How many people call in sick because they have a headache and believe they can’t go to work? If you do, this story should give you the extra incentive to work it out and bear the pain. In its latest issue, Esquire magazine has named Army Captain D. J. Skelton one of its “Patriots of the Year” for continuing to serve on active duty after being the most severely wounded soldier in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The Iraq and Afghanistan war casualties continue to climb as of this writing. As of August 2011 according to the Department of Defense, a total of 4,583 American military deaths and 32,799 wounded. Captain Skelton, an Army officer, is one of 1,515 Army officers wounded in both wars. Approximately 32 percent return to active duty missing body parts left on the battlefield. Captain Skelton returned to active duty as the most severely wounded. He rejoined his old unit in Afghanistan after six years of intensive recuperation. The return was to command his old 2d Cavalry unit and this was the driving force that remained with him during his recovery.
In November 2004, only weeks into his deployment in Fallujah, Captain Skelton, then a Lieutenant Platoon Leader, was hit by a rocket propelled grenade that left him a very broken soldier. His face was crushed as shrapnel torn through his jaw taking out his left eye and the roof of his mouth. Several pieces also destroyed his left arm and another entered his right leg. As he was being dragged to safety, AK47 bullets ripped through his body armor. His fellow soldiers thought he was dead. He had to endure 60 surgeries and Pentagon desk duty. He will tell anyone that the desk duty was worse than the many surgeries because he wanted to get back to his men of the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment..
The Army does not like to discuss whom they think was, or is, the most severely wounded soldier now serving on active duty, but they did admit that Captain Skelton just may be that soldier.
Skelton has one eye, partial use of his left arm and right leg, and a golf-ball sized hole in his palate. Without a custom prosthetic, he cannot eat or drink. Army officials hesitate to compare the extent of one soldier’s wounds to another’s. Soldiers have returned to war with amputated limbs, and at least three Army officers who lost sight in both eyes in recent years have stayed on active duty in noncombat roles. But the Army could not identify anyone who suffered worse wounds than Skelton and has returned to combat command.
Skelton, 33, who grew up in rural South Dakota, has been in the Army nearly his entire adult life. He enlisted in 1997, aced the military’s Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam and was selected to study Mandarin Chinese. Higher-ranking officers at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., urged him to apply to West Point, where he became known for rebelliousness and outrageous stunts. He was arrested for illegally BASE-jumping off a 900-foot bridge in West Virginia during his plebe year on spring break. Later, he was almost expelled after officials realized he’d been running a body-piercing business out of his barracks room.
The terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, however, turned Skelton into a more serious soldier. He set his heart on serving in the infantry after graduation in 2003. Soldiers who served with him at Fort Lewis, Wash., recall a lieutenant who trained his platoon hard, but who also had a penchant for coming to off-duty meetings wearing SpongeBob SquarePants flip-flops “He was very motivated,” recalled Maj. Ronald Schow, Skelton’s former commander. But, Schow added, “He was very eccentric, and he kind of really reveled in it. He liked being different. That stands out in the Army.”
While in recovery Skelton also completed a fellowship at Harvard, wrote a caretaker’s guidebook for wounded service members, served as military adviser to then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England and co-founded Paradox Sports, a nonprofit that helps those with physical disabilities to participate in outdoor sports, such as rock-climbing…
When asked about his wounds, Skelton is quick to respond with, “Those are the details,” he said. “The reality? I rock climb, run marathons, mountaineer, ice climb, pogo stick, hula hoop … I just figure out new ways to do the old!” So the next time you have a headache and start to pick up the phone to call the office, think about Captain Skelton and how he overcame tremendous adversities.
Captain Skelton is currently the Commander, Company E, 229th Military Intelligence Battalion, at the Defense Language Institute, Foreign Language Center, Monterey, California, and continues to serve.