Looking Back At 2016

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News December 2016

The passing of a legendary PVA leader, a pair of 70-year anniversaries and a "princely" competition were among the many highlights of 2016

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We’ve made it to the end of another year, and what a year it’s been. There have been numerous ups and downs throughout the country and across the globe. 

As the clock ticks down to the new year, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on the changes, both good and bad, we’ve seen throughout 2016. Time to clean the engine and prepare for the road ahead, wherever it may lead.

For Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), 2016 yielded many reasons to celebrate. However, it was also a year the organization mourned the loss of one of its most influential leaders.

There are too many important moments to highlight them all, but here are some of the more memorable events of 2016.

70 Years of Care & Service

Seven decades have passed since a group of veterans with spinal-cord injuries (SCI) laid the groundwork for the creation of PVA. 

Read the article below

In 1946, World War II was over but recovery was just beginning for veterans being treated in ward 3D at the Bronx Veterans Hospital in New York. They wanted a way to share news with other veterans with SCI and medical professionals in the hopes of making their care better. 

Their four-page inaugural issue of The Paraplegia News outlined their intent to “organize a paraplegic association” to keep the paper going and properly present their “ideas or complaints” to the hospital manager.

Last July marked 70 years since the first meeting was held to elect local officers.

Since that time, PVA has grown from just eight groups to 34 chapters and more than 70 offices in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. 

Now serving an estimated 100,000 veterans with spinal-cord injury or disease (SCI/D), PVA has departments that handle advocacy and legislation, sports and recreation, health and wellness, awareness, education and research and employment, just to name a few. 

Trained national service officers are also available to help veterans obtain and protect their benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

PVA has clearly been a catalyst for improved care of veterans with SCI/D over the past 70 years, but the organization also has impacted the lives of all people with disabilities through the strength of its advocacy and various programs.

Farewell, Homer

Paralyzed Veterans of America Mid-Atlantic Chapter member Jesse Graham won bronze medals in the 100- and 400-meter 2016 Invictus Games track events. Photo Christopher Di Virgilio.

While PVA celebrated its progress on behalf of injured veterans this year, it also took time to honor the legacy of longtime leader Homer S. Townsend Jr. 

A former PVA executive director and national president, Townsend died of complications related to his SCI on Feb. 20. He was 63. 

Townsend was a PVA member for 41 years and was executive director since 2006, but he stepped down last January because of health issues.

Lauded as a staunch civil rights and veterans benefits advocate, Townsend was part of an influential group of PVA members hailing from the Arizona Chapter. That group included current PVA Publications Editor and former PVA National President Richard Hoover; former PVA Publications Editor and SPORTS ‘N SPOKES co-founder, the late Cliff Crase; longtime PVA secretary, the late Frank Rigo; and the late Dick Sloviaczek, who was the inspiration for the PVA “Speedy” logo.

Townsend worked tirelessly on PVA’s behalf and was well known for saying, “What wouldn’t you do for an organization that gave back your dignity?”

He eventually made his way to a seat on the PVA executive committee. As acting executive director, he used a combination of stable leadership, reorganization of departments and reduced spending to offset the effects of the Great Recession beginning in 2007. 

“His intellect, inimitable style and political savvy made him a one-of-a-kind mentor to me,” says Sherman Gillums Jr., who was appointed PVA acting executive director when Townsend resigned in January. “He left his mark on all of us, particularly those charged with carrying the organization forward, and the arc of our potential is directly attributed to his leadership.”

Gillums subsequently was ratified as executive director by the Board of Directors during May’s annual convention in Jacksonville, Fla., becoming the first PVA executive director to have served during the post-9/11 era.

Townsend’s tradition of excellence lives on through his achievements with PVA, as well as through an award named
in his honor. 

The first Homer S. Townsend Jr. Excellence in Professional Advocacy Award was presented to Lana McKenzie, PVA’s associate executive director of medical services and health policy, during September’s PVA Summit + Expo in Orlando, Fla.

Platinum Edition

In addition to PVA, the magazine you’re reading also hit a milestone this year. 

PN’s first issue was printed in July 1946 as a way for post-World War II veterans with SCI at the Bronx Veterans Hospital in New York to exchange ideas and improve their overall well-being. 

The first edition of what was then called The Paraplegia News was printed with paper and a press donated by the Red Cross. It took a team of four people working three to five hours a day for three weeks to hand-set the type.

PN has come a long way in 70 years. Monthly readership has increased to about 90,000, and the publication process has been greatly simplified and hastened with the advent of computer technology and the internet.

PN continues to take advantage of every aspect the World Wide Web has to offer, from a digital edition and website to social media platforms. 

A future smartphone and tablet application will offer readers yet another convenient way to get the latest news and information that’s significant to people living with SCI/D.

Even with all of the technological advancements, PN retains its original goal set by the founders of PVA: to be a “sounding board” for news and information for veterans and others with SCI/D.

Invictus Lands in U.S.

Competing in the Invictus Games in May at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla., is undoubtedly among the high points of 2016 for several PVA members.

Nearly 500 disabled, wounded and ill veterans and active duty gathered for the second international Paralympic-style event, which was held in the United States for the first time.

PVA Arizona Chapter member Ryan Pinney, PVA Vaughn Chapter member Roosevelt “RJ” Anderson and PVA Mid-Atlantic Chapter member Jesse Graham were among 115 men and women who participated from all U.S. military branches and Special Operations Command.

Pinney, a U.S. Air Force veteran, took gold in both the cycling time trials and criterion race. Anderson, a U.S. Army veteran, brought home silver in the 100-meter track event, bronze in the 1,200 and gold in wheelchair rugby in his second Invictus Games appearance. Graham, a U.S. Air Force veteran, won gold in wheelchair rugby, silver in shot put and bronze medals in the 100, 400 and discus events.

England’s Prince Harry was inspired to create the Invictus Games in 2014 after a visit to the Warrior Games in the U.S. in 2013. 

“For a lot of these individuals, it’s just getting to the start line and being able to be cheered on from an audience from all over the world — especially an American audience — cheering them the whole way,” Prince Harry said after the Games.

Athletes from 15 countries competed in 10 sports, and coaches nominated the athletes from each military branch.

The event attracted a great deal of media attention, including ESPN, which broadcasted more than 40 hours of coverage across its family of networks.

Rio Hosts Paralympics 

The sports excitement carried over into September, as the 2016 Summer Paralympics took place in Rio de Janeiro.

Amid dramatic storylines and unprecedented television coverage, PVA was well represented at the Games this year with eight athletes.

Navy veteran Will Groulx (Portland, Ore.) finished with three medals — one gold and two silver. A PVA Racing Team member, Groulx won the men’s H2 road race in 1 minute, 15.23 seconds, moving past Italy’s Luca Mazzone in the last 100 meters for the win. He also earned a silver medal in the men’s H2 time trial and in the mixed team H2-5 relay.

Navy veteran Andre Shelby (Jacksonville, Fla.)
surprised plenty, coming out of nowhere to win archery gold in the men’s W2 individual compound from a 12th seed. He rallied for a quarterfinal victory over Brazil’s Andrey de Castro, came back to win by a point over Australia’s Jonathon Milne in the semifinals and won the gold medal by one point over Italy’s Alberto Simonelli, 144-143.

Scot Severn (Caro, Mich.), a U.S. Army veteran, picked up a silver medal in the men’s F53 shot put. His season-best distance of 8.41 meters (27.59 feet) was just .03 meters short of the top distance by Che Jon Fernandes of Greece.

Oz Sanchez (San Diego), a Marine Corps veteran, took bronze in the men’s H5 time trial, finishing in 28:51.73, which was 14.92 seconds behind Australia’s Stuart Tripp. Sanchez also notched a silver medal in the H2-5 mixed team relay with Groulx.

Army veteran Lia Coryell (La Crosse, Wis.) became the first U.S. woman to compete in the W1 individual archery event at this year’s Games. She earned a spot in the quarterfinals, recording a personal best, but fell to eventual silver medalist Jo Frith (Great Britain). Coryell also teamed up with Jeff Fabry (Leemore, Calif.) to become the first U.S. W1 mixed team in archery to compete in the Paralympics. They just missed the podium, losing to the Czech Republic in the bronze-medal match. 

Angela Madsen (Long Beach, Calif.), a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, finished seventh in the women’s F55/F56 javelin with a throw of 17.21 meters (56.46 feet) and eighth in the women’s F56/57 shot put with a season-best distance of 8.35 meters (27.39 feet).

Army veteran Johnnie Williams (Tampa, Fla,) finished in eighth place in the men’s F56 discus throw. His best throw went 35.10 meters (115.16 feet), and he missed fifth place by just 4.71 meters.

Marine Corps veteran Marco de la Rosa (Chicago) finished in 25th place in the men’s P1-10m SH1 air pistol with a total of 550-5x.

Overall, Team USA finished fourth in the medal standings but brought home 115 medals, the most won by the U.S. since the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics (158 medals). And according to NBC, primetime coverage of the Games averaged 143,000 viewers — up 175% from the 2012 London Paralympics (52,000).

ACAA Turns 30 

As the calendar page turned to October, PVA marked the 30th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s signing of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).

The ACAA is a significant piece of legislation for all people with disabilities, in that it prohibits discrimination based on disability in air travel and opened a broader conversation about disability rights law.

The act was Congress’ response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. Department of Transportation v. Paralyzed Veterans of America (477 U.S. 597, 1986) that said commercial airlines were not subject to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act because they weren’t direct recipients of federal funding for commercial air travel in the U.S. 

In recognition of 30 years since the ACAA, PVA launched to collect stories about the air travel experiences of all people with disabilities. PVA hopes these stories will help its advocacy efforts to make needed changes in the airline industry, including regulations for accessible lavatories on single-aisle aircraft, seating accommodations and service animals.

Though air travel for people with disabilities has seen some improvements, strengthening ACAA enforcement remains one of PVA’s top priorities going into 2017 and beyond.

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