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Column: Operation wheelchair rolls into action

By Kathleen Parker

Washington Post Writers Group

WASHINGTON — It all started with a Marine major general’s widow, who wanted to donate her wheelchair to a Marine who needed it.

What would seem to have been a simple request became a daunting task.

There were bureaucracies to navigate, regulations to untangle, privacy acts to plow through and logistics to manage.

Leave it to the Marines to get the job done.

The wheelchair at the heart of this story came to my attention the day after Thanksgiving, when John Palermo, senior vice commandant of the Marine Corps League in Tamarac, Fla., e-mailed me for help finding a needy Marine.

Palermo already had been storing the chair for three months and was bumping into military privacy restrictions that prevented his finding a recipient.

The chair had belonged to Jane Hanson, widow of Maj. Gen. Arthur Briggs Hanson. She wasn’t using the chair and wanted to honor her husband by giving it to a fellow Marine. It wasn’t any ordinary wheelchair, but a new Shoprider Medical Power electric model worth several thousand dollars.

Palermo’s e-mail set in motion a search that has involved dozens of people, mostly Marines, and a series of frustrating fits and starts that would prompt most to surrender. There’s no shortage of needy Marines returning from Iraq minus limbs, but military rules made it nearly impossible to get a name.

Moreover, the Veterans Administration, it turns out, does a pretty good job of taking care of the wounded. Most have wheelchairs and prosthetics made to order, though I’ve learned during “Operation Wheelchair,” as this effort came to be called, that the list of back-ordered prosthetics is long.

Cutting to the chase, I forwarded Palermo’s e-mail to Russ Clark, about whom I’ve written before. Clark is a minister and former Marine who counsels veterans through Point Man International Ministries in Columbus, Ohio. He went to work.

For the next five weeks, Clark sent me periodic updates on what was beginning to seem like a futile search. Every day, he was getting closer, but then he’d hit a snag.

E-mails and phone calls crossed the country several times. I can’t list the names of all who worked on this project, but the search eventually landed at Naval Medical Center San Diego (better known to veterans as Balboa Hospital), where a new amputee clinic recently opened.

The only one of its kind on the West Coast, the clinic is expected to serve about 50 amputees per year. The week before Christmas, recent arrivals included “a new quad.”

That chilling phrase — “a new quad” — doesn’t roll easily off the tongue, but Richard Williams has learned to say it without flinching. An attorney and former Marine, Williams coordinates the Marine Corps League-Injured Marine Fund in San Diego.

Amputees are part of his life.

They are also his vocation. When not practicing law, Williams raises money to help financially strapped families visit their wounded Marines at the amputee center.

Although the Marine Corps and other groups help families visit wounded veterans, most programs allow for only two family members for a limited time. Places such as Fisher House — which provides temporary lodging for military families at major medical centers — are almost always full and have long waiting lists.

Williams’ group tries to fill the void. Significantly, they bring families out for second and third visits, not just when the wounded first arrive.

“That’s when the Marine is getting depressed,” says Williams. “He left his unit in Iraq, his family is in Omaha or wherever. The poor Marine faces multiple surgeries and is left by himself again.”

Williams has been instrumental in getting Hanson’s wheelchair from Florida to California — no small feat. Because of FAA rules pertaining to things such as batteries, you can’t just fly an electric wheelchair across country, he says.

After many calls and dead ends, a Marine recruiter was located in Delray Beach, Fla., who is picking up the chair and delivering it to FedEx in Fort Lauderdale for crating and ground delivery to San Diego.

Hanson’s chair is expected to arrive at the medical center soon after Christmas — a gift from one Marine home to another. It’s not exactly a happy ending, given the circumstances, but “Operation Wheelchair” reveals yet again what semper fi means to the Corps.

It also puts holiday angst in perspective.

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For more information or to make a contribution to the injured Marine program, go to www.leaguelineup.com/injuredmarinefund.

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Kathleen Parker writes columns for the Orlando Sentinel. Contact her at kparker@kparker.com.

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