JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska –
Following a federal declaration in 1988, October became the official observation month for disability employment awareness. The Alaska National Guard recognizes the contributions of its members with disabilities all year around; however, this month reaffirms the commitment to provide equal opportunities for all.
This year’s awareness theme is “Disability: Part of the Equity Equation.” The key speaker for this month’s observation luncheon was Senior Master Sgt. Jeremy Maddamma, a pararescueman with the Alaska Air National Guard’s 212th Rescue Squadron.
In 2012, Maddamma received an injury that shattered the bones in his lower left leg. He spent years in and out of a hospital, undergoing multiple surgeries and a demanding physical therapy regimen in an attempt to regain the full use of his leg. Eventually, after his recovery fell short of his target goal, Maddamma chose to have his injured leg surgically amputated, enabling his return to military service.
It’s been ten years, and Maddamma’s story has been shared many times, but during this month’s observance Maddamma told his own story, complete with slides, taking his listeners from day one to his life now, a “fit-for-duty” amputee serving in the Alaska Air National Guard.
“The first thing that I want people know is that having a traumatic injury does not mean you have to get out of the military,” Maddamma said to his audience of Guardsmen and civilians, who asked questions about his own experience and what advice he would give someone in a similar situation.
Maddamma gave a timeline of his journey, clicking through early photos that ranged from showing his leg in stitches after an operation, to photos of him with his leg in a brace and his family sporting Halloween costumes. As Maddamma continued with the slideshow, the subjects in his photos changed. The seasons passed, and babies grew to be children. There were fewer post-surgery snapshots and more photos of him skiing snowy slopes with fellow amputees.
Gone were images of Maddamma in a hospital. Instead the audience watched a series of photos showing him training for return to duty and walking the Bataan Memorial Death March in White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.
Throughout his presentation, Maddamma emphasized the importance of his support system – his family, friends and the military community that was there for him from the beginning.
“I want take this opportunity to not just talk about what happened to my leg, but also talk about all the support I received and the people who stood by me through the whole thing,” he said.
When asked about how NDEAM unites the community, Maddamma spoke about how people can be an “iceberg” and what a person knows about their own coworkers they see every day is just the tip of their life experience.
“These awareness months bring people together, opens doors, and draw attention to things,” said Maddamma.
According to Janie Ramos, AKNG’s equal employment manager and diversity initiatives coordinator, opening doors to discuss certain topics is one objective of the awareness months.
During the month and every day after, Guardsmen can recognize the contributions of men and women with disabilities and how they strengthen the nation, said Ramos.
“The special observances that are held throughout the year are important to the Guard,” Ramos said. “By taking the time and being intentional about disability employment awareness, we can take what we learn outside of a single month and integrate it into our every-day thought process.”
As the state equal employment manager, Ramos has facilitated the monthly observances for the last five years. When talking about this month, however, Ramos says she has a connection that makes October’s observances special for her.
“My older sister is an individual with a disability,” she said. “She has Down syndrome and she has never let that stand in her way. She is incredibly strong and an absolutely wonderful person.”
Ramos understands the significance of sharing real stories and connecting members of the community being recognized. When considering her own personal connection with NDEAM, Ramos says it is imperative to promote and ensure equal opportunity for all individuals.