|Vietnam Veterans of America|
BY GREGORY McNAMEE
Harry Bologna was a Navy SEAL for 22 years, often in harm’s way without ever incurring grievous harm. It wasn’t until he retired and went to work as a civilian contractor in Afghanistan that bad luck caught up with him: He stepped on a land mine, losing both his legs, shattering his pelvis, and suffering extensive internal injuries.
Airlifted to Walter Reed Medical Center, and, later, to the Center for the Intrepid at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, the former master chief slowly recovered. Only a year after that terrible accident, now fitted with prosthetic legs, he was giving motivational speeches, visiting his alma mater high school in New Orleans, and speaking to civic groups, always with the message: “Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do.”
A few hundred miles from Bologna’s home in Virginia, another retired Navy SEAL, Marcus Arroyo, heard about his younger comrade. The former owner of a bicycle shop in a town just across the Hudson River from New York City, Arroyo reached out with an offer from Rockland County, New York, Chapter 333, which, since 2013 had been providing handcycles and other adaptive sports equipment to injured veterans. Arroyo told Bologna that if he wanted something of the sort, Chapter 333 would be honored to provide it.
“We got the idea from Bill O’Reilly, the former TV host,” said chapter president Roy Tschudy. “He’d been giving sports equipment to vets, and it seemed like something we would like to do.” Where O’Reilly had focused on physical injuries, Tschudy, Arroyo, and other chapter members took a broader view. “We wanted to provide handcycles and other things to veterans with spinal injuries or amputations,” he said, “but just as important, we wanted to reach out to people who had suffered traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder, who needed it just as much.”
To date, Chapter 333 has given 14 handcycles, two trike bikes, and several mountain bikes to injured veterans. Reaching out was initially challenging, since federal laws such as HIPPA prohibit medical personnel from giving information about patients to third parties, but news of the program spread all the same. Arroyo found Bologna, for instance, through word of mouth among a network of former SEALs. Veterans now typically contact Chapter 333 after learning of the adaptive-equipment program, often through VA hospital personnel.
‘THEY CHANGED MY LIFE’
Alfredo De Los Santos lost a leg in 2009 while on patrol in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, when the vehicle he was in was hit by a rocket. A graphic designer and immigrant from the Dominican Republic who had enlisted in the Army after 9/11, De Los Santos returned to his New York home to recuperate. He learned of the just-launched program after Tschudy told a VA employee about it, and he approached Chapter 333 for a handcycle—the first one that the chapter awarded.
The bike’s builder was another Navy SEAL who had been confined to a wheelchair after being paralyzed while under fire in Panama and had opened a custom handcycle workshop in South Carolina. So completely did De Los Santos take to the gift that he is now the number-one handcycle racer in the country.
Built to specification, another three-wheeled handcycle went to Ivanna Brown, who was paralyzed after a vehicle accident while serving in the Air Force. “You know how you get a runner’s high?” she says. “Well, if you’re not in a wheelchair, you can’t really imagine how liberating it is to move at the kind of speed the bike allows.” Dividing her time between Florida and California, where she lives near VA hospitals, Brown has become a devoted handcyclist, attending the Oscar Mike Foundation camp in Illinois to participate in races.
“I’m so grateful to the people at Chapter 333,” she says. “They changed my life.”
Tschudy, a Spec.4 assigned to the 271st Aviation Company in Vietnam, landed in country on January 31, 1968. “If you know that date,” he says, “you know what it means—the first day of the Tet Offensive. My buddy said, ‘If we make it through this, we won’t die here,’ and he was right.”
After 13 months in the Mekong Delta, Tschudy returned stateside determined to serve even further, and after 24 years as a New York City police officer, he continued to do so with outreach programs he developed for the chapter, for which he was recently named 2020 Rockland County Veteran of the Year.
‘I AM EQUAL TO EVERYONE’
As it happens, Harry Bologna wasn’t much interested in cycling. He had a passion for boating and the back bay of his home in Virginia Beach, however, and he said as much. The members of Chapter 333, who had previously donated kayaks, raised $5,000 to buy him a nineteen-foot outrigger canoe built by a specialty firm in Hawaii. Made of carbon fiber, the canoe weighs less than 25 pounds, so it’s easy for him to put it on a roof rack and get it into the water.
Bologna made a few personalized improvements on the manufacturer’s design: “I did have to make a few conversions/adaptions for my disability,” he said. “The rudder is activated by the foot pedals. I converted it into a hand turn, a bit like a bridle on a horse. The only downside is I need to take my hand off the paddle to turn. Trying to find a better option—work in progress. I also epoxied a seat/lap belt to keep me stable. I take my legs off when I paddle and need a little more stability.”
Bologna was thrilled with the gift, writing an appreciative letter when his Kahele canoe arrived. “I love paddling because it is the one sport where I feel ‘normal,’ ” he told the chapter. “There is no advantage or disadvantage to having legs; when I am on the water, I am equal to everyone else.”
To this, Tschudy responded, “We remain humbled in the knowledge that a veteran in need has now received a gift enabling him/her to return to a life with a ray of sunshine.”
The adaptive-sports equipment provided by Chapter 333 has proved to be an equalizer and life enhancer to its other recipients. One was a young man who lost a leg in combat and, inactive, gained a tremendous amount of weight, suffering the consequences of adult-onset diabetes as a result.
When he found out about the program, he requested a handcycle—and has used it so much that he is back to a healthy weight and normal blood-sugar levels. “Our reasoning in his case was that he would benefit not just from freedom of movement but also from improved health overall,” says Tschudy, who is careful to vet each request to be sure that it’s on the up and up. “I’m still a cop, even though I’m retired,” he says. “It’s my job to be suspicious.”
Each handcycle costs about $5,000, Tschudy says, but there’s no cost to the veterans who receive them. Some cycles cost even more, including a $9,000 off-road bike that was custom-fitted for Navy pilot Sarah Bettencourt, who had suffered a spinal cord injury.
So far, Tschudy reports, the chapter has raised more than $85,000 for equipment, giving presentations in public venues and doing other fundraising. Donations have slowed, of course, with the onset of coronavirus, but Tschudy is hopeful that things will return to normal soon and the chapter’s public activities can resume. Certainly the demand is there, and it’s growing as more veterans find out about the chapter’s work, now entering its eighth year.
“We do this in all humility,” Roy Tschudy said. “It’s our honor.”
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