American Legion Department of New Mexico Commander Paul Espinoza presents Operation Comfort Warriors gifts to the VA clinic in Albuquerque, N.M., on Dec. 7.

Taking care of their brothers and sisters

Kirk Arnold, who retired as a first sergeant after 20 years in the Air Force, has been in and out of the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, N.M.

Arnold appreciates the physical therapists who have helped him progress to the point where he hopes to return home in time for Christmas. After moving back home, the Korean War veteran expects to continue his therapy at the VA.

When Arnold goes to his rehab sessions, he will be able to use a $7,000 underwater therapy treadmill, which was the centerpiece of an Operation Comfort Warriors (OCW) donation presented by the Department of New Mexico American Legion family on Dec. 7.

“These gifts are wonderful,” Arnold said. “It’s an honor to receive all this equipment on behalf of all these veterans and the spinal cord unit patients. I really appreciate that.”

Department Commander Paul Espinoza led the Legion delegation, which delivered nearly $30,000 worth of gifts through OCW to the VA center and Henderson House, a YWCA-run homeless shelter in Albuquerque. The donations for the Henderson House will go to homeless women veterans and their children. A full 100 percent of donations to OCW is used to support wounded warriors recovering in or transitioning from VA centers, military hospitals and similar facilities.

Other items included in the donations included:

• A DVD and Blu-Ray player system that holds up to 400 movies and can be hooked up to the hospital’s central system. “So, anyone staying at the hospital can choose to watch any of those 400 movies on their TV in their room,” said Espinoza, a member of Post 13 in Albuquerque.

• Additional aquatic therapy equipment, TVs, DVDs, new Xboxes and more.

• Dozens of backpacks filled with sweatsuits, socks and personal care products were distributed to the VA patients in attendance.

• Clothing, games and other items for homeless women veterans and their children who stay at the Henderson House.

• Additional recreational items will be delivered, including a pool table that meets criteria for Americans with Disabilities Act.

In addition to supporting those at the VA facility, the Legion also thanked Tommy Lopez, a Pearl Harbor survivor who is a member of Post 69 in Albuquerque. Lopez was unable to attend the event, due to weather-related travel delays. Instead, members of his post accepted a plaque on his behalf.

“You and I pay no finer tribute to those whom we remember on this day than to ensure that the nation for which they sacrificed remains free and strong enough to preserve its freedoms, no matter what the future holds,” Espinoza told the veterans.

The Albuquerque VA has a special spinal cord unit that serves veterans who need both inpatient and outpatient care. Michelle McKenzie is the recreation therapist for the spinal cord injury unit and oversees the adaptive sports therapy program.

“The underwater treadmill cycle is going to be a part of the hands-on therapy with the physical therapists where the veterans are learning how to emulate movement and how to use their lower limbs,” McKenzie said. “With this particular piece of equipment you can sit and do leg extensions and compressions and modify it to walk. As physical therapists, we do that with our veterans on land. But we can now do it on water and that’s going to be an awesome piece of equipment to include in our program.”

McKenzie is thankful to the Legion for the gifts not only because these are items that the federal government doesn’t cover, but because the therapy equipment will help reduce the number of readmissions.

“I would have never thought we would have such a wonderful opportunity to receive this type of a gift,” she said. “I’ve worked here for 28 years and have never seen anything like this. The American Legion has been extremely kind to our veterans over the years. I have never seen them falter in anything that we have asked for. They have been very supportive of our sports adaptive therapy program.”

The Legion’s dedication was not lost on Alan Martinez, the deputy secretary of the New Mexico VA. He credited veterans – notably Legion Riders – with continuing to serve.

“One thing I really like about New Mexico is that we never leave a fallen comrade behind,” Martinez said. “And everywhere I go around the state, veterans prove that on a daily basis. You’re there every day making sure that your brothers and sisters are taken care of. Everywhere I go there is a representative of the Legion Riders helping out.”

Besides the Riders and other Legion Family members who helped make this donation a reality, Arnold expressed his gratitude to another special group. 

“Thank you very much to the donors,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more. This is just so unexpected. It couldn’t be any better.”