Capt. D.J. Skelton, the Army's Most Seriously Wounded Commander, Returns to Combat


Since 2001, more than 40,000 service members have been wounded, and more than 1,600 have undergone amputations. Though Skelton's case is unusual, greater numbers of wounded service members returning to active duty is a new reality in today's armed forces.

"Advances in medicine and technology are enabling more soldiers to recover from injuries and wounds and return to service than in past wars," Chiarelli said.

There has also been institutional change within the military's treatment of wounded service members. Capt. Jonathan Pruden, a wounded Iraq War veteran and an outreach coordinator with the Wounded Warrior Project, said when he was injured in 2003, no one talked about the option of him staying in the Army. But over the years there's been a recognition that these warriors still have things that they can give as members of the armed forces, although possibly not in a combat role.

"It's a morale booster to see someone who's come through horrific injuries and is still serving," Pruden said.

Not all of the soldiers returned to duty are deemed fit for combat duty, and at first Skelton fell into this category. But with determination, and the right qualifications, he was granted an exception to not only return to active duty but active duty combat command.

The tests one goes through to return to combat duty vary by specialty and rank, and are conducted on a case-by-case basis. Army therapists conduct functional testing that parallels what an individual might be required to do in combat. An infantryman needs to be able to carry a rucksack for miles, get up from a face-down position with his gear on and sprint several yards, run up a set of stairs, perform hand-to-hand combat. If he is unable to do a particular task or tasks and is therefore unable to continue to serve in this capacity, he may be offered an opportunity to serve in a different capacity.

But Skelton was determined to return to combat.

"I wanted to return to my men," Skelton said. "The fact is .. .they never quit on me, and I wasn't going to give up my fight and quit."

Skelton said he owed his life to the "amazing training and skills of my young medic, the audacity, competence, and cool under fire of the men of 1st platoon of Charlie Rock [company] who under extreme fire drug me off the battle field, administered medical aid and got me to a hospital."

"They did it in a manner that was not because it was their job but because we cared about each other. ... We loved each other. ... We were family, and we would die for one another," he said.

Skelton also credits his parents and sister for their love and support over the years. Someday he hopes to apply the lessons he's learned during recovery to help create a national strategy for caring for service members. Homelessness, unemployment and inefficiencies in government care for the wounded are some of the issues he wants to work on.

"I do not know Capt. Skelton personally, but have heard about him. I am proud of him and of his dedication to America," Chiarelli said.

Skelton will take command in a few weeks. After arriving in Afghanistan earlier this month, he used his first Facebook status update from there to thank others.

"Thanks to everyone who helped me, mentored me, motivated me and inspired me over the years to get me back to my unit (it only took 6 years!). I finally arrived to Afghanistan and will be joining them tomorrow. I'll keep in touch best I can. War Eagles ... home sweet home ..."

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