Face of Defense: Guardsman Beats Odds to Serve

CAMP PHOENIX, Afghanistan — Army Spc. John Han­son, who has a form of cere­bral pal­sy, spent 11 years fight­ing to join the mil­i­tary. He nev­er gave up and now he is a sol­dier serv­ing in Afghanistan.

Camp Alamo, Afghanistan
Army Spc. John Han­son fires a P8 pis­tol at Camp Alamo, Afghanistan, while com­pet­ing in the Ger­man military’s schutzen­schnur, or shoot­ing com­pe­ti­tion, July 30, 2010.
U.S. Army pho­to by Sgt. Rebec­ca Lin­der
Click to enlarge

Han­son still faces the every­day chal­lenges of cere­bral pal­sy – a con­di­tion that can affect brain and ner­vous sys­tem func­tions such as move­ment, learn­ing, hear­ing, see­ing and think­ing. As a mem­ber of the Sioux Falls, S.D.,-based 196th Maneu­ver Enhance­ment Brigade, South Dako­ta Army Nation­al Guard, Hanson’s con­di­tion doesn’t restrict his abil­i­ty to per­form and sup­port the mis­sion of his unit in Afghanistan.

“When peo­ple saw me, they saw some­thing that was not nor­mal and they fig­ured that I was exact­ly that,” said Han­son, of Sioux Falls. “Instead of find­ing out what I could do, they assumed I couldn’t do any­thing – until I proved them wrong.”

As a mem­ber of the 196th, Han­son serves as the office man­ag­er for the direc­torate of resource man­age­ment on Camp Phoenix, which pro­vides con­struc­tion, com­mod­i­ty and ser­vice con­tract man­age­ment and fund­ing over­sight for 11 mil­i­tary bases in Afghanistan’s cap­i­tal city of Kab­ul.

“I am so impressed by John’s deter­mi­na­tion and ded­i­ca­tion to serve,” said Brig. Gen. Theodore John­son, the 196th’s com­man­der. “He plays an impor­tant role in the resource man­age­ment direc­torate and it’s an hon­or hav­ing him on the 196th’s team.”

How­ev­er, Hanson’s jour­ney to being able to serve in Afghanistan was no easy task. Dur­ing his first attempt to join the Nation­al Guard in 1995, he was denied eli­gi­bil­i­ty by a physi­cian at the Mil­i­tary Entrance Pro­cess­ing Sta­tion.

Han­son is affect­ed by a spe­cif­ic type of cere­bral pal­sy known as spas­tic diple­gia, a form that impacts the low­er extrem­i­ties with lit­tle to no effect to the upper body. Han­son knew it would be dif­fi­cult to join the mil­i­tary with the phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions his con­di­tion caused to his legs and feet. How­ev­er, he was deter­mined to join, and con­tin­ue the long line of mil­i­tary ser­vice with­in his fam­i­ly.

“I want­ed to feel a part of some­thing that is not only a great orga­ni­za­tion, but also part of my fam­i­ly,” Han­son said. “My father was in the Nation­al Guard, my uncle was in the Air Force, one grand­fa­ther was a lieu­tenant in the Army Air Corps, and anoth­er served as a Marine. Call it not only a sense of duty and hon­or, but a way to live up to the exam­ple set by the peo­ple who sur­round­ed me.”

After being denied by the mil­i­tary doc­tor, Han­son per­sist­ed, and worked with sev­er­al civil­ian physi­cians to improve his mobil­i­ty and become med­ical­ly eli­gi­ble – endur­ing surg­eries and phys­i­cal ther­a­py – nev­er giv­ing up on his dream.

“After every time I went to MEPS, and I was stopped, I worked at that one road­block until I found a way to push over it and pass it,” said Han­son. “It took lots of sup­port from fam­i­ly, friends and co-work­ers. They all knew it was a dream of mine to wear the uni­form of the U.S. Army and I was going to do what­ev­er it takes.”

Han­son said his deter­mi­na­tion to serve also was influ­enced by vet­er­ans in his home com­mu­ni­ty.

“The [Amer­i­can] Legion hall in my small home­town of Bad­ger, S.D., is named after my great-uncle that was lost at sea after the Dec. 7, 1941, attacks,” he said. “Along with that, I grew up sur­round­ed by the World War II vet­er­ans in town; the sto­ries and the cama­raderie was anoth­er big dri­ving force to be a part of the mil­i­tary.”

Final­ly, in 2006, Han­son was able to join the ranks of the South Dako­ta Army Nation­al Guard by work­ing with his two civil­ian physi­cians and the MEPS doc­tor. Hanson’s doc­tors were able to prove he was med­ical­ly fit for duty, and even­tu­al­ly, the ini­tial med­ical dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion was over­turned.

“I can not spec­u­late how [my doc­tors] came to their rea­son­ing. I think the fact that they have known me and have been a wit­ness of the progress and achieve­ments I have made my entire life might have had some­thing to do with it,” Han­son said.

“Let’s just say the feel­ing I had when I grad­u­at­ed from South Dako­ta State Uni­ver­si­ty after four years was noth­ing com­pared to the feel­ing the day I went to MEPS and took my oath of enlist­ment,” he added.

Along with serv­ing in the Nation­al Guard, Han­son also works back home in Sioux Falls as a fire­fight­er, para­medic and a res­cue scu­ba div­er.

“Spe­cial­ist Han­son is always upbeat and ready to do what­ev­er needs to be done,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Car­roll, a mem­ber of the 196th. “When work­ing with oth­ers he knows how to keep things fun and yet still get our job done to the high­est stan­dard.”

“I think the only issues I real­ly had [with peo­ple,] was them ‘judg­ing a book by its cov­er,’ ” Han­son said. “I’m just glad to show them that no mat­ter what, if you put your mind to it and work at it, any dream can come true.”

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

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