Whether flying missions as a P3 anti-submarine aircraft pilot, serving as commander of America’s most controversial military prison in Guantanamo Bay or directing the White House Situation Room, over his 35-year career, Navy Rear Admiral Kyle Cozad has navigated through some of the most stressful and consequential situations that a person could find themselves in. Thanks to those experiences, in 2017 the Navy selected him as the chief of education and training, responsible for bringing newly-minted recruits in from the streets and instilling in them the skills, knowledge and attitude they need to do their jobs as full-fledged sailors.
Cozad was eight months into this assignment when an unlucky fall in his kitchen caused a spinal cord injury at T12-L2. If this accident had occurred in years past, all of Cozad’s experience and skill probably wouldn’t have outweighed the fact that he now needed a wheelchair to get around, and a Navy review board would have medically discharged him. However, thanks to a combination of his own tenacity and stellar record, and the Navy’s push to modernize itself, Cozad has continued on as the Navy’s chief educator. In doing so, he has become one of the few active duty service members to use a wheelchair and a case study for the idea that physical disability shouldn’t automatically disqualify you from the military.
I Might Make a Career Out of It
Cozad grew up in Las Vegas, and was good enough at basketball that he was recruited by a number of schools, including the United States Naval Academy. He was drawn to the Academy because of a neighbor who was an Air Force pilot, and the idea of becoming a Navy pilot himself appealed to his sense of service and desire for adventure.
Basketball turned out to be a means to an end — he played for the junior varsity team while at the Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and graduated in 1985. Cozad met his wife, Amy, just before his senior year at the Academy, and they were married a year later. After school, he went to his initial flight training and officially became a pilot. At that point, Cozad planned to spend a few years in the Navy before moving on to fly for a commercial airline. But his second assignment landed him as an instructor in Nova Scotia, where he worked with the Canadian Airforce.
“Amy and I both realized how much we really missed being in the United States Navy. We missed our squadron environment and the camaraderie,” he says. “So with that, we kind of made this decision that we’d go one tour at a time and stick in the Navy until it was no longer fun. Thirty-five years later, here we are. Don’t tell her, but I think I’m going to make a career out of it.”
Over the course of that career, Cozad has flown operational missions in his P3 Orion antisubmarine aircraft, and served as a flight instructor and a squadron commander. Cozad’s current boss, Vice Admiral John Nowell, has known him for almost two decades. “What’s always impressed me with Kyle is his ability to form a team and to lead in a positive fashion. No matter what the challenge, he has approached it with a very even keel, where he gets the job done and gets it done quite well.”
From 2009 to 2011, Cozad served first as deputy director, then as senior director of the White House Situation Room, the fortified bunker in which the president, cabinet and top military brass handle the most high-level threats America faces. He was there when President Obama authorized the raid that killed Osama Bin Liden. Cozad’s duties involved the behind-the-scenes logistics — monitoring attendance, setting up communications links and disseminating intelligence — for what he describes as “a zero-fail environment.”
Cozad relished his role. “You jump in the Metro there in D.C. or drive yourself home, and you just think about and process the incredible things you contributed to that day,” he says. “There is a huge sense of satisfaction that you’re making a difference at a really high level.”
From the situation room, Cozad moved on to other high-level assignments: studying “undersea warfare and dominance in the future” at the Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group; working on global formations deployment at the Joint Chiefs of Staff; heading the entire Maritime Patrol aviation community as they transitioned from using the P3 aircraft that Cozad trained on to the new P8 Poseidon jet. His highest-profile post was commanding one of the most famous prisons in the world — the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, a mission he describes as “really difficult, challenging and often misunderstood.”
It’s hard to imagine a military career more diverse than Cozad’s — he’s been involved in operations, training, research and support, in roles that range from so low-profile that few outside of the military even know they exist, to a stage manager for one of the most historic moments in recent American history, to a public-facing leader of the most intensely scrutinized and secretive military bases in the U.S. Through it all, the common thread has been a commitment to professionalism and service.
“He’s one of those folks where you just go, ‘Wow, I hope I’m as good as Kyle Cozad is,’” says Nowell. “You hope that you have the kind of respect and admiration that his sailors — as well as his contemporaries — have for him.”
In 2017, Cozad was tapped to lead the Naval Education and Training Command. The NETC recruits, trains and provides professional development for the more than 400,000 active duty and reserve personnel in the Navy. “It’s a huge responsibility,” says Cozad. “But the coolest thing about the job is I get to spend a lot of time with people who are brand new to the Navy, 18 and 19-year-old sailors who have never seen the ocean before and are just excited to wear a uniform. They’re excited to serve their country, and to get to their first ship squadron or submarine.”
Eight months into this command tour, Cozad was in the kitchen of his on-base house when he slipped and fell. He doesn’t remember it as a particularly hard fall, but somehow the impact injured his spinal cord. The day after his first surgery, the neurosurgeon delivered the news that his paralysis was likely permanent. “I’m not unique — lots of people get news like that, whether it’s a battlefield injury or a serious illness or an injury like mine,” he says. “And at some point you’re faced with that decision that you have to make. You can lie in bed and feel sorry for yourself, and just expect other people to take care of you for the rest of your life, or you can move on and see what you can make of a dark situation.”
Cozad made it through five weeks in rehab at West Florida Rehabilitation Institute by leaning into the skills and habits he’d developed during his 30-plus years in the Navy. “I’d grown up my entire career with incremental goals. You’ve got to set goals for yourself, take things one day at a time, one step at a time. And literally, that became my motto.”
Then he came home. All of those milestones reached hadn’t prepared him for the real world. He was living in a historic, inaccessible house on base. For a few months, he had to live in a small room on the outside of the house. He was still in a clamshell brace and far from independent. His wife became his primary caregiver. “Watching her do all these things, it really gave me some motivation that, hey, I’ve got to get stronger, I’ve got to get better. And the first thing that I realized was how much I missed the Navy, how much I missed my job.”
A Case for Disability
Cozad was unique in that he had extremely high-level sponsorship willing to facilitate his desire to return to his post. Vice Admiral Robert Burke was his direct supervisor at the time, serving as the Navy’s equivalent of a human resources chief. “He was very accommodating in telling me that, ‘Number one, your health and recovery is your first priority. But number two, take your time and do what you can do as far as getting back to work,’” says Cozad.
Cozad says the Navy has been incredibly accommodating of his disability as he’s returned to full-time work. His staff at the NETC stepped in immediately after his accident. “I’ve always lived under the belief that you’ve got to train the people who work for you to be able to make a difference, and step right in that day that you can’t come to work,” he says. “They ran the organization for me without missing a beat.” Cozad returned part-time at first and then worked his way up to full-time. He still attends physical therapy three afternoons a week, and is allowed to make up for whatever he’s missed at the end of those days by working from home after his appointments.
The Navy was willing to accommodate Cozad’s new body, but this is still rare. Most sailors who develop a significant physical or mental disability have to retire because they no longer meet physical “deployability” requirements (see “Deployability,” below). Working around Cozad’s situation, says Nowell, is “a testimony to the Navy being smart about how we look at someone who could have quite easily have been cashiered out of the service based upon the injury.”
As part of a broader effort to modernize, Nowell says the Navy has started to embrace the idea of “empathetic leadership,” or the ability to see things through a different lens. “I think a lot of times, no one’s better able to do that than someone who’s been through something that’s really hard and challenging. Do I think it’s made Kyle Cozad probably a better leader? He was already a really good one, but yeah, I would say it has.” (See “A More Accommodating Military,” below.)
“It’s been beneficial for the rest of us as well. … There was a very active dialogue after his accident: ‘Hey, what’s the right thing to do?’ That very quickly shifted from, ‘Well, the right thing to do is to give him enough time to just let it play out a little bit, and then we’ll move him on and get someone else in there,’ to, ‘Holy cow, who could do this job better than Kyle Cozad? If he’s willing to stay, can we make that work?’ Thank goodness we did.”
The Path Forward
Since his spinal cord injury, Cozad has worked with the Navy Wounded Warriors, which provides assistance with recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration for injured service members. It’s a program that he considers invaluable in his journey back and a continued source of support.
Through his own experience with disability and with Wounded Warriors, Cozad has developed a passion for mentoring and helping others in a similar situation. At the end of this month, he is set to retire after a 35-year-long and fulfilling career. His current goal, though, is to make retirement less an ending and more a transition. Whether through adaptive sports or a nonprofit organization, Cozad says he wants to carry on supporting disabled veterans and others with a spinal cord injury.
Similarly, Nowell sees Cozad’s service as a powerful example for other sailors. “He epitomizes what good leadership looks like. He is doing that so clearly with a disability, and he’s getting the job done. I mean, the reason he has the job that he’s in right now is because he’s more effective than other leaders that we could have put there,” he says. “I think the message it delivers is that if you are willing, first stay positive and look for how you can accomplish whatever job it is that you decide that you want to do. Then see if there is a path for you.”
The military prides itself on its ability to rapidly deploy a fighting force, and defines “deployability” as a specific set of physical and mental requirements. To join the military, and remain in uniform, personnel must consistently meet these requirements. Typically, it is hard, if not impossible, to meet some of these deployability requirements if you have a physical disability.
Danielle Applegate is a service-disabled veteran who now helms VetsFirst, a program of United Spinal Association that assists veterans and their eligible family members in obtaining the benefits they are entitled to, deserve and need. “Accession into the military is competitive, and there are disqualifying conditions, many of which are health-related. For example, childhood asthma, even well-controlled as an adult, may be a disqualifier,” she says. “The chances of being able to continue serving in uniform once you’ve developed a debilitating condition are slim.”
There are valid and practical reasons for deployability standards — a military needs its troops to be strong and physically fit. In practice, though, Applegate says that 75% of the targeted recruiting population — healthy, young adults — doesn’t meet military recruiting standards for various disqualifiers, with height/weight, education, criminal background, and medical history being the most common. Even though women can now serve in most all military roles, including combat, recruiting numbers are far lower for women compared to men. The Air Force, which is the service branch with the highest percentage of females, is only about 20% women. “It is a national security issue. There are not enough bodies to meet the recruiting targets of an all-volunteer force, especially considering the changing needs of the technologically-advancing military, which requires differing skills to meet expanding priorities in areas like cybersecurity and unmanned aerial vehicles. These are skills that don’t depend on physical readiness alone, and are highly prized in the civilian world — and the military can’t compete.”
A More Accommodating Military?
Q&A With Navy Chief of Personnel, Vice Admiral John Nowell
New Mobility: How uncommon it is for someone who has an accident and winds up with a spinal cord injury or other significant disability to continue in active-duty service?
Nowell: It is out of the ordinary. I will share with you that it’s not about Kyle Cozad being a flag officer — it is about the special skill sets that he had. But I should be very frank with you: We, like the other services … pretty much you have to be deployable anywhere in the world at any time to do your job.
In Kyle’s case, he’s not physically qualified now to fly the aircraft that he spent much of his career flying. That’s not what the Navy needs him to do.
I think where I’m going with this is that in the 21st century, as we look at war fighting, it’s very different. It’s about out-thinking our opponents and our adversaries. In many cases, if you’re a cyber warrior, then I may not need you to be able to deploy, let’s say, like a Marine or someone else on a destroyer or a cruiser. We do have cyber warriors who go out on those, but if you have that skill set and I can put you in the right place ashore, in the right center to do your job, and if you have some kind of a medical issue, do we still have a place for you? The answer is, yes, we do. But this is a new way of looking at it.
NM: Just to be clear, you’re saying that in the modern Navy, there’s some rethinking and some need to be flexible in some of these physical deployability requirements to accommodate talents and to allow people to continue to serve. Is that right?
Nowell: I think that’s true. I mean, first of all, we know that for sailors, flexibility and options are very, very important, but then we also know that for the Navy, we need to be able to do it [deploy]. I will again point out that I’m not saying we don’t need the majority of our folks to fit what you and I would recognize as the standard deployability metrics, but it should not be, and cannot be, a cookie cutter approach.
NM: So there is more willingness to look at individual situations and see where their talents and skills might be able to still be deployed?
Nowell: That’s absolutely true.