“Something like that happens, and you realize how precious life is. I wanted to live it to the fullest.”
(On the second anniversary of losing his leg, McElroy participated in a three-person triathlon sponsored by the Navy SEALs. One member of his team, an above-knee amputee, swam the mile; a woman with a below-the-knee amputation ran the 13-mile leg of the race; McElroy biked 56 miles.)
McElroy went on 911-phone dispatch at the 32nd Street station. Firefighters who have suffered heart attacks or have backs “blown out” are certified to return to work on the written recommendation of one doctor through the occupational health office. When he walked across the parking lot and into the Federal Fire Department offices at the Naval Training Center, McElroy had in hand the written approval of three prosthetists and two doctors.
In the office, the desk calendar read March 24, 1994.
Rosie Robinson was behind her desk. A brown-skinned, middle-aged woman, she looked up and smiled broadly.
“Well, McElroy! You look great! Why, I can’t even tell you had an accident. Which leg is it?”
“It was my left.”
“Oh, really!” She eyed the left leg. “Well, you’d sure never know.”
“I was only having a little fun with you, Rosie. Actually it’s my right.”
“McElroy, now which one is it?”
“My right, honest!”
He lifted the cuff of his pants to show the prosthetic built from carbon fiber and titanium, with a VSP-flex foot and an acrylic black composite plastic sheath.
Civil Service employees are processed through the Occupational Health Office on North Island. Rosie suggested that McElroy make an appointment. Just then he spotted his chief passing down the hallway.
The man stepped inside the office. “So you’re back, McElroy.” They shook hands.
“Chief, I’m back and I’m ready to work.”
The chief explained to McElroy that the department had never had a person like him on staff before.
“I think we’re going to want you to take an agilities test and maybe see a doctor.”
McElroy had his papers in hand. “Chief, I’ve already been to Occupational Health, and they didn’t find anything wrong.”
McElroy says the chief still wanted him to take an agilities test and to see another doctor.
“Chief, I’ve got five statements,” McElroy recalls saying. “Two doctors and three prosthetists. They say I’m fine to go back to work.”
That was when, McElroy says, the chief lost his temper. McElroy says the chief pointed his finger at McElroy and yelled, “I don’t give a damn what your doctors are telling you. I’m telling you what I want! You’re different, and the sooner you realize that the better off you’ll be.”
McElroy remembers hearing the distant drone of airplanes cutting across the sky. He remembers Rosie was silent at her desk. All complaints about discrimination pass through Rosie’s office, which she’d decorated with images of African pride and Christian devotion. For the first time, McElroy says, he understood what it meant to be disabled. But it was a definition others were imposing on him. He wondered: was he being discriminated against?
McElroy made an appointment to see Frank Golbransen, the orthopedic surgeon at UCSD. Once a top Army surgeon, the big ruddy Swede specialized in amputations. Golbransen passed him. As for the agilities test, he’d already taken the test to get his job back. He knew of no one who had to take the test a second time. But the chief was clear.
The Federal Fire Service requires that all applicants for firefighting take the Physical Agilities Test. McElroy says some of the test involved hoisting a fully charged (filled with water) 11˝ hose across his shoulders, running up to a 6-foot wall, tossing the hose over the wall, then climbing the wall and picking up the hose. Other challenges included carrying the charged hose while running toward and climbing a 30-foot ladder; while walking across a 10-foot-long, 6-inch-wide balance beam; and while running through a series of rubber tires.
In March, after an absence of more than six months, McElroy returned to the firehouse. In April he received medical approval to return to firefighting. In May he passed his first agilities test. Now a fire room was set up for his second test.
McElroy remembers the asphalt was blistering hot on North Island that June afternoon. He wore his full firefighter gear with breathing apparatus and an oxygen tank on his back. He was carrying a two-inch fully charged hose (with one gallon of water weighing eight pounds, the hose weighed hundreds of pounds). He approached the building for what is called an “initial attack.”
McElroy says several fire officials were watching from a distance: a battalion chief, an assistant chief, a representative from the union (the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local No. F-33), and an engine captain who served as proctor.
“Who’s going in with me?” McElroy said, looking around.
Carrying the hose, he went into the building darkened to approximate a smoke-filled room (called “the black room”).
“I found the ‘victim,’ ” McElroy says he called out. “What do you want me to do?”
The “victim,” a dummy, had been stashed inside the room. In this test, the fireman was expected to locate it and bring it out. The proctor, he said, told him to bring it out.
“What about the hose?”
“Bring that out too.”
He did it — and more. He “laddered” a building — usually a two-man job — pulling a 35-foot extension ladder off a truck and setting it up against a building.
He passed this second test (and with it was returned to active, full-time service). He also filed an EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) complaint in which he argued that he’d been discriminated against. But federal employees, he learned, are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The judge threw his complaint out.
The next year, 1996, the Lions Clubs of San Diego voted McElroy Firefighter of the Year. He was also the country’s first one-legged professional firefighter as well as the only one-legged Infantry soldier in the Army Reserves.