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Climbing accident didn’t break James Steglich’s spirit

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Editor's note: This is the second in a four-part series featuring employees at Tinker Air Force Base with disabilities.

James Steglich is a financial analyst in the 76th Maintenance Wing's Financial Management Office, where he measures production labor costs associated with budgeting and pricing.

Mr. Steglich, who began working at Tinker in November 2010, said he is honored to be working on base and values the daily structure created by the military influence. He became quickly aware that rules and regulations are spelled out and observed without exceptions. Mr. Steglich said he is comfortable working at Tinker and in the environment of knowing exactly what's expected of him.

Mr. Steglich has been in a wheelchair since a mountain climbing accident on Thanksgiving Day 1977. He suffered a spinal injury, broke the C6 and C7 vertebras in his neck, broke both wrists and suffered a serious head injury in a fall. He is now paralyzed from the chest down including parts of his arms and hands. Mr. Steglich said he is grateful that he is still able to care for himself. He uses a manual wheelchair, but has created several types of assistive devices for himself to aid in writing, eating and dressing.

Mr. Steglich said offering advice about how to get along with people with disabilities is a tough because there are many different kinds of disabilities.

"As far as I'm concerned, I am very appreciative of people thinking of my behalf," he said. "I shudder to think of a life surrounded by people who are indifferent about my well being."

He went on to say that, in a perfect setting, he would prefer that people not ask if he needs help with anything -- such as pushing himself up a ramp, for example -- but rather give him the chance to ask for assistance.

"A pet peeve is that most people have an unnatural fear of elevator doors," he said. "Most folks act as if an elevator door will pinch your arm off if caught, and if you're in the doorway when it starts to close you'll be crushed alive. To make a long story short, under almost all conditions I don't need help with an elevator door."

Mr. Steglich enjoys telling his family and friends about life in Bldg. 3001. When he was being interviewed for his job and first entered Bldg. 3001, he thought it was just a "giant, bureaucratic, government office building." After he was hired and toured the building on his first day, he was surprised to learn that sections of it are in fact large aircraft hangars housing high-tech industrial machine shops.

"Who knew the building housed multiple aircraft, industrial shops, warehouses, administrative offices, a gift shop, cafeterias and snack-bars, as well as banks?," he said. "It's an exciting environment."

Mr. Steglich recalls his first experience in hearing retreat and the national anthem one day. He was parked near Bldg. 3001's flagpole and heard the music. He noticed all the people in the parking lot had stopped firmly and were facing the flag, some with their right hand over their hearts. He imitated everyone else and then and asked his co-workers about the experience the next day. They explained the history of the customary sunset and retreat ceremonies. Mr. Steglich said he was strongly impressed by the sense of honor, duty and patriotism the tradition implies. After he finishes telling his family and friends about Bldg. 3001, he tells them about the reveille and retreat ceremonies.

Mr. Steglich is a graduate of Coronado High School in El Paso, Texas. Growing up in El Paso, he was active in camping, hunting, hang gliding, spelunking (cave exploration), hiking, anything involving the outdoors. But his injury, and subsequent wheelchair life, put the brakes on that. Now he finds release as an avid fan of Formula 1 racing and Blues music. His bucket list includes attending the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, Italy.

Mr. Steglich loves live music events in settings "where there are no reserved seats." His most recent experience was up close and personal with Ian Moore at the Diamond Ballroom in August. He is a member of the Greater Oklahoma Bluegrass Music Society and loves to jam with his harmonicas. You won't find James at work in late October 2012, he'll be on the "2012 Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise," traveling through the southern Caribbean enjoying the open blue seas and a week of kicking back with legendary Blues musicians.

Mr. Steglich is the proud owner of a 1984 Chevrolet Caprice that recently reached "hobby status." He's spent a lot of time and money chasing little things down to keep it looking great and running. Mr. Steglich is a long-time member of Messiah Lutheran Church in Oklahoma City, and is privileged to be chairing the 2011 Financial Review Committee.