Wounded Troops Rev Up to Restore Cars, Lives
December 13, 2013
By Elaine Sanchez
Brooke Army Medical Center Public Affairs
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- Wounded troops soon will be trading their rifles for wrenches as they gear up to participate in a newly launched car restoration and repair program dubbed Automotivation.
After more than a year without a site, the program raised the garage door on its new location in Northeast San Antonio during a grand re-opening on Dec. 9. Through the program, seasoned mechanics share their automotive savvy with wounded service members from Brooke Army Medical Center and with veterans from throughout the city.
"Working on cars is good physical and mental therapy," said Janis Roznowski, director of the nonprofit Operation Comfort, which sponsors the program. "It teaches them skills they can take into the world and offers them a safe place to open up to others who understand what they're going through."
Roznowski dreamed up the idea for an automotive skills/therapy program in 2006 after visiting a Soldier recovering at BAMC whose hands had been badly burned in Iraq. "He said he hoped his hands would be well enough to work on a car with his Dad when he returned home," she recalled. "He was worried about disappointing his father. I wanted to help in any way I could."
Roznowski had already launched a number of successful sports programs, including sled hockey and cycling, but decided to shift in a different direction. She rented a garage, loaded it with two donated project vehicles -- a 1984 Ford Bronco and a 1954 Dodge Power Wagon -- and asked Army veteran Chris Leverkuhn to oversee the program.
Leverkuhn, who had lost his right leg below the knee in a blast in Iraq, drew from general automotive knowledge and dove right in to help. First up was helping a group of wounded service members tear down the Bronco. Rather than build it back up, they opted to pull the body off of the Dodge and put it on the Bronco's frame. "It took a core group of 15-20 guys, plus at least a 100 more who were hands-on in some way, five years to build," he said.
This hybrid of vehicles, now fondly referred to as "The Beast," was on hand at the grand opening -- as was their next project, a donated 1966 Cobra kit car built from the ground up in two years. Leverkuhn proudly showed off both cars to a group of Soldiers and veterans who had turned out for the ceremony. He raised the hood of the Cobra as Army Staff Sgt. Troy Drebenstedt, of BAMC's Warrior Transition Battalion, checked out the tricked-out engine.
However impressive, these automotive transformations are nothing compared to the transformation he has seen within the wounded service members, Leverkuhn said during a lull in the ceremony. Through the program, "guys went from being quiet and antisocial to talking to anyone about anything and becoming great peers to fellow service members," he said. "We saw quite a few who realized they could do a lot more than they initially thought."
Army veteran Vic Hash credits the program with helping his own and countless others' recovery. Hash, injured in Afghanistan in 2010, was being treated at BAMC when he first heard about the auto program. The experienced mechanic and welder, who rebuilt his first engine on a farm at age 12, pitched right in to help and is now the program's lead mechanic.
"Guys would come in without arms and ask to learn to weld or to woodwork," he recalled. "We'd figure it out. It helped me, and I know it helped others, get our minds off of the negative stuff."
He recalled a wounded Sailor, a double amputee with severe burns, who stopped by the garage week after week for six months -- but only to observe. "He eventually came up and wanted to help," Hash said. They gave him a modified wheelchair so he could work on an engine and he stuck with the program for months.
"The last time I saw him, he was on his trike working out, sweating, engaging," he said. "That's the point- to get these guys re-engaged in life. Instead of sitting at home playing a video game, being an introvert and bored and angry, they're out there doing something."
Now housed in their new site, Leverkuhn and Hash said they're revved up for a new influx of budding car enthusiasts.
They already have a project lined up: the restoration of a World War II-era WC-54 Army ambulance that belongs to the Army Medical Department Center for History and Heritage here. Along with the 1942 Dodge Power Wagon, AMEDD will also pass on a second Dodge for parts.
"This is a great opportunity to help wounded service members learn auto skills and also help preserve history," said retired Army Col. Bob Driscoll, Chief of the AMEDD Center for History and Heritage.
"It's a massive undertaking," Hash noted. "We're going to completely take it apart and restore it, down to the paint and original markings. Once we get it up and running, we'll give it back to the [AMEDD] Museum."
Lt. Col. Eric Edwards, BAMC WTB commander, said he's expecting a few dozen Soldiers to initially join. The WTB, he explained, is completing a contract that will allow Automotivation to be recognized under the Career, Education and Readiness Program, which provides work studies, educational opportunities and internships for medically eligible Soldiers.
"Given that the AMEDD Museum is contributing a World War II vintage ambulance to be repaired -- our contract will recognize this project as another CER opportunity," he said. "The therapeutic benefits and socialization gained in this type of environment will certainly prove to have a positive impact during their rehabilitation phase of transition."
Hash said he's simply looking forward to getting back under the hood again. "It's a huge mental boost to see a service member learn how to do something that they thought they couldn't," he said, "to see a guy with no arms doing woodworking with a huge grin on his face."
Above all, the service members are not just restoring vehicles, he said, "They're restoring themselves."