By Kenneth Stewart Naval Postgraduate School
MONTEREY, Calif., December 8, 2015 — Naval Postgraduate School student Army Maj. Dennis “DJ” Skelton, of Elk Point, South Dakota, has been given a rather unfortunate moniker -- one he likely would prefer not to have.
In 2011, following devastating injuries Skelton had suffered in combat, he was coined the “Most Wounded Commander in U.S. Military History.”
But Skelton’s story, along with his fervent drive to rehabilitate and return to his soldiers on the front lines years later, has earned him an additional title: American hero.
Since then, Skelton has nearly completed the required work for his master’s degree in Asia Pacific Studies in NPS’ Department of National Security Affairs. In an example of life coming full circle, Skelton reflected on how his story began.
“I joined the Army as an enlisted man, which brought me here to Monterey where I studied Chinese to become an interrogator at the Defense Language Institute,” Skelton said.
While at DLI, he said a couple of officers took an interest in Skelton’s career and encouraged him to apply for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York. He did, was accepted, and became an infantry officer. After graduation, he was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington -- since renamed Joint Base Lewis-McChord -- where he became the leader of a Stryker platoon.
Deployment to Iraq
He wasn’t at Fort Lewis long, however. In September 2004, just a year after graduating from West Point, he deployed to Iraq where he took part in the Second Battle of Fallujah. There, Skelton and his platoon were tasked with defending an important intersection outside the city.
Two months later, on November 6, 2004, Skelton and his platoon were dug in at the intersection, and unbeknownst to his platoon, the enemy had dug in as well, on the other side of the freeway. Upon observing the insurgent activity, Skelton and his soldiers engaged.
“I was hit in that firefight … I happened to be standing beside a cement pylon and the next thing I knew, it was pitch dark,” Skelton recalled. "I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t feel anything. I felt like I was floating through space. One of the last things I remember was hearing one of my soldiers say, ‘I think the lieutenant’s dead.’ At that time, a switch flipped, and I began to feel the most intense pain of my life.”
Skelton’s soldiers jumped into action and dragged him out of the fight. One resourceful soldier used a spent .50-caliber round as an airway and preformed a field tracheotomy. Amazingly, less than 10 minutes later, Skelton was in a nearby combat support hospital where doctors began to assess the severity of his injuries.
And Skelton’s wounds, by any measure, were horrific. A small scar on his left cheek remains where he was shot, but it is what happened after the round pierced Skelton’s face that changed his life forever. Once through his cheek, the bullet began to tumble, destroying his mouth and soft pallet before exiting out of his right eye socket.
Sadly, the round to Skelton’s face was not the only injury his body would endure. He was further injured when a rocket-propelled grenade struck the pylon beside him.
“My left arm was destroyed. My hand was intact, but everything from the wrist to the elbow was destroyed,” Skelton said. “The head of the RPG broke and went through my right leg. My ammunition belt got hot and began cooking off. Those rounds, along with various enemy AK-47 rounds, went through my right arm and left shoulder.”
Skelton said his survival “is a testament to our body armor and to our teamwork.”
He added, “In that environment, where soldiers were still being shot at, they were calm, collected, and making decisions. And those decisions, though unorthodox, contributed to me being able to live.”
Skelton’s parents received the call that every service member’s loved one dreads. They planned to meet their son at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, although he would be placed in a medically-induced coma. Inside the hospital, Skelton’s doctors argued for the amputation of his right arm, but his parents wouldn’t allow it. The arm was ultimately saved, but over the next three years Skelton would endure more than 70 surgeries, and have to re-learn how to write, eat and walk.
From Skelton’s perspective, Walter Reed Army Medical Center “was a pretty grim place” in 2005, and the resources were simply not available to deal with the growing number of severely wounded service members arriving from Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Walter Reed was quickly becoming overpopulated. I and people like myself stayed in gurneys in hallways for long periods of time until rooms became available … the ability to treat mass numbers wasn't there and they had to prioritize,” Skelton explained.
“I sat for months confined to an inpatient bed … I wasn't able to communicate, but I was able to listen. And I listened to the conversations between my family and the doctors and nurses. I listened to all of the questions they had, that nobody had an answer to,” he said.
Skelton recalled the “negative” atmosphere that pervaded the hospital during those days, and said that even the doctors tasked with caring for wounded service members fell victim to its bleakness.
“Doctors mean well, but they, too, can get sucked into that negativity. There was no shortage of doctors to tell me all of the things that I would never be able to do again … I’d never walk, never run again, never ski again, that I’d never climb, that I’d never do any of the things that help me to define myself and give me quality of life,” Skelton said.
He also said that even when service members left the hospital and began their outpatient care, that there was very little motivation for them to integrate back into their units or continue their careers.
“Over the years, it was pretty easy to be a Wounded Warrior and remain a Wounded Warrior for years," Skelton said. "There was no incentive to do anything but hang out, go to appointments, and get your Army pay."
Skelton said he was determined to return to work.
“I was an inpatient for over half a year,” he said. “I was an outpatient for 36 hours. When I became an outpatient, I went over to the Fisher House, looked around, and was like, ‘Heck no. I don't want to be a part of this,’ and hopped on a plane. I went back to my unit and joined the rear detachment.”
Once back at his unit, Skelton went to work seeking answers to all of the questions that his parents asked but remained unanswered while he was in the hospital. The exercise was an effort to both provide needed information to the families of other wounded service members, and an opportunity to learn how to write again. The result of that exercise was the creation of the “Our Hero Handbook,” published by the Naval War College and offered free of charge to the families of wounded service members.
Unfortunately, on the heels of this success, Skelton would suffer a setback when he was subjected to a medical evaluation board to determine whether or not he was fit for service.
“That’s what the bureaucracy of the Army said needed to happen,” Skelton said. “We went through the process, and based on my answers to their questions, I could not meet any means by which I could be retained in the Army. That was really hard for me, being told I could no longer contribute to the mission.”
Skelton said that began a dark period in his life. He said he was living alone, drinking too much, and unable to do any of the things he loved. It was at that time that he reconnected with a rock-climbing group that had been a part of his life before he was injured. They tried, initially without success, to get Skelton outdoors again.
“They were relentless and didn’t take no for an answer,” Skelton said. The group challenged him to change his attitude and participate, assuring him that they would find a safe way for him to climb.
“They told me, ‘We don't know how this is going to work. We have no clue how you will climb with one good arm and one good leg, but if you have the will, we will find a way to make it work.’
“It was a very empowering part of my life,” he continued. “The power of community and the sense of belonging … had a powerful impact on my recovery and helped me to look at my disability in a different light.”
Knocking on Doors
While his outlook improved, his desire to stay in the Army remained as strong as ever. With the medical board process moving forward, Skelton ended up back at Walter Reed for another surgery. When he got out of the hospital, he says, he went door to door at the Pentagon looking for an opportunity to continue his career.
At the Pentagon, Skelton met a senior officer who offered him a job at Fort Greeley, Alaska. He went to work, but was still asking questions and seeking answers. He started writing letters to people in Washington, D.C. -- one of those individuals was then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
“My boss called me into his office one day and asked me if I had been writing Rumsfeld. I said, ‘yes’ to which he replied, ‘Pack up your stuff, you are going to D.C.,’” Skelton recalled.
In D.C., Skelton became part of a small team serving under then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. That team, amongst other things, created the first wounded warrior battalions. Eventually, Skelton was given the opportunity to return to DLI, where he commanded a student company.
It was while working at DLI that Skelton recalled the satisfaction he garnered from his return to outdoor activity, and founded Paradox Sports. The nonprofit program, based in Boulder, Colorado, conducts about 40 events throughout the year for veterans and nonveterans. Paradox provides equipment and a supportive atmosphere, where severely disabled individuals can participate in some of the same athletic endeavors they valued so highly prior to their injuries.
“[The military health care system] was good at getting you to where you could walk, and getting you out the door, but our military population consists of young, physically-fit people; go-getters who enjoy pushing themselves to the limit,” Skelton said. “To take high-energy, self-motivated people, and say to them, ‘You’re good to go, you can walk’ … that bothered me.
He added, “Other [adaptive sports groups] were great, but what about someone with goals like climbing Mt. Rainier and skiing down it? I asked myself questions like, ‘How do we help a guy with no arms to go ice climbing?’”
Skelton’s advocacy work caught the attention of then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, and he was invited to serve at the Office of Warrior and Family Support, which aimed to help veterans and their families reintegrate back into their respective communities.
Skelton could have moved on and devoted himself to his nonprofit organization. His disability rating would have qualified him for veteran’s benefits in addition to a generous medical retirement. He was also a decorated combat veteran with some friends in rather high places, and would have found little difficulty in finding a job.
But what Skelton wanted was to go back to the infantry. “Through all of [it], I realized I was still ‘DJ the Wounded Warrior’” Skelton said. “I didn't join the military to do that.”
Return to the Infantry
He was told to go to speak to the Chief of Staff of the Army. Luckily, things had changed a great deal since Skelton was initially wounded and he was offered the chance to come back into the infantry on the condition that he successfully completed the infantry’s commander’s career course at Fort Benning, Georgia.
He did it, and was assigned to an infantry unit in Germany. Coincidently, that unit was the same unit that he had served with in Iraq and they had just deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan. Once again, Skelton was in a combat zone.
“When I showed up [in Afghanistan] there was a dire need for commanders and I was given the opportunity to serve in the same company that I was in when I was injured,” Skelton said. “There were about a half-dozen soldiers who had been privates with me in Iraq who were now [noncommissioned officers]. We had an amazing reunion.”
Skelton was thrilled to be back with his soldiers doing what he loved. But, there were limitations to what he was able to accomplish, and he knew it.
“There were a couple of events where I couldn't physically perform,” he recalled. “My soldiers helped out and we had no casualties, but it really bothered me. When I got home, I called the infantry [leaders] and said ‘It was a great experience, but this is not smart.’”
Skelton added, “I was able to bring my soldiers back, something that I did not have an opportunity to do when I was in Iraq. It was great for my recovery, but not so great for the organization.”
But it was also not time for Skelton to hang up his combat boots. Continuing his desire to serve, he was selected for the Foreign Area Officer program and was given the opportunity to spend a year in China before coming to NPS for his graduate degree.
“It was great to be able to come and apprentice under some of the professors here. It’s been a great opportunity,” Skelton said. “This is where wounded warriors came after World War II -- a lot of people have forgotten that.”
A story that started in Monterey has found its way back. Skelton said he's not sure what's next, but there's little doubt that the most wounded commander in U.S. military history has finally found a little peace. Skelton is now married, and he and his wife recently welcomed a baby boy to their family.