Eureka spent Veterans Day under a dull-gray sky and blanket of slush.
That didn’t stop local service members and their families from gathering in Memorial Park to remember their fallen comrades.
One of those attendees, former Marine Daryle Handy, said that he’d found walking increasingly difficult over the past 20 to 30 years, the result of a spinal-cord ailment.
But neither mobility troubles nor the foul conditions kept Handy from his fellow vets. He simply rolled over the snow in his Action Trackstander, an off-road wheelchair given to him by The Independence Fund.
"This takes out a lot of the limitations that we have,” he explained, "and it lets me go hunting, and it lets me get around, and do a lot of things that I couldn’t do before, so it’s fantastic.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.3 million U.S. veterans have a disability connected to their time in service – and more have incurred them elsewhere.
Partial or complete paralysis may be the most visible of these disabilities, but advances in wheelchair technology mean they’re not life sentences. Chairs like those produced by Minnesota-based Action Trackchair use treads and motors to conquer any kind of terrain.
However, they don’t come cheap. A Trackstander like Handy’s starts at $16,400. And this equipment often proves too extravagant for funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which "supports the dispensation of power mobility...to accomplish necessary tasks of daily living in ordinary home and community environments such as paved surfaces and mild terrains.”
Enter the Independence Fund. Founded in 2007, it’s delivered over 1,900 all-terrain wheelchairs, according to Development Director Jessica Marinaccio.
Through this and other programs, like retreats for caregivers and rehabilitation for vets with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress, the fund claims to have reached a total of 2,670 military personnel and their families. The 75-year-old Eureka resident, who serviced Marine helicopters from 1963 to ‘65 and then did the same in civilian life, heard about the program from his friend, Kalispell resident Fawn McKenzie.
"Fawn told me about it...so I sent my paperwork in.” About six months later, "they accepted me.”
His Trackchair was delivered in April 2016. "It was amazing,” Handy remembered, "I just started going anywhere I wanted to go.”
The chair puts many of the features of a tank or ATV at his fingertips. He uses a joystick to steer through creeks, ice, snow and mud; one setting will stand him fully upright; an LED lamp lights the path ahead. There’s even a gun mount for his hunting rifle.
All of this has helped Handy enjoy the outdoor lifestyle that defines Northwest Montana.
"Now I can go see a little bit of the country that I haven’t seen since I moved here,” from Colorado 30 years ago, he said.
It’s also a plus with his young grandchildren, who got rides in his lap after the ceremony.
"It’s a fantastic tool for the disabled veterans, and I hope that we get the information out to a few more of them,” he said.
The Independence Fund has boosted its profile through coverage by former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, and work with famed country band Florida Georgia Line.
Now, the erstwhile Jarhead hopes to connect other veterans with the cause.
"It makes them be able to have a little bit more of a life, which is really well worth it,” he said.
For more information about the Independence Fund, visit www.independencefund.org. Click the "Apply for Assistance” tab to begin the application process for a wheelchair, or "Donate” to support the program.