Growing up, Keith Nolan was fascinated by military and naval history, visited monuments and battlefields, and read extensively on the subject. In short, the became he kind of young man who chooses a military career.
Nolan, however, is Deaf. His father, Kevin, made history by becoming the first born-deaf person elected to public office (councilman in Northampton, Massachusetts, 1986-87). Not surprisingly, Keith's family has been supportive of his ambition.
He attended Clarke School (where his father worked as teacher and counselor for 21 years), and graduated from Maryland School for the Deaf in 2001. He tried to enlist in various locations, but was invariably turned down. Being deaf means an automatic disqualification, even if the deaf candidates are in splendid physical shape.
So Nolan "switched gears," enrolled in CSUN, earned his Bachelor's in Political Science and, in 2010, his Master's in Deaf Education, and took a teaching position at Taft High School's Deaf program. Three things happened that spring to rekindle the flame of his old ambition. When he was teaching about the Mexican-American War, a student approached him after class and said he'd like to enlist. Nolan caught himself telling this student, "No, you can't, you're deaf"—the same thing that he himself had been told again and again—"and that wasn't right." Then he learned from a friend that the Israeli Defense Forces accept qualified deaf people, who serve in a wide variety of noncombat positions. Intrigued, he went to Israel and interviewed and documented them.
Drawing on this research, he later compiled a 98-page research paper, Deaf in the Military, discussing the deaf Israeli soldiers, how deaf people have served in military roles throughout U.S. history, including Erastus "Deaf" Smith, who played a key role in the Texas wars, a number of deaf soldiers ion Confederate and Union armies in the Civil War, and a handful of Gallaudet College students and alumni conscripted during World War II, and, currently, how several dozen battle-disabled soldiers, most of them amputees and one blinded, have been retained by the U.S. military on active service.
Photo courtesy of Keith Nolan
And the third thing—CSUN had set up a Reserve Officers Training Program (ROTC), and when Nolan contacted the Cadre (commanding officer), and asked if he "could take a few classes," he was invited to join as a "participating" (auditing) student. He quit his teaching job to focus on his demanding new role. CSUN provided interpreters. He not only attended classes, he insisted on showing up for daily PT (Physical Training) at 5:30 a.m., and accompanying his fellow cadets to weekend "labs" (field training) at a military base. He didn't ask for special treatment, and was given none. He was treated like any other cadet. The Cadre was so impressed by his motivation and perseverance—he gave "110% effort," his Cadre noted—that he was issued a full military kit: uniforms, Kevlar helmet, sleeping bag, rucksack. There was some question as to whether he would be allowed to join the others in a ride in a Chinook helicopter, and he was. After that, he was given no exemptions. His status was that of an "enrolled" cadet —full participation.
He and his fellow cadets—young men and women from a variety of backgrounds—worked out the communication issues, and learned to work together. He cherished the camaraderie they developed. "This is my passion," he told his audience at a CSUN presentation. "I love these guys."
ROTC has four levels. Nolan successfully completed the first two by May 2011. When Army officials learned that Nolan had "enrolled" status (for students who expect to be commissioned as officers after graduation), he was informed that he could not continue to the third and fourth levels. He was stripped of his "enrolled" status and had to return his uniforms and gear. This despite his superb record and the support of his Cadre and fellow cadets, who urged him not to give up.
He contacted his district Congressman, Henry Waxman, to explore options—to find some way to allow deaf people to serve in the U.S. military. He has found ample precedent for this—it's mainly a matter changing the regulations barring deaf candidates.
Nolan is now substitute-teaching at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston. He has given several presentations at schools for the deaf and colleges, talking about his experiences as a ROTC Cadet, and raising public awareness about the feasibility of allowing deaf people to serve in the military. He notes that 80% of all military positions are noncombat, and many of these could be capably filled by skilled and qualified deaf people. Although many people evidently still don't think that deaf people should be allowed to enlist, he has a growing number of supporters.