Soldiers swear an oath to defend the country at all costs. Even after suffering career-altering injuries, some Soldiers insist the price for freedom is still worth paying.
While deployed to Iraq in 2007, then-Maj. Daniel Dudek, a field artillery officer with the 4th Stryker Brigade, called for an artillery strike on an enemy position. Almost immediately after, he sustained his own devastating injury.
“We got hit,” Dudek said. “(Initially, I believed …), I hoped it wasn’t my call (for fire) that hit us.” It was not. Instead Dudek encountered an Improvised Explosive Device an instant after his artillery request.
Dudek’s combat-related injury during that 2007 deployment left him paralyzed from the knees down and unable to serve in combat.
Dudek said it isn’t unusual for Soldiers who suffer career-altering injuries to want to continue to serve in some capacity. There’s more to serving in the Army than just serving in combat.
“Everyone wants to stay in the fight,” Dudek said. “I went to Warrior Transition Command, was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and was able to influence policy for wounded warriors.”
In order to remain on active duty, he had to apply for Continuation on Active Duty, and the process didn’t happen overnight.
“My packet was supported,” Dudek said. “(Human Resources Command) enabled me to go through the Physical Evaluation Board (PEB).”
According to Dudek, there were honest, thorough discussions about his continued service.
To be considered for COAD, Soldiers must be able to work in a military environment without adversely affecting their health or requiring extensive medical care, according to the Army Care Recovery Program website.
“Each Soldier must be assessed to determine if their injuries (reasonably allow them to be) retained on active duty,” said Col. Alan Kellogg, Human Resources Command chief of staff. “In cases like Danny, many can continue to make incredible impacts.”
Being associated with the Warrior Transition Command, Dudek met other Soldiers who’d sacrificed similarly. He noticed another commonality among Soldiers with handicaps. Dudek said handicapped or not, Soldiers are competitive, and one of the greatest ways to bounce back after injury is through sports.
“Sport is the spark,” Dudek said. “I learned how to ski, bike ride and swim again. Everyone’s injuries are so different – amputees on horseback, fishing – it’s important to do things that get people excited again.”
Dudek competed in the 2012, 2013 and 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games and in the 2014 and 2017 Invictus Games in London and Toronto in cycling, swimming and wheelchair racing.
“When deciding whether to stay on active duty or not after injury, service members should consider if this is good for their family, the end is coming anyway, define who you are – (handicapped) or overcomer; and don’t be afraid to chase after your dreams,” Dudek said.
For Dudek his decision was pivotal to his life after injury.
“The challenges were worth it,” Dudek said. “All the little times (the word) ‘no’ came into play – I am so proud that I was a Soldier in the American Army.”
Dudek’s life has inspired others to carry on, too.
“He is a caring and compassionate leader who led from the front and became a role model and inspirational Soldier to all he crossed paths with. Danny epitomized selflessness, professionalism and dedication to mission accomplishment. He understood how to get the best out of people in order to achieve success,” Kellogg said. “(It’s so meaningful) to inspire others to overcome difficult and challenging situations in life and their Army careers.”
Soldiers with potentially career shortening injuries should consider their options before moth-balling the uniform, Dudek added.
Dudek enlisted in the Army as a parachute rigger and later commissioned as a field artillery officer through the Reserve Officer Training Corps at Appalachian State University and was designated a Distinguished Military graduate.
He served almost 30 years in the Army, retiring as a colonel in February of this year, where his last position was as the PEB President at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.