Deaf Americans: Fighting for the chance to serve in the military

Keith Nolan, deaf activist.

Yesterday, the Pentagon unveilled plans to allow female service members to join combat battalions.

Last fall, the military ended its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, allowing gays to serve openly.

Now another group of Americans is fighting to wear the uniform.

Keith Nolan, a deaf man, wants to fight for his country.

For now, he's focused on fighting a Pentagon policy that stops the deaf from enlisting.

"There are a plethora of various non-combat jobs accessible to the deaf: intelligence, computer technology, map drawing, supply," Nolan says.

When Nolan, now 29, couldn't pass a standard hearing test he was turned away from the Army's ROTC program.

Now, he's asking Congress to change the policy. And in the deaf community, he's become an icon.

In fact, at Gallaudet University, many believe deaf individuals should be allowed to serve even in combat roles.

"There may be some limitations with regard to specific duties they may be asked to perform, but I believe very much that deaf people can do anything they want to do," says Robert Weinstock, a Gallaudet faculty member.

But opponents say it just won't work to have deaf people serve in combat or even in support jobs at the Pentagon. They argue the military has a unique structure that requires the rotation of service members through different jobs, through different parts of the world. And they believe that versatility is what makes the U.S. military so strong.

"Everyone is considered essential personnel," says Jerome Wilcox. "So everyone should rotate in and out of combat zone."

Wilcox is a retired Air Force Sgt. and a veteran of Desert Storm.

He's also a Gallaudet student who lost his hearing later in life.

On this issue, he finds himself at odds with others on campus by supporting the current policy.

"Look at what's happening, the force is constantly being reduced, which means everyone should be able to serve in combat," he says.

The White House declined to comment on the debate.

But the defense department says, "All military members must be available for worldwide duty 24 hours a day without restriction or delay, and must be 'medically adaptable to the military environment.' In other words, there are no exclusively support or non-combat jobs at the entry level that are non-deployable."

But after changes in policy affecting African Americans, women, and gays, deaf activists vow to keep fighting.

In response to ABC7's questions, the Defense Department issued the following statement:

Q1. Why is this policy necessary?

Answer: Department of Defense Instruction (DoDI) 6130.03 "Medical Standards for Appointment, Enlistment, or Induction in the Armed Forces" provides specific medical standards to ensure those who enlist are medically qualified to perform their military duties.

That policy states a current hearing threshold level in either ear greater than: (1) pure tone at 500, 1000, and 2000 cycles per second for each ear of not more than 30 decibels (dB) on the average with no individual level greater than 35 dB at those frequencies; and (2) pure tone level not more than 45 dB at 3000 cycles per second or 55 dB at 4000 cycles per second for each ear, does not meet the medical standard for accession.

Q2. Is it possible for deaf people to serve the military in support jobs or non-combat jobs?

Answer: All military members must be available for worldwide duty 24 hours a day without restriction or delay, and must be "medically adaptable to the military environment without the necessity of geographical area limitations."

This duty may be in remote areas lacking immediate and comprehensive medical support. In other words, there are no exclusively support or non-combat jobs at the entry level that are non-deployable.

In all areas of military life, but especially in combat, an individual's life and the lives of his or her comrades may depend on what individuals can hear.

Situations could occur where hearing impairment would not only result in injury or loss of life, but could jeopardize a unit's mission.

Approximately 30 percent of individuals desiring to enter the Armed Forces today have some physical condition that is disqualifying.

While many of these people have otherwise outstanding qualifications, they are unable to serve.

The Department of Defense team consists of both military and civilian members.

Individuals who are physically disqualified for military duty can and do become civilian members of the team.

The work they perform for the Department and our country is valuable and rewarding but without the rigors of military duty.

A listing of government job vacancies is available from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management at its website:

Eileen M. LainezDoD Spokeswoman, Defense Press OfficeOffice of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)

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