Women in Combat Today, People with Disabilities in the Military Tomorrow?

The following article was originally written for the Lead On Update.

Recently, Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense, lifted the ban on women in combat. Women would be allowed equal opportunity to participate in combat operations. There have been a variety of responses from the public, but I think that in general most people are generally in favor of the change. And to be fully honest, it wasn’t like this was not happening already. There are women medics, women Military Police (MPs)), women helicopter pilots and women in other positions who, while not officially part of combat units are “attached” to such units or operating under the same or similar conditions. To ignore that reality is to denigrate their risks and their sacrifices.

But this leads me to the next question. If we are allowing women in to combat, when will we allow people with disabilities to serve? The idea may sound laughable to some in the general public but the call to serve is just as strong among people with disabilities as any other community. Keith Nolan, a young man who is deaf who also happened to be a top performer in the California State University ROTC program said, “All I really want to do is join the Army. I want to do my duty, serve my country and experience that camaraderie, and I can’t, owed to the fact that I’m deaf.” And he isn’t alone. There’s even a Facebook Page for people with disabilities who want to join the military.

Even considering all of that, the reality is, just as the case with women, we already have people with disabilities in the military, and some even in war zones. Some are individuals with learning disabilities, some with mental health conditions, or attention deficit disorder, or autism; I even know of a naval officer, recently retired, with cerebral palsy and 20 years of service.

The Army’s Continue on Active Duty (COAD) program is putting military men with clear, visible disabilities back into combat, and retaining and retraining others for other forms of active duty. As of June last year, sixty-nine amputees have returned to active duty. Also of note, Fort Belvoir, Virginia, a 100-year old, 47,000-man (and woman) garrison is now commanded by Colonel Gregory D. Gadson. Colonel Gadson is a double-amputee. At a ceremony where Gadson was presented with command of the garrison by Lieutenant General Michael Ferriter from Army Installation Management Command, Ferriter said, “He [Gadson] has shown that it isn’t about what you cannot do, it’s about what you can do. He’s able to lead and get right to things that need to happen.”

If that is the case, then qualified people with disabilities should be allowed to enlist in the military and operate in active non-combat duty roles. I add the caveat of qualified in recognition of the responsibilities and selective criteria that may be necessary for certain jobs and positions. This shouldn’t be a heavy lift. In fact, when considering how to do this on a large scale, there is precedent. In 2011, the Israeli Defense Forces were creating an official policy of integrating people who are disabled prior to military service into the armed forces.

People with disabilities, given the examples above, and just as women, are “already there.” They are serving in the offices and on the ships; in the medical tents and out in the trenches. The Army (and indeed the other branches) want to keep their investment in these soldiers; the disability isn’t a barrier, at least not compared to the skills and value these individuals bring. Imagine what additional skills and talents would be available to the United States Armed Forces if they had access to the 50 million Americans with disabilities.