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Paralyzed Veterans of America

 

 

The Paralyzed Veterans of America was founded in 1946 by a small group of paralyzed veterans, coalesced around shared problems resulting from combat spinal cord injuries. The number of World War II warfighters who survived such injuries was relatively small, but despite undergoing treatment at different hospitals around the country – none specific to spinal care – they learned about each other and decided to meet at the veterans hospital in Hines, Illinois.

That original group became a grassroots, self-activating advocacy group. There were other veterans service organizations (VSOs) in existence at the time, but they weren’t advocating for paralyzed veterans, whose life expectancies were then only about two years.

“These guys beat the odds by outliving that expectation, but they had to get society and science to do more for them,” according to Paralyzed Veterans of America Deputy Executive Director Sherman Gillums Jr. “They were a cross section of society, all injured in battle and with the wherewithal to advocate for themselves at a time when we didn’t have today’s advantages, such as the Internet. They coordinated transfers from their facilities to Hines, citing medical reasons, but the true intent was to enable them to meet, and they knew enough about the system to work it.”

It would be 32 years before Paralyzed Veterans, swelled with Vietnam veterans, was large enough to seek a congressional charter, which was needed to have the legitimacy to speak before government on behalf of a constituency of paralyzed veterans.

After World War II, there were additional paralyzed veterans from the Korean War, but many of Paralyzed Veterans’ new members were injured outside combat, mostly the result of automobile accidents. As active-duty, National Guard, Reserve, or former military personnel, they were still eligible for treatment at veterans medical centers, where they came in contact with other paralyzed veterans and, over time, joined Paralyzed Veterans.

It would be 32 years before Paralyzed Veterans, swelled with Vietnam veterans, was large enough to seek a congressional charter, which was needed to have the legitimacy to speak before government on behalf of a constituency of paralyzed veterans.

“That was the birth of the official identity of the PVA, which then could represent veterans before the VA and military to obtain benefits,” Gillums said.

PVA advocate

Paralyzed Veterans of America Senior Benefits Advocate Winston Woodard III explains veterans benefits to hospitalized Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran Alberto Velasco.

While it was long run by volunteers – many of them paralyzed veterans – today Paralyzed Veterans has a largely paid, professional staff working for its roughly 20,000 members. Any veteran not dishonorably discharged who has a spinal cord dysfunction, whether from injury or disease, is eligible for membership. The organization also tracks paralyzed dependents – basically anyone entitled to some sort of benefits.

“Vietnam is the hump in the histogram, with fewer World War II and Korea veterans,” Gillums said. “There was a major ‘peacetime’ era after Vietnam and another between the two Gulf wars. Most of our older members are from the Vietnam era, although most are not combat related.

“To the credit of science and medicine, [many of] those injured in the current conflict were able to walk out of hospitals, where anyone shot in the spine during Vietnam typically was done. That has changed the concept of the paralyzed vet – many are not in wheelchairs.”

Paralyzed Veterans’ website states its goal is “to change lives and build brighter futures for our seriously injured heroes – to empower these brave men and women with what they need to achieve the things they fought for: freedom and independence. [Our founders] returned to a grateful nation, but also to a world with few solutions to the challenges they faced. They made a decision not just to live, but to live with dignity as contributors to society [by forming] an organization dedicated to veterans service, medical research and civil rights for people with disabilities. Today, the work continues to create an America where all veterans and people with disabilities – and their families – have everything they need to live full and productive lives.”

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...