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

D.J. Skelton has one eye, missing part of his mouth and eats with a prosthetic.

February 23, 2011, 5:20 PM

Feb. 24, 2011 -- Capt. D.J. Skelton was blown up the night of Nov. 6, 2004.

Skelton, who was then a lieutenant, and his platoon had just arrived in Fallujah at a time when the city was the hottest battlefield in Iraq.

Around 11 p.m., Skelton received a radio report from a patrol that had spotted something suspicious. After reports of explosions, Skelton told the team to wait where it was until he and another squad could get there in a Stryker armored vehicle.

As they moved closer to the location, Skelton and his team exited the Stryker. They heard gunshots, but kept on going with Skelton and radio operator Lt. Roy Rangel in the rear. Suddenly, the team was blitzed with bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.

An explosion knocked Rangel momentarily unconscious and shrapnel pierced his legs, but he resumed fighting.

Skelton, however, was badly wounded.

"I remember all my vision went out. I was completely blind. I felt no pain. It felt as if I was floating through the air on my back. My audio was still intact. ... I could hear the firefight and voices in the distance screaming, but could not make out the words. ... Then all of a sudden, I felt the most intense pain I have ever felt in my life," Skelton said.

"I wanted to die right then. I hear a voice yelling, 'Lieutenant ... Lieutenant ... oh my God ... I think the lieutenant is dead. ...' I remember being drug and put into a vehicle. ... I was screaming the whole time ... but with most of my face blown off and my mouth destroyed ... it came out as this ghostlike hollow sound ... not even human. The next thing I remember was waking up weeks later at Walter Reed Army Hospital in D.C."

A piece of shrapnel had entered Skelton's right cheek and exited his left eye socket, destroying his upper jaw and the roof of his mouth. He had taken an AK-47 round through his upper left arm and had a "shrapnel tunnel" through his left chest.

"My left arm was destroyed, but my hand was intact. I have no bone between my hand and elbow. My stomach and chest were split open where shrapnel and AK-47 rounds had shredded. My right leg had a fist-sized hole through the lower portion. All the bone was missing from my foot to my knee."

Six years have passed since that night. After more than 60 surgeries,Skelton, 33, is back on the battlefield.

Skelton said he is missing one eye, has partial use of his left arm, is missing the roof of his mouth and has limited mobility in one ankle. He cannot eat or drink without a custom prosthetic.

"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!"

Capt. D.J. Skelton Is Recovered and Back in Combat

What he will do, starting in a few weeks, is take command of 192 men from his previous unit, the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, this time in heavily contested southern Afghanistan. Skelton is the Army's most seriously wounded soldier to return to combat command.

Those who know Skelton attribute his return to his incredible perserverance and strength of character.

"It is physically incapable for him to do what he is doing," marveled Skelton's friend retired Army officer Lt. Col. John Nagl. "And I have no doubt that he will succeed." Nagl has seen Skelton's determination in action because he is the president of the Center for a New American Security, where Skelton completed a military fellowship while recovering.

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.

"I've only climbed with him once, and I've seen him do '5.12s'," said Paradox Sports' executive director Malcolm Daly. In rock climbing jargon, "5.12' refers to the difficultly of a climb, with 1 being the lowest, and 5.15b being the most difficult. "It's really hard, in lay person world standards."

"Certain things are tough for him to do. The rifle is tough. He's good with a pistol. In some cases, it's good to have a company commander behind a rifle, but he makes up for it in other ways," Nagl said.

Before his tour in Iraq, Skelton had graduated from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., where he learned Chinese Mandarin. Skelton also graduated from West Point, where legend has it he illegally jumped off a 900-foot high bridge, personally body-pierced the entire women's soccer team and racked up 465 hours of "punishment tours" (each consisting of an hour of walking back and forth with a rifle).

"The body is resilient. The body is amazing," Skelton told ABC News. "I can't control what happens to my body or how my body heals. Mentally? That's a different story. I can either dwell on what happened and be miserable and pissy and complain," he said. "Or I can look at what I do have left ... and figure out how to make the most of my new life .... how to make what I have work while always looking for creative ways to make up the difference."

At first, Skelton said, he lay in bed feeling miserable and sorry for himself, until another wounded soldier, a double amputee, inspired him.

"I saw a fellow wounded warrior who had lost both of his legs. He was an enlisted soldier and was going to therapy every day and always wore a smile and a great attitude," Skelton said.

"One day my mom asked him why he was so happy, when he looked to be more injured than her own son who was being quite pathetic in [his] recovery. He didn't even hesitate, 'Well, look at it this way... at least I have my two eyes ... I don't what I would do if I ever damaged this handsome face.' Life is all relative," Skelton said.

Wounded Warriors in Combat: A New Reality for the Military?

"Capt. Skelton is providing a great example of courage, strength and commitment," said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army and a four-star general who commanded Multi-National Corps-Iraq.

"Although his body was wounded, his warrior spirit was not. As a company commander, he will demonstrate to his soldiers, noncommissioned officers and other officers that even in the face of great adversity, you can persevere and continue to serve and pursue your dreams."

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 ..."