PVA From the Top - A True Honor

Reprinted from PN June 2017

I never could have imagined the heroes I’ve met and new friends I’ve made.

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Andrew Carnegie, an American industrialist who built a leadership role as a philanthropist, once said: “No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or to get all the credit for doing it.”

Since 1946, PN magazine has been published to keep Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) members updated on all things relating to spinal-cord injury and disease (SCI/D), and it’s been a long tradition that the PVA national president offer his observations and contemplations in the column called PVA From the Top

As big as my head gets from time to time, I never wanted my articles to be considered an egocentric preaching from a mountaintop.  Matter of fact, I never considered myself at the “top” of PVA and neither should anyone else who is fortunate enough to be elected PVA president.

Anyone who serves PVA in this capacity should be humbled by the awesome responsibility that comes with this honor and should be constantly reminded we are, at all times, accountable to our members. The board, executive committee, president and staff work together as a team to accomplish one goal — to improve the quality of life for veterans with SCI/D. That said, beginning July 1, I will no longer be PVA’s national president, but I will remain an integral member of the team.

As immediate past president, I’ll continue to serve at the highest levels of PVA leadership as a member of the executive committee, and I’m confident my replacement will possess the same conviction and the same will to improve upon PVA’s successes.

I was paralyzed in 1991, but that conviction and will didn’t begin until 2007, when I chose to pursue a leadership role at the national level. Up until then, I was selfishly consuming everything PVA had to offer. I participated in several National Veterans Wheelchair Games. I enjoyed quality care at my Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) spinal-cord injury center. PVA gave me my first job, and I received every benefit for which I was entitled — all of which were the result of PVA’s steadfast effort to ensure all veterans with SCI/D enjoy the highest quality of life possible.

Almost everything that I have now is the result of PVA and without their support, my dignity would certainly be lost and for that reason, I chose to give back. That reciprocity came easily, but I never thought it would be the beginning of an incredible journey to the so-called “top.”

Along the way, that journey has offered me unique opportunities to spend time with many of America’s top political leaders, as well as movers and shakers in the private sector who are trying to make America a better place. Yet, the people who impressed me the most were the veterans. 

Specifically, I’m talking about veterans who chose to continue their service to this country, despite the personal sacrifices already made and heroic actions already taken, by pursuing leadership positions in government, such as Sens. Bob Dole and 
John McCain.

I also had the great fortune to meet veterans from every generation of whom you’ve never heard, such as Richard Overton, who, at the age of 111, is the oldest living World War II veteran. Then there’s Ed Byers, the most decorated Navy SEAL, who was recently awarded the Medal of Honor because of his actions in Afghanistan.

But there are many members of PVA, representing many generations of service, who I’ll never forget. I was in awe when I visited World War II pilot William Bramwell, who is now PVA’s oldest member at 100 years, at the Long Beach (Calif.) VA. And there’s a young Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom Marine who I met at the VA San Diego Health Care System named Redzuan Razak. I never could have imagined the heroes I’ve met and new friends I’ve made.

Every PVA president hopes to bring something unique to the organization when occupying that office. I was the first post-Vietnam War era president and with that came a very different perspective on the unique needs of our members.  

I never wanted to be PVA president in perpetuity; I only wanted to use the authority of that position to make some changes to the way PVA operated and then move on to a different position on the PVA team.   

Perhaps the most fundamental change I made took place last year when I appointed Sherman Gillums Jr., as PVA’s new executive director. This position was previously handled by Homer Townsend Jr., who served during the Vietnam War. Sherman is the first post-9/11 veteran to serve in this capacity and has already begun the strategic planning process that will assure PVA’s success in the near future.

Additionally, during PVA’s convention in May, I appointed Tom Fjerstad as PVA Publications editor. Tom is replacing Richard Hoover, a Vietnam War veteran who has served in just about every leadership position in PVA including national president, treasurer and executive director. Fortunately, Richard will remain on PVA’s finance committee and continue to serve the organization in other capacities.

Like the World War II veterans who founded PVA, there’s no doubt that Vietnam War veterans have also established a legacy that’ll never be forgotten, but as the demographics of our membership change, so do the demographics of our leadership.

As this trend of new leaders takes hold, there’ll be justification for trepidation but please remember, while PVA has changed quite a bit over the past 70-plus years, one thing remains the same — its core mission to serve veterans with SCI/D.

That said, it has been a true honor to represent PVA and its members over the past three years, and I look forward to serving with the incoming president, as well as the newly elected members of the executive committee. 


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PVA From the Top - A True Honor


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