Since learning about his grandfather and great-uncle's experiences fighting in World War II, Keith Nolan has wanted to follow in their footsteps. Unfortunately, Nolan was born deaf to deaf parents, and the U.S. Army requires all soldiers to pass a hearing test.
Now Nolan is touring college campuses, visiting deaf soldiers in Israel, and enlisting a congressman to his cause to change U.S. Army policy.
After he finished high school, Nolan visited a Navy recruitment center. When Nolan told the man he couldn't read his lips, the man handed Nolan a piece of paper: "Bad Ear Disqual."
So Nolan became a teacher, completing a Masters in Deaf Education. Last year, while teaching, he also audited classes at an Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps' program.
Nolan would show up to 5 a.m. exercises, even though his interpreter wasn't so easy to see before sunrise. He got perfect results in his military sciences class, and so impressed his superiors that they allowed him to wear the uniform, reports The Associated Press.
"He definitely was one of our top performers," said Capt. Sid Mendoza, a training supervisor in the program.
Mendoza learned to sign "motivation," since Nolan's interpreter used the word so much, in explaining to Nolan what his classmates were saying about him.
When May rolled around, however, those classmates graduated to become second lieutenants in the armed forces. Nolan handed in his uniform.
"I want to do my duty, serve my country, and experience that camaraderie," Nolan told AP, "and I can't, owed to the fact that I'm deaf."
While deafness may seem like a sensible disqualification from armed duty, Nolan points out that there are a number support positions that deaf individuals are completely capable of fulfilling, like computer technology, military dog training, and intelligence (where Nolan dreams of working).
To those who believe it would make communication too challenging, Nolan explained in a TED talk that deaf individuals have a number of means of relaying information, like voice, lip-reading, gesture, sign language, text and email.
"There's no magic wand necessary," he said. "It's the same thing we do every day."
There's also a double standard buried in the Army's policy; soldiers who suffer hearing loss while enlisted are allowed to continue their service.
One in four soldiers serving in Iraq or Afghanistan in 2008 had damaged hearing, USA Today reported the Army as saying.
Deaf individuals also are allowed to serve in non-combat positions in the Israeli armed forces. Nolan interviewed 10 of them last year when he visited them on the job.
Deaf soldiers are not totally unknown in American history, either. Nolan wrote a research paper on the history of deafness in the military, and found that deaf individuals fought in the Texas War of Independence, and on both sides in the Civil War, as well as in World War II.
Nolan had resigned himself to a civilian life as a teacher years ago. But it was his students who prompted him to turn his lifetime dream into a political campaign. After Nolan gave a lecture on the Mexican-American War, one of his deaf students approached him and said that he wanted to join the military.
"Sorry," Nolan told him. "You can't. You're deaf."
"It struck me that all along I'd been told no, you can't," Nolan said, "and now I was perpetuating that message to the next generation, my own student."
This moment spurred on Nolan's fight. The "Commission Cadet Nolan Now" Facebook page urges people to contact Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif, and pressure him to sponsor a bill allowing deaf people to enlist. The page currently has over 3,000 fans.
"A true American soldier," wrote one commenter.
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