RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Tucked in a quiet neighborhood just south of Richmond, a home along the water is part of James Howard’s “new normal.”
Howard has spent years renovating the Virginia home to accommodate his electric wheelchair.
The now-retired Army Ranger was wounded by shrapnel during explosions in Iraq. But ultimately – it was a diving accident that left him paralyzed.
“It’s been a long road – I’ve been in a wheelchair for 10 plus years now,” Howard said.
He served multiple tours overseas and now he’s focused on serving other veterans.
Each month for the past five years, Howard has hosted a disabled veterans’ retreat with his non-profit, Veterans and Athletes United.
Howard invites veterans of all ages and backgrounds to his home. He calls the gatherings “accessible retreats.”
“We can bring lots of veterans out from the VA, poly trauma, spinal cord injury, long-term living care,” Howard said. “Just get a day away from the hospital.”
After his injuries, Howard says a sense of community helped him push forward.
“Being around others and seeing how they do things, you know, I don’t have any hand function, but I find ways to pick up cups or close doors,” he said. “It’s the little things you pick up on and learn from others that I think are most important here.”
At these monthly retreats, the veterans eat, chat, and enjoy the views of the water. Army veteran Jerry Dalay has now been to three of the retreats.
“It’s the camaraderie,” he said.
Dalay says it also helps to be around other people who can relate to what he’s lived through.
“It’s hard to communicate with a regular civilian that hasn’t been in a combat situation,” Dalay said. “So usually we just isolate ourselves.”
Among the group, there are stroke survivors, those recovering from a traumatic brain injury, some new to wheelchairs. Each story is unique.
Their stories are a reminder that not all wounds are visible.
“When I get out, it’s always a joy to see life,” said Army veteran Eunice Norman.
It’s Norman’s second time out of the hospital in weeks.
She served four years in the Army four decades ago, and she’s now receiving treatment at Richmond’s McGuire VA Medical Center.
“It’s an everyday struggle,” Norman said. “I mean you have to fight for what you want, and you have to push yourself.
“You have to have ambition to go where you want to go, because it’s easy to get stuck in a chair if you give up on your dream of walking again,” she added.
Whether the veterans are working to recover from an injury or fighting to find their new normal – they say they are inspired by Howard’s story and his positive attitude.
“It really helps you see that life’s not over,” Howard said. “You can continue to move forward and make the best of things and really just continue to do what you did before just kind of do it in a different way.”
Retreats like these happen in both Virginia and North Carolina and all disabled veterans are welcome. To learn more, visit vetsau.com.