NEWS | Oct. 29, 2018

INDOPACOM Navy Civilian Uses Disability Achievement Award to Raise Parkinson's Awareness

By Yonca Poyraz-Dogan Navy Office of Information Public Affairs

WASHINGTON -- Jerry Boster had mild left-hand tremors when he was on active duty at U.S. Pacific Fleet (COMPACFLT) in fall 2012. The following year, he retired and ignored it all until his wife and a family friend noticed his tremors, stooped posture and slow gait. That was a warning sign for him.

“I scheduled an appointment with a general neurologist at Tripler Army Medical Center. After an exam, she told me I had Parkinson’s like symptoms and referred me to a neurologist who was a movement disorder specialist,” Boster wrote via email from Hawaii. “When my appointment arrived, the specialist did a thorough exam and matter-of-factly told me I had Parkinson’s.”

As his journey of both learning about Parkinson’s and seeking a job started, he couldn’t have imagined back then that he would be able to find not only a job but also advance in his career and receive an award.

Boster, a theater campaign assessor at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), is one of 25 recipients of the Department of Defense Disability Achievement and Recognition Awards given earlier in October.

“I look at this award two ways. First, it offers me an opportunity to raise the profile of Parkinson's in general, and more specifically, veterans with Parkinson's. Out of nearly 1 million Parkinson's patients in the United States, about 120,000 are veterans. So this offered an opportunity to highlight those folks. Second, this award goes to show that folks with significant neurological conditions can not only be productive workers but excel and be leading team members,” he said adding that he was promoted from the GS-12 maritime security policy lead to the GS-13 campaign assessment role at USINDOPACOM, Camp H.M. Smith on the island of Oahu, Hawaii.

The Navy is strongly committed to diversity, said Robert L. Woods, principal advisor to the assistant secretary in executing responsibilities for the overall supervision and oversight of manpower and reserve component affairs of the Navy.

"Diversity is one of the strongest attributes of the Department of the Navy. Individually, we bring forth a variety of talent to the table which greatly improves not only the capabilities of our workforce but the culture of the Navy as a whole. For the Navy, we are nothing without our dedicated personnel and I am honored to work alongside those as we celebrate during National Disability Employment Awareness Month."

Reflecting a commitment to a robust and competitive labor force, this year’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) theme is “America’s Workforce: Empowering All.” Observed each October, it celebrates the contributions of workers with disabilities and educates about the value of a workforce inclusive of their skills and talents.

Before exploring some of the available resources, Boster experienced some disappointments in finding a job. When he applied for positions either at the Department of Defense or outside, and submitted more than 100 job applications in which he also revealed his condition, he had similar answers.

“The response was refreshing and uniform ‘Thank you for your openness, but it’s not a consideration in our hiring decision’.”

He finally found some resources at the Hawaii Veterans Affairs (VA) where he had some training that helped him to find a job. In summer of 2014, he was offed a position at USINDOPACOM as the maritime security policy lead.

Typing with the left-hand tremor had challenges for him but USINDOPACOM would make working with a disability easier.

“My neurologist and I had been working to alleviate the tremors through medication, but hadn’t had success yet. So I asked for a right-hand only keyboard,” he said. “When my neurologist finally found the good combination of medications, the technical solution proposed for me was to use verbal dictation software on my unclassified computer. Thankfully, my meds eliminated the need for the software.”

Since he routinely briefs senior officers and civilians, he says that he sits on his left hand if seated or puts his left hand in his trouser pocket if standing if his medication is not being effective.

“I do this not because I am embarrassed or ashamed of my Parkinson’s, but because I don’t want people [to] become distracted by my tremor. I want them focus on business not my Parkinson’s,” he said.

Boster has been involved in Parkinson’s related associations and joined the Hawaii Parkinson Association’s (HPA) annual walk in order to raise funds for care and research of the condition. Those successful efforts led him to join the HPA board of directors, a non-profit volunteer group comprised of dedicated individuals with Parkinson's, caregivers, family members, health care professionals, educators and leaders in the business community.

In 2017, he was chosen to lead the HPA. He has been also attending such events as National Parkinson Policy Forum, sponsored by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson Research and the National Parkinson Foundation, and he joined the Unified Parkinson Advocacy Council, where he advocates for local issues at the national level.

“USINDOPACOM has been fantastic about supporting my Parkinson’s work. They give a lot of latitude in my schedule as long as I’m getting my work done while maintaining the quality. Thankfully, it is still early in my Parkinson’s progression and the symptoms remain mild. My VA neurologist continues to work hard to mitigate my Parkinson’s symptoms. He has largely been successful and I am doing well. This has enabled me to maintain a pretty good overall quality of life, work full time at USINDOPACOM, and work hard on behalf of all my brothers and sisters with Parkinson’s to better our lives,” he said.

National Disability Employment Awareness Month has its origins in 1945, when Congress declared the first week in October each year “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” In 1962, the word “physically” was dropped to acknowledge individuals with all types of disabilities. In 1988, Congress expanded the week to a month and changed the name to National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires federal employers to provide reasonable accommodations to persons with disabilities when needed, unless to do so would cause undue hardship.