(Interpreter voice-over) Hello, everyone. My name is Keith Nolan. I’m a cadet private. My talk today is on the topic of the military. How many of you out there thought you’d ever like to join the military? I see a number of you nodding. And I thought the same thing ever since I was young.
Growing up, I’d always wanted to join the military. I loved military history and I’ve read a great deal on the subject. Also, I have various family members, such as my grandfather and great uncle, who fought in World War II. And like them, I wanted the same thing: to serve my country. So the question is: Can I? No, I can’t. Why? Simply because I’m deaf. Regardless of that fact, I still had that longing to join the military.
For example, after I graduated from high school, three months before 9/11 occurred, I went to a naval recruiting center with high hopes of joining the navy. I went in and a strapping naval man stood up and addressed me. As he was speaking to me, it was impossible for me to read his lips, so I said, “I'm sorry, I’m deaf.” He tore off a little piece of paper and wrote down three words: “Bad ear. Disqual.” He didn't even fully spell out "Disqualified," just: “Bad ear. Disqual.” So I went on my way. I tried various locations a number of different times, trying to join, but over and over again, I got the same response: “Sorry, you’re deaf. We can’t accept you.”
So I shifted gears and decided to become a teacher. I completed a master's in deaf education and taught for almost two years, until this past spring, when three things occurred that changed that course, the first of which, while I was teaching a high school history class. I’d lectured on the Mexican-American War. The bell had rung, and I was seated at my desk, when one of my students, who is deaf, approached me and said that he’d like to join the military. I said, “Ah, sorry. You can’t. You're deaf.” Then I caught myself. It struck me that all along I had been told no, I can’t, and now I was perpetuating that same message to the next generation, to my own student. That realization had a large impact that really resonated with me.
Now, the second thing that happened, my friend had just moved to Israel. Did you know that in Israel they accept deaf people into the military? How can deaf people be in the military, right? Could this really be true? Come on! Well, I went to Israel last summer to see for myself. I interviewed 10 deaf Israeli soldiers, all of those video interviews and questions I’ve compiled, and the findings, I’ll share with you later.
Thirdly, CSUN here, my alma mater, had recently started up an Army ROTC program. ROTC, which stands for Reserve Officer Training Corps, allows students working on their college majors to concurrently participate in the ROTC program. Upon graduation, ROTC students have a military career ready and waiting for them. So if one joined the army, one could commission as a second lieutenant. That's generally the ROTC program here at CSUN.
Having learned that, I was intrigued. I already had a profession as a teacher, but I went ahead anyway and sent an email off to the program, explaining that I was a teacher of the deaf, wondering if I could take a few classes with them and perhaps share their lessons with my students. I got an email response back, and surprisingly, it was the first time that I wasn't told, "Sorry, no, you can’t. You’re deaf." It said, "Well, that's interesting. I think maybe we can work something out and you can take a few classes with us." This was unprecedented. So naturally, I was shocked. Although I was teaching, I decided I had to grab the opportunity right away and get my foot in the door. Altogether, that's how it transpired. Now, with all my life experiences, having talked with all the people I had, and given everything I’ve read, I decided to write a research paper called “Deaf in the Military.” I'll share with you what those 98 pages entail.
Here in America, we’ve actually had deaf soldiers serving in the past. In fact, during the Texas War of Independence, there was a key character named Deaf Smith, who made a large contribution to that war effort. For the American Civil War, Gallaudet University actually has archived a list of deaf soldiers in that war from the North and the South, showing that deaf soldiers were even fighting against each other. During World War II, there are a few rare examples of deaf people who made it into the military at that time and were able to serve their country as well. History illustrates the fact that America has had deaf soldiers, in contrast to today.
In my paper, I also discuss the deaf Israeli soldiers. I learned that they serve in non-combat roles. The deaf soldiers are not on the front lines engaged in fire, but rather, are behind the lines serving in supportive roles. There are a plethora of various non-combat jobs accessible to the deaf: intelligence, computer technology, map drawing, supply, military dog training — the list goes on. The communication between deaf Israeli soldiers and other soldiers who are hearing is carried out with the same approaches deaf people in general use with the hearing public on a daily basis. You can use your voice, lip-read, gestures, sometimes another soldier knows sign language and that can be utilized, pen and paper, texts, computers, emails — seriously, there’s no magic wand necessary. It's the same thing we do every day. Interpreters are used there primarily for boot camp training. For the average work, it’s not necessary to have an interpreter by your side. The Israeli Army is comprised of small groups. Each of these units with deaf soldiers have developed their own way of communicating with each other, so there’s no need for interpreters. The top picture is of one soldier I met. The bottom photo is of Prime Minister Begin with a deaf soldier in Israel.
Another part of my paper touches on disabled soldiers in the US Military. Obviously, military work can be dangerous and involve injury. One example here is Captain Luckett. Due to an explosion, he lost his leg. He’s recovered and currently has a prosthetic leg. Now that he’s strong, he's back in combat, still fighting in Afghanistan. It’s remarkable. And guess what? He’s not the only one. There are 40 other soldiers like him, amputees who are serving in combat zones. Incredible.
Also, we have a blind soldier here. While he was in Iraq, an explosion from a suicide car bomber destroyed his eyesight. He’s recovered and hasn’t left the army. The army has retained him on active duty, and he’s currently running a hospital for wounded soldiers. I also found out online about another soldier, who is deaf in one ear. He’s developed civil programs in Iraq, one of which actually started a school for the deaf in Iraq. All of this is incredible. But I am going to ask all of you: If the US Military can retain their disabled soldiers, why can’t they accept disabled citizens as well? Moreover, out of all the US Military jobs, 80% are non-combat positions. There are many jobs that we in the Deaf community can do. If I were to be in the military, I’d like to do intelligence work. But there is an array of other things we can do, such as mechanics, finance, medicine, etc.
So to summarize, I’ve presented three premises to support my argument, the first being, Israeli defense openly accepts deaf soldiers. If you have the qualities and skills required, they’ll take you. Secondly, the US Military has accommodations for retaining their disabled soldiers. And lastly, 80% of occupations in the military are non-combat. Now, can we Deaf Americans serve our country? Yes! Of course! Absolutely, without a doubt!
Now I’ll explain a bit about my experience in the Army ROTC, which began last fall. I have been involved with that thus far and it’s still going on now. Really, I need to preface this by saying that this is the first time my battalion had ever had a deaf cadet. They had never experienced that before. So of course, they were taken aback, wondering, initially, how I would do this or that, how would we communicate and such, which is a natural reaction, considering that many of them had never interacted with a deaf person prior to me. Plus, I was taken aback by this — it was the real thing, the army. I had to learn a whole new world, full of military jargon, with its own culture and everything. So we started out slow, getting to know each other and learning how to work together, progressively.
For example, on the first day of class, I had no uniform. So I showed up in regular clothes, while the other cadets were all in uniform. I found out that every morning at 5:30, there was physical training, PT. On Fridays, there would be field training — labs — off-campus, and occasionally, we would have weekend training at a military base. So I showed up, ready, each morning at 5:30, with all the cadets in uniform and me in civilian clothes. They told me, “Hey, you know, you don't need to work out. You can just simply take classes.” I told them I wanted to, anyway. They acknowledged that, and I continued to show up every morning to train.
When Friday came, I asked if I could do the field training. I was told no, just stick with class. I insisted that I wanted to try. Somewhat reluctantly, they let me attend the lab, but only as an observer; I would only be allowed to sit and watch, not participate. Alright, so, I showed up on Friday, and watched as the cadets learned marching drill commands, like how to stand at attention, how to properly salute, and all the basics. I had to ask again if I could join. Finally, I got the go-ahead. I went to get in formation. I figured I better stand in the second line, so I could watch what the cadets were doing in the row ahead of me. But the officer who opened the door for me to join the ROTC program spotted me in the back and said, “Hey! Uh-uh. I want you in the front. You want to be a soldier? You've got to learn the commands just like the rest of them. You’re not going to follow other people. Learn it yourself!” I thought, "Wow. He’s viewing me like any person, giving dignity to who I am." I was impressed by that.
So as the weeks went by, I still didn’t have a uniform. I asked if it would be possible to get one, but I was told it wasn't. So I continued on that way, until one day, I was informed that I’d be getting a uniform. "Please!" I said, “Really? Why? What changed?” I was told, “We see your motivation, you show up every morning, dedicated, and always gave a 110% effort.” They wanted to give me the uniform. It was remarkable. We went to the warehouse to get my uniform. I assumed I’d just get a uniform and a pair of boots, nothing more. But they filled two duffel bags chock-full of gear: helmet, ammo vest, shovel, sleeping bag — the whole nine yards. I was astonished. And I have to tell you, each morning that I get up and put on my uniform, I feel privileged. It’s truly an honor to wear the uniform.
So, moving along, when it came time to train at the garrison base, at first, I was told I couldn’t go. There was concern on the ROTC's part that if the interpreter were to get injured during the training, it would be a liability issue. So we had to figure out all those issues and confusion, but we worked it out, and in the end, they let me go. That's how events were unfolding; I was permitted to do more and more.
Once, at the garrison base, during one of the training days, a huge Chinook helicopter with its tandem rotors landed right down to us, forcefully spinning exhilaration in the air. All of us cadets were supposed to be getting on board. Everyone was geared up and ready. However, the cadre had decided I wasn’t going to be able to ride the Chinook. They were afraid if the pilot shouted out orders, how would I be able to follow the instructions? I’d potentially cause a disruption. So I had to stand aside, while the others were filing toward the helicopter. I could see the cadre huddled up, discussing, mulling it over. At the last minute, one of them said, “Come on! Get on the helicopter!” I rushed over and got in. It was such a thrill.
And that was the spirit of learning about and supporting one another that carried over. And since then, I’ve been involved in everything they do, without any separation. This is where my passion lies. I love them. I’ll show you some pictures here.
Bruin Battalion, Bravo Company — that’s the name of the group I belong to. The cadre are the officers and sergeants who oversee the ROTC program. In the beginning, you can see, it was a bit of an awkward phase. But once they learned more about me and what I’m capable of doing, there's been tremendous support and unity. The cadets, my fellow peers — well, when you train and sweat together, you feel the bond of camaraderie right away. A brother- or sisterly cohesiveness makes them like family. In training and military science classes, we learn theories of warfare, how to lead soldiers, how to do reconnaissance, strategies, how to knock out a bunker and land navigation, where you’re finding your way out in the mountains. As far as accommodations, I’ve been provided with interpreters through the National Center on Deafness, NCOD, here at CSUN. And I really have to thank them, because it's hard to find interpreters who are willing to wake up at 4:30 in the morning, or sometimes even 3:30 in the morning.
That's the officer who emailed me back, saying I think you can have a few classes with us. That's Lieutenant Mendoza. That’s my interpreter there, before class starts. This is a picture from last fall, when we were new to training.
This is Lieutenant Colonel Phelps, this being his name sign. He's the commanding officer of the entire Bruin Battalion. Every time I see him walk by, it’s rather inspiring. I mean, the way he presents himself, you can see he’s the epitome of a soldier. Plus, he doesn't view me as a deaf person. He looks at my skills and capabilities instead. He’s really pushed for me, and I respect him for all that.
That’s me during one of the exercises. This is that Chinook helicopter I almost didn’t get on. Every cadet has a mentor. My mentor is Cinatl. He’s a really sharp soldier. He teaches me all the finer points and how to execute them ideally.
This top picture is when a group of us went to Las Vegas to compete in a test, to see if we could match the German troops' physical training standards. It involved swimming, timed sprints, marksmanship and numerous fitness events. I passed them and satisfied the requirements to be awarded the gold German Armed Forces Proficiency Badge right here. This is one of the sergeants, Sergeant Richardson. I love this guy. He doesn't take baloney from any of us cadets.
Here I am one morning, when we trekked seven and a half miles with a 40-pound rucksack in less than two hours. Here are a few of my fellow cadets. I've been with them long enough that I’ve developed name signs for them. On the right, here, is Trinidad. I gave him this name sign because he's always very sarcastic. He's a veteran, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The female is Frigo, whose nickname is "Refrigerator," hence her name sign. We’re always competing intellectually in class. The cadet on the end is Jarvy. He's a top athlete. I've given him this sign because of the scar he has here.
Do you know who this is? This is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is the highest-ranking military officer and principal military advisor to President Obama and Secretary of Defense Gates. He gave a talk at UCLA to a full house. Afterwards, I lined up to shake his hand. Having done so, I greeted him, “It’s a great pleasure to meet you.” I signed and my interpreter voiced for me. Admiral Mullen turned to the interpreter and said, “It’s nice to meet you,” addressing the interpreter, who refrained to clarify. He seemed a little confused and just quickly moved on to shake hands with the rest of the soldiers. So I’m not sure whether he really knew that I'm deaf or not.
So everything’s been moving along, gung-ho, full speed ahead, until two weeks ago, when something occurred. Well, the ROTC has four levels. I’m currently doing the first two levels, which finishes up this May. The third level will begin in the fall. But in order to move up, you need to pass a medical exam. Obviously, I’m deaf, so I’d fail a hearing test. So we sat down, and I was told that if I wanted to continue to the third level, I couldn’t do any of the PT workouts in the morning, nor the Friday lab field trainings, nor the army base trainings. My uniform, I would have to give back as well. I could take the classes, audit them, and that’s all. It really hit me. It was a huge blow.
Many of the officers and cadets have empathized with this sudden shock of disappointment, and are wondering why this has to be the case. Colonel Phelps has tried to speak with the higher-ups in the chain of command and explain to them that I’m one of the top cadets, having passed all the events and receiving high marks on my exams. But their response is unwavering: policy is policy, and if you’re deaf, you’re disqualified. I know that the cadre has tried to find various ways. They found out that there's a deaf cadet at The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina. That particular cadet will be completing his fourth year there and graduating this May. Yet, he's in the same predicament that I'm in — unable to join the army because he’s deaf.
Yet, all of my fellow cadets and the officers have told me not to give up; the policy must change. I was advised to talk with my congressman. And I've brought this issue to Henry Waxman, the district congressman here in LA, to get the ball rolling with his advocacy for my cause. However, I need your help and support to lobby. All of us, you know?
If you remember back in US history, African-Americans were told they couldn’t join the military, and now they serve. Women as well were banned, but now they've been allowed. The military has and is changing. Today is our time. Now it’s our turn.