helping those people to succeed. "My son couldn't have accomplished what he has done, even though he had the education for it, without people recognizing his abilities," said the mother of Joseph P. Aukward, who was presented the Department of the DoD Outstanding Employee With a Disability Award at the DoD forum Dec. 7 and a similar Navy honor on Nov. 9 at the Navy Memorial in Washington.

Her son is also a world-class track and field athlete, having run several national and international marathons and having earned medals competing in paralympics games.

Eileen Aukward said what impressed her most during the ceremony at the Navy Memorial was "the way the staff looked out for him."

"Being treated with respect and dignity is very important for people with disabilities," said her son, a budget analyst for the Naval Sea Systems Command at the Washington Navy Yard.

"We take the dollars Congress appropriates and work with the shipbuilders and defense contractors to track the Navy dollars for the shipbuilding costs," explained Aukward, who manages a $3.5 billion budget in support of the DDG-51 destroyer program. "I've always enjoyed working with money and numbers to keep us within the budget thresholds."

Aukward also served as the Aegis program director for total quality and represents the program executive office for ships on the Naval Sea Systems Command Middle Management Council and in the Enterprise Resources Program.

Because he's blind, he operates his computer with the help of special software that provides an audible interface. A Navy civilian employee since graduating from college, Aukward holds a bachelor's degree in business finance from Loyola University and a mater's degree in public financial management from American University.

Noting that the annual DoD recognition and awards ceremony is motivational for disabled employees, Aukward said, "It's very uplifting because it gives us hope. We realize there are a lot of possibilities out there for us and seeing some of the other success stories from around the globe is very heartening for us."

Aukward, who mentors youth with visual disabilities and serves as director of family activities for a local chapter of Knights of Columbus, said it pleased him when the speakers talked about DoD opening its arms, inviting physically challenged servicemembers from Iraq and Afghanistan to stay on active duty if they qualify.

"They said if you want to resume your career in the military on active duty, you're welcome if you can qualify," Aukward noted. "That's a very powerful thing that we couldn't have even said a generation ago."

He also found it heartening that DoD is trying to have 2 percent of its civilian work force composed of people with disabilities. "I'm especially excited that we're continuing to push for that 2 percent goal for the employment of disabled people,' he said. "That's a very big challenge. We're a little over 1 percent now, so we have a long way to go. However, the fact that they're bringing it up here and talking about the 32,000 employees we're looking to bring on, I'm encouraged that we're taking steps in the right direction."

He's technically defined as totally blind, but Aukward pointed out that he still has a little bit of light perception left. "I can sense that there are chandeliers in the room or recognize the brightest lights," he said. "I lost my sight gradually due to retinitis pigmentosa, so for many years of my life I did have sight. So when people describe colors, faces and pictures I understand what they're talking about."

At age 6, Aukward was diagnosed with the genetic disease that causes visual- field loss. It led total blindness when he was 38; he's now 44.

Undeterred by his misfortune, not only did Aukward excel in academia and the DoD civilian workplace, he became a superbly conditioned athlete, running the Marine Corps, Boston and Chicago marathons, as well as numerous international competitions. That included the International Blind Sports Association World Championships and the 1999 Pan Am Games, where he earned two silver medals.

This year, he represented the United States as a runner in the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece. He competed in the 200-meter race and 4x100-meter relay and finished just shy of medal rounds in both events.

"I haven't done the New York Marathon," he said with a hearty chuckle. "If I do one more marathon, that would be a wonderful one to do."

Aukward said he's loved running since he was a boy. "When I was about 7 years old, I watched the Mexico City Olympics and got the running bug at that early age," he said. "I knew some day I wanted to represent our country in the paralympics. And I recently attained that." The only accommodation blind runners receive is a tether.

"It's a kind of glorified shoestring that we each hold in our hands when we're running in lanes next to each other," Aukward explained. "It works out really well, and I can even run with able-bodied folks. I don't have trouble staying on the track, because I have a pretty good sense of where I am, maybe because of the fact that I did have sight for many years," he said.

Aukward earned silver medals in the 100 meters and 400 meters in the 1999 Pan Am Games in Mexico City. "I competed in Madrid, Spain, in 1998, and in Quebec City, Canada, in 2003, but my highlight was competing in Athens in 2004," said Aukward, who trained during lunchtime and worked with a personal trainer at the Navy Yard fitness center.

"My goal since 1968 was to compete in the Paralympics, and I realized that dream. I feel blessed, because if I had normal sight, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to run in Athens, Madrid, Mexico City or Quebec City," said Aukward. "So in some ways, I feel very fortunate."

Aukward isn't sure whether he'll ever compete in another marathon. "Since I'm married with three children and the training takes a lot of time, and my 44- year-old hamstrings aren't getting any younger, I don't know," he said. "From now on, all of my competitions are going to be a family decision. In other words, if my wife and kids support it, I'll do it. But I love to compete, and I'm going to keep my fitness level up by continuing to train."

In January, Aukward said, he plans to start an organization called The Washington Monuments for visually impaired and blind individuals in the national capital area. It will be affiliated with the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes.

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