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Army Maj. D.J. Skelton Wants You To Look Him In The Eye

Sep 26, 2018
Originally published on October 4, 2018 8:40 am

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.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

An Army major named DJ Skelton retired on Monday at a ceremony in Arlington, Va. In attendance were family, friends and fellow soldiers, also a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior Pentagon officials. A four-star Army general presided - not the usual crowd when a mid-ranking officer leaves service. NPR veterans correspondent Quil Lawrence brings us the story of Major DJ Skelton, retired.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: DJ Skelton shouldn't even be here. He enlisted in 1996 after flunking out of college. In the Army, He learned Mandarin Chinese at the Defense Language Institute. But he wasn't on a path to becoming an officer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE LWIN: Good afternoon. I'm Colonel Mike Lwin, United States Army, retired.

LAWRENCE: Mike Lwin and others pushed Skelton to apply to West Point. Lwin was the MC at Skelton's retirement this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LWIN: And less than 24 hours ago, Major DJ Skelton asked me to take on this duty.

(LAUGHTER)

LAWRENCE: Skelton got into West Point, but he really shouldn't have made it through there either. Four-star general Robert Brown explained at the ceremony.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEN ROBERT BROWN: He joined the class of 2003. Now, I couldn't believe this when I read it. I thought it was a misprint. But I checked the facts.

LAWRENCE: The facts were a horrible rap sheet of misbehavior.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: Four hundred hours walked on the area - I didn't think that was possible.

LAWRENCE: Those were hours of punishment. But somehow, he still graduated and became an officer. But the real reason DJ Skelton shouldn't be here was the Second Battle of Fallujah in November 2004. He told me the story in his kitchen.

DJ SKELTON: The back of the road just lit up like a huge flashlight. And it was just a barrage of RPGs, mortar rounds. And it was clear that we were ambushed.

LAWRENCE: He was leading his platoon. Two rocket-propelled grenades hit the overpass they were defending.

SKELTON: One exploded. I think one did not. The head broke off, went through my leg. And then I got shot quite a bit...

LAWRENCE: Right.

SKELTON: ...For that. My medic was with me. He got shot. My RTO was with me. He got shot. Both lived. [see POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION below].

LAWRENCE: Skelton was blasted in the left arm, right leg and chest. What really should have killed him was a piece of shrapnel that entered his right cheek, destroyed the roof of his mouth and exited out his left eye.

SKELTON: I could hear people screaming, and then all of a sudden the pain, the most incredible feeling of pain.

LAWRENCE: And just like that, his Army career should have been over.

SKELTON: And then I remember waking up at Walter Reed. 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.

LAWRENCE: At the time, Walter Reed Hospital was getting 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, his rock climbing friends did.

SKELTON: Some friends showed up and kidnapped me...

LAWRENCE: He'd been in the hospital nearly a year.

SKELTON: ...And threw me in the back of a Jeep and drove me out to a local rock climbing crag place. And we had a great time. But that was just this very powerful moment in my life. There was this community that just felt motivated to not give up on me.

LAWRENCE: And that's one of the reasons DJ Skelton says he is still here. He stayed in the Army despite the loss of his left eye and his palate and lasting damage to his right leg and left arm. And in 2007, he co-founded an organization called Paradox Sports so other vets could have the same experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SKELTON: Hello.

LAWRENCE: That's how I met Skelton about five years ago. He and a team of professional climbers took a group of disabled vets up an 800-foot cliff called the Snake Dike in Yosemite National Park. NPR interviewed him dangling off the ropes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LAWRENCE: I'm about to pass you in just one second to DJ Skelton.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Hi, this is Audie Cornish. Are you in a safe space to talk (laughter)?

SKELTON: (Laughter) Of course. How are you doing?

CORNISH: Great. Now, people have talked about obviously the camaraderie of being in the service. How is this similar to that?

SKELTON: As a veteran, it's amazing. I've never served with any of the other brothers and sisters-in-arms that are out here, the other vets. But we speak the same language. And we sit around the campfire at night, and we tell stories that only we can relate to and the climbers around us. And in turn, the climbers talk a different language. So to combine all of that experience that brings us all together is pretty powerful.

CORNISH: Well, DJ Skelton, thank you for your service and thank you for talking with us.

SKELTON: You bet.

LAWRENCE: Skelton's work with wounded troops and his desire to show that they could still be useful to the Army landed him a policy job advising the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. But his career didn't end there, which is another reason Skelton shouldn't be here. In 2011, after dozens of surgeries and still dealing with, for example, 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. His commander was then-Colonel, now-General DA Sims.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEN DA SIMS: DJ had this really hellish town.

LAWRENCE: Skelton was leading foot patrols in the infamous Panjwai district. Taliban shot at them almost every time they left the outpost.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SIMS: He had instant credibility with the young men that he was leading at the time. This is leadership by example.

LAWRENCE: Sims says any disability was overcome by Skelton's ability to lead. Skelton doesn't completely agree with that. His men all made it home, but the thought that he might lose one of them because he wasn't physically 100 percent haunted him. And here's the last reason he maybe shouldn't be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SKELTON: So let me just get this over with.

LAWRENCE: At his retirement, Skelton read the names of fellow veterans who weren't there. Some died in battle, but a lot of the names he read died back here at home.

SKELTON: Lieutenant Ben Larsen was my fellow South Dakotan classmate at West Point. Died from his struggles with dealing with his combat tours when he came back.

LAWRENCE: And Skelton was honest about his own issues right there in front of General Brown, about drinking way too much when he got out of the hospital to the point where his men locked him up, dried him out and made him get therapy. And there's the physical toll of more than 80 surgeries and dealing with the red tape as he becomes a veteran.

SKELTON: Take a look at me, 17-plus years of active duty, I should be celebrating. Instead, I'm bitter. I'm upset. I'm frustrated. I'm angry.

LAWRENCE: His palate still isn't fixed. The last attempt was a 17-hour surgery to graft a piece of his good right arm to the roof of his mouth. But that hasn't completely worked. Right now, Skelton eats mostly through a feeding tube in his stomach. And last year, the VA told him to change the brand of nutritional liquid he puts in that tube and then told him later that the VA can't pay for that brand. To their credit, his VA physician did show up at his house with an envelope of cash for him to buy what he needed. All this is wearing him down.

SKELTON: The psychologist diagnoses me with recurring sustained trauma. And the source of the trauma is my inability to navigate the VA and the DoD health care systems.

LAWRENCE: And that's what Skelton says he wants to tackle next. He's pushing for a congressional commission that would look not only at VA but how to connect veterans with all the resources in their home communities to head off issues like drug abuse or homelessness or depression. He also wants to focus on his 3-year-old son and be supportive of his wife, who's a marine biologist now doing an MBA. They were there at his retirement ceremony, along with his mom, dad, and sister and lots of others he thanked by name.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SKELTON: Reggie Hemerger saved my ass a lot in Afghanistan. Where's Eric Ikener - Battle of Fallujah?

LAWRENCE: There are lots of reasons DJ Skelton shouldn't be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SKELTON: So thank you. This is my family.

(APPLAUSE)

LAWRENCE: But the room was full of the reasons he still is. Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Arlington, Va.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio version of this story, as in a previous Web version, Maj. Skelton states that during the ambush that injured him in 2004, his radio telephone operator (RTO) and his medic were shot. In fact, his RTO was hit with shrapnel and knocked briefly unconscious by the blast from an RPG. The platoon medic was unharmed and rendered life-saving first aid to (then-Lt.) Skelton. Both soldiers received commendations for their conduct under fire.]

(SOUNDBITE OF HINT'S "COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.