Getting to know the new PVA national president
By Robert Thomas
I would like to thank the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Board of Directors for their longtime support and confidence in electing me as PVA’s new national president at May’s annual convention in Omaha, Neb.
I’m Robert L. Thomas Jr., an Army veteran who is medically retired after sustaining a spinal-cord injury due to a diving accident. Although this tragic event ended my military career, it didn’t kill my spirit and willingness to serve.
I was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., when my injury occurred. A member of the 25th Signal Battalion, my unit had just returned from the desert and we didn’t have any equipment, so my platoon was released for the day. Several of us decided to go fishing.
Once there, the idea swiftly changed to swimming. It is a decision I initially regretted, but have grown accustomed to. I was the third person to dive into the water and quickly realized that something wasn’t right. I can still hear the voice in my head saying, “You’d better move something or you’re going to drown.” It was then that my squad members pulled me out of the water and laid me on my stomach at the shore.
I asked them if my legs were bent upward or still in the water. They were in the water. I then tried to move, but I could only shrug or flap my shoulders like a fish out of water. I was transported to the base hospital and then diverted to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center in nearby Fayetteville, N.C.
After going through surgery to stabilize my neck, I was transferred to the Louis Stokes Cleveland Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Ohio to begin rehab. There, I met Melvin Blackwell, a recreational therapist who introduced me to PVA.
Over the next 30 years, I spent my time serving PVA, first volunteering for the Buckeye Chapter as their hospital liaison, as a membership officer, a secretary and eventually chapter vice president.
I started attending PVA’s Annual Convention and fall board of directors meeting alongside the PVA Buckeye Chapter’s national director, while being groomed to eventually take over that position.
While at one of the meetings, I was asked if I would consider studying to become a parliamentarian. Like a good soldier, I accepted the challenge and served in that position for two years before being voted onto the PVA Executive Committee as a vice president. Four years later at PVA’s 75th Annual Convention in Las Vegas, I was voted in as senior vice president.
During my time as senior vice president, I worked on and chaired several committees, such as the Education Foundation, Strategic Planning Committee, ad hoc committee on chapter grant structure, etc. I’ve been a mentor to the vice presidents and shadowed then-PVA National President Charles Brown, learning the details of the president’s office.
As president, I will continue working with the PVA Government Relations Department on the Air Carrier Access Amendments Act and family caregiver support, as well as the medical services team to ensure all veterans get the highest quality health care available.
Since PVA’s inception, great men and women have made major strides in fighting for veterans and the disabled community, but we cannot just bask in their accomplishments. There’s still plenty of work to be done.