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Person of the Month – April

Keith Nolan - Person of the Month Your name: Keith Nolan

How did you become interested in the military?  
I think it is difficult to pinpoint just when my interest with the military began.  I remember my brother’s military models when I was a little kid.  I slept on the USS Massachusetts battleship when I was in the Cub Scouts.  And, then of course, there are the stories about my family members’ service in World War II.  My paternal grandfather was a lieutenant in the Navy, having fought in the Leyte Gulf before his aircraft carrier, the USS Belleau Wood, was struck by a kamikaze.  My great-uncle was a captain in the Marines and was part of the amphibious assault and takeover of the airfield on Peleliu Island, earning a Silver Star.  He in fact told me one day before I left for high school football summer camp, “You should be in the Marines.”  My five maternal great-uncles were also in the military.  They were a soldier, sailor, Red Cross medic, cook, and paratrooper, respectively.

What inspired you to advocate for deaf people being permitted to join the military?   While I’d heard that there were stories about deaf soldiers in America’s past wars such as Deaf Smith from the Texas Independence War, it was the Israel Defense Force (IDF) that inspired me to advocate deaf Americans to serve in our armed forces.  I spent three weeks in Israel in 2010 where I was able to interview ten deaf Israeli soldiers and they were what made me realize that deaf Americans could serve in many of the supporting roles and contribute to the successes of our military’s missions.  Even more so, I was surprised to learn that some of the deaf IDF soldiers actually teamed and worked with our American Soldiers in Israel.

Please tell us more about how this issue could be addressed within the military. Like what my officers from my Army ROTC program at California State University, Northridge told me, they said, “Go to Congress, share with them your story and have them review the policy.”  It also helped that I’d done a preliminary research on the deaf in the military and had a 98-page draft paper. You can see my TED presentation HERE. Ever since my ROTC training ended in 2011, I’ve been in countless of meetings with Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon and that was how we came to the decision that the next best step to approach this is to have a demonstration program for deaf and hard of hearing Americans serving in the US Air Force.

You mentioned the demonstration program. Please tell us more about that. Last year, Senator Tom Harkin introduced S. 1864 and Congressman Mark Takano introduced an identical bill, H.R. 5296.  Both bills propose for the said demonstration program. You can learn more about the program HERE. To date, in fact, Congressman Takano just reintroduced the House bill on March 26, 2015. Click HERE for more information.

What barriers have you faced throughout your advocacy?  There are all kinds of barriers, but often it is ignorance that I’ve had to face throughout the four years of pushing for a demonstration program.  Then again, some will come up with excuses like it’s such a bad timing to be having a demonstration program because of the sequestration.  Or, some offices will simply not respond, even after having such a seemingly positive and successful meeting.  Sometimes it is about priorities for some.  Or, for some others, it is the fear of a slippery slope whereas if the military allowed in the deaf, what about the other disabilities?

What visible impact have you seen from your journey? The two Congressional bills that were introduced last year are clearly the biggest visible impact we’ve had so far.  We also had a rally at the White House and the US Capitol last September where a crowd of some 250 people came together from all over the country.  It was inspiring to see all of the support and encouragement coming from all kinds of people including Active Duty personnel and Veterans.  The community is what keeps me going.  It truly takes an army to make a change.

What do you envision ten years from now?

We have made huge progress with the Congressional bills in the past four years of work, but now our focus is on marking up the demonstration program with the National Defense Authorization Act as many Congressional offices have advised us as the best avenue to see the program implemented.  I hope we will finally have the demonstration program within ten years.

What advice do you have for others?

 I am thankful for the Army ROTC training I received from my officers and fellow cadets and I try to practice the seven Army Values I learned from them: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage (notice that the first letters of each qualities spell out LDRSHIP) and the Warrior Ethos where you will always place the mission first and never quit.

Photo credit: Erik Call


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