I didn't want to feel handicapped

Tony Mullis had been learning how to walk again after being fitted for prosthetics at Walter Reed Hospital. He had done two tours in Afghanistan as a Marine and lost both legs to an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), one above the knee, and one below. One day on a water-skiing outing with other recovering amputees, sitting on an adapted mono-ski with a seat, he said, he realized it felt funny and he wasn’t really having a good time because he felt “handicapped.”

“I didn’t want to feel handicapped. I wanted to go do the things I did before I lost my legs, and feel as normal as possible,” he said at a presentation he and Michael Boucher did at the American Legion Post 250 in Tryon. A couple in The Congregational Church invited me to come, and my eyes were opened further to the lives of those who’ve given much in serving their country, yet who come back injured and struggle to rebuild those lives after wartime.

Tony met Michael Boucher in rehab at Walter Reed, and when both were settled in adapted housing that happened to be right next to a lake, they discovered they shared a love of hunting and fishing.

Both were problem-solvers, so they set about figuring out how to hunt and fish by improvising their own adaptations to the equipment so they could do it as amputees. “Not handicapped, but handi-capable,” is the way Michael puts it.

And they realized that other soldiers who’d lost limbs could benefit from their approach, so they founded Amputee Outdoors, which arranges hunting and fishing trips with amputees so they can continue to pursue their passion for the outdoor life.

Both had retired from the Marines with pensions, so they could devote full time to Amputee Outdoors. And both had the desire to work with small groups of veterans—or even one at a time—so as to focus on what each person needed in order to make the outing as enjoyable as possible.

They don’t use much of the expensive, high-tech equipment traditionally used in adaptive sports because it’s not financially feasible. But they’ve discovered, too, that testing and adapting more standardized hunting equipment, such as stands and harnesses for tree-climbing, really fits their approach much better for helping veterans adapt.

Two “adapted” pieces of equipment they DO use are “Tank Chairs” (wheelchairs with tank tracks instead of wheels), and what are called “blow triggers,” which enable a person to shoot a rifle or shotgun, even if they don’t the use of their arms.

What I heard in Michael and Tony’s stories that night at the American Legion, most of all, was that those who’ve been soldiers are used to self-sufficiency, problem-solving, and being part of a unit where everyone is interdependent. And the goal of Amputee Outdoors is to help them become self-sufficient again.

Yes, I know that the myth of self-sufficiency is one of the problems veterans face after returning from battle: They need to learn to ask for help, or risk facing isolation and difficulty rebuilding their lives in the face of that challenge.

But another part of the problem is feeling completely dependent, like one has no power to do anything for oneself or others.

Amputee Outdoors, a veterans’ charity that channels 100% of the funds donated to them directly toward activities and equipment, provides empowerment and the chance to empower others.

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