MAJ DJ Skelton, West Point Class of 2003, suffered a number of serious injuries as an infantry platoon leader during the second Battle of Fallujah. During a Modern War Institute Speaker Series event on Monday, May 2nd, he discussed his experiences with a roomful of cadets. He provided details of how he was wounded, his post-traumatic growth, and his journey to being dubbed “the most wounded commander in U.S. military history.”
A native of South Dakota and fluent speaker of Chinese, MAJ Skelton recalled his time at West Point when the World Trade Center fell and how war was an unfamiliar concept to most cadets at the time. In 2004, as part of a Stryker brigade in Fallujah, he was tasked to defend a bridge and came under attack from “hundreds” of insurgents. After being evacuated, he spent a month in a coma, underwent between 35 and 40 surgeries, and lost his left eye, upper jaw, palate, and the use of his left hand and right leg.
“If you want to know the diameter of an RPG, I can show you my right leg,” he told the cadets.
But it was the impersonal nature of the U.S. Army bureaucracy that scarred him most. “I’ve often reflected back on this time when I got injured and asked myself, ‘What went wrong? Why was the process so painful?’” He vowed to advocate on behalf of other wounded warriors. He even spent six months emailing the Defense Secretary himself with his concerns. For his persistence, he was given a position as a military advisor in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon and later for the Office of the Joint Chief of Staff, which allowed him to learn first-hand how the interagency process worked.
In 2010, however, MAJ Skelton decided he did not want to be a “wounded warrior any more” and quit his job. He wanted to get back into combat. After years away from combat, he had to relearn how to be an infantry officer. He also had to test his body to see what he could actually endure. He spent weeks in Fort Benning, Georgia putting his body through the challenges of multiple infantry related schools. He even went back through portions of Ranger School. Eventually, he returned to combat, this time in Kandahar, Afghanistan, serving as a light infantry Company Commander.
He later realized going back to command was a mistake, however. “I needed to be true to myself,” he told the cadets.” “I realize if we’re going to ask America’s sons and daughters to serve, then they deserve leaders who are 100% in mind and body. Should we be putting wounded warriors back in combat zones? Is it safe and smart? I was not 100% physically or mentally.”
His road to recovery was not always easy – he admitted to drinking heavily at times and lying to his friends, family, and coworkers. He attributed his survival to the persistence of his former soldiers and their relentless displays of care for his well-being. He also advocated for maintaining relationships. “We all belong to a community – whether relatives, hobby related, or geographic,” he said.
Twelve years after his platoon was ambushed in Fallujah, changing the course of his life, MAJ Skelton is now finishing his masters at the Naval Postgraduate School and continues to advocate on behalf of disabled veterans.
“Take care of yourself,” he told the cadets. “If you are not healthy, there is no way you can take care of another human being, whether it is your spouse or another soldier.”
Photo credit: U.S. Army photo by: John Pellino/ West Point DPTMS VI