One man’s story of triumph over a debilitating disability coupled with a federal program aimed at hiring people with disabilities were the topics explored during Fort Meade’s annual National Disability Employment Awareness Month observance.
The 90-minute event, held Oct. 18 at Club Meade, drew about 50 garrison leaders, service members, DoD employees and other civilians.
This year’s theme is “Inclusion Drives Innovation.”
“It was great to hear the stories of each guest speaker and how they overcame difficult situations in their lives to get to where they are now,” said Jose Flores, Fort Meade’s Disability Program manager and organizer of the observance.
“We all have challenges in our lives, but if you believe in yourself and never quit, anything is possible.”
The guest speakers were Greg Wagner, a motivational speaker and a communications contractor with the Department of Justice, and Randy Cooper, director of Disability Policies and Programs at the DoD’s Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity.
Lt. Col. Gittipong Paruchabutr, commander of Headquarters Command Battalion, welcomed the audience on behalf of Garrison Commander Col. Tom Rickard.
Jasmin Skelton, security manager at the Installation Security Office, served as emcee.
Staff Sgt. Ian Bowling, a member of the U.S. Army Field Band’s Soldiers’ Chorus, sang the national anthem. Chaplain (Maj.) Dwayne Hughes of Fort Meade’s Family Life Ministry gave the invocation.
Deputy Garrison Commander Andy Albright also attended the event.
An Independent Life
Wagner, who was accompanied by his wife, Jenessa, shared how he survived a ruptured brain aneurysm at age 3 that left him with a tingling numbness across the right half of his body.
“The aneurysm caused a permanent stroke,” he said. “But since I can’t recall memories from when I was 3 or before, not that any of us can, my neurologically damaged body is completely natural to me,” he said. “Although I know exactly what it would feel like to not be disabled because that tingling numbness disappears as soon as I touch anywhere on the left side of my body.”
Wagner said everyone in the audience has a disability.
“Some are obvious as soon as you look at someone, while other disabilities appear hidden at first glance, ” he said. “… But even if someone’s disability is visible, nobody except that person knows the whole story — not just what happened, but how their disability affects how they live every day.
“So yes, each of us has a disability, but that does not mean that we are disabled,” Wagner said. “Living with a disability isn’t about acknowledging your limitations, but rather overcoming that obstacle to obtain uninhibited independence.”
Wagner praised service members who acquired a disability in the line of duty and continue to inspire.
“[You] not only sacrificed everything in your power to protect this country, but each of you continues to show and inspire us with the will to live and thrive by pushing through your disability.”
Wagner was determined to overcome his disability and participate in sports. As a child, his father taught him to throw and catch using his left hand. He said that as an incoming freshman, his high school’s varsity baseball team allowed him to train with them in the gym.
Wagner said that while he was a senior at McDaniel College in Westminster, he met Flores who was then a master sergeant in charge of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. The two men have remained friends ever since.
Although he was overweight and out of shape in college, Wagner ran track behind the ROTC cadets each morning. He later received invitations to try out with four Major League Baseball teams and by 2008, he was a runner in the Boston Marathon.
“As a boy, all I wanted was to show everyone what I could do despite my disability,” he said.
Today, Wagner is the creator of Determination, a physical fitness program dedicated to helping people overcome their limitations despite their disabilities.
“I have been in the gym at least five days a week, every week, since [the marathon], isolating my disability and developing my training program,” he said.
“The entire goal when you live with a disability is that your disability does not impede your life. And the biggest sense of pride is not necessarily if others can’t see your disability, but that they forget that you have one altogether.
“As many times as life knocked me down, I was determined to find a way to stand up unassisted on my disabled leg.”
Hiring The Best
Wagner said that everyone has a challenge in front of them.
“Your disability is not going to disappear tomorrow, but you can overcome your disability — and everyone here wants to make that happen for you,” he said. “I know this man [Flores] does and I know that Fort Meade as a family feels exactly the same way.”
Cooper spoke about his duties at the Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity in providing oversight and strategic guidance on all matters pertaining to the employment of people with disabilities.
Cooper and his staff helped to formulate and develop the message by Defense Secretary retired Marine Gen. James Mattis’ for the observance:
“We in the Department of Defense acknowledge the inherent dignity of every human life. This dignity is bound by nothing beyond the simple fact of our common humanity,” Mattis said in his statement.
“It belongs to all of us. Nothing may add or subtract from it; no distinction may mar its inestimable value — not color, creed or any other category. No level of capability — physical, mental or otherwise, whether the result of chance or design — may alter it. The universal dignity of the human person persists.”
The DoD’s Workforce Recruitment Program is aimed at helping the DoD achieve its goal of 2 percent of the civilian workforce composed of people with targeted disabilities.
The free referral program allows federal employers to hire postsecondary students and recent graduates with disabilities for available positions.
After the program, Sgt. 1st Class Desion Folks of garrison Headquarters and Headquarters Company, said he was impressed with the presentation.
“I thought it was very important and inspirational. [Wagner] excelled in everything he did,” Folks said. “Mr. Cooper gave us some good information about disability programs. It was good stuff.”
Lisa Brooks, a medical support assistant at Kimbrough Ambulatory Care Center, was moved by Wagner’s story as well.
“His presentation was wonderful,” said Brooks, who also has a disability. “He was an inspiration to me. If you feel you have it bad, listen to him.”