Looking back on three-quarters of a century of service
By Charles Brown
From the early days of World War II, soldiers were returning home with spinal-cord injuries (SCI). With the government and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) not knowing what to do or where to put them, they ended up warehousing them, basically, at VA and Department of Defense (DOD) facilities.
When the soldiers realized the government had no idea what to do or how to treat them, they started talking to each other and trying to figure out ways to ensure their health care matched that of those who were returning from war with other injuries. These men and women worked together very hard across the nation at several different facilities to start forming what is now called Paralyzed Veterans America (PVA).
The doctors and therapists who worked with these patients knew the importance of keeping them active, moving forward and realizing that life didn’t end. Many ideas came about on how to treat them and how to get them more active in life. It’s simply amazing to hear PVA’s early founding stories.
One such event was that the Paraplegia News (PN) started in the Bronx VA facility in New York as a form of recreation/occupational therapy. The VA itself authorized the use of the facilities and programs to help show veterans that they had different options to help them live full and productive lives.
At the same time on the West Coast, doctors were encouraging the veterans to be more physically active, get out in the community and do more activities. The blessing was that they were near Hollywood and the up-and-coming stars. They got to mingle with all these actors, and a film was made about PVA’s early days called The Men.
This was Marlon Brando‘s first role in a film. What a great opportunity for PVA’s story and its founding days to be put forward for the nation to see and to understand.
At the same time, across the nation at other VAs and some DOD facilities, wheelchair basketball teams were forming, and members were playing local schools, medical staff and whatever competition they could find. Eventually, the teams started traveling more and competing with each other, and it was an opportunity for the world to see that being paralyzed didn’t mean the end of one’s life.
What I’m trying to demonstrate is that from the early days of PVA, the VA has been an integral part of making members’ lives better and giving them more opportunities to succeed. The VA and PVA have been partners for many years, and I will share a few more instances where this is true.
During the Korean War, more soldiers were coming home with SCI and other disabilities, and the VA again was integral in making sure their lives would be fulfilled and strong.
The same was true with the Vietnam War, except some things started changing. The VA started understaffing. It started cutting back on different areas, and veterans’ care started going downhill. Conditions became so bad that Life magazine reporters investigated the Bronx VA.
The story and photos appeared in Life magazine on May 22, 1970. It caused such an uproar across the nation and in the halls of Congress that the VA could no longer ignore the needs of the veterans returning from Vietnam.
This time, the VA reached out to PVA and asked for help. For the next few years, the VA attended PVA’s annual conventions and national meetings to work hand-in-hand on developing what are now called site visits.
In 1981, then-VA Chief of Recreation Therapy Muriel Barbour, then-VA Director of Recreation Therapy Wally Lynch and then-VA recreation therapist Tom Brown at the Richmond VA in Virginia put together what is now called the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG). The Games are held annually to promote physical well-being and demonstrate that physical activity and integration into the community are possible for everyone.
In 1985, PVA joined with the VA to help bring the Games to a higher level and to draw more veterans from across the nation, while adding more dollars in hopes of creating a stronger and more robust NVWG.
In addition, the annual PVA Healthcare Summit and Expo, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, is PVA’s commitment back to the VA to help ensure those doctors, nurses, therapists, psychologists and others treating veterans with spinal-cord injuries and disease (SCI/D) can receive continuing education units and maintain their credentialing.
The PVA Healthcare Summit and Expo is growing and will continue to provide strong programs for new therapy modalities, more treatments, different medications, innovative prosthetic equipment and other items that help improve the quality of life of veterans with SCI/D, other disabilities and the disabled community.
The PVA Healthcare Summit and Expo is an important part of the commitment that PVA makes with the VA — a commitment to help ensure the VA has access to education, equipment and innovative therapies.
After 75 years and all the struggles that started with PVA’s original members who fought for the health care they knew they deserved from those facilities across the nation, the VA has made a commitment to PVA. And PVA has made a commitment to them to ensure the best opportunities to improve the quality of life for PVA members and veterans across the nation.