Keith Nolan doesn’t need an interpreter to describe the feeling he got putting on a military uniform for the first time.
“Whoa” — as it turns out — is a universal expression.
Nolan, who is deaf, visited the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency April 20 as part of the agency’s deaf and hard of hearing awareness month observation at its headquarters in Springfield, Virginia.
As a member of the U.S. Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC, program at California State University, Northridge in 2010, Nolan realized his lifelong dream of putting on a uniform.
“I can’t describe the feeling. It was a privilege and it was an honor,” said Nolan, through an interpreter. “When you are a civilian, wearing civilian clothing, people don’t realize what comes with the uniform, but when you put it on, you realize what comes with it.”
His elation was short-lived. Nolan turned in his uniform May 6, 2011, after completing the first two levels of the ROTC program at CSUN. While many of his fellow cadets completed the final two levels and were commissioned as officers, Nolan couldn’t continue.
“The Defense Department sets medical standards for appointment, enlistment or induction, including the requirements for hearing levels that would exclude an individual who is deaf, uses a hearing aid or has a cochlear implant,” wrote Rep. Mark Takano of California in an April 5 op-ed for the Military Times.
This requirement unfairly disqualifies individuals like Nolan, who is “entirely capable of serving our country” and is “exactly the type of person that the Department of Defense should be recruiting” said Takano, the keynote speaker at NGA’s celebration. Takano’s congressional district includes the California School for the Deaf in Riverside, which serves deaf and hard-of-hearing students between the ages of 3 and 21, residing in the 11 counties in Southern California, according to the school’s website.
Many members of NGA’s deaf and hard of hearing workforce attended the celebration.
“When I came to congress in 2013, I was shocked to see that there was very little representation for the deaf community,” said Takano. “I decided to do something about it.” Rep. Mark Takano of California speaks at NGA’s deaf and hard of hearing awareness month observation.
Late last month, Takano introduced the H.R. 1722, the Keith Nolan Air Force Deaf Demonstration Act, that “would create a demonstration program in the Air Force for 15 to 20 individuals who would otherwise qualify to serve in the military,” wrote Takano.
If passed, the bill would create opportunities for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to serve their country and an opportunity to see if a larger integration of the deaf and hard of hearing community into the military could work, according to Takano’s proposition.
An opportunity is all Nolan is asking for, he said.
Born in Cape Cod, Massachusetts to a history-loving family, Nolan was fascinated with his brother’s toy military airplanes, said Nolan. He remembers trips to Civil War museums and the Alamo. He remembers stories from his grandfather, a Navy lieutenant who survived a kamikaze attack on his ship during World War II. He also remembers his great uncle, who fought in the Battle of Peleliu as a Marine captain in 1944, telling him he should join the Marines.
Nolan did more than consider, he said. After graduating from the Maryland School for the Deaf in 2001, he tried to join the Navy. His deafness disqualified him. Undeterred, he tried to enlist several times throughout the years, but was denied each time.
Nolan went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in Political Science and his master’s degree in deaf education from CSUN. After graduating, he began teaching at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, California.
“I decided to become a teacher, but my real passion is to serve our country,” said Nolan. “That passion will never end.”
Nolan let the passion simmer until he discovered that CSUN was starting a new ROTC program, he said.
“I thought that it wouldn’t hurt to send them an email,” he said. “I expressed my interest in joining.”
He told the commanding officer he was a teacher, and he would love to share what he learned from the program with his students, said Nolan. The school invited him to be a participating cadet in the program.
“It was a slow process in building relationships,” he said. “Before you knew it, I was involved in the program full time.”
As an ROTC cadet, Nolan participated in all of the classes, labs and physical training, said Takano. He had interpreters provided by CSUN for everything but physical training, which he did without an interpreter.
“He excelled in the ROTC program,” said Takano. “If not for the Department of Defense rules excluding Keith, he would have qualified for Officer Candidate School, and he would have achieved his life’s goal.”
Since returning his uniform, Nolan has fought to put it back on, he said. He has met with congressmen and representatives from the White House. He gave a TED Talk in 2011 titled “Deaf in the military” that has been viewed 90,000 times. His Facebook page, “Commission Cadet Nolan Now” with more than 7,200 likes. And now he has a congressional champion in Takano.
Ultimately, the goal of the bill is to raise awareness and garner support for the demonstration program to be marked up in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2016.
“One thing I’ve learned is that it takes an army to make changes,” said Nolan. “I couldn’t have done this without all of the people [who] have been supporting from the beginning. It did take all of us working together to get this far.”