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.








Sandy Hook Shooting: A Policy Response

EssjayNZ Pill PhotoLike most people around the country I find  Newtown, Connecticut in my thoughts and the tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary School weighing heavily on my mind and heart.  And just like everyone else, I find myself at loose ends in wanting to do something about it. Anything.  Anything that might help prevent something similar from happening every again. Day in Washington has always been a policy blog and what I know best, what I do best, is policy, whether that is statute, regulation, or judicial law.  So I would like to take this space to look at some of the potential legislation and/or policy actions that could be taking that might be steps in a positive direction.

Right now, there is a lot of rhetoric and a lot of high emotions.  That isn’t necessarily bad.  It is what it is, but to deny our feelings of frustration, anger and grief is a mistake.  I freely acknowledge my own bias but am attempting to put forward potential policy responses that accurately reflect reasonable options that could lead to minimizing the chances of a tragedy like this from happening again. Nothing is a guarantee and no law is perfect, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Let’s begin – From a legislative and policy standpoint, historically, most action can be seen in two primary areas: gun control and mental health care.  Sometimes they intersect and sometimes they don’t.  As my previous experience would seem to overlap most strongly with the mental health aspect, I would like to address that first.  It is my hope to examine some of the legislation and policies around gun control such as the Gun Show Background Check Act (S. 35) and the Fix Gun Checks Act (H.R. 1781) in the future, but that will take a bit more research on my end.

Mental Health

This comes up often after mass shooting incidents and the media is quick to label shooters as “crazy” or “suffering from a mental illness” or “autistic.” It is difficult for us to think of someone like us being able to do such horrific things, so it is easier to think of them as “other” or being “broken” or the catch-all term “monster.”  The result is stigmatization of people with mental illness who it is believed will “flip out at any time.”  Over and over we’re given the research and statistics the highlight how people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of a crime but it doesn’t quite connect with what we see in the media and are told repeatedly.

It could be argued that the lack of mental health supports, social ostracization, and environmental stressors/pressures could, over time, impact someone to the extent they could cold-bloodedly murder children.  Meaning that under the right circumstances, more people than we’d like to believe might come to the point where they would break down and do such a terrible thing as was seen in Sandy Hook.  Recent efforts to address bullying were launched because of the long term impact on victims – poor grades, emotional trauma and, in a number of cases, suicide.  However, there has been poor public, political, and policy response to improving broader mental health services and supports, especially around individuals with significant mental illness.  We have a lot of discomfort with the idea that these “others” could be someone like us but for….x,y,z happening.  We have a difficult time with the idea that just maybe, we, as a society, make our own “monsters.”

You may agree or disagree with me, but putting that idea aside for now, I’d like to focus on legislation. What are our policy options?  What can be done? The legislation below is written to provide supports and services to individuals and families with children and youth with mental health conditions.  This isn’t about “locking people away” but really working to improve our societal response to mental illness. There are other bills and other ideas.  As always, I encourage you to review the text of the legislation yourself, explore other articles and ideas, and in the end, make up your own mind.

Children’s Mental Health Accessibility Act (S. 3289): This bipartisan legislation would expand the Medicaid home and community-based services waiver to include youth in or at risk of placement in an institution called a psychiatric residential treatment facility (PRTF).  Community based services-including mobile crisis services, assertive community treatment, peer supports and supportive housing-are in short supply.  While community mental health programs can offer some really great services, often there just isn’t enough funding and resources.  The emphasis has been on individuals who are in immediate crisis or those who have been hospitalized many times. We need to look not only at critical care, but at helping people  regain stability in their life and prevent them from going into crisis, not wait until they’re spiraling downward.

Mental Health in Schools Act (H.R. 751): This legislation was introduced last year and would expand school-based mental health services for children in grades kindergarten through 12. It allows for a flexible, state-based approach to creating a comprehensive mental health school program and promotes formal collaboration between families, schools, welfare agencies, and substance use and mental health service systems. The bill also encourages schools to incorporate positive behavior supports into their school curriculum.  It really looks like a promising bill if it gets the necessary funding and collaboration to make it happen.

(Note From Day on the legislation below) – The K-12 education system does have issues with regard to mental illness and youth.  However, compared to the issues faced by young adults who are transitioning to adult systems and college, the difficulties rise  astronomically.  Many schools do not have comprehensive policies for responding to students with mental health issues or funding to support appropriate mental health services.  We want these young people to seek counseling when they feel depressed or overwhelmed or for any other potential crises; and we want them to do so easily and without feeling that they’ll be discriminated against or punished.

The Mental Health First Aid Higher Education Act (S. 3325/H.R. 5996): This bill creates a 5-year demonstration program on 10 college campuses to implement a mental health first aid training program. Basically, public education program that seeks to help faculty, on-campus counseling center personnel, dormitory resident advisers, members of threat assessment and disciplinary committees, coaches and other athletic department employees, and other administrators or personnel identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. The program would teach participants how to interact with a person in crisis and how to connect the person with professional, peer, or other help so the student can avoid more costly behavioral health care down the road and stay enrolled in school.  Studies have shown that similar quality programs, when focused on meeting the individual’s needs (versus being used for punitive or discriminatory action) successfully increases assistance provided, increases referrals to professional help, and improves concordance with health professionals about treatment.  I’d be very curious to learn more about these other programs.

Mental Health on Campus Improvement Act (H.R. 1833): This bill would assist colleges and universities in successfully attending to students’ growing mental health needs by improving access to mental and behavioral health services on campuses.  The legislation would establish grants to eligible colleges and universities to foster a comprehensive approach to campus behavioral health issues, including developing and disseminating best practices and expanding campus mental health services and mental health training.

As for why I’m focusing on schools and colleges, I just want to quote some of the opening facts from the Reducing Barriers to Learning Act of 2011

  • School mental health programs improve educational outcomes by decreasing absences and discipline referrals and improving test scores.
  • Students who receive social-emotional support and prevention services achieve better academically in school.
  • While it is well recognized that mental health directly affects children’s learning and development, in a recent study one-third of school districts reported decreased funding for school mental health services at the same time that two-thirds reported increased need for such services.
  • School counseling programs are essential for students to achieve optimal personal growth, acquire positive social skills and values, set appropriate career goals, and realize full academic potential to become productive, contributing members of the world community.

And for legislation addressing adults -

Excellence in Mental Health Act (H.R. 5989 & S. 2257): This bill makes it easier for community mental health and addictions organizations to become Federally Qualified Community Behavioral Health Centers, increasing access to community behavioral health services for all Americans.  The bill also improves Medicaid reimbursement for these services.  It promises to reduce the use of emergency rooms for routine care and improve the management of chronic health conditions by requiring these centers to partner with primary care providers. Most importantly it will help cultivate a more robust and accessible community mental health and addictions treatment system by requiring specific administrative requirements, reporting standards, and treatment objectives

Additional funding for research:  I don’t have specific legislative bills here but mental illness is one of those areas where there is still a vast amount of information we don’t know.  We’re still unsure of how the brain works and how various chemicals interact.  Different medications are tried and combined and mixed and tested in an effort to address the needs of each individual. We need to be better about this.  It impacts millions of people, with some estimates as high as 1 in 5, and has devastating impacts on families, financially, emotionally etc.  People with mentall illness, on average, die 20 years earlier than individuals without mental health conditions.  This should not be acceptable.

One of the most heartbreaking of issues is around children.  Most mental health medication and health interventions were never built around minors, so attempting to address their needs and the needs of their families effectively is an ongoing struggle.  What we know about mental illness in adults isn’t the same for children.  What kinds of behavioral approaches are most effective?  What about the influences of age, gender, school system etc.  We just don’t know.  And that answer shouldn’t be good enough, not by a long shot.

The president said: “In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens—from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators—in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.”

No one holds all the answers.  In fact, I think we’re all struggling for any answers.  And we may or we may not find them.  But in the interim, all we can do is hold each other close, care for each other, and continue work for a better world.


Day Al-Mohamed


Photo by EssjayNZ


Just a note to let you know that Day in Washington is currently on hiatus. Please be patient with us.  We hope to be back up and running in the new year.

Quotable – More Ed Roberts on #Disability (and criminals with disabilities)

Highlights from speeches by Ed Roberts as collected by Jon OdaCrime Scene

We [people with disabilities] are a very diverse group of people. There are all kinds. I knew a guy who was paraplegic–he was a second story man. He used to rob people’s houses by rolling up to their home, parking his chair and climbing up the wall to get in. He would take all their jewelry and climb back down. He must have stolen over a million dollars worth of jewelry before he was caught. The police took a long time to catch on. They had seen the tracks but they just didn’t make the connection; they just couldn’t believe it was a guy in a chair. They sent him to an accessible prison.

Quotable – @AimeeMullins on the Power of Words #Disability #Adversity

Yes, this is an old speech, but I thought it’d be great to put in an excerpt as this week’s “Quotable.”

“I’d like to share with you a discovery that I made a few months ago while  writing an article for Italian Wired. I always keep my thesaurus handy whenever  I’m writing anything, but I’d already finished editing the piece, and I realized  that I had never once in my life looked up the word “disabled” to see what I’d  find.

Let me read you the entry. “Disabled,” adjective: “crippled, helpless,  useless, wrecked, stalled, maimed, wounded, mangled, lame, mutilated, rundown,  worn-out, weakened, impotent, castrated, paralyzed, handicapped, senile,  decrepit, laid-up, done-up, done-for, done-in cracked-up, counted-out; see also  hurt, useless and weak. Antonyms, healthy, strong, capable.” I was reading this  list out loud to a friend and at first was laughing, it was so ludicrous, but I  just I’d just gotten past mangled, and my voice broke, and I had to stop and  collect myself from the emotional shock and impact that the assault from these  words unleashed.

You know, of course this is my raggedy old thesaurus. I’m thinking this must  be an ancient print date, right. But, in fact, the print date was the early  1980′s, when I would have been starting primary school and forming an  understanding of myself outside the family unit and as related to the other kids  and the world around me. And, needless to say, thank God I wasn’t using a  thesaurus back then. I mean, from this entry, it would seem that I was born into  a world that perceived someone like me to have nothing positive whatsoever going  for them, when, in fact, today I’m celebrated for the opportunities and  adventures my life has procured.”

-Aimee Mullins, actress, athlete, model