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Empowering Our Veterans

The Key Qualities Disabled Veterans Bring to Companies

Erin Johnson

U.S. Navy Veteran

As a little girl, I wanted to be in the Navy, just like both of my grandfathers. I worked hard through high school and college, and became just the fourth woman aboard my first ship. 

I learned so much about myself as a young leader in those early years — being responsible for a team of 25 sailors taught me just as much about the safe operation of a military-issued firearm as it did about resiliency, strength, and hope. I served proudly for 10 years and was excited about the opportunity to pursue such a challenging, rewarding career. 

Life, however, had other plans for me. 

Life-changing diagnosis

When I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer at 29, I attacked it as I had with most other obstacles in my life: by leveraging strength, determination, and information. My medical team did a great job letting me know what I could expect from the 18 rounds of chemotherapy I endured, the recovery process from a bi-lateral mastectomy and the many subsequent surgeries I would need, and how long it would take for me to heal from the second-degree burns that resulted from the six straight weeks of radiation I received. 

After nearly an entire year of treatment, I was ready to return to Active Duty status and get on with my Navy career. But it wasn’t that easy. 

My doctors never warned me about lasting issues from my treatments that could compromise the use of my dominant arm. They did not tell me that my robust surveillance schedule would require multiple medical visits throughout the year, prohibiting me from deployments. 

I had no idea that surviving breast cancer would leave me physically unable to do my job as a Naval officer. Cancer had already taken so much from me — my hair, my health, my ability to have children — that it also robbed me of my military career only added insult to injury. 

Six weeks after my eighth surgery, I was medically retired from the Navy. 

Job hunt

I found myself job hunting for the first time in more than a decade, feeling completely lost and overwhelmed. I had just survived deployments and cancer treatment, but the unknown of facing the civilian job market as a disabled veteran was terrifying. 

How forthcoming should I be about my history? How would I be judged for my disability? I received advice to never offer any extra details about my health or military history, but I was proud of both — I carry my veteran and survivor status as badges of honor. 

After thoughtful consideration, I chose to be honest in sharing my story during interviews. I did so because I knew that whatever reaction I received from the hiring manager would tell me a great deal about the values and culture of that company, and I never want to work for an organization that isn’t inclusive of all people, especially those of us with disabilities. 

Diversity and inclusion initiatives are hot topics throughout corporate America right now. While racial diversity is the current primary focus, companies would also benefit from ensuring that any inclusion measures adopted will embrace the disabled community as well. 

Companies who welcome disabled people into their workforces are rewarded in kind with team members who have developed exceptional problem-solving skills and resilience. These qualities bring success to any team. 

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