There are many health issues that can prevent a man or woman from serving in the U.S. military. These disqualifications are in place to ensure that those who serve are able to do the job and will not be further hurt or injured because of a medical condition. While the disqualifications are intended to protect all members of the military, some people may be excluded when in reality they could do the job and do it well.
Cerebral palsy is one such condition because of how it varies by individual. One person may be debilitated by symptoms, while another with the same diagnosis of cerebral palsy may be perfectly able to perform all duties required of a service member. Some veterans overcame the challenges of cerebral palsy to join the military. And, some children were born with cerebral palsy, potentially because of the experiences of a military veteran parent.
Serving in the Military, in Spite of Cerebral Palsy
Cerebral palsy is a neurological condition. The symptoms can range from mild to severe and mostly impact movements and muscles. It may also cause other conditions that can be problematic, such as vision impairment or seizure disorders. While cerebral palsy may not be listed specifically as a disqualifying condition for serving, many of the symptoms and associated conditions are.
Many hopeful soldiers, sailors, and others have been turned away from the military because of a cerebral palsy diagnosis, but Navy veteran John Quinn didn’t let that stop him from achieving his dreams. Quinn served for 20 years in the U.S. Navy, in spite of having cerebral palsy. When he enlisted in the Navy, Quinn did not disclose his condition and he served for two decades without anyone knowing he had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
Enlisting as a sailor in the Navy put Quinn on the path to a career that would be very physically demanding, even more so for him living with cerebral palsy. Quinn grew up knowing that he was different from other children. He could not walk until the age of four, he was physically weaker and he experienced bullying from his peers. His family, on the other hand, did not treat him differently, and that is what he credits with giving him the push to join the Navy and work hard to achieve the minimum level of physical fitness required. In spite of failing his first attempt at the final exercise test for enlisting, Quinn tried again and succeeded.
Decorated Veteran Speaks out about Cerebral Palsy
John Quinn is now a retired naval officer and a decorated U.S. veteran. He served as the Administrative Leading Chief on the USS John C. Stennis and the Assistant Ship Secretary on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. Quinn served on active duty during the 1990s Gulf War, just before his retirement from the military as a Senior Chief Petty Officer.
Quinn is now a motivational speaker and author. He has written about his experiences growing up with cerebral palsy and serving in the military. He describes in his books and in his speaking engagements, the struggles that he experienced serving in the Navy with a disability. He talks about the need to work harder and to endure more physical pain and discomfort than other sailors. He also motivates others to push through disabilities and other challenges and that hard work can help anyone achieve their dreams.
Veterans’ Children and the Risk of Cerebral Palsy
While not many people with cerebral palsy make it into the military, those who do, like John Quinn, are an inspiration to all. Also inspiring are those veterans whose experiences during active duty may have caused their own children to be born with disabilities like cerebral palsy. Of particular concern is the exposure of Vietnam veterans to Agent Orange, an herbicide used to destroy crops and other plants in North Vietnam.
Some veterans have filed lawsuits and won settlements over being exposed to this chemical. It has been proven to have caused numerous health problems, including birth defects in children born to veterans. Some of these children were born with cerebral palsy. Benefits that have been given to these children help to cover medical expenses, the costs of therapy and assistive equipment, educational costs, and many other expenses associated with living with a condition like cerebral palsy.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) provides a number of benefits programs for veterans with disabilities as well as for children of veterans born with disabilities. There does not have to be a definitive link between Agent Orange exposure and birth defects like cerebral palsy for a child to qualify for these benefits. These children may receive health care as well as vocational training and job assistance.
For disabled veterans, including those living with disabilities associated with cerebral palsy, there are also VA benefits programs. Disabled veterans may be eligible for service-connected disability compensation, VA pensions, concurrent retirement and disability payments, combat-related special compensation, VA health care, nursing home care, and other benefits like home loan guarantees and educational benefits. The requirements for each type of benefit vary.
Serving in the military with a disability like cerebral palsy may seem like an impossibility, but veterans like John Quinn are showing that there are more barriers to be broken down. Simply because you have been diagnosed with cerebral palsy does not mean you cannot achieve goals and have a career that is physically demanding. Quinn and others like him serve as an inspiration, not just for those with cerebral palsy, but for anyone facing challenges in their everyday lives and in achieving their dreams that seem impossible.
While there may be few veterans living with cerebral palsy, the number of veterans’ children living with this condition are more numerous. Chemicals like Agent Orange and others may have played a role in cerebral palsy and birth defects in the children of veterans. The proof is not perfectly clear, but the VA has provided a number of benefits programs to help these children get the health care and support they need.