October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, a time that is set aside not only to raise awareness about disability employment issues, but also to celebrate the contributions of America’s workers who have disabilities. According to the United States Department of Labor, more than twenty percent of the nation’s workforce is comprised of people with disabilities. A growing number of them are veterans who sustained their injuries while serving in the military.
In my work with the Veterans History Project (VHP), I often encounter veterans who have burns, missing limbs, challenges with mobility and invisible wounds such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. These veterans all seem to have a certain sense of humility that may come naturally with surviving combat. What they also seem to have is an understandable determination to be treated just like everyone else–no pity or awkward stares, just normalcy and equality. That includes a fair shot at earning an honest living.
Here is a look at a few veterans in the VHP archive that were injured in combat and lived to share their inspirational stories.
Connie Rose Spinks is always at the top of my list when asked about wounded veterans. Her story has resonated with me since my first week at VHP in 2009. While serving in Iraq in 2004, Spinks’ face, arms and legs were severely burned during a suicide bomb attack. After viewing her before and after photos, I believed Spinks had every right to feel sorry for herself, but perseverance trumps self-pity any day. A recipient of the Purple Heart, presented to her by none other than Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington, Spinks’ personal definition of survival is one to be remembered.
Facing difficulty, adversity, and not giving up. Not just lying in the bed and accepting your situation, but trying to change it.
Guy Anthony Colella survived a kamikaze attack while serving in the Navy during World War II that nearly cost him his eye. In the heat of the raid, Colella did not know how severe his injury was.
I could hear a rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat rattle coming up to us, bullets, shrapnel. I ducked my head. And just as I started to put my hand up just to my face, I got a sharp pain above my left eye. And then blood start coming down my face. Say ‘Oh, my God.’
With no doctor on board his ship, it took a few months for Colella to get an x-ray to confirm there was shrapnel in his face. Amazingly, it was still there at the time of his VHP interview decades later.
Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth is one of this country’s most recognizable wounded veterans. Duckworth lost both legs and partial use of her right arm after the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq in 2004. She is a shining example of how to turn tragedy into triumph. In addition to meeting the needs of her constituents in Illinois’ eighth district, Duckworth continues to drill as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Illinois Army National Guard.
The world is a better place because of the sacrifices made by so many soldiers, sailors, airmen, coast guardsmen and marines. We are grateful for their valor and service, and honored that so many have chosen to share their experiences with the Veterans History Project for the benefit of future generations. We also remain just as grateful for those who made the ultimate sacrifice and lost their lives in combat.