The Disabled Soldier: A Case for Disabled Americans in the U.S. Armed Services
Our country is at a crossroads with the changing nature of warfare that stretch beyond the physical battlefield. Air, water, outer space, chemical, and cyber battlefields have quickly replaced physical, hand-to-hand combat.1 Russia, China, and Iran target the United States with “hackers, spies, special operations forces” online and “in the shadows” over traditional soldiers and battlefields.2 Their actions require little physical strength and agility to manipulate and overthrow U.S. cyber, economic, and technological interests behind desks and computer screens.3
Remote and non-earth-centric warfare will redefine the core knowledge, skills, and abilities required of American warfighters. Technical, scientific, and virtual - or non-kinetic - warfare calls for military innovation and personnel change. On top of these demands, our military struggles to meet personnel goals as the “Department of Defense (DoD) faces its most challenging recruitment environment in 50 years.” 4
Although the DoD’s strategic thinkers and planners have recognized these novel theaters and modes of conflict, including the individual skillsets and weaponry appropriate to such missions, this new frontier has exposed an unconsidered opportunity for a force to include untapped pools of intelligent and talented disabled Americans in the military service—a group historically excluded from such opportunities.
Yet, most disabled Americans cannot enter the military because of our physical and medical standards.5 This restriction contradicts the DoD’s practice of retaining active-duty or limited-service-status soldiers disabled in the field who meet satisfactory performance standards for their original or other military positions.6
Advancements in science and technology provide more reliable and adaptable medical equipment for our disabled active-duty soldiers without posing a risk to the mission, yet these same technologies are widely used by disabled Americans barred from entering our military.
With today’s landscape and technologies, a transtibial amputee or paraplegic soldier might, however, be of benefit to the virtual battlefield as a drone operator and or cyber intelligence analyst. What is the difference between a double below-the-knee amputee remote piloting a drone in service to her country and a non-disabled service member that meets the physical fitness standard? Will we let legacy requirements exclude the best talent for the roles and demands at hand?
The Revolutionary War employed disabled soldiers, as did the Union and Confederate Armies in the Civil War.7 In World War I and II, the Army established the Limited Service program—men with physical conditions and varying disabilities could meet manpower demands and serve in essential military functions.8 By 1946, the Army’s Chief Classification and Personnel Actions Branch projected the possibility of enlisting a man with only “one eye, one leg, or even no legs," if he met all job requirements aside from physical standards.9 And in our gravest conflicts, five-star generals reported to a disabled commander-in-chief. Our military history shows that it is feasible, and strategically beneficial, to expand military service to disabled Americans in times of extreme conflict.
Now, disabled athletes - from elite to paralympic level - have the required skillsets and mental agility to excel in emerging warfare. Studies support that disabled elite athletes are mentally capable of withstanding unimaginable mental and physical stress in challenging environments.10 Even our European partners recognize the grit, talent, and adaptability of paralympic athletes and space exploration capabilities in the Parastronaut Feasibility Project.11
The military also seeks high-aptitude recruits with the very skills Silicon Valley—Google and Microsoft, for example—and the Israeli Defense Force employ disabled individuals to create computer scripts, programs, and algorithms.12 Disabled Americans can accomplish and improve the military’s reliance—and success—with semi-autonomous technologies, computing, and artificial intelligence.13 In all of these ways, disabled individuals could help the military recruit, retain, and advance talent for non-kinetic missions.
Our force is familiar with recognizing minority groups. Past lawmakers experienced this uncertainty when adopting the Women’s Auxiliary Corps in World War II. At that time, it was unclear if women would compromise the force and unit cohesion despite women’s contributions to the defense landscape since the Revolutionary War. But global threats pushed our military to make this expansion. Now we see women at the top ranks of the force and continuing to break legacy barriers.
Like the adoption of women, African Americans, and the LGBTQ community into the force, it is in the interest of our county to use all forms of talent—including voluntary—that best equips the military for future warfare. This too is possible for disabled Americans who are interested and best qualify for military service.
Conflict will always have physical components, but having more bodies on the battlefield will leave the United States at a strategic disadvantage against our adversaries. We should not expect that all soldiers will excel in both physical and virtual environments as our best runners and will not outpace an enemy’s advanced computing.
The fact is, disabled Americans served and progressed our military capabilities since the creation of our country and will continue to meet the call of service in our greatest battles. It is time the United States military officially recognizes and expands service to disabled talent for what’s to come.
- Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review 2014 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2014), 3, Reference link.
- Seth Jones, Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran, and the Rise of Irregular Warfare (New York: Norton, 2021), 4.
- Jones, 6.
- U.S. Government Accountability Office, National Security Snapshot: DOD Active-Duty Recruitment and Retention Challenges, GAO-23-106551 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2023), 1, Reference link.
- Department of Defense, Medical Standards for Military Service: Retention, vol. 2, DoD Instruction 6130.03 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2020), 3, Reference link.
- Nathan D. Ainspan and Walter E. Penk, Returning Wars’ Wounded, Injured, and Ill (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2008), 89.
- Bernard Rostker, “The American System of Providing for the Wounded Evolves,” in Providing for the Casualties of War: The American Experience through World War II (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013), 64, Reference link.
- Sanders Marble, Scraping the Barrel: The Military Use of Sub-Standard Manpower (Bronx: Fordham University Press, 2012), ProQuest.
- George R. Evans, “Not So Disabled,” Army Information Digest 1, no. 8 (December 1946): 44.
- Karen M. Whitfield and Kyle John Wilby, “Developing Grit, Motivation, and Resilience: To Give Up on Giving In,” Pharmacy: Journal of Pharmacy Education and Practice 9, no. 2 (2021): 109, Reference link; Jeffrey Martin and Laurie Malone, “Elite Wheelchair Rugby Players’ Mental Skills and Sport Engagement,” Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology 7 (2013): 253–63, Reference link.
- “John McFall,” European Space Agency, accessed June, 25, 2023, Reference link.
- Stacy Rader, Matthew D. Nelson, and Marvin Gorgas Jr., “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and the U.S. Army: Recruiting and Readiness Implications” (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2018), 20, Reference link; Ben Sales, “Deciphering Satellite Photos, Soldiers with Autism Take on Key Roles in IDF,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency (blog), December 8, 2015, Reference link.
- Barbara A. Bicksler and Lisa G. Nolan, Recruiting an All-Volunteer Force: The Need for Sustained Investment in Recruiting Resources—An Update (Arlington, VA: Strategic Analysis, Inc., 2009), 2, Reference link.