Dallas-based attorney Gary Lawson is one of the co-founders of the Independence Corps, a nonprofit that helps veterans who are wounded or disabled and seeks to reduce the number of veteran suicides by promoting feelings of well-being—including helping vets regain independence through mobility devices. He is a longtime advocate and participant in nonprofits such as Capt. Hope’s Kids (now Hope Supply Co.), Medisend International, Snowball Express, and FIRST in Texas and has traveled to schools across Texas in a Vietnam War Huey, a military utility helicopter, to teach children about our nation’s independence.
The Independence Corps provides iBOTs and Track-Chair mobility devices to veterans. These devices look like a normal wheelchair, but can be quickly converted to allow users to move in a standing position. Johnson & Johnson had stopped producing iBOTs in 2009 due to the cost—Medicare only paid the company about $5,000 each for units that retailed for $25,000. But, through efforts by Lawson and the Independence Corps, iBOT production began again in 2018.
What is the mission of the Independence Corps?
To help restore wounded disabled veterans to the highest possible measure of mobility independence. To give them back what the war took from them. Even if a veteran has a 100 percent adapted home with lights and HVAC switches that can be reached from a wheelchair, that is not the case in any friend or relative’s home. Most wheelchair users can’t prepare their own or their family’s meals, because there are things on shelves and in their refrigerators that are out of reach—the stove, refrigerator, and sink may be impossible to use. Importantly, when interacting with other adults, the other adult is looking down, the veteran is looking up from a seated position. There is an “inequality.”
Curb cuts don’t exist everywhere. Stairs are barriers. Outdoor locations often aren’t wheelchair friendly. Almost nothing stops an iBOT—and nothing stops a Track-Chair.
We fix all these problems by giving the wounded veteran a mobility device that can seat them at eye level with a six-foot tall adult. It allows them to reach objects as if they were a standing adult and allows them to climb any set of stairs on their own.
What led to the creation of Independence Corps? What was the inspiration from those early flights in the Huey to teach children about independence that eventually led to its creation?
The sound of the blades of a Huey helicopter are distinctive and unlike any other helicopter. Most people are familiar with that sound from war movies. So, the sight and sound of the Huey is exciting to kids. It helps get their attention. You rarely find a child not interested in getting up close to an airplane or helicopter, so again, you can capture a young person’s attention, especially when you land a helicopter in their schoolyard.
America’s freedom from Great Britain took a war. The first steps to eliminating slavery in America took a war. America reluctantly became the force for victory in both World War I and World War II. We were reluctantly drawn into wars in Korea and Vietnam, and we went to war after our nation was attacked on September 11, 2001. But schools don’t really put a human face on war. We decided to inform and educate students on the human side of war. The role our military played since 1776 to today in establishing our freedoms and the obligations our politically elected leaders undertake for us as a nation in treaties with other countries, etc., that result in men and women going to war. Some of the greatest advances in medicine have evolved from combat triage and battlefield care. We want all children to have a deeper sense of understanding and a true appreciation for the good fortune to have been born here in America.
What led to the initial decision of providing iBOTs to veterans?
The government, the Veterans Administration, or VA, wasn’t willing to spend the money to give these expensive devices to many veterans. Despite the tremendous cost of training and equipping a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine to fight, the government was reluctant to spend the necessary funds to do more than repair the wounds inflicted by war. In a course of about two years, the VA provided 63 iBOTs to veterans and the Independence Corps provided 26. We had no paid employees, only volunteers asking folks for donations. We saw what a gigantic difference an iBOT and other mobility devices, like a LEVO, or an X-8 Mobility Device made. One marine double-leg amputee was in a hotel fire and had to slide down four flights of stairs on his butt and stumps. Had the marine had an iBOT, he could have taken himself safely downstairs with dignity and no damage to his injured parts.
What were some of the thoughts you had when you heard about iBOTs being discontinued? What actions did you put into place upon hearing this news?
We had worked for almost a year for a Hollywood fundraiser we were planning with a Young Presidents’ Organization, or YPO, chapter to give 11 injured veteran iBOTs. When we were told by the then-manufacturer that it was no longer going to build and sell iBOTs, I was beside myself. I couldn’t see disappointing these 11 veterans. I thought that the inventor might care about losing his royalties. I reached out to the inventor, Dean Kamen of DEKA Research, and asked him for his help. I was upset with the manufacturer. I quickly learned from Dean Kamen that the medical device manufacturer that had sold the iBOTs had lost a fortune due to the unwillingness of the Center for Medicare & Medicaid to fully reimburse the cost of these devices. Dean introduced me to the women in charge of manufacturing the old iBOT and she agreed to manufacture 11 more iBOTs. However, we were only able to give 10 veterans these very last iBOTs.
The 11th was a young Hispanic soldier—a double-leg amputee—still recovering at Walter Reed Hospital, who was invited by Oprah to attend President Barack Obama’s inauguration with his black, double amputee, Army Walter Reed Hospital roommate. We couldn’t get him out of D.C. to an assessment center in time. We would, however, about a year later be able to give him a rebuilt iBOT that was donated to him by a family whose father had recently passed away, leaving a perfectly good iBOT without an owner.
We then put together a video message promoting that DEKA made a next generation iBOT. It only took another 10 years to see the dream come to fruition. With the help of four veterans, who owned iBOTs we provided; with the help of my late son, Seth, who helped to script and direct a Bring Back the iBOT video; with the help of Hollywood superstar Gary Sinise, volunteering his time and talent to do the voiceover work for the video; we created a message that resonated with Dean Kamen, his team of brilliant engineers at DEKA Research, and ultimately with the Food and Drug Administration. Only a few months ago, a next generation iBOT, using the latest battery and other technological advances, became an FDA-approved Class 2 Medical Advice. The original iBOT was a Class 3 Device, a status that greatly impeded making upgrades and advances possible.
How did you feel when you heard about the iBOT being relaunched?
Relieved that I was able to help make this happen while I am still actively involved in helping our wounded veteran community and able to present new iBOTs to paralyzed and amputee veterans whose bravery didn’t just put them in harm’s way, but resulted in their losing so much of their independence.
What efforts did you put into place to help achieve this?
I lobbied members of Congress—unsuccessfully—to get their support. I pleaded with Dean Kamen, that despite the earlier business failure of the first iBOT device, that there was nothing like the iBOT when it came to replacing lost or paralyzed legs for not only veterans but also for all people with mobility disabilities like MS, cerebral palsy, etc. I begged some very rich people for funds to allow us to buy these and other high-tech mobility devices. I gave speeches, here in Texas, and in Washington, D.C., pleading with people to help me help our injured and disabled veterans. I even rode iBOTs to meetings with businessmen who were interested in national defense issues, imploring them to care about the men and women who returned from wars with mobility limitations.
How many iBOTs have been donated by the Independence Corps to veterans?
Twenty-six iBOTs at $25,000 a piece and recently a $170,000 “Luke Arm” to a female Army veteran.
Are there plans in place to donate more iBOTs?
Yes. As soon as the new iBOTs roll off the assembly line we have funds and recipients lined up for four more iBOTs. Once that happens we will do our best to raise additional funds to provide as many iBOTs as we can afford.
Are other types of medical devices acquired for donation to veterans?
Track-Chairs are for those veterans who want to get outside into the country. They can go “walk” in the woods, tow their kids in their snow sleds, go hunting—do just about anything except drive the chair on the carpet at home.
The “Luke Arm” is the most advanced arm/hand prosthetic ever made. A user can command it to do the same things his or her lost arm/hand could do. A user can pick up a glass and drink without crushing the glass or pick up a power drill and do woodworking or other chores without dropping it.
What are some of the other focuses of the Independence Corps?
Suicide intervention. Regardless of what’s the precise statistic to quote, suicides and attempted suicides among our veteran population must be addressed. Independence Corps has seen that helping veterans regain independence can help with feelings of well-being, and by hosting what we call “Spartan Weekends,” we are also working to be part of the solution to reduce veteran suicides.
In the fall of 2015, we decided to host an event in Washington, D.C., to bring awareness and raise funds to combat this epidemic that has a ripple effect that extends far beyond the immediate victim. In honor of the warrior culture, we decided to name the event the Spartan Weekend. We have since repeated this event, most recently at, and with the great support of, the Scarlet Pearl Casino and Resort in Biloxi, Mississippi.
At Spartan Weekends, we invite our veterans to take a short pledge, administered by a sponsor and taken by a warfighter or veteran to promise that no matter how dark the day may seem, suicide is not an option. The veteran is then obligated to call his or her sponsor or battle buddy if he or she ever considers suicide as an option. This “layer” has been 100 percent successful and not a single veteran who has taken the pledge has died by their own hand. In addition to the pledge, the Spartan Weekend allows these heroes to bond in fellowship with their wounded comrades—wonderful therapy and participation in athletic events (golf and bike riding as they are physically able).
Our severely wounded warriors deserve no less than the continuing support of our grateful nation.
For more information on Independence Corps, go to independencecorps.org.