Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) student U.S. 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 suffered in combat and a
fervent drive to rehabilitate and return to his Soldiers on the
front lines years later, he was coined the ... Most Wounded
Commander in U.S. Military History.
But Skelton's story,
throughout his recovery and since that return to combat, has earned
him an additional title ... that of an American hero.
August 1, 2008 - Prior to returning to command the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in Afghanistan, then U.S. Army Capt. DJ Skelton, left, with his first sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class James O. Bishop while in command of Company E, 229th Military Intelligence Battalion. In spite of Skelton's grave injuries in 2004 in Iraq, Skelton fought for several years to stay on active duty and return to combat. (Courtesy
Skelton is near complete on his degree in Asia Pacific
Studies in NPS' Department of National Security Affairs. And
in a reflection of life coming full circle, Skelton's story
has its beginnings in Monterey.
“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 [DLI],” said Skelton.
DLI, 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. He did, was accepted, and became an
infantry officer. After graduation, he was stationed at Fort
Lewis, now Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where he became the
leader of a Stryker platoon.
He wasn't at Fort Lewis
long, however. In September of 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
“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. I couldn't see anything. I couldn't feel
anything. I felt like I was floating through space,” Skelton
recalled. “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
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 (RPG) struck the pylon beside him.
“My left arm was destroyed. My hand was intact, but
everything from the wrist to the elbow was destroyed. 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 described. “[My survival] is
a testament to our body armor and to our teamwork. 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,” said Skelton.
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.
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,” said Skelton.
He recalled the
“negative” atmosphere that pervaded the hospital during
those days, and noted that even the doctors tasked with
caring for wounded service members fell victim to its
“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,” said Skelton.
He also noted 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. There was no
incentive to do anything but hang out, go to appointments,
and get your Army pay,” said Skelton.
But that was
not the life he wanted to live. Skelton was determined to
get back to work.
“I was an inpatient for over half
a year. I was an outpatient for 36 hours. When I became an
outpatient, I went over to the Fischer 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
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
“That's what the bureaucracy of the Army
said needed to happen,” Skelton recalled. “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.”
discouraged, and began a dark period in his life. 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.
relentless and didn't take no for an answer,” recalled
Skelton. 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.”
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 former Secretary of Defense Donald
“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.,'” recalled Skelton.
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,
the political winds shifted, and Skelton was given the
opportunity to return to DLI, where he commanded a student
It was while working at DLI that Skelton
recalled the satisfaction he garnered from his return to
outdoor activity, and founded Paradox Sports. The Boulder,
Colorado-based program conducts about 40 events throughout
the year for both veterans and non-veterans alike. 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
“[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.
[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 go ice climbing?'” Skelton said.
advocacy work caught the attention of then Chairmen of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael 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.
have moved on and devoted himself to his non-profit
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'” said Skelton.
“I didn't join the military to do that.”
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,
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
“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,” said Skelton. “There were about a half-dozen
Soldiers who had been privates with me in Iraq who where now
[non-commissioned 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. My Soldiers
helped out and we had no casualties, but it really bothered
me. When I got home, I called the infantry and said ‘It was
a great experience, but this is not smart.'
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,” he
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,” said Skelton. “This is
where wounded warriors came after WWII, a lot of people have
Skelton is not sure what will happen
next, but he has married and he and his wife recently
welcomed a baby boy to their family. What is certain,
however, is that he will remain a powerful voice for wounded
service members, and any cause and effort he sets his mind
By Kenneth Stewart, Naval Postgraduate School
Comment on this article