Two groups of people are not permitted to serve in the U.S. military — those convicted of a crime and those with disabilities. Since the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans disabled in combat are returning to civilian life carrying trauma that causes an average of 22 suicides per day. Woodstock resident Marty Klein is raising money to make a documentary asserting that disabled vets should be able to work in the military.
The time is right to make a change, said Klein. As technology progresses, more devastating weaponry is deployed, while medical techniques make it possible to save the lives of soldiers who have been severely injured. But computer technology also gives people with disabilities ways to contribute to the functioning of the military. While in the past, the majority of soldiers served in combat, where a disability would have been an obvious danger, half of the Americans serving in the military today work at desks, running computers. “If someone is intelligent, committed, and loyal, I see no reason why they shouldn’t serve their country, even if they have a physical disability,” said Klein. “I see the military as behind the times. No one has brought it up.”
Klein received an honorable discharge from the Air Force in 1970 due to loss of sight from an eye disease contracted during his service. In a video on his website, https://www.whycantweserve.com, he describes the pain of returning to civilian life with a sense of worthlessness and despair. After a struggle, he went on to become a mental health counselor and the author of three books and two screenplays. He created a five-CD package of yoga exercises for the blind and worked for eight years at Family of Woodstock. But not all injured soldiers have the ability or resources to pull themselves out of the depression that can result from returning to civilian life with a sense or a body part missing.
“Many people who grow up in poverty join the military to serve their country and have a life for themselves,” said Klein. “Often they would like to stay and have a career. The rule is, if they’re injured and they heal completely, they can stay in the military. If they have permanent disabilities, there’s no place for them. They go back to their impoverished life and don’t know who they are.”
Klein is trying to raise $75,000 to create a documentary that will lay out the facts needed to influence the military and the public. Besides inviting donations through a forthcoming page on the crowdfunding website Hatchfund.org, he’s seeking an organization willing to help fund the filmmaking process, as well as a celebrity interested in endorsing the film. He hopes to align his efforts with not-for-profit agencies that work with veterans and disabled people, with the goal of working toward policy change and legislation.
Most of all, said Klein, “I’d like us to have a culture shift around the attitudes toward people with disabilities.” The decrease in prejudice regarding sexual orientation serves as a model. “Twenty years ago,” observed Klein, “if you were gay or lesbian, you couldn’t walk down the street without being concerned about your well-being, let alone keeping your job. There are so many changes now. There’s no reason why we couldn’t have the same kind of radical change in perceptions of people with disabilities.”
Even the military has evolved beyond “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” In July, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced that his department would create a working group to study “the policy and readiness implications of welcoming transgender persons to serve openly.” Carter added, “We must ensure that everyone who’s able and willing to serve has the full and equal opportunity to do so, and we must treat all our people with the dignity and respect they deserve…Our military’s future strength depends on it.”
There would be other benefits to allowing people with disabilities to serve. “It would increase morale a lot,” said Klein, “to know that if you were wounded, you could stay in the military if you wanted.” Careers would also open up to intelligent young people who already have a disability but are interested in military service.
Klein compared the policy of discharging disabled vets with a hypothetical situation in the private sector. “If you worked for Goldman Sachs, and you had a car accident that left you with a limp, and the company fired you, that would be outrageous.”
Changing policies on sexual orientation notwithstanding, the military is not known for flexibility. Klein mused, “People have said to me, ‘You’re trying to get the military to make changes? How about trying to get to Mars first?’ But I’ve learned that a documentary, if done well, can have an influence on people’s hearts.”
For more information, or to pledge a donation, go to https://www.whycantweserve.com, or email Marty Klein at firstname.lastname@example.org. Include name, email address, and amount of pledge, and you will receive a link to Hatchfund.org when the page is ready to launch in mid-October.