a teenager refuses a military future because of exclusionary policies

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Tory Ridgeway wanted to be an aerospace engineer in the US Navy, but the Navy didn’t seem to want it. Tory is my son, who is also diagnosed with autism. My hope is that our family’s experience with exclusionary military recruiting policies can be used to open doors for others with exceptional needs. It’s Tory’s story, but tomorrow it could be your child’s story.

If I had to describe Tory in one word, I would choose resilient. He is a honors student, eight-time Carson Fellow, Eagle Scout, and lecturer. He loves to draw and is a gamer. Tory was also diagnosed with autism at the age of four.

Tory’s passion for service

Tory’s journey has been long and arduous. Due to his disability, Tory suffered teasing, bullying, isolation and was even assaulted on a school bus. Through it all, Tory was able to excel and not let those experiences harden him.

Tory’s love for aviation grew out of the observation of his father, an aircraft structural mechanic and senior quality assurance manager. His father picked him up from daycare every day and introduced Tory to a whole set of planes. Their bond laid the foundation for Tory’s love of aviation and established his dream of wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps, serving his country in the United States Navy.

Tory followed this passion for aviation by serving the military community where he could, through the Exceptional Family Members Program (EFMP). He gives presentations and organizes workshops for staff there each year for Autism Awareness Month.

Tory also served the civilian community, through the Boy Scouts of America. He obtained the rank of Eagle Scout at the age of 14. For his Eagle project, Tory hosted a presentation and shared his journey as a child with autism. He also built Buddy Benches to help kids like him make friends on the playground. His courageous efforts and ability to reach different audiences have given him plenty of public speaking opportunities. His work has educated people from all walks of life throughout the Washington, DC area.

Tory’s time to serve

Although he was completely transparent about his autism diagnosis in his application, the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) Selection Committee chose Tory to compete for an NROTC scholarship. It was his dream. Tory attended and passed his official interview with the naval science instructor at his dream college, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU). The instructor recommended Tory to the NROTC Selection Review Board as a potential candidate. With full knowledge of her disability, the NROTC Selection Review Board awarded Tory the NROTC scholarship.

Two months later, we received two letters indicating that Tory did not meet established physical standards, one from the Department of the Navy, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED) and the other from the Department of Defense Medical Examination. Review Board (DOD MERB). Due to his disability, BUMED said a request for medical exemption was not recommended as it was unlikely. They said he was “not physically qualified and the waiver was refused.” This decision was made despite the forensic pathologist’s determination to indicate “fully controlled condition”.

Navy instructions state that a candidate cannot attend the four-week New Student Indoctrination (NSI) training if found to be unqualified. Despite this, Tory was ordered to attend this training. We still don’t know how or why this happened.

We felt helpless during those four weeks. Imagine that your child goes through four weeks of intense training, knowing that it will most likely be for nothing. There was no easy way out of this bureaucratic nightmare. During this time, we were able to ask our congressman, US Representative Steny Hoyer, to defend Tory. The Navy then gave us the opportunity to submit a waiver request.

The emotional upheaval felt by an 18 year old and our family was unbearable at times. Throughout the month, the only communication we had was letters from Tory.

“All I’m thinking is coming here was a mistake that I let myself be pushed into coming here so as not to look weak.”

“I’m still worried that this will all be for naught.”

“I signed up to go to church … faith is something I desperately need.”

“I’m trying to think about how the two of you work tirelessly to achieve my goal [of joining the military] happen to me “

“But I will continue until the end. I promise.”

Tory didn’t give up. He graduated. Most of all, he was proud of himself.

A way forward for Tory

Although Tory was still in the process of medical waiver, he was able to join his NJROTC unit at ERAU on August 23, 2021. It was then that he learned that if his waiver was approved, his career options would be limited. to restricted line officer functions. , which meant he couldn’t pursue his dream career due to his disability. Our family was devastated. Due to these limitations, Tory withdrew his waiver request and walked away from the fight for his NROTC scholarship. He returned the uniforms he was so eager to wear.

But Tory is resilient. He focuses on the fun of college and excels as a college student. He looks forward to continuing to serve his community and is working towards a bright future. As a mother, I know he will continue to thrive in a world that is more inclusive and appreciates the qualities that make Tory, Tory, the differences and all.

Vanessa Ridgeway retired as a legal assistant three years after Tory’s diagnosis. She has been dedicated to learning more about autism and advocacy and making sure Tory receives any additional therapies to help her thrive. Her volunteering ensured that Tory was fully included in the educational environment. Vanessa volunteers as a parent educator and mentor for the EFMP support group on Joint Base Andrews. Vanessa has been a member of various disability organizations such as the Council of Parent Advocates and Attorneys, the Maryland Coalition of Inclusive Education, The Arc of Prince George’s County, Parents Place of Maryland, and Autism Speaks. She can be reached at [email protected]. Do you have a story like Tory’s? PROMISE e-mail partners: [email protected].

Editor’s Note: This is an editorial and as such the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond or would like to submit your own editorial, please contact Military Times Senior Editor Howard Altman, [email protected].

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