With gift cycle, disabled vet ready to race
For months, Ellwood "Woody" Allen, of West Oak Lane, cycled along Martin Luther King Drive toward a renewed sense of independence.
The Vietnam-era veteran lost a leg two years ago after a toxic infection. Riding helps him cope, but he has to borrow the hand cycle that now serves as his wheels.
On Tuesday, the Disabled American Veterans, Collegeville Chapter No. 25, made sure Allen had a set of his own.
The group donated a custom-built hand cycle to Allen as part of a chapter project aimed at helping disabled veterans adjust. Allen, a retired postal worker who most recently worked at Wawa, will ride the new "trike" and attempt to win a race - more or less.
Allen has entered the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, scheduled Aug. 12-17 in Philadelphia and South Jersey. Allen hopes to race to victory, which for him means "not finishing last."
"The fact that they were willing to help somebody, I hate to say I feel emotional, because we're grown men and we're not supposed to," Allen said after receiving the bright-red trike.
The veterans group presented the cycle to Allen at Conicelli Hyundai in Conshohocken before a gathering of about 30 people. The car dealership was a major sponsor of the Collegeville chapter's annual September golf outing, which raised funds for the hand-cycle project.
The trike donation is the first in what the chapter hopes will be an annual initiative.
"It gives you mobility, hand-eye coordination, and it gets you outside and meeting people," said Bill "Pinky" Pinkerton, a member of the Collegeville chapter who helped spearhead the effort. "After trauma, you need to get out."
Allen spent much of his time in the Army helping other vets cope. Stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., Allen was a behavioral-science specialist and worked with veterans coming home from Vietnam.
After he was discharged, Allen got married and worked as a drug counselor, EMT, and, most recently, making hoagies at Wawa.
"I woke up one morning with cramps in my right leg," Allen said. "I went to the VA, and they found blood clots."
The clots were cleared, but an infection set in. Allen's leg was amputated to the knee. He has been undergoing rehabilitation since his surgery in July 2012.
"The first thing I had to do was understand [and accept that] it wasn't there, and once I did that, it was time to move on," Allen said.
He was fitted for a prosthesis and started cycling after he was introduced to the sport as part of a veterans support group.
In the meantime, the Disabled American Veterans chapter had been trying to find someone who could use a custom-built trike.
Pinkerton, an Air Force veteran, had advocated for the group to donate a cycle after hearing how riding helped another veteran.
The group reached out to veterans hospitals in Coatesville and Philadelphia, but at first was stymied by privacy laws, said Bill Keyes, a Marine Corps veteran and senior vice commander of the Collegeville chapter.
Finally, the group connected with Kate Weisbond, amputee coordinator at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center. She told the group she had the perfect veteran.
The Collegeville chapter then obtained and assembled the trike with the help of the Valley Forge Chapter of AMBUCS, a group whose mission is to provide mobility for people with disabilities.
On Tuesday, Allen, Keyes, and Pinkerton met for the first time. Allen pedaled through an aisle lined with cars to the sound of applause.
"This is a wonderful thing," said Allen's wife, Joyce.
Her husband will be one of 14 members of the Philly Phever team competing at the games, which are being held in Philadelphia and South Jersey for the first time in the event's 34-year history.
A record field of 660 athletes will compete in 17 events, including basketball, track and field, and rugby. Most events will be at the Convention Center, and several will be in South Jersey.
Events are free and open to the public. Organizers are still seeking volunteers for the games, which are presented by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Paralyzed Veterans of America.
On the last day of the games, Allen will mount his trike for 10K races, scheduled to start at 7 a.m. He will be competing against at least 60 athletes, and riding on familiar terrain - King Drive.
Veterans from the Collegeville chapter say they will be there to cheer him on.