Soldiers’ wheelchair revival benefits local community in Africa

Story and photos by Capt. Daniel Van Horn, Task Force Longrifles Public Affairs

Wheelchair revival 01

Spc. Gabriel Wolney shakes hands with the Association De Handicaps President Farid Abdillahi Elmi after a successful delivery of 3 repaired wheelchairs, Nov. 27, 2012. Soldiers of Task Force Longrifles worked to reassemble broken wheelchairs from old parts and provide usable equipment for local citizens.(Kentucky National Guard photo by Capt. Daniel Van Horn, 2/138th Public Affairs)

CAMP LEMONNIER, Djibouti— “We can fix that” isn’t the motto of Task Force Longrifles maintenance section, but what they have been able to fix while deployed to the Horn of Africa should make them proud of their work.

During a recent community assessment meeting, Chaplain (Capt.)Mark Slaughter and Chaplain Assistant Sgt. Thomas Mathews were introduced to Farah Abdillahi Elmi, president of the Association De Handicaps, a local organization that provides personal care, equipment, and education for people with disabilities in downtown Djibouti city. During a presentation by the president, one picture stood out from the rest; a pile of rusting wheel chair parts rising six feet off the ground.

“I was astonished at the number of useless wheelchairs in the association’s compound, several could be restored with minor repairs, although most needed major work,” Slaughter said after witnessing the picture. “I knew if we got those wheelchairs in the right hands, it wouldn’t be long before those they were being utilized once again.”

Wheelchair revival 02

Spc. Gabriel Wolney, a Task Force Longrifles Soldier, hands a repaired wheelchair to a local Djiboutian volunteer at the Association De Handicaps in Djibouti City, Djibouti, Nov. 27, 2012. (Kentucky National Guard photo by Capt. Daniel Van Horn, 2/138th Public Affairs)

Slaughter knew the skilled men of the Task Force Longrifles maintenance section would be the perfect fit for the job. After a quick phone call coordinating the pickup of the wheelchairs, everything was set in motion to make life-altering impacts for many disabled Djiboutians.

Mechanics Sgt. Charles Vanmeter, Sgt. Arthur Dunn, and Spc. Gabriel Wolney, received their first batch of semi-functioning wheel chairs on Nov. 10.

“At first, all I saw was a pile of scrap-metal. It wasn’t until we started digging through it that we found some usable parts,” said Vanmeter. “After assessing what we had, we began the process of piecing together one wheelchair at a time like a puzzle. When we didn’t have a part we simply got creative.”

Using items ranging from zip-ties to sandbags, the Soldiers became expert scavengers, picking parts from several broken wheelchairs to complete just one.

“It was overwhelming,” said Dunn after receiving the first batch of wheelchairs. “Some of them looked like they had been through a war.”

Wheelchair revival 03

A local Djiboutian tries out her repaired wheelchair, courtesy of Task Force Longrifles. (Kentucky National Guard photo by Capt. Daniel Van Horn, 2/138th Public Affairs)

In keeping with the Warrior Ethos, the Soldiers never quit despite the many obstacles, lack of parts, and their sweat soaked uniforms.

After completing their mission, the Soldiers returned a truck-load of fully functioning, cleaned, and working wheelchairs from Camp Lemonnier to the gates of the Association De Handicaps compound. Their hard work was rewarded with warm smiles and handshakes from many grateful Djiboutians.

“The people were thrilled to see the life restored back to these wheelchairs,” said Wolney, after delivering the first load of chairs.

Task Force Longrifles leadership said the wheelchair revival will continue throughout the deployment, calling the mission ‘one of the defining reasons we are here.’

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