Heavy-duty motorized chairs open doors for veterans

By ZACH TYLER | The Anniston Star, Ala. (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 17, 2015

In the cold, gray light, two local veterans took turns patrolling up and down an Anniston driveway, the rubber tread on their new all-terrain track chairs rasping on the concrete.

Matthew Pepe, 71, said his old power chair, given to him by the Veteran's Affairs office, would take him anywhere he wanted to go — but only as long as it was accessible by sidewalk.

"Now, I can do anything I want to do," Pepe said at his home Monday, seated in the track chair.

Birmingham-based nonprofit Support Our Soldiers gave Anniston resident Pepe and Oxford's Ken Rollins the motorized chairs, which have continuous track reminiscent of a tank and are designed to be used on rough terrain. The two veterans — who were exposed to Agent Orange while serving in the Army during the Vietnam War — said the chairs may open doors they thought closed many years ago.

"At my age in my life, I had accepted the fact that I'd never fish ... never walk a beach again," said Rollins, 70.

"That all changed today," said the veteran, who was deployed to Vietnam in 1966 and again in 1969.

He's looking forward to being able to reach the lakeshore or ride along the beach with his chair, maybe do some fishing, he said.

Pepe's planning to do the same. He said he used to love spending time on Mount Cheaha, and hopes the chair will get him back out on the trails.

He asked if the chair, with its camouflage paint job, an LED light under the controls and rifle rack on the side, would stand up to the branches and undergrowth.

"It'll grind 'em up and spit 'em out," said Philip Shadle, a dealer of the chairs in Alabama and Georgia, who delivered the chairs in a trailer.

They received the devices through Support Our Soldiers. Charon Rivers, who helped organize the group in 2012, said the nonprofit would present five or six of the chairs this year to selected veterans.

Rivers began the nonprofit with a desire to help servicemembers fighting overseas. She and her husband sent boxes of necessities to their son, Lance Cpl. Thomas Rivers Jr., while he was deployed in Afghanistan.

After Thomas was killed by an improvised explosive device in Helmand province in 2010, Rivers said, they continued sending care packages to the rest of his platoon.

The couple organized Support Our Soldiers with their daughter, Rachel, after she began entering beauty pageants, where as part of the competition she spoke of her family's efforts. The family now sends about 50 boxes filled with toothbrushes, baby wipes, socks and beef jerky overseas each month.

Rivers said a Birmingham club for businessmen heard about the work the organization was doing and began raising money specifically for the track chairs. The nonprofit received around $76,000 from the fundraising.

(c)2015 The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.)
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