A year before Tanner Johnson graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, he was lying in a hospital bed and doctors told his family he had two hours to live.
Her organs were shutting down due to complications from type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease where the body attacks cells that make insulin.
Type 1 diabetes usually affects young children and is familial, but none of Johnson’s relatives had diabetes. He was nearly 22 when he was diagnosed in May 2020, two months after most cadets were sent home as the academy struggled to contain the rapidly spreading coronavirus.
Johnson went through the worst of the health crisis and began to face his new reality.
“The doctors said I would have to take insulin injections every day for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t be able to fly, I wouldn’t be allowed into the military, and I wouldn’t be allowed to return to academy and graduate, âJohnson said.
But he refused to accept what they were saying and proceeded to prove them wrong. He hoped to become the first person to be commissioned into the US military with a health condition that until then was automatically disqualifying.
âIf you have type 1, you become undeployable because you take insulin injections,â said Lt. Col. Amy Carpenter, assistant professor of biology at the academy and certified diabetes counselor.
During his first decade in the military, Carpenter counseled newly diagnosed servicemen to live with diabetes and prepared them for the end of their military careers.
Academy officials allowed Johnson to return and he was referred to Carpenter for advice. But that was not what he was looking for.
“He came to me and said, ‘Ma’am, I know it’s a long way, but what if we could demonstrate that being type 1 diabetic shouldn’t be automatic disqualification?'” Carpenter said.
âI was like, ‘oh man, I’ve never had an example where you have type 1 diabetes and the military is holding you back. “So I said to him, ‘Tanner, I know you have great control, you know your condition very well, but be prepared to get fired.'”
He did not do it. Instead, Johnson did “what everyone did, and then some, to show that even with this condition, I could do whatever was required of me, and do it well,” he said. he declares.
He continued to compete with the wrestling team in his senior year, with the tiny needle of a continuous glucose monitor in his stomach, he said. He signed up for more activities and increased his GPA to the highest ever.
And he spoke to anyone who wanted to hear him about why he should be allowed to order, making a compelling case, including that technology has allowed people with diabetes to live near-normal lives.
Insulin pumps can provide a constant flow of vital hormone for 24 hours, with an increase at mealtimes, while continuous glucose monitors monitor blood sugar.
âTen, 15 years ago this technology didn’t exist,â Carpenter said. “With that, it’s no longer true that, ‘oh my God, I can’t fly this plane anymore because I have to prick my finger and check my blood sugar or give myself a shot.’ Now a diabetic can just look at their smartwatch and see that their blood sugar is too low, so they better drink orange juice. “
With the help of Carpenter, Johnson conducted independent research on type 1 diabetics in the military and other professions.
He discovered they served as police, firefighters and other frontline roles, and that the Federal Aviation Administration approved the first commercial pilot with type 1 diabetes last year. He uses a continuous blood glucose monitor. , as does Johnson.
There is no precedent for diabetics in the military, although Army Sgt. Joshua Kirkpatrick, of the 449th Theater Aviation Brigade, won the North Carolina National Guard’s Best Warrior of the Year competition in 2017 – three years after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
He entered the contest “because from the first day I was diagnosed with diabetes, they kept telling me that I was not fit for the military,” Kirkpatrick said in an interview published on the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service at the time. “They said there was no way I could compete with everyone, and I constantly showed them that I can.”
Attempts to reach Kirkpatrick for comment were unsuccessful. His old unit said he left the Guard. The DVIDS report indicated that proceedings were underway in 2017 to dismiss him.
As time passed until one day Johnson was due to leave the Air Force Academy, he continued to plead his case to be cleared for commission. Last fall, he approached the academy’s superintendent, Lieutenant-General Richard Clark, and asked if he could have 10 minutes of his time.
âWe talked for almost an hour,â Johnson recalls. âHe said if I could fight and do whatever was required of me at the academy, there was no reason we couldn’t get me a job in the military. beaten for me. “
There were still times when it looked like he would fail, but just weeks before the 2021 class became the biggest promotion in academy history on May 26, Johnson learned he would be entering the football stadium with his squadron, dressed in a gray scarf to indicate that he was joining the Space Force.
Johnson and his wife, Brynn, arrived at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California last week, where the new second lieutenant hopes to become an orbital warfare officer and help the United States use satellites to give him an advantage. in space, he said.
He also hopes he can spur change and spare others the angst he went through when he was diagnosed. He wants to be “the guy who shows politics needs to change,” not the exception to an existing rule, Carpenter said.
“I was devastated to learn that I had diabetes, then I had to face the fact that everything I had worked for might be taken away because the military might not accept me,” did he declare. âI want to be an example so that when a person is diagnosed in the future, they don’t have that hanging over them.
âI want people to say, ‘Look at this guy, look at what he’s doing.’ I may never be an astronaut, as my mother seems to think, but I can manage my condition and serve my country, âhe said.
“And if ever the astronaut door opens to diabetics,” he added after the briefest consideration, “I will walk through it.”
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