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Executives Honor Soldier Working for Wounded Care

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 30, 2009 – A young Army captain wounded in Iraq and now working to improve conditions for other wounded servicemembers will be honored by the Business Executives for National Service tonight in New York.

Capt. D.J. Skelton will receive a special recognition from the group during its annual black-tie Eisenhower Award dinner. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is the recipient of this year’s Eisenhower Award.

Skelton, from Elk Point, S.D., was grievously wounded when he was hit in the chest by a rocket-propelled grenade in Fallujah in November 2004. Today, he works in the Office of Warrior and Family Support for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The young captain was a Chinese language specialist as an enlisted soldier, then attended West Point, graduating in 2003. He then served as an infantry officer in the 5th Infantry’s 1st Battalion, based at Fort Lewis, Wash.

Skelton lost his left eye and is still undergoing operations, but he works a full day and then some to ensure wounded servicemembers get the care they need.

His own experiences inform his work. “I was in Walter Reed for five months and went through a number of operations,” he said during an interview. “Then, I left to go back to Fort Lewis for my review board.”

His unit was still deployed and he went back to Fort Lewis to help the rear detachment cope. Skelton had grown up rock climbing and doing all sorts of outdoor activities. He reconnected with outdoor organizations at Fort Lewis and rehabilitated his arms and legs.

“Between May and August [2005] I had learned how to walk, learned how to jog, ran a marathon, rock-climbed, climbed Mount Rainier with one arm and did all this fun stuff, and didn’t really want to hear the Army say, 'Thanks, but now you’re broken and we don’t need you anymore,'” he said.

Skelton stayed in the service and was assigned to Fort Greeley, Alaska, as part of the Ballistic Missile Defense project. “I was the operations officer and those people really helped me,” he said. “I also did a lot of thinking about the gaps in the system that really bothered me.”

The process for those wounded is incredibly complicated and has many moving parts, Skelton said, explaining that the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Congress and local organizations all have roles to play. “I was trying to take all these real-life experiences and apply them,” he said.

He started firing e-mails off to department leaders. “To make a long story short, [Defense] Secretary [Donald H.] Rumsfeld contacted my boss at Fort Greeley and said tell Lieutenant Skelton to stop -- he’s coming to the Pentagon,” the captain said.

Skelton reported to then-Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England and advised his office on how to address the challenges posed by those severely wounded. “It put pressure on the services to provide for the needs of these people,” he said. “There were a lot of growing pains.”

The captain served for two years before reporting to the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, Calif., as a company commander.

Then Skelton got the call to report to the chairman’s office for his current job. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen has made warrior and family care his highest priority after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Admiral Mullen says our most valued weapon system isn’t even a weapon system, but our people,” he said.

The captain is working on the continuum of care from the battlefields to military hospitals to the Veterans Administration, and communities. “There has to be a better way to do this,” he said. He believes Americans have a sea of goodwill toward servicemembers and there has to be a way to tap into it.

Skelton also is working to connect with the families of those killed.

The Business Executives for National Security chose to honor Skelton, but he is accepting the recognition for all those striving to make the system work. “This is new for us,” he said. “We’re inventing better and more humane ways of doing this and we need to. We owe these men and women.”

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