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Former Soldier Overcomes Devastating Diseases, Wins Disabilities Award

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

BETHESDA, Md., Dec. 5, 2002 – Nashana M. Riley was in uniform when two devastating diseases struck her simultaneously and ended her budding Army career. But the setbacks didn't lessen her desire and determination to succeed in life.

Riley was one of 16 DoD employees with disabilities honored here Dec. 3 during the 22nd Annual DoD Disability Awards Ceremony and 15th Annual DoD Disability Forum. The honorees received the Secretary of Defense Certificate of Recognition of their outstanding contributions to the defense work force.

She was honored for her outstanding performance as a personnel assistant in the Defense Threat Reduction Agency's Special Recruitment Programs Branch at Fort Belvoir, Va. Her responsibilities included collecting and developing marketing materials for conferences, job fairs and career information session. She edited and helped develop an agency brochure for applicants, worked on a publication for managers explaining the Presidential Management Intern Program, and edited an employee handbook.

Riley, who now works in the Office of Personnel Management's Office of Labor and Employee Relations in Washington, was also lauded for earning a master's degree in business administration, summa cum laude, from Strayer University while working full time and carrying out her responsibilities as a wife and mother of two small children.

The 42-year-old Washington, D.C., native joined the Army in January 1987 out of patriotism and to continue her education with the help of the GI Bill. After basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., she went to Fort Gordon, Ga., to train to be a microwave tactical systems operator.

Disaster struck in December 1989 while she was stationed in Anchorage, Alaska. She was diagnosed with both deadly spinal meningitis and encephalitis, which paralyzed her from the neck down before antibiotics could take effect. She became a personnel sergeant through on-the-job training, but the effects of the diseases proved insidious and thwarted her ability to perform as a soldier. Three years later, in May 1992, she was medically discharged from the Army due to brain damage and other injuries caused by her illness.

After contracting the diseases, Riley undertook several months of physical therapy to learn how to walk, speak without stuttering and to master a variety of once-simple tasks. As if she didn't have enough to deal with, a vocational rehabilitation counselor told her she would never be more than a GS-2.

"I don't think I was angry, I was more disappointed, depressed, scared and afraid for my future," said Riley, who was later hired as a GS-4. "I left her office being very distraught. She made me more determined to prove her wrong. I knew I could do more."

She said she owes her success to those in her family who believed in her. "My mom always told me that I could do whatever I wanted to do in life if I chose to," she said. "And I chose to be more than what that counselor said I could be. I never gave up!"

She went on to earn a bachelor's degree in business administration in June 1999 and a master's degree in June 2002, both from Strayer. Riley is also a member of the Presidential Management Intern Program, which was established by executive order in 1977 to attract to the federal service outstanding individuals from a wide variety of academic disciplines.

The interns receive an initial two-year excepted service appointment to GS-9. If they successfully complete the first year, they're eligible for promotion to GS-11. After two years, they're eligible for conversion to career or career-conditional status and promotion to GS- 12 -- a long way up the ladder of success from GS-2.

"I was also told that I could not have any children," said Riley, who now has a seven-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter. "Well, that wasn't true, either. I'm blessed with two angels." She and her husband, Army Sgt. 1st Class Trent Riley, 35, were married in February 1992. He's the Army station commander at the recruiting station in Stafford, Va.

She said her children were in school when she started pursuing her master's degree, which gave her more time to study.

"Since my husband is a recruiter, he's working all the time," Riley noted. "A normal week for me went from being at work full-time to being a mom and helping my babies with their homework while making our dinner, to going to a 'live class' online and making my kids' bath and letting them watch the Disney Channel while I finished class. Then I put my kids to bed, did my homework and had a few moments with my husband -- sometimes. Then I went to bed and got ready for the next day to do it all over again.

"I was a full-time student, so I had three classes per term," she pointed out. "It was hard, but I finished my master's degree in 18 months."

Riley praises her husband for his supportiveness. "Whenever he can, he helps with our babies and even helps around the house -- all but the kitchen," she said with a smile. "He's in school and has two classes left before earning his bachelor's degree. So we help each other all the time.

"I told my husband that I'll begin pursuing my doctorate next year," she noted. "So we'll be busy all over again.

"What keeps me grounded is that, whatever my kids need, my world stops for them," Riley said. "Even though I tend to be very busy with my education and my husband, with his education, we both understand that our children will never be neglected."

Calling his wife "a hero," Trent Riley said, "I admire her for her determination. They're great accomplishments. I'm glad she was selected for the award because I think it's a great award and I'm proud of her."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageNashana Riley was among 16 DoD employees with disabilities who received the secretary of defense certificate for outstanding employees with disabilities from Charles S. Abell (left), principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. Assisting in the presentation is Robert Faircloth, chief of staff for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Photo by Rudi Williams.  
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