OCW: Forward Motion

During his 19-year career in two stints with the Army, Sgt. 1st Class Ron Speilmann ran marathons. That all came to a sudden halt when he tore the meniscus in his right knee during a spring training exercise at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Wash., in 2011.

Even with a knee replacement, Speilmann, 51, remained sidelined. “I couldn’t walk, and I was gaining weight,” he says. “My leg didn’t like to bear weight.”

Then he came across a flier promoting a bicycling program through his Warrior Transition Battalion and decided to give it a try. Speilmann couldn’t use a recumbent bicycle because of a back injury he sustained during a deployment to Iraq. Instead, he did a lap around the parking lot with a hand cycle.

“I came back and said, ‘That’s great,’” Speilmann recalls. “Then the physical therapist flipped off the parking brake, and I went twice as fast. I was hooked.”

The bikes are just a few of the gifts donated through The American Legion’s Operation Comfort Warriors (OCW) program. OCW and its predecessor, Operation Landstuhl, have turned hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations into comfort items and recreational experiences for U.S. military personnel. OCW donations are used to purchase items that assist wounded and ill servicemembers in military hospitals and transition units. OCW funds also support Heroes to Hometowns.

OCW has provided a variety of gifts, based on each facility’s needs: exercise equipment, fishing and kayaking gear, special clothing for burn victims, CDs, DVDs, Wii games and art supplies.

And, of course, recumbent bikes and the hand cycles used by Speilmann, who now rides 10 to 15 miles a day and has taken 45-mile treks. He’s lost 22 pounds. Now he’s saving money for his own racing cycle.

“It’s saved me,” he says of the OCW-purchased hand cycle. “I like the camaraderie of the other soldiers who I ride with. It’s got me moving again. That’s what I needed.”

Helping warriors get back on their feet is a primary goal of OCW.

“We must not turn our backs on the men and women who sacrificed so much for our freedoms, our security and our way of life,” says American Legion National Commander Jim Koutz, who chose OCW as his primary fundraising program. “As they recover from various injuries and illnesses, we must take responsibility for their care. OCW is a wonderful complement to the medical care and military support that our recovering servicemembers receive.”

When Koutz was elected commander, he announced an OCW fundraising goal of $500,000.

“Every dollar counts,” he says. “Every dollar goes to helping a serviceman or woman who needs our support. I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of Legionnaires and others I’ve met in my travels who hand over donations and send their gratitude to our troops.”

Those donations and rounds of thanks are delivered regularly to recovering servicemembers.

In January, nearly $30,000 worth of donations were distributed to warrior transition units in Kentucky and Georgia. At Fort Knox, the gifts included an OCW first: Segways, the slow-speed personal motorized transportation device.

“The Segways will be used to take soldiers back and forth to medical appointments at the hospital,” says Lt. Col. Dwight Lewis, commanding officer of the Fort Knox Warrior Transition Battalion. “We have a big courtyard and the Segways will make life easier for the soldiers, plus they will have fun getting to where they need to go.”

For Legionnaires, such donations are just one way they can show their support for servicemembers in their communities.

“Any time you reach out to the soldiers, you are giving other veterans a reason to join The American Legion,” says Peter Trzop, commander of Old Kentucky Home Post 121 in Bardstown. “When you do stuff for soldiers and their spouses, you build trust. They know you’re legit. They know you’re there for them.”

Steering Committee. Recently, OCW has attracted the attention of a top competitor in the professional rodeo circuit. Steer wrestler Trevor Knowles, a member of Sons of The American Legion Squadron 77 in John Day, Ore., wears patches bearing the OCW logo and website when he competes.

“I like people to be aware of what’s going on in support of our veterans,” says Knowles, whose father, Jeff, is a Vietnam War veteran. “It’s important for me to support the veterans because these are people who put themselves in harm’s way every day to allow me to do what I do every day. I think that they need and deserve as much support as possible.”

Jeff Knowles, whose health has been ravaged by Agent Orange exposure, is currently awaiting a kidney transplant.

“I’ve had a firsthand look at how war can affect people and their families,” Trevor says. “I can see how hard it can be, and how having some help can really be beneficial to people.”

A nine-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo competitor, Trevor is among the top names in his sport, having won the 2012 Calgary Stampede championship. He has earned more than $1 million competing and has pledged a portion of his future corporate sponsorship earnings to OCW.

Meanwhile, his father is impressed by his son’s rodeo accomplishments and his unwavering support of veterans.

“I think a lot of it comes with my service and what happened to me, because it hasn’t been a cakewalk since I got out,” Jeff says. “He understands that it is not a cakewalk for a whole bunch of guys who are coming home now or were coming home then.”

“It means the world.” Some veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are healing from physical wounds of war, such as severe burns and broken bones. Others need treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury (TBI). Still others return with viruses wreaking havoc on their immune systems.

No matter the injury or illness, OCW gifts can play a valuable role in the healing process.

First Sgt. Steven Elzy, 55, knows the physical toll of service firsthand. The Plainfield, Ind., infantry soldier is recovering from multiple overseas deployments, including one to Afghanistan with the Indiana National Guard in 2004 and 2005 that included several combat missions.

“The gear load is about 125 pounds on a good day,” Elzy says. “My knees are worn out. They are telling me that I may need to get a knee replacement. I have a lower back injury. It’s just wear and tear.”

Elzy belongs to the Fort Knox Warrior Transition Battalion, and says the donated Segways will help more than just troops recovering from leg injuries.

“I was sort of wondering about them as I saw them come in,” he says. “Then I considered that TBI is a very serious injury. You have a lot of fellow soldiers with TBI. I can see the far-reaching adaptations in the adaptive physical therapy programs, where these would be very good. I can see them being in a gym complex where the soldiers are learning balance again and being able to operate them.”

The generosity by those making donations is recognized by the troops on the receiving end.

“It means the world because one of the things we’re constantly looking for as a soldier is to get our lives back to as much normal as we can within society and with our families,” Elzy says.

Ken Olsen, Henry Howard and John Raughter contributed to this report.