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

If I had to describe Tory in one word, I would choose resilient. He is an honors student, eight-time Carson Scholar, Eagle Scout and a public speaker. He enjoys sketching 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. Because of his disability, Tory has endured teasing, bullying, isolation and was even assaulted on a school bus. Through it all, Tory managed to excel and not allow those experiences to harden him.

Tory’s love for aviation was born out of shadowing his dad, an aviation structural mechanic and quality assurance senior chief. His dad picked him up from daycare every day and introduced Tory to an array of aircraft. Their bond built the foundation of Tory’s love for aviation and established his dream to want 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 holds staff workshops there every year for Autism Awareness Month.

Tory also served the civilian community, through the Boy Scouts of America. He earned 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 children like himself make friends on the playground. His brave efforts and ability to reach different audiences earned him numerous public speaking opportunities. His work educated people in all walks of life throughout the Washington, D.C. area.

Tory’s Time to Serve

Despite being fully 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. This was his dream. Tory participated in and passed his formal 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 his disability, the NROTC selection review board awarded Tory the NROTC scholarship.

Two months later, we received two letters stating Tory did not meet established physical standards, one from the Department of Navy, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED) and the other from the Department of Defense Medical Examination Review Board (DOD MERB). Because of his disability, BUMED stated applying for a medical waiver was not recommended because of its being granted was unlikely. They said he was “not physically qualified and waiver denied.” This decision was made despite the medical examiner’s determination that stated “condition fully controlled.”

Navy instructions state that an applicant cannot attend the four-week New Student Indoctrination (NSI) training if they are deemed unqualified. Despite that, Tory received orders to attend that training. We still don’t know how or why this happened.

We felt helpless in those four weeks. Imagine having your child endure four weeks of intense training, all the while knowing that it is very likely going to be for nothing. There was no easy way out of this bureaucratic nightmare. During that time, we were able to have our congressman, U.S. Representative Steny Hoyer advocate for Tory. The Navy then allowed us the opportunity to submit a waiver request.

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

“All I think is that coming here was a mistake that I let myself be pressured into coming here so as to not look weak.”

“I’m still worried that this is all for nothing.”

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

“I try to think about how you are both tirelessly working to make my goal [of joining the military] happen for me”

“But I will keep going until the end. I promise.”

Tory did not give up. He graduated. Most importantly, he was proud of himself.

A Way Forward for Tory

Although Tory was still in the medical waiver process, 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 duties, meaning he could not pursue his dream career path due to his disability. Our family was devastated. Because of 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 is focused on enjoying college and is excelling as an honors student. He is looking forward to continuing to serve his community and is working towards a bright future. As his mother, I know he will continue to thrive in a world that is more inclusive and appreciative of the qualities that make Tory, Tory, differences, and all.

Vanessa Ridgeway retired as a legal assistant three years after Tory’s diagnosis. She devoted herself to learning about autism and advocacy and ensuring Tory received any and all additional therapies to help him thrive. Her volunteering helped ensure Tory was fully included in the educational setting. 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 vridgeway7@gmail.com. Do you have a story like Tory’s? E-mail Partners in PROMISE: info@partnersinpromise.org.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times senior managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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