NCOs overcome medical obstacles, continue to serve
July 16, 2012
After three deployments and a training accident, Sgt. 1st Class Landon Ranker, an infantryman, had sustained multiple traumatic brain injuries. In 2006, he was serving in Afghanistan when an improvised explosive device detonated in front of his vehicle.
The vehicle went directly into the IED-formed crater, and it was the last straw for Ranker's multiple TBIs. He was medically evacuated and put onto the path of medical retirement. But after 17 years in the Army, Ranker said he didn't want to get out.
"I want to stay in as long as I can," Ranker said. "I want to continue to help Soldiers in some capacity and to make a difference. If I'm helping at least one Soldier every couple of days or more, I'll be happy."
Ranker learned about the Continuation on Active Duty Program. The program would allow Ranker to stay in and contribute to the Army until he could retire. He applied at the end of his medical board.
"It's given me a whole new purpose in the Army," Ranker said. "I didn't know that I would find anything that would make me happy after they told me I couldn't be an infantry guy anymore. A couple of months into the job, I realized that I could help other Soldiers who are going through similar situations."
Ranker has now been in the program for two and a half years. He serves in the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Campbell, Ky., helping Soldiers with adaptive sports. He helps other wounded warriors learn adaptive sports and compete in them, sometimes on a national stage.
The COAD program was designed for Soldiers like Ranker who were wounded in combat and needed a couple more years of service to retire. COAD is an exception-to-policy program governed by AR 635-40, Physical Evaluation for Retention, Retirement or Separation, and is designed to retain skills and experience the Army needs.
It is targeted to Soldiers who are deemed by the Physical Disability Evaluation System to be unfit for duty because of a disability that is not related to misconduct or willful negligence or incurred during an unauthorized absence.
Staff Sgt. Curtis Winston, a cavalry scout, was injured in Salman Pak, Iraq, in 2008 by an IED. After applying for the COAD program, he now serves in the retention office for the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.
"Everybody is supposed to have a plan if they get out. I just wasn't ready to get out," Winston said. "I enjoy the military, and there's still stuff I can do with the military even though I couldn't do my old job."
Any Soldier may apply to the COAD program, though combat-wounded and combat-related Soldiers are more often approved if they meet the medical requirements. To apply for the COAD program, a Soldier needs to submit an application with a letter from his or her commander that shows the command team supports the decision to retain the Soldier on active duty.
The COAD board reviews the application and considers the Soldier's physical limitations, ability to function within the Army, ability to function within current MOS and the Army's staffing requirements. Overall, the Soldier must be able to work in a military environment and the disability must be stable enough that the Soldier is going to medical appointments no more than 50 percent of his or her time.
"Even though you were hurt and the military might want to retire or discharge you, if you choose to want it, you can still stay in," Winston said. "The Army was the life for me; it was all I wanted to do. I got hurt and thought I couldn't stay in. But the program came up, and that's when I knew it was for me."
The COAD program requires Soldiers to create a five-year plan, which is revisited each year to ensure the Soldier is performing according to the plan. In the COAD program, Soldiers are still subject to time-in-grade requirements; they can remain on active duty until their retention control point, retirement date or age 62, whichever comes first.
Soldiers must also re-enlist if their continuation period extends beyond their current contract. Soldiers in COAD may be denied re-enlistment if their disabilities have deteriorated of if they have new medical issues.
The COAD program allows Soldiers to give back to other wounded warriors and to provide an example to all Soldiers, Winston said.
"Just because you're hurt doesn't mean you don't have anything left to offer," he said. "You might not be able to do your job anymore, but you can do something else if you do want to be in the military.
"You can show other Soldiers that you can perform to a high standard, and your injuries can't hold you back," Winston said.