ALL-TERRAIN CHAIR GIVES A MEASURE OF FREEDOM TO INJURED & WOUNDED WARRIORS!!!
Injuries from a mortar blast that left a young soldier blinded and partially paralyzed, kept him from his favorite outdoor activities — until now.
Retired Sgt. Willie Stewart, a Fayetteville native who was wounded in Afghanistan in 2012, has received an all-terrain track wheelchair to restore his mobility outdoors, and given him a renewed sense of independence. Stewart, 27, lights up when he thinks about future fishing trips, paint ball games and maybe even hunting.
The injuries left Stewart with aphasia — he knows what he wants to say, but can’t make the words. Yet his gratitude is clear.
Stewart sat in the track chair, smiling as he showed off some of its features.
“I can’t wait to get him to the beach this summer and go fishing,” said James Wilburn, Stewart’s father.
The chair costs about $15,000. It includes a fishing rod holder, umbrella holder and wheels that can traverse mud, water, sand and snow.
The track chair was donated by security company CARCO Group Inc., based in New York with an office in Fayetteville, and 4 Wheel to Heal, a nonprofit that takes wounded and disabled veterans to off-roading events.
The groups have worked together to donate three all-terrain track chairs to wounded soldiers over the past year.
“Will’s a fisherman,” said John Davidson, vice president of operations at CARCO. “Fish aren’t going to come to their garage. This will allow him and his family to get out to the beaches this spring.”
The track chair was delivered to Stewart just before Christmas.
Stewart was wounded July 1, 2012 in a mortar attack in Afghanistan, his family has said.
He was assigned to the 1st Armor Division at Fort Bliss, Texas, when his convoy became the target of several mortar attacks.
One of the blasts came within feet of Stewart. Another soldier present during the attack said Stewart took “the brunt of the blast.”
A piece of shrapnel hit his throat, cutting an artery and the optic nerve, causing a stroke.
Stewart immediately received medical treatment at Combat Outpost Charkh, in Afghanistan’s Logar province.
He had undergone months of rehabilitation in military hospitals and at a center in Raleigh until he returned to Fayetteville in March 2013. The family moved from their home on Morganton Road into a wheelchair-accessible Southern style bungalow off Gillespie Street.
Stewart retired from the Army on Nov. 13.
Stewart had been using a standard wheelchair, but it had limitations, his mother, Bonnie Wilburn, said. Her son, who loves to spend time outside had to be conscious of the wheels getting stuck in mud, she said.
When Stewart learned he would be receiving the track chair, he constantly bugged his mother about its arrival. He was thrilled when it was delivered on Dec. 19.
Sometimes, he takes it for a spin in the yard just to get outside, Bonnie Wilburn said.
“He makes me watch the weather every night,” she said. “I think he’s looking for the first warm night so he can go fishing.”
The family would not have been able to purchase the chair, Bonnie Wilburn said.
“Will’s taken care of, but there’s no extra (money) where he’d be able to go out and buy this,” she said. “To him, it means independence. He can do more now.”
The family is already planning fishing trips. They’re also trying to find a safe way to allow Stewart to go hunting again.
The track chair has been a blessing, but his parents said the goal will always be for Stewart to walk again.
Every week, Stewart spends time walking around a track.
“Even if it’s only four, five or six laps, he walks that track for as long as he can handle,” his mother said.
And a few weeks ago, Stewart completed the Green Beret Jingle Jog at Fayetteville Technical Community College.
It was important to him to walk the entire 5K, but he had to occasionally stop. After each break, he stood up and continued walking.
“He did not want to use the chair to cross the finish line,” his father said.
In a video clip saved on his father’s cell phone, a medal ceremony that had already begun paused so that spectators could cheer on Stewart as he inched closer to the finish line. The crowd became louder and louder as Stewart finished.
“He’s not going to let this hold him down,” Wilburn said. “He wants to walk again.”
Wilburn recalled when doctors called the family together to discuss Stewart’s injuries and recovery. The doctors explained it was unlikely that Stewart would ever talk or walk again, Wilburn said.
“I think he’s proven every one of them wrong,” Wilburn said, starting to tear up. “They don’t know Willie. God has had his hand on Willie the whole time.”