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Vet gets free tracked wheelchair

wheelchair-accessible ramp (Joel Martinez/U.S. Air Force)

Herbert Thomas can’t hide his enthusiasm or gratitude for the gift of mobility once again.

Thomas, 54, of Meadville, a 14-year U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq, has regained mobility thanks to an all-terrain wheelchair. It’s a gift from the Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit military support organization based in Dulles, Virginia.

“Snow, rain, even bad sidewalks or roads — it doesn’t matter,” Thomas said with a smile as he showed off his tracked wheelchair recently. “I’m just ecstatic about it — I get to go hunting and fishing again.”

Thomas, an Army staff sergeant, severely injured his spine in June 2003 during deployment to Iraq.

Thomas was in a vehicle convoy providing security to another unit, when the convoy rolled into an enemy ambush. Thomas sustained severe back injuries and had to undergo surgery to rebuild his back using multiple rods and screws.

Thomas earned a Bronze Star medal and was the only noncommissioned officer in his unit to receive the honor. The Bronze Star is the U.S. military’s fourth-highest individual military award — awarded for acts of heroism, acts of merit, or meritorious service in a combat zone.

Due to his back injuries, Thomas’ mobility has been adversely impacted, preventing him from walking or standing for any extended period of time.

“I can still walk a short distance (about 30 yards), but then I have to rest,” he said.

For Thomas, trying to enjoy therapeutic outdoor activities he loves like hunting and fishing with his family, has been a challenge due to his mobility issues.

“We tried to go fishing a couple years with regular wheelchair and I got stuck — and she’s six months pregnant,” Thomas said referring to his companion Elaina Conwell. “We had a heck of a time.”

Thomas spent several years trying to get aid from any organization, but was unable to do so because he still had some, though limited, mobility.

“We’d been struggling for more than five years to try to get someone help us out,” Conwell said.

“At one point I said ‘I’ve had enough,'” Thomas said. However, he credited his daughter, Kristen, with helping him to keep trying.

About two years ago, Thomas came across the Freedom Alliance via an internet search and reached out to the organization. He then was put on a future aid list by the Freedom Alliance.

“I got a call from them about a year ago and they said they’re going to help me out by building a (customized wheel)chair,” he said. “They asked me what I might want on it.”

Thomas asked for his military rank and the U.S. Army seal as well as accessories to hold fishing and hunting equipment. Thomas’ chair was presented to him Nov. 30 by the Freedom Alliance at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2006 in Meadville.

The all-terrain chairs like the one given to Thomas are customized to the needs of each recipient and come equipped with tank-style treads to handle sand, snow and uneven ground, according to Tom Kilgannon, president of the Freedom Alliance.

“He’s a guy who really enjoys the outdoors,” Kilgannon said of Thomas. “The great outdoors really plays a part in this in keeping his spirits up. This chair really gives him a lot more confidence and independence.”

The Freedom Alliance has spent nearly $1 million providing more than 65 similar chairs to other wounded veterans around the country, according to Kilgannon.

Thomas said he’s extremely appreciative of being a recipient.

“I just want to thank them so much,” he said. “I couldn’t do anything. Having this — it’s awesome.”


(c) 2022 The Meadville Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.