By Devon L. Suits, Army News ServiceSeptember 10, 2019
FORT BELVOIR, Va. --- Taking care of others, and showing love and appreciation for others, is a core reason why retired Maj. Dennis "DJ" Skelton chose to stay in the Army. He continued to serve for 21 years, even after suffering grievous wounds during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004.
Skelton told his story to a large crowd of Soldiers, veterans, and Army civilians during the "Why We Serve" ceremony hosted by the Army's chief information officer/G-6, Sept. 5. During the event, 30 young men and women from the Baltimore and Richmond areas raised their right hand to take the Oath of Enlistment.
"I was kind of a punk kid growing up in a small farming community in South Dakota," he said. "I barely graduated high school and had absolutely no discipline whatsoever, which is why I had a hard time holding down a job."
Shortly after getting expelled from the University of South Dakota, Skelton eventually found his way to an Army recruiting office. A year later he was sent to training at Monterey, California, to learn Chinese at the Defense Language Institute.
At one point, two officers pulled Skelton aside and asked him, "'Why are you here?'" Skelton looked up and couldn't answer the question, he said.
Instead of turning Skelton away, the two officers decided to take an opportunity to encourage the young private. They encouraged him to become an Army officer.
"That was the first time in my life that I had been pulled aside by someone that looked at me from a distance and chose to spend some extra time with someone they did not know. They saw something in me that I didn't see," Skelton said.
Skelton eventually made it to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. After graduation, he moved to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. Not long after his arrival, he was told to prepare for a deployment in Iraq.
"I remember sitting on the tarmac waiting for the plane to load up," he said. "No one in my unit has ever [deployed] before. I remember standing in front of my platoon -- naive -- and I looked at those family members and said, "'I promise you this: I will bring all of your sons and daughters home.'"
Two months later, Skelton was wounded and in a coma. One of his Soldiers, "went through a volley of fire to drag my body through the kill zone," during a battle in Fallujah, Skelton said emotionally.
Battling for his life, Skelton was flown back for treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland.
"This is 2004, and there was no Warrior Transition Unit. West Point professors, [and] enlisted Soldiers that I served with found out that I was wounded and showed up at the hospital. They would cook food every night and delivered it to my parents, sister, and loved ones, because I couldn't do that," he said with sorrow.
A year later, Skelton was out of the hospital, and the Army was quick to start his medical evaluation board process. It was one thing to be injured, but the feeling of rejection and being told he no longer provided value to the Army felt worse, he said.
Skelton eventually convinced the Army to let him stay as he spent the next six years bouncing through various assignments.
"For six years, I did what everyone told me to do: 'Be resilient.' And for six years … what I learned is that I hate the word resilient more than any other word in the English language."
To others, resilience is the measurement of time that it takes to get back to normal, Skelton added.
"For six years, I tried to get back to the point where I had two eyes [and] two limbs so I could go hunting, climbing, and fishing. That was a source of happiness. I want to go back to a time when I was not peppered with shrapnel so that I can look handsome again," said Skelton, with sadness in his voice.
"The reality is we can't; these negative things that happen to us are now forever part of us," he said.
It took time, but Skelton eventually saw his injury as a source of his strength. Through it all, he recognized that each person brings value and worth to a team or organization, he said.
So to answer the question, 'Why do I serve?' I made a promise on a tarmac that I bring my Soldiers home," he said.
"Even though it took six years, I finally made my way back into the infantry. And even though it wasn't [my same] platoon, I got to command the same company in which I was a platoon leader," he said. "Some of my privates were now my NCOs. And I got to bring them back home."