Dave Alexander went through Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in college, flew Black Hawk helicopters in the military, taught ROTC and went into the Reserves.
Alexander went to graduate school for audiology and started working at the Maryland School for the Deaf in November. There, he met Keith Nolan, who wants to be in the military but can’t because he’s deaf.
“At first, I was like, ‘Really? I don’t know if that can work,’” Alexander said. “I think once people stop and think about it and recognize the talents everybody can contribute, I think we can get over that. I’m fortunate enough to work with Keith and fortunate enough to see his talent, his work and his skills.”
Alexander is helping Nolan try to persuade the Department of Defense to create a pilot program to train 15 to 20 candidates with a range of hearing loss to be Air Force officers.
In 2016, a bill was reintroduced and a feasibility report on the pilot program was put in the military’s annual budget, known as the National Defense Authorization Act. The feasibility report, by the Institute for Defense Analyses, named ability to deploy and security as primary obstacles to allowing deaf people in the military.
The report was due March 1, but it didn’t get to Congress until mid-May. It was supposed to help Congress consider a bill on the pilot program.
“It was too late at that point for them to do anything,” Nolan signed through an interpreter.
The pilot program could be considered for the fiscal 2018 military budget, although Nolan hopes the White House can help him sooner.
He’s met with White House liaisons several times over the last five years, but it never went anywhere. He’s met with people in Congress more than 100 times.
Two years ago, Nolan and Ethan Lusted, the first deaf graduate of The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, ran from the Maryland School for the Deaf to Washington to garner support for the legislation. They met with about 300 supporters after the run to march from the Capitol to the White House.
Nolan signed that there is a range of supporting roles the deaf could fill. The recent focus on cybersecurity, primarily requiring computer skills, opens up more positions.
The 11-page feasibility report states that each service member must be able to deploy at any time, regardless of military occupational specialty. Some people have not deployed in the last 10 years, but there are no non-deployable occupations.
“Service members are warriors ready to deploy rapidly and without impediment or encumbrance,” the report reads.
The accessibility of military equipment may keep people with a hearing impairment from serving in the military, the report states. Many accommodations use portable electronics or wireless technology, which could hurt security and require security review and documentation.
The institute said operational requirements grow faster than available resources, making it important that each service member can deploy.
“While the concept of establishing pools of personnel exempt from deployment is feasible, the impact to the force would be significant,” the report reads.
If service members cannot deploy, the report states, leadership has to find replacements, creating work and a delay in personnel processing.
“Ultimately an increase in the number of non-deployable military personnel places undue risk and personal burden on service members qualified and eligible to deploy, and negatively impacts readiness,” the report reads.
Nolan has always wanted to be in the military. He heard stories while growing up about his grandfather who was a lieutenant in the Navy and served on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. Several other relatives were in the military. They all could hear.
His older brother was an avid reader of military history and would teach Nolan.
“I remember when I was little, we had these different little soldiers, you know, the plastic soldiers,” he signed. “And we would do strategies of how to go this way or that way, what would happen.”
Nolan, who unsuccessfully tried to enlist in the Navy, could participate in an ROTC program at California State University, Northridge, until the third level, which required a physical with a hearing test.
Alexander said he and Nolan attended high school and college. Both were in ROTC. But only Alexander could complete ROTC and go into the military.
“He’s just as capable as I am,” Alexander said. “He has some talents that I don’t have. I have some talents that he doesn’t have. But put us together and we make a really good team. Just like any other Americans.”
Alexander said people he served with used hearing aids due to hearing levels that decreased while serving. If those people tried to join the military, they wouldn’t be allowed in.
Two years ago, Nolan started the Maryland School for the Deaf’s Cadet program, similar to Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. The program teaches students about the military, including rank structure and soldier skills, focusing on leadership, teamwork and communication.
Nolan signed that it would be great if cadets could enter the military or go into ROTC in college, but that wasn’t the intention of starting the program, which now includes five students.
“But all of that’s down the road,” Nolan signed. “For now, I’m trying to focus now on the bill. I’m trying to focus on the now. One step at a time. I do hope to see this demonstration program. That’s my focus: Is the demonstration program set up soon? Once we have that, I feel that’s where we can worry about what happens next.”