The Airmen We Need: Americans With Disabilities in the Air Force
He raises his prosthetic hand, thumb and fingers extended, to touch the tip of his brow, forming a straight line with his wrist and elbow. Shoulders back and eyes forward, she balances on ultralight carbon fiber forearm crutches; her lone foot makes a 45-degree angle with its missing twin.
That’s what’s different about them. What’s not different is that they come to attention and salute just like their fellow servicemembers.
When imagining an airman in the Air Force today, you might picture someone short or tall, male or female, from Mexico or the Philippines or Des Moines. You probably don’t envision an airman with a physical disability. But Americans with physical disabilities represent an untapped resource that can contribute to the Air Force’s 21st-century mission.
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright has said that the critical skills for an airman in today’s Air Force are wisdom, courage, and resilience — all attributes that describe an airman’s mind, not their body. Expertise and experience, grit and perseverance, leadership and followership, creativity and innovation, commitment and patriotism — Americans with disabilities can demonstrate all these qualities, just like Air Force airmen.
In fact, many crucial roles across the Air Force have little to do with physicality: research and& design, intelligence, cyber operations, military education, strategic planning, acquisitions, supply chain management, medicine, law, and myriad others. Other countries are exploring the benefits nontraditional recruits bring to specialized missions. The Israel Defense Force’s military intelligence arm has recognized and leveraged the unique capabilities of persons with autism — a condition that would traditionally have disqualified them from military service.
The importance of physical ability has diminished because of changes in the character of modern warfare. Conflicts in this century have been fought at greater distances with standoff weapons, unmanned aircraft, and cyber effects. The Air Force has rarely been in the business of castle-storming, and specific physical standards exist for those who are — Battlefield Airmen in specialized professions like Combat Control, Pararescue, and Special Tactics.
Moreover, the force is exhausted. A former assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans, and capabilities testified last year that supporting new capabilities like unmanned vehicles and cyber warfare require an increase in manpower. Not long after, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson proposed a growth strategy entitled “The Airmen We Need,” detailing a plan to increase end strength by 40,000 airmen — a 24 percent buildup — over the next seven years. Amid retention concerns and recruiting challenges, why automatically turn away a dedicated patriot who wheels herself into a recruiting station? She may know more about overcoming obstacles than the 10 cold calls that recruiter has to beg into his office.
There is already a movement to retain servicemembers with service-related disabilities on active duty. Air Force regulations currently allow servicemembers who become disabled to continue serving in a “limited” status if they have certain unique skills. Clearly, Air Force leaders recognize that mission-critical skillsets outweigh traditional accession requirements. Recruiting new airmen with physical disabilities is a bolder extension of that conclusion.
Digging into the Requirements
Other federal agencies don’t reject service-minded applicants with physical disabilities. Officers, agents, analysts, managers, and thought leaders of all physical abilities strive every day to further the missions of the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, and the Department of Homeland Security.
Of course, the picture is somewhat different for the military. The Air Force’s medical standards for enlistment, like those of the other service branches, are governed by Defense Department Instruction 6130.03. The general standards differ when it comes to eligibility for certain specialty jobs, like special operations, as well as physical fitness testing after military induction. Some of these differing requirements include swim tests for Navy personnel and varying standards for cardiovascular assessment across the services. Moreover, some military specialties require specific scores on the “PULHES” medical profile system. PULHES rates an individual’s physical capacity, strength and range of motion in upper and lower extremities, eyesight and hearing, and psychiatric stability. These measurements create an index that qualifies or disqualifies a military member for jobs with corresponding indices. For example, Air Force job specialties like computer programming have a PULHES index that would allow “defects or impairments” of the upper or lower extremities that significantly restrict their use to the extent that “hand-to-hand fighting” is prevented. (Of the approximately 230 Air Force enlisted job specialties, 139 have this minimal PULHES standard.)
At the same time, however, Instruction 6130.03 states that medical conditions such as the “absence of a foot…[or] hand” are disqualifying unless waived by the service’s secretary (even if the individual were recruited for one of those 139 Air Force specialties with the least stringent physical demands). In theory, if Air Force leaders believed that a healthy, fit individual with a prosthesis could meet the service’s job requirements, they could support a waiver of the Defense Department stipulations. In practice, when a prospective enlistee is screened at a recruiting station, a self-reported disqualifying condition that carries the stigma of being incompatible with military service is unlikely to result in accession.
A comprehensive National Research Council study on physical and medical standards for military enlistment found that comparing the physical requirements for every job specialty in each of the services would be prohibitively time-consuming. Instead, the study authors accepted Defense Department policy that “physical fitness is essential to combat readiness and is an important part of the general health and well-being for Armed Forces personnel.” But this element of department policy fails to appreciate what constitutes combat readiness for each branch of service.
There has been some important discussion about so-called lowering of military standards to permit entry of nontraditional “blue-haired” recruits. That discussion has raised the important idea that new military functions don’t rely on traditional physical standards. By the same logic, many such functions could also be opened up to those with disabilities. Like their “blue-haired” counterparts, Americans with disabilities can bring a talent and discipline to their service that sets them apart far more than do their physical attributes.
Addressing the Objections
Would admitting members with disabilities into the Air Force mean accepting low physical fitness standards? Not necessarily. In reality, an adaptive sports athlete might have a better resting heart rate, basal metabolic rate, and VO2 max than the average airman in any Air Force squadron. Just like all Air Force recruits, athletes with disabilities fall on a spectrum of fitness and physique. Using measures like a VO2 max test to measure the health of all airmen — as opposed to proxies like long-distance running and strength exercises — could open the door to people with disabilities.
Would basic training look different? It might. Would it have to be any less rigorous? Not if the designers of Spartan-style adaptive obstacle courses have anything to say about it: With adaptation, rigorous obstacles can be designed that enable those with disabilities to tackle them, without giving up the grit factor. Is boot camp really intended to teach the tasks of rope-climbing and low-crawling? Or is it an object lesson in building teamwork, persistence, and mental toughness? A rope swing isn’t the only way to achieve those goals.
But what about deployments? They’re not training environments, and their physical obstacles can’t be manipulated. Perhaps not, but many remote locations are less hostile now than in the past. The accessible world is constantly expanding. If an airman can’t deploy to Bagram, Afghanistan, he certainly can navigate his all-terrain wheelchair along the roads and sidewalks of Incirlik, Turkey or Yongsan, South Korea (a base in downtown Seoul that’s home to the 5-star Dragon Hill Lodge resort destination can hardly be considered austere).
Moreover, even if future deployments are to unimproved, inaccessible locales, not all airmen need to physically deploy to be combat-effective. This runs counter to the Defense Department’s new policy that intends to oust servicemembers in all branches who sustain noncombat related injuries and become medically non-deployable for more than 12 consecutive months. While the first six months of that policy have seen no major increase in separations, it still ideologically targets injured or disabled servicemembers on the grounds that they “can’t go overseas and carry a combat load.” (Never mind the load carried daily by drone-operating airmen who witness some of war’s most grisly and chilling atrocities — albeit from 7,000 miles away and sans rucksack.) It is possible to assign mentally tough members to units conducting operations such as drone warfare while allocating troops capable of physical contact with the enemy to ground combat units. This approach recognizes sources of operational stress beyond road marches and kicking down doors. It’s a pragmatic, doctrinally sound application of the economy-of-force principle of war, which requires a judicious employment and distribution of forces.
The family separation that inevitably accompanies deployment affects everyone, and no level of physical ability can prepare airmen for that experience. If those who can’t go to the farthest outposts instead share the weight of accessible remote tours, they can share in their fellow servicemembers’ burden of distance and loneliness. Moreover, servicemembers with disabilities could serve crucial roles in helping those who do go to the farthest-flung outposts to reintegrate. An Air Force psychologist or physical therapy technician can provide much-needed support to those who return from more austere assignments, whether or not they themselves have a disability.
Skeptics might also object to this proposal on the grounds that it would increase medical costs. It’s worth noting that since about 20 percent of federal entitlement benefits goes to non-elderly Americans with disabilities, some of the medical coverage that airmen with disabilities would get through military service may already be subsidized through governmental assistance. Additionally, the Veterans Administration already has processes in place to determine whether the government will pay disability claims for pre-existing conditions. Ensuring that all recruits have a clear listing of their medical conditions upon entry is equally important for applicants with and without disabilities. Admitting service-capable individuals would allow those who want to give back directly through military service (as many already do through other civic avenues). Furthermore, a significant number of teens with moderate disabilities attend mainstream schools and transition to the workforce with a stabilized treatment plan overseen by a general practitioner. They may be no more or less “burdensome” to the military medical system than any other young person transitioning from civilian to active duty life. A motivated, self-aware airman who enters the Air Force well-versed in doctor-patient roles and responsibilities and who has practice in proactively managing his or her own health sounds like any military hospital’s dream.
Finally, some might ask: why not simply recommend government civilian service for those who don’t meet active duty medical requirements? Serving in uniform is a special privilege that represents a choice on the part of both the servicemember and the nation. When Americans with disabilities choose to embark upon uniformed service to the country, the country has every reason to choose them back. In an uncertain era of drawdowns and buildups, the Air Force can’t afford not to invest in the force multipliers that ambitious, uniquely talented members represent.
The Way Forward
What could the Air Force do if it wanted to lead the way in this bold new direction? Much of what could be done to permit Americans with disabilities to serve in the Air Force is tied up in Defense Department instructions on military medical eligibility standards. As such, the service could start by affirming the physical requirements for different job specialties (in some cases, Defense Department instructions are already stricter than Air Force missions dictate.) It could more aggressively pursue Defense Department medical waivers for airmen who are healthy, fit, and have a great cardio game — regardless of what assistive devices they use. More holistically, the Air Force can reconsider what it means to be combat-capable and mission-ready.
The Air Force has and will continue to be a cornerstone of the nation’s cyber, space, air power, drone warfare, and nuclear capabilities. Its leaders should recruit, enlist, and train Americans with disabilities to serve in those roles. Because they’re needed. Because they can. Because the nation’s work is accessible to them, and it isn’t done yet.
Rachel Reynolds is a major in the Air Force; she has commanded a squadron in Afghanistan and most recently led operations at the Air Force’s enlisted cyber support schoolhouse. She is currently a graduate student at the National Intelligence University. All statements of fact, analysis, or opinion are the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense or any of its components, or the U.S. government.