By Cheryl Rodewig, THE BAYONETAugust 13, 2009
FORT BENNING Ga. -- Named for the medical evacution choppers who lent aid and mobility to wounded Soldiers in Vietnam, Operation Dust Off gives mobility through the gift of an electric wheelchair to disabled veterans, said retired 1st Sgt. Mike Craig, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5180 in Seale, Ala.
His goal is to improve the quality of life for veterans and spouses who gave of themselves for the betterment of the nation, he said.
"There are people out there who at one time wrote a blank check to this country who are not doing so well right now," he said. "I think it is our responsibility as citizens to do what we can for these people. Some of them have fallen on hard times."
Craig started collecting electric wheelchairs two weeks ago. So far, he has seven. In exchange for their gift, donors receive a tax write-off for $2,000, a certificate of appreciation from the post and a thank-you note from the recipient.
Many veterans cannot afford electric wheelchairs, even with insurance, Craig said.
"Imagine yourself trapped in your house," he said. "Imagine yourself not being able to go to the store because you don't have any mobility. Imagine yourself being out of breath walking from the chair to the bathroom. Being able to move around (is) one of the basic qualities of life, and these people can't do it. It makes a big difference to these people's lives."
A refurbished electric wheelchair made a big difference to Polly Mattila, said the 63-year-old member of the VFW post's ladies auxiliary, who received the donation Tuesday.
"If it weren't for the VFW, I don't know what I would have done these past few months. They've been a godsend," she said. "My husband passed away June 15, and it seems like everything has fallen apart. The hand rails on my porch just fell off. Not only did the VFW repair my rails, they also built me a ramp. (And) with my arthritis, I'm not able to walk around very much, so they helped me get the scooter.
"If you don't get out and socialize, you get into a shell. I don't want to do that. I want to get out and socialize and be a part of the community, and with this chair and the ramp that they've built me, I can do that."
Mattila sums up her newfound mobility in one word, she said: "freedom."
A small donation, such as an electric scooter, is "nothing less than what we owe the veterans who are underprivileged and can't help themselves," said retired Sgt. 1st Class Troy Green, who donated an electric wheelchair to the VFW this week.
Green, who works with Range Control on Fort Benning, said he wants to do anything he can to help veterans and their spouses. "I think it's what the American people owe the veterans," he said. "I think it's important to give to a veteran because the veteran gave all he can. That's the way I look at it."
To donate an electric chair, call the VFW at 334-855-0090.