Segways for wounded veterans: A gift that gets around

A Pittsburgh native's organization donates the personal transport devices and teaches driving skills, too


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ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- They arrived in wheelchairs, on crutches and with canes, but they left with Segway personal transportation devices, car lifts to carry them and just a bit more of the independence they had before war took their limbs, burned their faces and injured their spinal cords.

Working one-on-one with trainers, young veterans stepped cautiously at first onto two-wheeled Segway platforms that use gyroscope technology to move with precision as riders shift their weight in the direction they want to go. Inside a hotel parking garage, the young veterans navigated between orange cones and on wooden ramps, some falling once or twice onto prosthetic limbs as the Segway odometers crept from 0 toward 1.

Later, volunteers took them into a historic northern Virginia neighborhood to learn how to navigate on rough pavement, on grass and through busy intersections. Other volunteers stayed behind in the parking garage to attach lifts called "SegVators" to the backs of the veterans' cars so they could transport their new mobility devices.

The cost -- $9,700 to $15,000 per recipient -- is covered by donations, and the effort is coordinated by volunteers including Squirrel Hill native Fred Kaplan, one of the founders of Segs4Vets.

Mr. Kaplan, now of Los Angeles, started out as a Segway enthusiast with no connection to injured veterans. He bought his first Segway in 2003, and he used it to tool around his neighborhood, to run errands and to pick up takeout food from restaurants where parking is scarce.

Soon after, his adult daughter was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That got him thinking that Segways could be useful to people with mobility problems.

Later that year he went to Chicago for a confab with other Segway owners and met Jerry Kerr, a St. Louis man who injured his spinal cord in a diving accident and used a Segway to get around. Somehow their conversation turned to the wounded warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and both knew immediately that they had to help.

Others joined the effort, and by 2005 they had raised enough money to buy two Segways to give to two Iraq veterans. By 2006 they founded Disability Rights Advocates for Technology, or DRAFT, using $28,000 in seed money from a philanthropic trust Mr. Kaplan controls through the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh. The organization spends most of its time and resources on its Segs4Vets program, which so far has given Segways to more than 1,000 veterans -- including 29 distributed Wednesday at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.

Marine Staff Sgt. Marcus Burleson, originally of Odessa, Texas, was among the recipients.

A bomb technician, Mr. Burleson lost both arms and sustained severe facial, neck and shoulder injuries when an explosive detonated as he tried to dismantle it.

He still wears a military identification card around his neck. The photo is of a youthful, smooth-skinned face that now only slightly resembles the reddened, scarred one that was rebuilt during 28 facial surgeries.

But it's the injury you can't see, the one to his spinal cord, that keeps him from playing with his three children and staying through the last inning of their Little League games.

"I can usually go for a little while but then I have to rest," Mr. Burleson said.

The Segway will let him be the kind of father he wants to be, he said during a training session Wednesday.

Other recipients said they planned to use the Segways to get around on college campuses, to take their children on vacation or just to go to the grocery store.

"This is awesome," said Sean Karph, 28, a bomb technician from Jacksonville, Fla., who lost a leg in an explosion in Afghanistan not quite a year ago.

"I can move a lot quicker and at the end of the day I won't be so tired all the time," he said.

Army Sgt. Bill Essary, 34, of Butler was one of the earliest beneficiaries of Segs4Vets. Now he's on the organization's board of directors and he helps train new Segway recipients.

Mr. Essary returned from Afghanistan physically unscathed but was struck by a speeding truck at Fort Bragg after he returned. He broke both arms and ultimately had to have a leg amputated.

Having a Segway has made all the difference, he said.

"I walk just fine" on a prosthetic, but after a while it starts to hurt, Mr. Essary said. "You get cranky and you get irritable. I'm a lot more pleasant now."

With the Segway, "I can do whatever my family wants to do and not ruin everybody's day," he said.

Mr. Essary, who works as a heavy equipment operator for Unis Demolition in Aliquippa, said the Segway has held up fine since he got it in 2006. It looks a little different now, though. He has added a collapsible seat, side rails, a cup holder and even a hitch to the back so he can tow his 4- and 7-year-old children around on a bike trailer he sometimes attaches.

"I've got it all tricked out," Mr. Essary said.

Many recipients are identified by military hospitals as people who could benefit from Segways. Others apply on their own through the DRAFT website.

The Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation funds equipment for needy Marines. Contributions from private individuals and organizations fund Segways for other wounded warriors. DRAFT depends on support of dozens of volunteers who set up training programs, identify recipients, process applications, help veterans learn to use Segways and advocate for disability rights.

DRAFT is expecting to use separate funding from benefactors to provide Segways to people injured in the Boston Marathon bombings, Mr. Kaplan said.

Mostly, though, DRAFT is focused on helping veterans.

"The men and women of the military put it all on the line for this country and we owe it to them to provide every tool we possibly can to help them get back to life with their families," said DRAFT vice president Alan Maccini, 53, of Jacksonville, Fla., who has used a Segway since a 2004 fall injured his spinal cord and made walking difficult. "These are young guys. They were just up running around defending our rights."

Mr. Kerr said his organization focuses not on what happened to the wounded warriors on the battlefield but on what lies ahead for them at home.

"They must rise again and continue to be productive both in their families and in our overall society. The Segway helps them do that," he said.

To learn more about the organization or to contribute to Segs4Vets, visit www.draft.org.

mobilehome - nation

Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.


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