Cheney Free Press -

By Lee Hughes
Staff Reporter 

An Army of One

Veterans Affairs programs teach disabled veterans independent, adaptive recreational and sports skills

 

April 25, 2019

It’s a cool, overcast day at Spokane Valley Archery, tucked in the foothills beneath Mica Peak. Rain looks likely.

Medical Lake Army veteran Larry McAdams sits somewhat impatiently inside the archery shop tossing off random one-liners at anyone within range. His friend, Don Wilhelm of Airway Heights, stands patiently some distance away.

Nearby — and out of McAdams’s range — Kristie Townsend, another Army veteran, is doing wheelies in her pink wheelchair with a sense of anticipation.

Both are waiting to start the days therapy: archery.

McAdams, tall and somewhat lanky, with balding gray hair and two days worth of gray stubble on his face, tells his story as he waits.

He was stationed in South Korea near the Demilitarized Zone in 1983 when he was riding on the back of a five-ton truck with his U.S. Army artillery unit towing a M198 howitzer. As his unit was making a tactical move, a communication wire strung across his truck’s path got caught on the moving vehicle, stretching it tight like a rubber band.

Then it broke loose, hitting McAdams. The impact flung him off the truck like a rock from a catapult.

When he awoke a few moments later he was laying on the ground, only to be told that the wheel of the howitzer being towed behind his truck had run him over — lengthwise over his entire body.

“Thank God for soft mud,” McAdams quipped with a smile.

Nothing hurt when he awoke, but he was disoriented. He thought a senior enlisted man was his grandmother, he recalled.

McAdams was transported by medics back to Camp Pelham and, deemed lucky, was “tucked into bed.”

But his personality changed afterward, he said. He became more prone to violence.

“I drank and I fought,” McAdams said, recalling a few bar-clearing brawls. “I was always looking for a fight.”

Whether his change in personality can be attributed to his accident is an open question; according to McAdams he never saw a physician afterwards.

But something was definitely wrong. Sometime around the time of his discharge in 1988 — he couldn’t remember exactly when — the Army ordered a CAT scan of his brain that uncovered scaring from a micro-stroke, which doctors attributed to his earlier comm wire accident.

As a result, McAdams was discharged from the Army with a 100 percent disability, he said.

Fast forward 24 years to the day after Christmas 2012, and McAdams suffers another stroke — a massive double stroke — that hit the occipital lobe of his cerebral cortex, leaving him legally blind, his left arm damaged; his left hand slightly disfigured.

“It wouldn’t move worth a damn,” he said. “I went from being able to see one weekend, and then not.”

McAdams described his vision, which he said is getting progressively worse, as like looking through two straws.

Because of his previous disability status, McAdams began receiving physical therapy through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs after his double stroke.

Dean Hopper, a physical therapist for the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, suggested McAdams try the Adaptive Sport Grant Program. Hopper channeled McAdams into archery to help strengthen his left arm and hand that were affected by his stroke.

“Every time he has to shoot, his left hand is doing something on its own,” Hopper said. “He’s made a ton of progress.”

Locally, adaptive sports can range from archery to Nordic skiing, kayaking to rock climbing, fly fishing and other sports.

The VA also has a number of national adaptive sports programs. National Veterans Sports Program and Special Events include the National Wheelchair Games, the National Golden Ages Games geared toward veterans over age 55, and a National Disabled Winter Sports Clinic that offers alpine and Nordic skiing, and rock climbing.

The National Disabled Veterans T.E.E. (Training, Exposure, Experience) Tournament helps veterans with visual challenges, amputees, or those with traumatic brain injuries or psychological trauma with an adaptive golf rehabilitation program and competition.

There’s even an art therapy program. The National Veterans Creative Arts Competition and Festival includes therapy through music, dance, drama and writing competitions.

The overarching mission, Hopper said, is to get disable veterans out doing things they might not otherwise do for themselves due to their injuries, be it a physical activity or simply being around other people. The programs teach them that they can get out, learn a new skill — or relearn a former skill they enjoyed before their injury — then go out and practice it independently, in some cases with adaptive equipment.

For Townsend, who at first glance appears fit enough to pop out of her wheelchair and run laps, the only adaptive equipment she needs for archery is an elastic strap to keep her back up against the back rest of her chair.

In addition to being confined to a wheelchair due to a metal rod and nerve damage in her spine, Townsend, a former Army mechanic, also has a traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress syndrome.

She’s accomplished, showing good form and concentration as she lets an arrow fly at a target some 50 feet away.

“Another dead center,” Townsend announces with a note of pride.

With archery, Hopper said, the goal is to evaluate the veteran’s body mechanics for any adaptive needs, teach them how to shoot and eventually become independent archers.

The VA coordinates programs and resources with a variety of local organizations like the Spokane Parks and Recreation Department.

“Hopefully we’ll get more of this kind of thing going,” Hopper said.

McAdam’s is fortunate in his friendship with Wilhelm, who drove him to the archery range.

“I kind of inherited him as a friend from my brother who passed away,” Wilhelm said.

He frequently takes McAdams where he needs to go, such as the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane for appointments, to see his children, or to adaptive therapy sessions.

“It gets him out of the house,” Wilhelm said. “I go over and grab him every Sunday for breakfast.”

Those trips may soon include archery as well.

Lee Hughes can be reached at lee@cheneyfreepress.com.

 

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