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A warrior unbowed: Captain's wounds will never heal, but he's a better man because of them

Is Army Capt. D.J. Skelton a wounded warrior?

It sounds like a trick question. Insurgents attacked him in Iraq with a rocket-propelled grenade in 2004. His face and body were permanently damaged. The loss of his left eye is Skelton’s most visible injury, but in many ways it’s the least of his physical concerns. He’ll be going to hospitals and doctors for the rest of his life. His scars will always form part of new acquaintances’ first impressions.

“So I spend the rest of my life bumping into things on my left,” he said. “So what.”

It’s an accomplishment just that Skelton is still on active duty. He returned to the infantry last year after more than six years away. He served as a company commander in the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in Panjouway district, Afghanistan.

He was selected for promotion to major last month and will head to China this fall as a foreign-area officer.

Ask around the Army. Many who know his story will talk about his inspiring resilience, how he overcame his wounds to get back on the track he’d been on before.

But ask Skelton blunt questions and the road he talks about traveling leads far beyond anything he accomplished before he was wounded. It’s a path toward accepting what happened to him but moving forward and leading a far better life than he would have imagined, had he never been wounded. It’s about succeeding, not in spite of his wounds, but because of them.

Skelton is an infantry officer who developed quick rapport with war-hardened Afghan leaders, in part because they knew he’d seen the worst of combat. He’s the cofounder of a nonprofit that helps disabled people compete in extreme sports — an idea he came up with because he was wounded. He’s a man who appreciates family and friendship more than he did before, because he knows what it’s like to lie in a hospital bed and have a community gather around to support you.

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Skelton’s physical injuries will never fully heal, but he has learned to get better nonetheless. He isn’t a wounded warrior, he says, but he was once. That’s why going back to the infantry was an important milestone, but it’s nowhere near enough.

Leading combat troops “reconjugated the word, from ‘I am wounded’ to ‘I was wounded.’ It’s not me, who I am today,” Skelton said. “I don’t care about resilience. I care about the next part.”

Punishment tours

Skelton enlisted in the Army in 1997, after an academically unsuccessful semester at the University of South Dakota. Assigned to Monterey, Calif., to learn Chinese, he served for two years as an interpreter, including an assignment in Taiwan, before more senior soldiers suggested he apply to West Point.

His career there is best demonstrated by the scene when he attends West Point Founder’s Day reunion dinners.

The alumni are asked to stand and then slowly sit down in order of how many “punishment tours” — hours spent walking in a ceremonial uniform with a rifle — they received at the academy.

The graduates who had no punishment tours sit first, followed by those with a handful, then 20, and usually, finally, the so-called Century Men, who spent more than 100 hours working off their transgressions.

Skelton, West Point class of 2003, is always the last standing, with more than 400 hours of punishment tours for all kinds of offenses.

He was arrested for illegal BASE jumping. He was caught running a body-piercing operation from his barracks room — one with a “battalion-sized” clientele, as he told the West Point commandant.

“If you’re going to run a body-piercing shop in the academy, you’d better own that choice,” he said later.

He took soldiering more seriously after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

He joined the infantry, trained at Fort Benning, Ga., and was assigned to Fort Lewis, Wash.

He was wounded just weeks into his first deployment, in Fallujah, Iraq, on the eve of one of the biggest battles of the post-invasion campaign.

Insurgents ambushed him as he moved ahead of his platoon on Nov. 6, 2004. A rocket exploded a concrete pylon, part of a highway overpass, and Skelton was hammered with metal and rock.

He was thrown from his feet. Shrapnel tore his right cheek, butchered the roof of his mouth and ripped out his left eye from the inside. Fighters opened up, riddling him with AK-47 rounds.

He felt it all, the most intense pain he could imagine. Skelton begged his soldiers to leave him behind, but they dragged him under fire and raced him away in a Stryker armored vehicle.

He did not pass out. Not for a long time.

Paradox and sympathy

Now, years later, when Skelton wears sunglasses or a baseball hat, it can be difficult to see his wounds at first glance. A close look reveals a prosthetic left eye that never blinks. Tears occasionally roll down his cheek, the product of a tear duct with a mind of its own and a lack of nerve sensitivity in that part of his face.

The momentous hunk of shrapnel that ripped through his eye traveled with a terrible, beautiful precision, leaving the eyebrow, nose and cheek more or less intact. An inch above or a trajectory angled just a few degrees higher and the metal would have pierced his brain. He would be dead.

Scars rise up on his arms, legs, torso. Shards of shrapnel ringed his heart but somehow missed it. Skelton’s right leg has so much metal holding it together and so few nerves that one of his party tricks is to stab a knife into his shin and walk around painlessly.

His left hand is nearly immobile, balled in a perpetual fist. He says he learned to make that injury less obvious by watching David Copperfield’s sleight-of-hand videos.

His favorite euphemism for undergoing yet another week in the hospital as surgeons perform yet another procedure is, “Playing Mr. Potato Head.”

For all the jokes, his recovery was horrendous. He was depressed at first and pitied himself. For five months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he didn’t get out of bed.

He endured scores of surgeries. Skelton still has a golf-ball sized hole in his palate. Without a custom prosthetic, he cannot eat, drink or, often, breathe.

Inspired largely by other patients, he fought to stay in the Army.

He returned to Fort Lewis for a while, then came back to Washington to work on wounded warrior issues for the deputy secretary of defense — first Paul Wolfowitz, later his successor, Gordon England.

A rock climber since childhood in South Dakota, Skelton started a nonprofit called Paradox Sports that organizes extreme athletic events for wounded and disabled people, including an annual ice-climbing outing for amputees called “Gimps on Ice.”

Eventually, he returned to Monterey, where he planned to study advanced Chinese before becoming a foreign-area officer specializing in Asia. He commanded the same training company he’d been a member of as a private in 1997.

It seemed like a suitable, positive outcome, but Skelton grew uneasy. The FAO program was a plum job, and Skelton was four years too junior in the Army to qualify for it. The Army wasn’t offering him the position because he had proved himself as a diplomat or linguist. It was because he was wounded. He’d thought that wouldn’t bother him, but it did.

“Hey, here’s this wounded soldier; luckily he speaks Chinese. … It pissed me off. I didn’t earn it. ‘Associate Dean of the Middle East School? Really?’” Skelton said, referring to one of the jobs he’d held at Monterrey. “If I was going to do anything in life, I was going to earn it. I didn’t want a government handout. I didn’t want a sympathy offer.”

‘Fallujah 2, D.J. nothing’

Skelton’s reputation as an advocate for wounded warriors grew. In 2009, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, requested that he come back to Washington to work on the Sea of Goodwill program. A few months later, he went back to Iraq for two weeks through a program that takes wounded veterans to war zones as part of a healing process.

Riding in a Black Hawk helicopter over Fallujah, Skelton looked at the highway overpass where he’d been wounded in 2004. A gust of wind blew through the open doors and his prosthetic eye popped out, floating down to the ground 500 feet below.

Skelton let out an expletive, then said: “Fallujah 2, D.J. nothing.”

Besides the catharsis of returning to the place where he had been wounded, Skelton had an epiphany. He looked at his fellow soldiers, especially the veterans who had returned to civilian life. They often identified themselves first and foremost by the fact that they’d been wounded.

“It’s a great group of guys,” he said, “[but] they were riding the title of wounded warrior as a civilian. It’s like, get over it. What are you going to do? The system, our communities, we don’t really hold them accountable.”

Skelton realized more deeply than he had before that he’d acceded to a role in life that defined him by his battle scars. If he wanted something different, he had to make a choice. He needed a place, a home, a real role — and he needed to feel he’d earned it.

“It was, ‘D.J., the wounded warrior.’ It was not D.J. the foreign-area officer or infantry officer. It was, ‘D.J. the wounded advocate.’ What is that? Most people who advocate do it on the side when they have free time. It’s not a career,” he said. “That’s when I realized I was going to hold the Army accountable. Accountable for accepting me, training me, providing me all this opportunity.”

‘I had concerns’

Lt. Col. D.A. Sims, a 1991 West Point graduate, had been the executive officer of Skelton’s battalion in 2004 and served with him in Iraq. They stayed in touch afterward, an email every six or months or so.

In late spring 2010, he opened his email to find Skelton had sent a message congratulating him. Sims had just taken command of their old battalion, which had been reflagged and assigned to Germany, and was scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan.

“If you ever need a captain, let me know,” Skelton wrote.

Things moved quickly. He passed the captain’s career course at Fort Benning despite his physical limitations and was sent to the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment. He was assigned to Sims’ squadron, learning he’d be taking over Comanche Troop, the same company he’d served in when he’d been wounded in Iraq.

Sims said he was eager to welcome Skelton, but he worried that the captain might not be physically up to the job.

“I had some concerns. I did. I’d be lying if I told you otherwise,” Sims said. “Would he be physically capable of the daily grind of combat? It wasn’t just firefights. It’s that we didn’t get a lot of sleep. Patrols were ongoing, and we need a company commander who can produce orders, maintain his area, literally lead from the front.”

Skelton caught up with the rest of his unit in Afghanistan in February 2011, serving for a few weeks as an operations officer while he waited to command Comanche Troop, 1st Squadron. Assigned to the most dangerous and violent part of his squadron’s area, he led a 1,000-soldier sweep of the central village of Nakhony on one of his first missions, searching house to house for weapons and other contraband.

His soldiers — Americans along with a detachment of Canadians, Australians and Afghan National Army — dug up a complex, weighted trigger for an improvised explosive device. Other troops reported an IED hidden in a wall. Satisfied that his men had things under control, Skelton went to check on another platoon.

He hadn’t walked more than a few hundred meters when he heard an explosion.

Rushed into action

“I instantly just felt sick to my stomach,” Skelton said. “I knew this was not a controlled detonation. Nobody does anything on their own like that.”

An eerie silence followed, then chaos. People screamed. Skelton ran back toward the sound of the explosion.

One of his troops, Tech. Sgt. Dan “Reese” Hines, lay on the ground, covered in blood. Though Skelton had not yet met all of the soldiers in his company, he’d gotten to know Hines.

Skelton rushed into action, working with the medics and other soldiers on the wounded troop. Hines was alive, but his head was bloody and he drifted in and out of consciousness.

He had likely lost his left eye — just as Skelton had.

Within minutes, Hines was aboard a helicopter en route to the hospital at Kandahar. Skelton scanned the mixed group of U.S. and Canadian soldiers left behind. He sensed their fear. He felt pangs of guilt, not so much because Hines had been wounded, but because he recognized the trauma he’d put his soldiers through years earlier.

“You look in their eyes and it’s this terror,” Skelton said. “‘Wow, this is what it was like for my guys [in Iraq].’ You never want to make people suffer, but you did. I did. And these guys are going to live with that image for the rest of their lives. It was pretty bad.”

Everyone was looking to him for leadership. One of Skelton’s medics was visibly shaken. Skelton saw one of his platoon leaders staring at him, not moving.

“Lieutenant,” Skelton said, “pick your guys up. You have one minute. We’ve got to finish the mission.”

‘The Pirate of Nakhony’

In the weeks that followed, Skelton settled into the lonely, grinding pattern of company command. The area that Comanche Troop was responsible for was “the most lethal portion of the squadron’s battlespace,” Sims recalled.

The regiment’s designation as the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment was something of a misnomer, because Strykers couldn’t traverse the terrain and narrow roads. In eastern Panjuway, conditions were harsh. His soldiers were spread throughout the district, and Skelton tried to visit each platoon every day, sometimes traveling via helicopter, but often on foot. The Canadian unit that Skelton’s company replaced had referred to foot patrols as “IED hopscotch.”

“Every time they walked out, or at least every day, they were in a firefight,” Sims said of Skelton’s company.

Sleeping three or four hours a night and trading off so that at least one of them was awake at all times, Skelton and his first sergeant came up with a shorthand to tell each other that things were fine: “TIC, no CAS,” meaning “Troops in contact; no casualties.”

Besides leading his troops, Skelton had to mentor and advise an Afghan National Army battalion, and build relationships with local Afghan leaders. His visible war wounds gave him instant credibility with local leaders, most of whom had been fighting almost their entire lives. Keeping his prosthetic eye clean would have been difficult, so Skelton had his left eye socket stitched shut. His interpreter revealed that the locals had dubbed him “The Pirate of Nakhony” as a result.

“Every day, I dealt with [them], trying to empower the local people and [learn] their needs,” Skelton recalled.

At the same time, one of the leaders kept trying to have him assassinated.

“His family had several sons that were known commanders and members of the Taliban,” he said. “Everyone knew it. It would have been very hard for him not to know about every IED emplacement, every weapons cache, every firefight.”

On the way to a meeting the local leader had requested, Skelton and his security team had to walk past a group of Afghan civilians celebrating a wedding. Insurgents attacked them, using the wedding party as a shield.

“It was beautifully orchestrated,” Skelton said, because his soldiers couldn’t return fire for fear of hitting the civilians. “How’d they know our approach? Because [he] called and told them!”

Sims’ concerns about Skelton’s physical abilities had been valid. Afghanistan took its toll. Skelton’s prosthetic palate is an imperfect solution. He has to take it out to clean it. Each time he does, he runs the risk of particles or fluid traveling to his lungs. The result can leave him aspirating, gasping for breath, sometimes vomiting.

It’s rough enough in the civilian world, where it happens to him about three times a week, Skelton said. In the middle of a war zone in an undeveloped country, with some of the worst air quality in the world, it would have been very easy for things to go very badly.

“You could argue — you should argue — whether or not that’s even safe,” Skelton said. “If you are a good leader, why would you purposely put yourself at risk, and put your soldiers at risk?

“What happens if I was in the middle of a mission in the middle of a firefight and I started choking and aspirating? . . . That’s the risk.”

Keeping that risk at bay, he added, meant doing exactly the opposite of what he ordered his soldiers to do — fasting and even risking dehydration.

“Putting stuff in my mouth is when I’ll aspirate, so I wouldn’t drink water,” he said. “If I’m only doing a six-hour patrol, I won’t eat or drink for six hours. Do as I say, not as I do. That was a hard hypocrisy to live with.”

Bad-ass of the year

The squadron returned home by Memorial Day. For Skelton, the war was over.

Physically, he was banged up. He needed a new prosthetic eye. His artificial palate had been designed to last a year or so, and he had been using it for more than five years. He needed physical therapy to attempt to regain additional use of his left hand, and new skin grafts on his right leg. As it was, the leg would bleed at the slightest bump or bang.

Throughout the rest of 2011, his unit changed radically. The regimental and squadron commanders changed. Close to two-thirds of the soldiers in his company turned over. Skelton found he was working just as much in Germany as he had been in Afghanistan, 18 to 20 hours a day. By the time he reached the one-year anniversary of his command, in late January, he was relieved to give up the company.

Earlier this month, Skelton returned to the United States. He’ll spend the spring and summer undergoing medical procedures and attending the Army’s Intermediate Level Education course. In the fall, he heads to China to resume his foreign-area officer career. His job will be that of a diplomat, building relationships, learning about China, reporting back home.

Meantime, news of what he’d accomplished by returning to command in the infantry got out. The Daily ran a two-part article calling him, “the Army’s most seriously wounded commander.” Esquire Magazine selected him a “Patriot of the Year.” The Daily Mail in London and the tabloid National Enquirer picked up on the story. Even Penthouse ran a brief article between its more visually oriented items, citing Skelton and SEAL Team 6 as two of its “Bad-asses of the Year.”

Most of those accounts focus on Skelton regaining what he lost. That means it sets the bar too low. The real challenge, Skelton insists, is subsuming his wounds into the newer, better person he’s become.

“You can grow from it and be stronger than you were before,” he said. “But if you choose that, you’d better own it. . . . You got wounded? You got blown up? What are you going to do with that gift?”
 

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