Army Maj. D.J. Skelton Wants You To Look Him In The Eye
There were plenty of reasons that Army Maj. D.J. Skelton might never have made it to his retirement ceremony this week in Arlington, Va.
West Point had admitted him through a small program for already enlisted soldiers. When he got there he racked up one of the worst disciplinary records in the history of the academy, yet still managed to graduate and become an officer.
But the biggest reason is written in the scars on his face and his unblinking, black glass eye.
In November 2004, Iraqi insurgents ambushed Skelton's platoon during the second battle of Fallujah. Two rocket propelled grenades hit the concrete next to him.
"One exploded. I think one did not," Skelton recalls. "The head broke off, went through my leg and then I got shot quite a bit." Skelton's radio telephone operator was hit with shrapnel and was briefly knocked unconscious by the explosion. His platoon medic gave Skelton first aid, and the men dragged Skelton out of harm's way.
Bullets and shrapnel blasted Skelton in the left arm, right leg and chest. What really should have killed him was a fragment that entered his right cheek, destroyed the roof of his mouth and exited his left eye.
Skelton remembers being dragged off the battlefield by his men. His Army career seemed to be over.
"And then I remember waking up at Walter Reed," says Skelton. "And then I have doctors that are telling me, 'Well, you're never going to rock climb, you're never going to run.' You're not going to do half the things that were a source of happiness for me as a kid that were part of who I was.
"And now the Army is saying, 'Yeah, you're not fit for duty, you cannot serve.' I had a hard time with that."
At the time, Walter Reed Army Medical Center was overwhelmed with casualties that the military clearly hadn't planned for. No one was there to show someone like Skelton that life could go on. Luckily, after he had been in the hospital for almost a year, his rock-climbing friends did.
"Some friends showed up and kidnapped me and threw me in the back of a jeep and drove me out to a local rock-climbing crag place," says Skelton. He can't remember whether he even put on a climbing harness that day or made it to the top of anything — that wasn't the point.
"And we had a great time. That was just this very powerful moment in my life. There was this community that just felt motivated to not give up on me," he says.
Reaching out to other wounded warriors
In 2007, still on active duty despite surgery after surgery for his combat wounds, Skelton co-founded an organization called Paradox Sports so other vets could have the same experience. Skelton saw the camaraderie mixed with the physical challenge as just the right kind of therapy for disabled vets.
Skelton's work with wounded troops landed him a policy job advising the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
It's no exaggeration to say that he changed the way the Pentagon considered the value of wounded troops, says Michèle Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense.
"D.J. would have such a profound effect on every single person he worked with," she says. "His fortitude, his courage, his grit to keep going through operation after operation and continue to focus on how he helps others."
But Skelton's Army career didn't end there, which is still another reason he might never have made it to his retirement.
In 2011, still dealing, for example, with the shrapnel holes in his mouth that sometimes let food slip into his airway — Skelton asked to be sent back to war. He passed all the physical tests, and joined his old unit in Afghanistan.
It was not a desk job.
"D.J. had this really hellish town," says Brig. Gen. D.A. Sims, who was then Skelton's commander.
Skelton led foot patrols in the infamous Panjwai district. Taliban fighters shot at them almost every time they left the outpost.
"He had instant credibility with the young men that he was leading at the time," recalls Sims. "This was leadership by example."
Sims says Skelton more than made up for any physical disability with his leadership skills.
Skelton doesn't completely agree with that.
"It became evident to me that unless I was 100 percent I shouldn't be there. That haunted me every day I was in combat," Skelton says. "We all came home, but as soon as I got back I called the Army up and said, 'I quit the infantry. This isn't smart.' "
Skelton stayed in the Army six more years, serving as a foreign area officer at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, but he was also dealing with recurring health problems.
He has undergone more than 80 surgeries. His palate still isn't fixed — the last attempt was a 17-hour operation to graft a piece of his good right arm to the roof of his mouth, but that hasn't completely worked. He has received care for years mostly from the Department of Veterans Affairs — and while he is generally impressed with its doctors, Skelton has also been through his share of the sort of red tape VA is infamous for.
"The psychologist diagnoses me with recurring sustained trauma. And the source of the trauma is my inability to navigate the VA and the [Department of Defense] health care systems," says Skelton.
Another summit to climb
That's what Skelton says he wants to tackle next. He is pushing for a congressional commission that would look not only at VA but at how to connect veterans with all the existing resources in their home communities to head off issues like drug abuse, or homelessness, or depression.
One recent frustration with the VA resulted in a new glass eye.
After driving hours from his home in Monterey, Calif., to the VA in San Francisco, he was told that his appointment had been canceled. Skelton instead met with his prosthesist and insisted on a new eye.
But not a beautiful lifelike iris that would help make his wounds less visible. He got a black glass eye with a pirate's Jolly Roger on it.
"I live this social experiment," says Skelton, referring to his choice not to hide his injuries. He wants people to see and accept them.
"How can you have an open mind, how do you normalize that?" he asks.
His wounds make plenty of people uncomfortable — and Skelton says he gets outright shunned sometimes in public, sometimes even when he is out with his 3-year-old son, Dakota. He would prefer that people just ask.
"I'm not ashamed of it. I lost my eye in combat. Great opportunity to tell you about who I am," Skelton says. "Open a dialogue and you can learn from me.
"I'll learn from you."
Coda to a career
Skelton's retirement ceremony took place at Arlington National Cemetery.
Retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was there, along with former Defense Undersecretary Flournoy. Presiding was U.S. Army Pacific Commander Gen. Robert Brown.
Not the usual sendoff for a midranking officer.
As Skelton introduced his comrades and family, he thanked them — and wept.
Because for all the reasons that D.J. Skelton might not have been there this day, the room was full of the reasons he still is.
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