Severely Wounded Troops Find Meaningful Ways to Continue Serving
July 13, 2007
By Donna Miles
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, July 17, 2007) - Sgt. John Keith likes to finish what he starts. So even after a rocket-propelled grenade tore into the door of his Humvee during his deployment to Iraq, leaving his leg dangling, he wasn't willing to give up his 15-year military career.
Thanks to a new mentality within the military, and programs to back it up, Sgt. Keith is among a growing legion of severely wounded troops who are opting to continue their military service. In his case, the former medic is now serving with the Army's Program Executive Office Soldier to help get state-of-the-art equipment to warfighters quickly as possible.
Sixty Soldiers with 30 percent or higher disability ratings have applied to stay on active duty, and all have gotten the green light, said Col. Mary Carstensen, director of the Army's Wounded Warrior Program.
There's a growing recognition that these Soldiers have leadership experience, specialized skills and, in many cases, combat experience - all qualities they can continue to contribute to the Army, she said.
President Bush advanced this effort while visiting wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here in December 2003.
"Americans would be surprised to learn that a grievous injury, such as the loss of a limb, no longer means forced discharge," the President told the Soldiers.
"In other words, the medical care is so good and the recovery process is so technologically advanced that people are no longer forced out of the military," Pres. Bush said. "When we're talking about forced discharge, we're talking about another age and another army. This is a new age, and this is a new army. Today, if wounded servicemembers want to remain in uniform and can do the job, the military tries to help them stay."
In that "other army" Pres. Bush referred to, troops with disabling injuries used to be automatically turned over to the Department of Veterans of Affairs. If they returned to the Defense Department at all, it was generally after being medically retired, then hired as civilian employees.
The concept of enabling wounded troops to stay on duty isn't unprecedented, and examples can be found from every conflict since the Revolutionary War.
Even as the wars were kicking off in Afghanistan, then Iraq, the Army's top officer was serving as living proof of the concept. Gen. Eric Shinseki stepped on a land mine that blew off the front of one of his feet during the Vietnam War. He continued his military service, ultimately serving as the Army's chief of staff from 1999 to 2003.
Troops serving in the global war on terror, even those with severe wounds, have continued Gen. Shinseki's example.
One of the better-known examples is Capt. David Rozelle. After losing his foot and part of his leg to an anti-tank mine in Iraq, Capt. Rozelle not only stayed on active duty; he became the first amputee to return to combat as commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's Headquarters and Headquarters Troop.
Other severely wounded Soldiers who have stayed green have pursued a variety of different paths, according to Col. Carstensen.
"They do a little bit of everything," Col. Carstensen said. One is attending a military school; others are on the other side of the podium, teaching their fellow Soldiers or ROTC cadets. A couple have returned to their units as first sergeants, and one was accepted into the Army's elite World Class Athlete Program. Still others are doing administrative jobs or serving as retention noncommissioned officers.
What's important, Col. Carstensen said, is that troops who remain on active duty after being wounded continue pursuing military careers that are both professionally and personally fulfilling. "If the Army is still a viable option for them, we want to bring them into the fold and make that possible," she said.
Sgt. Keith, who was wounded while deployed to Iraq with the 1st Cavalry Division in November 2004, is among the severely wounded troops seizing that opportunity. A medic at the time of the incident, Sgt. Keith was responding to a patrol that had come under attack when an RPG hit his vehicle.
The events of the day are a bit foggy; he remembers being transported to an emergency room in Baghdad's Green Zone before slipping into a coma. Seventeen days later, he woke up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The doctors there tried valiantly to save his leg, but so many nerves and tendons had been severed that they ended up having to amputate, just four days before Christmas. An Army board later certified him as 60-percent disabled.
If Sgt. Keith was distraught about losing his leg, he was even more so about the possibility of losing the career he'd spent the past decade and a half building. "When I was first injured, I knew for sure that my military career was over," he said.
Sgt. Keith wanted desperately to continue serving. Although emphatic that he didn't want to be a hindrance to anyone, he said he knew he still had something to contribute. "I may not be able to physically do my job, but I have the mind to do my job," he said. "I'm still useful."
The Army agreed and approved his request to remain on active duty.
Sgt. Keith trained as a contracting specialist and has been working for the Army's PEO Soldier effort at Fort Belvoir, Va., since June 2006. The program was established to design, develop, procure and field state-of-the-art equipment to deployed troops as quickly as possible.
Keith said he gets a lot of gratification knowing that as he serves out his military career until he's eligible to retire, he's also continuing to helping his fellow troops who are at war. "This office is making a difference," he said. "And it's rewarding to be a part of it."
(Donna Miles writes for the American Forces Press Service.)