RUTHERFORD — Thousands of United States service members sent to Iraq and Afghanistan lost legs to battle wounds, roadside bombs or vehicle wrecks. As they return home to recover, they face postwar life on prostheses or in a wheelchair, with limitations in their daily lives.
But for about 750 service members wounded in these wars, hope has arrived in the form of Segway vehicles to restore their mobility. Now, the founder of a nonprofit group raising money for the two-wheel transports is taking his mission to Northern California.
Speaking Tuesday at Cakebread Cellars — after rolling into the winery building on a Segway — Jerry Kerr introduced Napa County residents to Segs4Vets, the program he began six years ago in his hometown of St. Louis.
“This war will someday come to a close,” the 56-year-old Kerr told about 40 people. “And as soon as it does, the American people need to be reminded these people need to be taken care of.”
Funded by donations from veterans’ societies and various companies, Segs4Vets chooses Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with missing legs and other serious injuries to receive Segways. Clients receive the transporters and the training in how to use them at military hospitals in San Diego, San Antonio and Bethesda, Md.
Supporters call the effort invaluable not only for getting amputee veterans mobile again, but to help them to return to the working world and society.
“I was so impressed by the ability of people to get onto a Segway and move around. They weren’t disabled-acting anymore because they weren’t in a wheelchair,” said George Steese, national commander of Disabled American Veterans, which has donated more than $200,000 to Segs4Vets and given it booths at its conventions.
Kerr’s cause grew out of the accident 13 years ago: a diving injury that left the former housing developer paralyzed from the shoulders down.
Surgery on a shattered vertebra and grueling physical therapy eventually enabled him to stand again and take a few steps at a time. But it took a new invention to convince Kerr he could regain the independence he had lost.
Introduced in 2001, the battery-powered Segway PT allows its rider to ride upright at speeds up to 12 mph. Gyroscopes and sensors keep the user balanced between the two wheels, and the rider steers with the handlebars.
So enthusiastic was Kerr about the transporter he bought in 2003 that he turned his thoughts toward a whole class of the disabled who also could be helped: the single and double amputees among U.S. soldiers. He helped found the volunteer group Disability Rights Advocates for Technology, which launched the Segway campaign in 2005.
DRAFT has spread its Segway program largely by publicizing the effort through veterans’ groups. It planned the Rutherford event with the California Veterans Support Foundation, which supports health and wellness programs at the Veterans Home of California at Yountville.
Kerr’s story revived sobering memories for Christopher Loverro, an Army veteran who served in Iraq in 2003-04 and is now a filmmaker.
“I’ve been to the Walter Reed amputee unit,” he said at the Rutherford event. “When you see 18- and 19-year-olds who’ve lost both arms, both legs, maybe even triple amputees ... Jerry is giving them the tools to go on with their lives.”
Despite its progress putting the war wounded on wheels, Kerr admitted the demand for transporters has far outstripped supply. DRAFT leaders seek to raise enough money to donate 500 Segways in each of the next five years — up from about 150 to 200 annually – and eventually to extend the program to older ex-soldiers from the Vietnam War era.
Above all, he said, giving the disabled their mobility back is crucial to their being as productive in peace as they were in war.
“We have no plan to let them travel the easier road,” he said. “We want them to travel the tough road, and give them the tools to do it.”