Everyday Heroes Receive Defense Department Awards
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 6, 2007 Defense officials this week lauded 16 everyday heroes for overcoming disabilities.
David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, speaks at the 27th Defense Department Disability Awards Ceremony and 20th DoD Disability Forum Dec. 4, 2007, in Bethesda, Md. Chu presented awards to 16 outstanding DoD employees with disabilities and three DoD components with outstanding affirmative action programs for people with disabilities. Photo by Fred W. Baker III
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Among them is an aspiring young gymnast left paralyzed from the chest down by a car accident after high school who is now a college graduate working as a human resources specialist, a senior accountant born with muscular dystrophy, and a career civil servant with dwarfism who started 22 years ago using a desk and chair much too large for her small frame.
The disabilities varied, but their stories are similar, and each demonstrated the stuff heroes are made of, Army Maj. Daniel M. Gade said at the Dec. 4 event. Gade works for the White House as associate director for domestic policy and is responsible for disability and health care issues related to servicemembers and veterans. The major also is an amputee who lost his right leg to a bomb in Iraq.
“Being a hero does not necessarily mean grabbing a rifle and manning a post. It simply means doing your best and choosing to do right,” he said.
“The people we honor today are great examples of everyday heroes, and so we celebrate them. Many have overcome debilitating disease and trauma and inspire us by their daily devotion to doing the right thing -- their best, despite their circumstances. The agencies and organization leaders represented here today are also everyday heroes, because they choose to employ and empower people with disabilities,” he said.
The purpose of the annual ceremony is to increase awareness of contributions to national security made by those with mental and physical disabilities. The awards program began in 1981, and recipients are nominated by their respective agencies. The program also recognizes three DoD components with outstanding affirmative action programs for people with disabilities.
The Defense Department now employs more than 5,000 people with severe disabilities, or nearly 1 percent of its work force. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates wants to increase that to 2 percent, officials said.
A shift in attitudes and developing technologies have opened more doors to disabled people, David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said at the ceremony.
Chu cited the governmentwide Computer/Electronic Accommodation Program, which provides assistive technology for federal employees with disabilities at no cost to the employing agency. The program began in 1990 to help break down barriers for people with disabilities, Chu said. Congress has since expanded the program to include all federal agencies, and in 2006 expanded it to include wounded servicemembers. This will help as the military begins to retain more wounded servicemembers on active duty.
“I think it is important to note that today we have a shift within our military structure in attitudes, too. Our military organizations realize that putting aside personnel with disabilities is a wasteful loss of valuable human resources,” Chu said.
Thanks to advancements in technology and rehabilitation programs, “it has become common practice (for) military personnel who so desire and can demonstrate their ability to return to military duty and certainly to pursue rewarding careers in civil society,” he said.
Gade was able to stay on active duty and is heading to a teaching position at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He said that after his injury, people often referred to him as a hero. But to those at the ceremony, he offered a different definition.
“A hero by my way of thinking is not captured by a dictionary search or (an Internet) search. Most heroes simply live their lives unnoticed and uncelebrated,” Gade said. “Perhaps the best definition of a hero is one who chooses a harder right over an easier wrong. You may be thinking that the warfighters are the heroes, and some are. You may think the military families are the heroes, and some are. You may even think that you are not a hero, but aren’t you, or couldn’t you be?
“Those of you with disabilities who are working despite those disabilities and employees who empower them are my heroes today, and I applaud you,” Gade said.
Nicole Richards has worked two years for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service in Indianapolis. A car accident after high school left the aspiring gymnast paralyzed. She went on to college and wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. Her grandfather was a retired civil servant and told her of the benefits. Now, she said, she plans to make civil service a career.
“The two short years that I’ve been there have been great, and I can see myself there for a very long time. Anything I need or have needed, they seem to get right away,” she said.
For Richards, the awards show that disabled employees work as hard as those without disabilities.
“It means a lot really. … It shows me that the government really does care about people with disabilities,” she said. “We are working just as hard and sometimes harder as able-bodied people to get our mission accomplished.”
Rocco Arizzi, an electrical engineer with the Navy in Bethesda, Md., said the awards send a message to young people with disabilities who may be wondering what they are going to do with their lives or who will employ them. Arizzi was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a degenerative neuromuscular disease.
“I like for younger people and students with disabilities to see people accomplishing things and serving their country so that they know they can do the same,” he said. “The more they see people not only just existing and working, but achieving great things, the more that they believe that they can do it themselves.”
Arizzi’s grandfather and brother both served in the Navy. He would like to see disabled people eventually deploy in support of the war. “There’s a lot of front-line work that can be done by people with disabilities -- people who are sitting at desks or controlling unmanned aerial vehicles or running logistics. I would like to see more opportunities for (disabled) people in those types of areas,” he said. “I believe they can contribute in the war directly.”
Kane Urban, a senior auditor with the Defense Contract Audit Agency, at Fort Worth, Texas, was born with muscular dystrophy. He said he is happy with accommodations the Defense Department makes to hire disabled people, but he would like to see the day when special recognition is no longer needed because such hiring practices are commonplace.
“They have these types of awards and ceremonies and conferences to highlight improvements that are made, … and their goal is total integration and equality. Once you reach that, you don’t need conferences and awards, because you met the goal,” he said.
Urban said he believes more managers would hire disabled people but are held back by misperceptions of additional costs and difficult accommodations. “We bring the same things to the table as anyone else does, with minimal increased costs when you compare it to what employees cost anyway. I think … that managers don’t realize how marginal the cost is,” he said.
Linda Keel, an administrative assistant a Redstone Arsenal, Ala., component of Defense Intelligence Agency, began federal service more than two decades ago, before many of today’s accommodations were in place.
Keel, who has dwarfism, showed up on her first day of work to a full-sized desk and chair. But she didn’t let it intimidate her, she said. Her only complaint was that it was sometimes hard to reach things.
Now she works in a cubicle that fits her size and is delivering big dividends for her employers. Last week, she was named Outstanding DIA Employee with a Disability. This award means a lot to her, she said, because it means that she makes a difference.
Keel serves up tall advice for those following in her tiny footprints. “Don’t give up. Go after it with the attitude that you can do it and with the determination that you can do it, and just put being disabled behind you,” she said.
Other award recipients were:
-- Bruce E. Beyer, Department of the Army;
-- Ronald B. Greenfield, Department of the Air Force;
-- Steven R. Clark, Office of the Secretary of Defense/Washington Headquarters Service;
-- Maria T. Andrade, Army and Air Force Exchange Service;
-- Anthony Green, Defense Commissary Agency;
-- Joseph P. Higginbotham, Defense Contract Management Agency;
-- Kimberly J. Pare, Defense Information Systems Agency;
-- Constance Gardener, Defense Logistics Agency;
-- Jennifer L. Perry, Defense Threat Reduction Agency;
-- Michael J. Morgan Jr., National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency;
-- Michael P. Herron, National Guard Bureau; and
-- John H. Loftis Jr., National Security Agency.
DoD organizations honored were: the Department of the Air Force, the Defense Logistics Agency, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense/Washington Headquarters Service.