Should the Military Enlist Deaf Soldiers?


Keith Nolan, presenting at a TED conference event, makes a strong case for it.

(video under the fold because of autoplay issues)

I’ll make the obvious counterargument- the very fact that he needs an interpreter to give his presentation shows he is incapable of performing the duties he wishes to fulfill.

While I appreciate Mr. Nolan’s desire to serve, I have a strong suspicion that his desire is in large part more about advancing deaf “culture” than improving the capabilities of the Armed Forces.

Service in the military is a privilege, not a right.  As a recruiter, I was compelled to turn away any number of people from enlistment, for any number of reasons. Some people were too fat, some were too stupid, some had criminal incidents in their past. Many had what would be considered otherwise minor health issues that might preclude them from completing their enlistment. Does that make them bad people? No. Does that make the military a bad organization for denying them? No. The military has limited resources and unlimited responsibilities.  Every accommodation to marginal recruits comes out of the resources available to those recruits best qualified to serve. Let’s focus on them.

(thanks for the tip, Roamy)

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12 Comments

Filed under ARMY TRAINING, recruiting

12 responses to “Should the Military Enlist Deaf Soldiers?

  1. Grumpy

    Your counter argument starts with an interesting premise, the need for an interpreter. Then following your logic, anywhere you need an interpreter means you are unqualified to serve. Brad, the man already makes the assumption that some places, he is not qualified. Can the same be said of you? All he was looking for, was a place to serve. How many places has this Nation sent his troops to a place where they did not have some form of interpreter? When we think of the term interpreter, we must remember, there are linguistic interpreters and cultural interpreters and failures to do this, have cost us, greatly.

    I will not be so rude as to challenge your fitness to serve in all areas, without issuing the same challenge to myself. Brad, I cannot and was not qualified to serve in all areas. To get the best, the very best, we need to understand this very basic concept. I had a very limited realm in the military.

    But, in my view of you, it took a great deal of courage on all levels to enter this very difficult realm. Thank you.

    • LT Rusty

      Grumpy, if you need an interpreter at MEPS, you should probably be disqualified. Doesn’t matter whether the issue is poor English skills or deafness.

  2. Jeff Gauch

    There is no place aboard ship for anyone who is deaf, and, IMO, if you can’t go aboard ship you have no place in the Navy or Marine Corps. Huge amounts of vital information are passed via announcing circuits, lip-reading is not an option in battle-dress or SCBA’s, and hearing is probably the most important sense to a watchstander. An interpreter is going to take up rack space and eat food. They’re going to have to be as highly-trained in the specific task as the deaf person in order to properly interpret. What value does the deaf person add over the interpreter?

    A deaf person is also a liability as a mechanic as well. I know a guy who would have been seriously injured or killed if he were deaf. Evacuating a building when live ordnance is found, or taking cover for a rocket attack would be much more difficult with a deaf person.

    Grumpy, there’s a huge difference between requiring one interpreter for a dozen men to fulfill a collateral task and requiring a 1:1 interpreter ratio for core competencies.

    I respect this man’s patriotism and admire his dedication, but the simple fact of the matter is he is disabled. He lacks an ability most of us posses. If he wants to serve his country there are plenty of jobs he can do for DOD as a civilian.

    • Now, I think we should allow arthritic 57 year olds to go to Army Flight School. But, then, it could be reasonably be said that I have a conflict of interest in the matter.

      Brad, if you make to Shakespeare’s on the 27th, hoist one for me. I wish I could go to Lex’s funeral, but no dinero for teh trip, alas. I’d go in a heart beat if I did.

  3. Grumpy

    Rusty, in that kind of situation, the man is not just “disabled”, but is incompetent.

    Jeff, I would never put that man aboard a ship, for the reasons that you have stated and then some. I respect your last paragraph, I never argued that he was qualified for everything, but he is qualified for some things that are just as important. What does it take to put a military vessel on station? Most people don’t have a clue, even those that are on that very same vessel.

    My point as always been, “Find your place and get there.” Many people have the view, that the only way to serve their country is in the military. This is not something the military has pushed but is more of our family issue. No matter what we say here, it will not change the reality. There are many slots this man could fill in the realm of national security and his deafness would not be a threat to himself or those around him. But again, we are back to this thing of “choices”, just a reminder, there are no choices. Each one comes with a price tag. In Brad’s title “Should the Military Enlist Deaf Soldiers?” He started his counter argument based on “interpreters”, he should have addressed the reality of the individual deaf soldier on the battlefield. To me, this is a completely different debate.

    Rusty, Jeff and Brad, I have been totally deaf and then partially deaf. As I look at the debate, this is not just about this man’s deafness but about the disabled in the military and where should they serve? This is more complex than you think. I don’t want this to become a “hobby horse to oblivion.”

    Gentlemen, all of you have treated this subject with discipline, except for “Grumpy”. Gentleman, THANK YOU.

  4. Esli

    In a word: No.
    To expand on that, we currently have on the order of 40,000 non-deployable soldiers IIRC. Many are war-related; most are not. We already need to clean this problem up, not add to it. Every non-deployable soldier means that someone else that might not have done the next rotation has to step up and take your spot. Every time. That is a no-go. Sure there are jobs that “anyone” can do. But if you aren’t “Fully Mission Capable” then there are plenty of others that are. As Brad said, serving is a privilege, not a right.

  5. Grumpy-
    I’m going to have to agree with XBrad on this one. While I am sympathetic to his desire to serve, his deafness would have an immediate and problematic impact on those around him, and having an interpreter close by at all times would do little to ameliorate it. BTW, the interpreter argument is not invalid – and I think you’re missing the point he was trying to make.

    Take, for example, a deployment to Afghanistan. Yes, an interpreter is necessary to translate, because very few soldiers or Marines speak fluent Urdu or Pashtu. However, this does not that those troops are “unqualified to serve” in that location simply because they don’t speak the local dialect. They can perform most of their other functional duties without an interpreter – it only becomes necessary when there is a need for direct interaction with the civilian populace.

    By contrast, a deaf person would always need to have an interpreter close by. Not just for certain contingencies, but for every aspect of everyday life in the military. How are they going to respond to an alarm if they’re asleep? What if someone needs to get their immediate attention and they’re looking elsewhere? How could you possibly put them on an OP/LP (Observation Post/Listening Post) to provide security? Jeff has a point – what is the advantage of having the deaf person aside from just having the interpreter?

    The military is discriminatory. That is neither bad nor good – it’s simply the way that it is. We discriminate for many varied reasons, as XBrad has pointed out, and will continue to do so. The purpose of the military is and always should be about maintaining the finest fighting forces to protect our nation’s interests and securities, not as a social experiment in inclusivity.

  6. MikeD

    Especially in the shrinking military we have right now. There is no compelling reason to allow waivers to military service when recruiters are going to need to turn away otherwise fully qualified candidates. I almost got turned down for service in 1992 because my feet were almost flat (thankfully, I had enough arch to still qualify). Personally, I think a soldier with flat feet would be more able to overcome his handicap than would a deaf soldier.

  7. Grumpy

    For the man who is profoundly nerve deaf, should never be in the Military. It raises the question, Why is he deaf? The reason is most important. There are two types of deafness, “acoustic” and “nerve”. Acoustic deafness can be treated with amplification and nerve deafness can be treated with implants to the brain, itself. The “600 pound guerrilla in the room”, that we all try to dance around, but not with, is this question. What is the place of prosthetics on an active battlefield? Yes, this includes everybody, not just the deaf. There are people in this World who just should not be in the Military. If you are going to use the standard of the prosthetic as a reason to say you are not qualified, then so be it, for everybody. Note: I’ve stated my position, in the first sentence. There are many places for the deaf to serve this Great Nation in National Security.

    • While quite a few servicemembers have been permitted to stay on active duty following amputation and fitting of prosthetics, the difference between them and a new recruit is one of “sunk costs.” The military has already invested considerable time and expense in training them. That’s why people with cancer can’t join, but people already in the service who are later diagnosed with it aren’t automatically discharged.

      Having said that, and as inspirational as many of those soldiers are, as Esli mentioned, there’s 40,000 non-deployable soldiers out there today. Many of them need to be let go, freeing those manpower slots for those who can deploy.

  8. Grumpy

    “Sunk Costs” are like bets on a poker table, the player must know when to “Fold’em or Hold’em”. To me, this is a lousy way to talk about the military, but it is true. “Sunk Costs” should not be the rationale to keep an individual in the Military, but they should have a seamless transition to the VA. Don’t forget, the MIL.MEDICAL and VA Healthcare are supposed to be one. Don’t try to get the critically injured soldier back onto the battlefield, *every time*!

    “Sunk Costs”, are they a waste of money? IMHO, the answer would be a profound, *NO*! Look at it as a long term investment, it will be paid back in an infinite number of ways, to this Great Nation

    As you and Esli, have wisely talked about the 40,000 non-deployable soldiers, you’re right.

    I will always be learning until the day I die, from this 63 year-old Vet, I just want to say, “Thanks, to all of you- Grumpy”

    • MikeD

      I’m actually a bit touchy on the military and sunk costs. One of the reasons I’m a civilian now (but not the only one) and not approaching my 20th year in, is because of the change in re-enlistment bonuses from when I entered (1992) to when I left (1997). When I got in, the 98 series had a 3A re-up bonus (three times annual salary times number of years of re-enlistment). When it came time for me to re-up, it was nothing. $0, have a nice day. Like I said, there are also other reasons, but a hefty chunk of change can do a lot to change a man’s mind.

      HOWEVER, the point is this. 98 series (Signals Intelligence) is a pretty demanding field to qual for. You’ve got to have the requisite ASVAB, pass the DLAB, pass the SSI background check, get that recruit to sign up, get them through basic, get them through DLI (Arabic in my case), then get them through AIT. And if they fail at any point in that chain, you lose the recruit and that’s a two year process. And trust me, there were quite a few pitfalls on the way. Now, we never had hard numbers on any of this save one. We knew that at the time, it cost the Army about $60k to run an SSI background clearance. We had to guess at the rest, but our conservative estimate was on the order of $150k to get a single recruit through that whole chain. Then factor in how many recruits you have to have in order to get one through the entire chain, and if you’re thinking less than half a million dollars, I got oceanfront property in Nebraska to sell you. And yet, because “retention comes from a different budget than recruitment” the Army wouldn’t even TRY and sweeten the pot to keep a trained soldier in place. The cost savings alone would have made it possible to chuck a whole bunch of money at a soldier.

      You say sunk costs shouldn’t factor in? The problem is, those costs also represent a successful investment. One that you’d have the Army chuck out the window in order to take it’s chances on someone (or more likely several someones) who might not even hack it through training.

      Now, mind you, I AGREE that you can’t retain every soldier, nor should you try to. If someone is permanently non-deployable, and they’re not in an MOS where their ability to be deployed is immaterial, you should probably let them go. And that’s a harsh thing to say, I know. I do feel this country owes a debt to its wounded soldiers that can really never be repaid. And crushing their dreams of staying in is something to be avoided at all costs. But if it hurts readiness… well, I know what side of that equation I’d come down on.