A collective of nonprofits is teaming up to give a little independence to some of the roughly 1,700 recent war veterans who have lost multiple limbs – purchasing all-terrain wheelchairs and letting the wounded warriors test drive them while recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in suburban Washington.
On any given weekend, Scott Mallary and his wife open up their Maryland farm, about 45 minutes from Walter Reed, to a half-dozen of the amputees so they can practice on the powered Track Chairs while they endure what can be an excruciating year of recovery that can include dozens of surgeries.
“I live on a 10-acre plot of property and have a horse, and when I go home I can't get around,” says Staff Sgt. Thomas McRae, whose job in Afghanistan was to detect explosives and mines.
In January 2012, he stepped on a mine in the Sangin province, immediately losing both legs and eventually having to have an arm amputated.
“I have to send my mom around to check on horses,” McRae continued. “This chair will give me the freedom to get out and move around on my own property. Also, I've always liked hunting, getting out and doing that kind of stuff … That is definitely not something I can do without a little bit of a more specifically designed wheelchair. And this gives me that.”
The Mallarys allow the soldiers’ families to join them on the farm. And their non-profit, Truckin for Troops, stores the chairs on the farm until the wounded soldiers can leave Walter Reed and return to their own homes.
McRae’s 5-year-old daughter, Aden, spends much of her time at Walter Reed with her father as he awaits his Track Chair that should arrive this summer.
Each chair costs $15,000.
The effort to purchase the special chairs has been led by the Independence Fund -- a small, all-volunteer nonprofit run by former veterans that has bought 150 of them since late April.
Veterans Affairs is supposed to provide a "power chair" for every double, triple or quadruple amputee. But the wait is so long that none of the amputees to whom Fox News spoke had been able to navigate the process.
The unofficial go-between for the soldiers and nonprofits is former North Carolina firefighter John Woodall, an Elvis impersonator known as Captain Woody who volunteers nearly all of his time at Walter Reed, greeting the families of each amputee when they arrive.
He also serves as a crucial liaison for the soldiers, helping them maneuver the hospital bureaucracy and co-hosting the annual hospital Christmas and Super Bowl parties, where the first Track Chair was given out last Christmas.
“This right here holds your rifle in place,” says retired Staff Sgt. Michael Cain, describing the Track Chair. “If you take your rifle out of the truck, put it in here, lock it in. Go into the woods, wherever you're going to hunt and you've got it locked up. And you've got a fishing rod holder.”
Cain was with the 4th Infantry division in Iraq in 2003 when he was injured. His vehicle rolled over a double-stacked anti-tank land mine that blew up directly underneath him, taking off his right leg and mangling the other.
He has left Walter Reed but still hope to receive one of the special chairs.
“It would definitely help me go into places, into woods that I probably wouldn't be able to if I was walking because it's really hard for me to climb over trees and everything and even walk long distances,” Cain said.