Being a Double Amputee Hasn't Slowed Dan Philbin Down
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
BETHESDA, Md., Dec. 4, 2002 Being born with a disability hasn't slowed Daniel J. Philbin's climb up the rungs of success in the Defense Department work force, quenched his thirst for knowledge or soured his sense of humor.
Philbin, 37, was among 16 persons with disabilities honored Dec. 3 for outstanding contributions to the Department of Defense work force during 22nd Annual DoD Disability Awards Ceremony and 15th Annual Disability Forum here.
A writer-editor in the Secretary of Defense's Public Affairs Office's Directorate of Public Inquiry and Analysis, Philbin joked about his first job only lasting one day.
"I had a newspaper delivery route for a day," Philbin said with a hearty laugh. "It was an experimental deal when people were experimenting with getting more disabled people into the work force and public schools. Somebody fingered me for that particular experiment. It worked fine, except for the wild animals attack segment of it."
He was wheeling around his neighborhood in his wheelchair with about 50 pounds of newspapers on his lap. Then a very large dog, Philbin said, started chasing him. The dog never bit him or caused any other damage and gave up after awhile. But that was enough for Philbin.
"I decided delivering newspapers wasn't for me," he said with a laugh.
Asked how he ended up having to use a wheelchair for mobility, Philbin said, "I was born with a spinal cord defect that eventually led to a double amputation."
"It's ironic, but I never really paid much attention to being disabled," he said. "So I haven't kept good records of changes or improvements in the workplace for disabled people. But my experiences here have been very positive. Where accommodations need to be made, they're made. I haven't experienced any sort of discriminatory behavior."
Philbin said there's a significantly high recognition in DoD that folks with disabilities are capable of functioning in the workplace.
"For the most part, it doesn't require much change to make that happen," he noted. "Where it does require change, it's a good thing to do because there are going to be people in the future with disabilities who can be hired if they're qualified."
His advice to persons with disabilities is "don't just sit at home and be reluctant to try."
Philbin was sitting at his desk in the Pentagon when the terrorist-flown airliner slammed into the building on Sept. 11, 2001. His first reaction was, "Get the hell out of the building!" Once outside, he decided to see what he could do to help his office deal with the media.
"I pushed myself over to the Navy Exchange gas station -- about a mile -- where the (Office of the Secretary of Defense) Public Affairs had set up a command post. They were trying to continue the public affairs operation from there until we could get back into the building."
The citation to the award states, "That evening, while the building was still in flames, he returned to the Pentagon to help with the secretary of defense's press conference. He came back on Sept. 12 to perform additional duties. This bravery and dedication were not without cost, as he was hospitalized later for several days."
Philbin was also cited for his work on the Secretary's Situation Report, which was initiated shortly after the terrorist attacks. "At first the report was submitted seven days a week and required more than 14 hours of preparation every day. This arduous schedule has lessened, but the report continues to provide information on worldwide events of interest to the secretary of defense and others in the highest echelons of the department," the citation reads.
He also helps respond to an "overwhelming volume of cards and letters after 9-11." "We still have boxes of well-wishes," he noted. "We're trying to do a triage operation, where you sort who needs a response, who is requesting a response, and how to respond.
"It's very difficult to respond to every single person who wrote in," he said. "I try to focus a lot on kids in schools, because they're the future. Hopefully, when they finish their schooling, they'll remember that response they received from the Department of Defense and perhaps they'll want to work with us or join our colleagues in uniform. I try to look ahead a few years.
"It's really a privilege to represent and speak for the great men and women in uniform and the civilian workforce at the Department of Defense," Philbin said. "The number of cards and letters we receive is in the many thousands -- just incredible."
A native of Los Angeles, Philbin graduated from Quartz Hill High School, Quartz Hill, Calif. In 1993, he received a bachelor's degree in political science from California State University at Northridge. He did his graduate studies at Catholic University of America in Washington earning a master's degree in world politics in 1996.
"Every day is an education," said Philbin, who is also a graduate of the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Md., where he took the public affairs officer's course in 1996.
Philbin said he got into the public affairs business "sort of by accident." He was accepted in a summer internship in the Directorate for Defense Information, now the Defense Press Office, in 1992. He was invited to return after graduate school, which he did in 1996 and received another internship in administration.
Receiving the Secretary of Defense Certificate of Recognition is a special event, Philbin said. "The awards ceremony is a form of recognition by one's peers, which is probably the highest form of recognition," he noted. "It means a great deal to me to be nominated and selected."