Memories of Mansfield

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News April 2013

Gordon Mansfield was a champion, advocate and role model for paralyzed veterans and others with disabilities.

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“He who influences the thoughts of his times, influences all the times that follow. He has made his impress on eternity.” 

—Author unknown

It’s difficult to imagine this quote not being spoken without former Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Executive Director Gordon Mansfield in mind. His unexpected passing on Jan. 29 at the Washington, D.C., Veterans Affairs Medical Center will do nothing to end that influence.

Mansfield’s life epitomized what PVA is all about – maximizing independence and overcoming the obstacles that confront someone with a spinal-cord injury (SCI).

He achieved success as a soldier, a public servant and as an advocate for not only his fellow veterans but also all people with disabilities. His life was filled with family, friends and colleagues, all of whom enjoyed his company, his counsel and his wry humor.

Extraordinary Heroism

A native of Massachusetts, Mansfield graduated from Villanova University (Pa.), joined the U.S. Army and was commissioned in 1964. He attended U.S. Army Airborne School and Ranger School, serving two tours in Vietnam.

Mansfield was commanding a company of the 101st Airborne Division on his second tour when his unit came under intense enemy fire during the Tet Offensive in 1968. He maneuvered his men into position to attack the enemy. When one platoon was pinned down, Mansfield advanced with five men to the enemy’s flank and led a charge that destroyed their position.

After accepting the 2008 Robert Dole National Award for Service, Gordon Mansfield is congratulated by (from left) VA Secretary James Peake, Sen. Robert Dole, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England.

While moving casualties to safety, he was seriously wounded and sustained a spinal-cord injury. Mansfield only agreed to be evacuated when he was certain his men were safe. For his extraordinary heroism he received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor.

In addition to the Distinguished Service Cross, Mansfield’s military honors include the Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, a Presidential Unit Citation and the Combat Infantryman’s Badge. He was inducted into the Officer Candidate and Ranger halls of fame. Mansfield medically retired with the rank of Captain.

Fighting for Access

Following several years of medical care and rehabilitation, Mansfield graduated from the University of Miami (Fla.) School of Law and began a practice of public interest law in Ocala, Fla.

He joined the national staff of PVA in 1981 and relocated to Washington, D.C. From his first days on the staff of the legislative program, his skills and passionate commitment to addressing the needs of veterans and people with disabilities became clearly evident.

Mansfield was the lead individual in PVA’s efforts to ensure the newly authorized Vietnam Veterans Memorial was accessible to all people who use mobility aids. He demonstrated his skills and passion in testimony before the National Capital Planning Commission and the Fine Arts Commission.

In November 1982, he was named PVA national advocacy director and was thrust into the forefront of PVA’s fight to secure nondiscrimination in air travel.

In this position, Mansfield first worked with outside counsel on litigation against the federal agencies that oversaw air carrier operations; this proved unsuccessful. PVA’s approach then changed to securing a legislative fix.

Moving quickly, he and other staff sought out friends on Capitol Hill and brought about the introduction, enactment and signing into law of the Air Carrier Access Act, a major disability rights victory.

A Perfect Match

Mansfield became PVA’s first associate executive director for government relations in 1986 and directed the organization’s growing efforts in Congress and the executive branch of government.

He was a key player in the effort to upgrade the Veterans Administration (VA) to a cabinet department post. And, probably most importantly, he began meeting with other leaders in the disability community and government to begin crafting language that would eventually become the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Mansfield’s skills and success didn’t go unnoticed, and in early 1989 he was nominated by President George H. W. Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be the assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This was a major step into what was to become a long and distinguished career in public service.

Mansfield and PVA came together once again in 1993. He had just left his position at HUD, and PVA was in search of a new executive director. It was a
perfect match.

The next eight years saw the organization thrive and grow under his leadership, witnessing the expansion of programs and staff and growing prominence in Washington, D.C., and around the country.

Never-Ending Advocacy

Following the 2000 national elections, Mansfield was again sought out for public service.

He was first nominated and confirmed as assistant secretary for Congressional Affairs for VA, then as deputy secretary, where he served as chief operating officer. Mansfield also was acting VA secretary in late 2007.

Mansfield retired from government service in 2009 but not from actively pursuing his advocacy for veterans and others with disabilities. He began consulting and working as a wise and experienced advisor to PVA and served on the boards of the Wounded Warrior Project and the Disabled Veterans Life Memorial Foundation.

His life of dedicated service and accomplishment was recognized with induction into the Spinal Cord Injury Hall of Fame and receipt of the Disabled Veteran of the Year Award.

Mansfield also received the Department of Defense Medal for Public Service, the Robert Dole Service to Our Nation Award, the Presidential Distinguished Service Award and the Villanova University Medal.

Mansfield’s most recent honor came last August in New Orleans. During the PVA national convention, he was presented
with the Speedy Award, the organization’s highest honor.

Survivors include his wife of 25 years, Linda K.C. Mansfield; his sons Gordon and Leon, both of Virginia; four siblings and
four grandchildren.

The lives of members of Paralyzed Veterans of America, the nation’s veterans and people with disabilities have all benefited from Mansfield’s dedication, advocacy, commitment and service.

Our thanks to Mansfield for a life well lived and for his service to the nation. We’re all better for his efforts. Godspeed, dear friend; rest well. 


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