In 2020, Tanner Johnson was due to graduate from the US Air Force Academy in Colorado in a year. However, he fell into a critical state, and doctors told his family members he had two hours to live.
Johnson’s organs were shutting down due to the effects caused by Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune condition where the body attacks the cells that make insulin.
Type 1 diabetes is most common in young children and can be genetically passed down. However, none of Johnson’s family members have diabetes. At 22 years old, he was diagnosed and bedridden in 2020. Two months after most cadets were sent home from the academy due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A New Reality
Despite the doctors giving him hours to live, Johnson survived the ordeal. However, he faced a new reality.
“The doctors said I would have to take insulin shots every day for the rest of my life; I would not be able to fly. I would not be allowed in the military. And wouldn’t be allowed to return to the academy and graduate,” Johnson said.
He refused to accept the doctor’s information and set out to prove them wrong. He strived to become the first person commissioned into the US military with a medical condition that is automatically disqualifying.
Assistant professor of biology at the academy and a certified diabetes counselor, Lt. Col. Amy Carpenter, says, “if you have Type 1, you become not deployable because you are taking insulin shots.”
Throughout her career, Lt. Col. Carpenter advised newly diagnosed military personnel about living with diabetes and prepared them for the end of their military service.
Academy officials allowed Johnson to return, but he was referred to Carpenter to ease his way out of the military. That was not what he was looking for.
“He came to me and said, ‘Ma’am, I know this is a long shot, but what if we could demonstrate that being a Type 1 diabetic does not have to be an automatic disqualifier?'” said Carpenter.
“I thought, ‘oh man, I’ve never had an example where you have Type 1 diabetes, and the military retains you.’ So I told him, ‘Tanner, I know you’re in great control, you’re very knowledgeable about your condition, but get ready to get kicked out.'”
Motivated and Determined
Instead, Johnson did “what everyone else did, and then some, to show that even with this condition, I could do everything that was required of me, and do it well,” he said.
With the day coming in close when Johnson would have to leave the Air Force Academy, he continued to plead his case to be allowed to commission. He approached Air Force Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, “we spoke for nearly an hour,” Johnson recalled.
“He said if I could wrestle and do everything required of me at the academy. There was no reason we couldn’t find a job for me in the military. And he went to bat for me.”
A Chance At Space
Weeks before the Class of 2021 became a graduating class on May 26, Johnson learned he would march into the football stadium with his squadron, wearing a grey sash to indicate he was joining the Space Force.
Johnson and his wife, Brynn, arrived last week at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The newly minted second lieutenant hopes to become an orbital warfare officer and help the US use satellites to get an advantage in space.
“I was devastated to learn I had diabetes, and then I had to deal with the fact that everything I’d worked for might be taken away because the military might not accept me,” he said.
“I want to be an example so that, when someone is diagnosed in the future, they won’t have that hanging over them. I want people to say, ‘Look at this guy, look at what he’s doing.’ I may never be an astronaut like my mom seems to think I will, but I can manage my condition and serve my country… And if the astronaut door ever opens to diabetics, I’ll walk through it.”
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