The Best Among Us

The news is often filled with the deeds of low men.  Let me tell you about a great one.

Army Captain D. J. Skelton is back on the battlefield in Afghanistan, after recovering from wounds he suffered in Iraq.  A lot of wounded soldiers have recovered and returned to service, a company of determined heroes whose numbers inspire awe and reverence. 

Captain Skelton is a leader in that great company.  The wounds he suffered in Iraq came during the battle of Fallujah, during Operation Phantom Fury in 2004.  A piece of shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade went through his mouth and destroyed his left eye.  He’s been through over sixty surgeries.  He has only partial use of his left arm and right leg, and needs a special prosthesis to eat or drink.  A profile in The Daily says “the Army could not identify anyone who suffered worse wounds than Skelton and has returned to combat command.”

A November 2008 story about Skelton’s recovery at the Defense Department’s website describes his hellish early days at Walter Reed: “For most of the time that Skelton was in the hospital, he couldn’t write, because both of his arms were being operated on.  He couldn’t speak, because his mouth was being repaired.  So for months, he said, he sat quietly, just listening and taking mental notes as families talked about their problems.”  Later he would use what he learned to help create the “Hero Handbook” for wounded soldiers, with over 50,000 copies in print.

Skelton described his medical board’s attitude as “Thanks for playing, but you’re too broken.  There’s no way you can stay in the Army.”  As he met other wounded soldiers, his determination to earn a different answer grew.  He wanted “someone to explain to me why I can’t contribute to any mission in the U.S. Army.”  He kept going until the Army gave up trying to explain it to him.

He ended up working for Donald Rumsfeld, and changed the way wounded warriors are handled by the Department of Defense.  At the time of the 2008 Defense Department report, he was commanding a military intelligence unit stateside, and hoping for graduate school and qualification as a foreign area officer.

Instead, his amazing journey led back to the battlefield, where he’s preparing to rejoin his old unit, the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment.  The last time he served on the field with the 2nd Stryker, his troops thought he was dead.  Now they understand no one in the world is more alive. 

We all face our moments of crisis, and pass through valleys of despair.  Our heroes have left us the gift of their footprints, showing the way through those dismal passages.  Few of us have the strength and courage to go where Captain D. J. Skelton has gone… but we can follow him part of the way, and be elevated.