Face of Defense: Amputee Earns ‘Sergeant Airborne’ Title

FORT BENNING, Ga. — Like thou­sands before him, Army Sgt. Joel Dulashan­ti donned an Air­borne instruc­tor black hat for the first time last month, sig­ni­fy­ing his com­ple­tion of a detailed cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process with 1st Bat­tal­ion, 507th Para­chute Infantry Reg­i­ment.

Army Sgt. Joel Dulashan­ti reach­es for a har­ness strap dur­ing train­ing on Eubanks Field at Fort Ben­ning, Ga., in August 2011.
U.S. Army pho­to by Cheryl Rodewig
Click to enlarge

Unlike those before him, he met the stan­dard with a pros­thet­ic leg, a par­tial knee replace­ment and the after­math of inter­nal injuries suf­fered dur­ing an ambush in Afghanistan. With his wounds, he could have tak­en a med­ical dis­charge from the Army, but the para­troop­er chose to stay in — and to remain Air­borne all the way. “It’s still brand new,” he said, “but it feels good to actu­al­ly have my hat.” 

Dulashanti’s deter­mi­na­tion in the face of adver­si­ty, evi­dent at the unit, will be instru­men­tal in train­ing Air­borne stu­dents, said Army Com­mand Sgt. Maj. Chip Mez­za­line, bat­tal­ion com­mand sergeant major. More than 17,000 stu­dents come through the bat­tal­ion each year. 

“He’s had a trau­mat­ic injury and had the resilience to stay on active duty and serve as an instruc­tor in a posi­tion that’s high-risk,” Mez­za­line said. “It’s in his char­ac­ter — some­thing you can’t teach. It’s some­thing inside him that’s going to dri­ve him to be suc­cess­ful in what­ev­er it is that he’s doing. I don’t think ‘can’t’ is in his vocabulary. 

“Being a ‘Sergeant Air­borne’ — a ‘black hat’ — at the Basic Air­borne Course will inspire numer­ous stu­dents com­ing through here,” he added. 

Mez­za­line said Dulashan­ti com­plet­ed the instruc­tor cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram at a lev­el “above the stan­dard.” He trained on the lat­er­al-drift appa­ra­tus, the mock tow­ers, the 250-foot tow­er, the swing-land­ing train­er and the spin har­ness, and mem­o­rized a block of instruc­tion for the mock tow­er exit. 

“He’s a para­troop­er,” Mez­za­line said. “He comes from the 82nd Air­borne Divi­sion. That Air­borne career he prob­a­bly thought was cut short, but this is new life for him here at the Air­borne school. I pre­dict with­in the next year he’ll be a jump­mas­ter, prob­a­bly a senior-rat­ed jump­mas­ter, and he’ll be doing door checks, exit­ing stu­dents at 1,250 feet above Fryar Drop Zone. 

“And with his lev­el of moti­va­tion, he’ll prob­a­bly move on to that next mark and be a cen­tu­ri­on, which is 100 exits out of an air­craft,” he con­tin­ued. “The sky’s the lim­it for Sergeant Dulashan­ti here at the 507th.” 

Dulashan­ti said he wants to do every­thing he can — from jump­mas­ter to cen­tu­ri­on — while sta­tioned here. A six-year vet­er­an, he arrived at the bat­tal­ion in May. Four years ear­li­er, he was deployed as a sniper attached to the 73rd Cav­al­ry Reg­i­ment. He remem­bers the details vividly. 

“We were chas­ing two guys — they were on a mo-ped togeth­er and we were in Humvees,” he said. “They took off in the field and the sniper team went out. It was about 110 degrees out­side, over 6,000 feet above sea lev­el, and with no humid­i­ty — all you could smell was the earth and burnt grass. As we were walk­ing in this knee-high grass, I start­ed to smell body odor, so I stopped and turned to my right in the direc­tion of the odor. They began to engage in contact. 

“They had AK-47s and they were lying in the prone about 10 meters away,” he con­tin­ued. “I took two rounds to my right knee. As I was com­ing out of the sun, I was shot through my left knee. As I was falling, the next round that came through went under my arm, through my ribcage and, since I was par­al­lel to the ground, it tra­versed my entire abdomen down to my pelvis. That round was the worst. We returned fire, and those guys were finished.” 

Two pla­toons donat­ed plas­ma to him before he was evac­u­at­ed to the Unit­ed States. Once he arrived at Wal­ter Reed Army Med­ical Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., it took him eight months to be com­fort­able walking. 

“The recov­ery process start­ed off slow, [but] I accel­er­at­ed fast,” he said. “Most of the stuff can be replaced. I have a par­tial knee replace­ment on my left side. I have an above-the-knee ampu­ta­tion on my right side. I’m miss­ing half of my stom­ach and 90 per­cent of my intestines and gall blad­der, and half of my abdom­i­nal wall is gone.” 

He chose to stay in the Army in part for the fel­low sol­dier recu­per­at­ing along­side him in the hos­pi­tal, he said. 

“I had to set that exam­ple for the rest of the Army, just based on the fact they could­n’t do it and they want­ed to,” he said. “Maybe in the future, some­body else will have an eas­i­er time get­ting to do stuff like this because I’ve done it already.” 

Since then, Dulashan­ti com­plet­ed the War­rior Leader Course and the Advanced Lead­ers Course, among oth­ers. But his goal was to be part of Fort Benning’s Air­borne battalion. 

“Men­tal­ly, I knew I could exit an air­craft, and I knew I was able to instruct peo­ple on how to exit an air­craft and to land on the ground prop­er­ly,” he said. “When I called about the job, the only ques­tion was, ‘Can you jump out of planes?’ and even though I had­n’t done it, the answer was ‘yes,’ with­out a doubt. I knew I would­n’t be a safe­ty haz­ard, so the answer was ‘yes.’ ”

“It was pret­ty intense,” Dulashan­ti said of the study­ing it took to pass the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram, but oth­er instruc­tors helped him along the way. 

“I have to kind of be on my ‘A’ game all the time,” he said. “But at the same time, I do have lim­i­ta­tions, so I have to make sure I take care of myself to pre­vent injury.” 

His “lim­i­ta­tions” aren’t some­thing he tells every class of stu­dents about, but occa­sion­al­ly he men­tions it or they find out. “Some­times peo­ple ask me why I have a limp,” he said. “I tell them I don’t have a leg, so it’s not real­ly a limp.” 

His advice to oth­er wound­ed war­riors is sim­ple: choose whether or not to have a pos­i­tive outlook. 

“Make up your mind,” he said. “Every­body has to go through their own cop­ing mech­a­nisms. Some­times you’re in a denial state; when you come out of that denial state, then deal with what it is you have to deal with. Seek coun­sel­ing if you have to. I nev­er gave neg­a­tiv­i­ty even an oppor­tu­ni­ty to invade my mind. There was only one route for me in the first place.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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