Wounded warrior works with animals, old cars to recover
June 27, 2013
FORT SILL, Okla. -- Spc. Terry Helms remembers when his life began to change directions. He was deployed to Afghanistan in May 2010, as a 25 Bravo, a computer administrator for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1-279th Infantry Battalion, 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team from Oklahoma.
"I took a fall in November 2010, while I was deployed to Afghanistan. That injured my back and I lost sensation in my legs. I ended up being evacuated to Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany. I was eventually transferred to the Fort Sill Warrior Transition Unit in February 2011," said Helms.
"My recovery started out real slow, or at least it seemed slow to me. But the Army has certain steps that they follow as they treat you. That made it even more stressful, because I wanted to be treated now," Helms said. "I have also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, in addition to my back injuries. I used to harass my wife about being forgetful, but after I came back from deployment I would forget stuff, so now she harasses me right back when I forget. I now have to make notes and put all my appointments in my phone."
As Helms continued to recover, he took a light duty job at the Lawton Animal Shelter. He's been working with the animals there for the past six months.
"I help clean cages and feed the animals, as well as work to train dogs. They started a program for WTU Soldiers to come and pick a dog so they could train them. I adopted a part pit bull, part Labrador retriever named Sophira. They were going to euthanize her so I adopted her and have been training her. She's a sweet, loving dog and I'm taking her home with me soon," Helms stated.
"I find working with animals to be a great stress reliever. I come out here and see the dogs on a daily basis and get to play with them. It has helped take my mind off my injuries, personal issues and the medical evaluation board process," he added.
"I've now gotten my disability rating, and I start my transition leave July 1. My goal is to start a non-profit auto body shop for troubled youth, where I would teach them everything from changing tires to painting cars. I have taken four cycles of auto body classes at Great Plains Technology Center in Lawton, and I've learned a lot. I'm restoring a 1949 Ford pickup that I found in a junkyard as my class project. And because of my injuries I have had to change the way I do auto bodywork and other things so it doesn't hurt as bad.
"With the help of my instructor at Great Plains, and taking the class four times, I have learned to do things a certain way. For some tasks I sit down, while others I do them standing up. I have to keep changing my position so that I don't start hurting. Working in the auto body shop also relieves some of my stress as well," he said.
Don Lynch, night auto body instructor at Great Plains Tech, has become very close to Helms.
"Terry's a really great guy. I'm really going to miss him when he leaves, not only as a student but as a friend. He's a good Christian young man and I know he will do well with his plans to start a body shop of his own."
Helms plans to open up his nonprofit body shop in Claremore, near his hometown of Foyil, Okla. The shop will give troubled youth a place to come and learn how to work on cars.
"I want to take cars that are donated to the shop. Then the teens will all work on the same car. They will have to fill out time sheets to track the hours each of them puts into the project. And the one who has put in the most effort, 'sweat equity' if you will, gets the car," Helms said. "If three or four of them have the same amount of time invested and want the car, we will have a drawing to see who wins it. That way it will be fair. If some of them have their own car and want to work on it, I can work with them as well. The key thing is to teach them responsibility, accountability and how things work in an auto shop environment. Many of them have never had opportunities like that."
The other reason Helms wants his own shop is so he can have an environment that is tailored to his disabilities.
"I'll be able to sit when I need to and stand when I need to. A lot of employers are gung-ho about hiring veterans and wounded warriors, but at the same time, if you can't stand eight hours a day or you need to alternate your position, some employers are hesitant to hire you. So this situation will be great for me to have control over my work environment," Helms said.
"I've also considered doing old cars like my '49 Ford, for several reasons. They are easier to work on and you can get a lot of remanufactured replacement parts for them. They were made of steel, so they are easier to do the bodywork, plus when they are restored there would be more classic cars on the roads. And, then we would give the car to the teens."
Helms is excited about the transition to the next phase of his life. After 11 years in the National Guard and two years of recovery at Fort Sill, he reflected back on his time in the Army, and at the WTU.
"It has had its ups and downs, just like any other Army unit. I would tell other Soldiers in the WTU that if they keep an open mind and try to stay informed about what's going on they will do OK. I just focused on the healing process, and what I wanted to do when I got out and the time seemed to go by quickly," he said. "I decided to do the best for myself and take advantage of the opportunities that were given to me. You have to learn to work with your injuries and make a plan for what you are going to do because of them. You have to make the best of the situation."