ALEXANDRIA, Va. - They arrived in wheelchairs, on crutches, and with canes, but they left with Segway personal transportation devices, car lifts to carry them, and just a bit more of the independence they had before war took their limbs, burned their faces, and injured their spinal cords.
Working one-on-one with trainers, young veterans stepped cautiously at first onto two-wheeled Segway platforms that use gyroscope technology to move with precision as riders shift their weight in the direction they want to go.
Later, volunteers took them into a historic northern Virginia neighborhood to learn how to navigate on rough pavement, on grass, and through busy intersections. Other volunteers stayed behind in the parking garage to attach lifts called "SegVators" to the backs of the veterans' cars so they could transport their new mobility devices.
The cost - $9,700 to $15,000 per recipient - is covered by donations, and the effort is coordinated by volunteers including Pittsburgh native Fred Kaplan, one of the founders of Segs4Vets.
Kaplan, now of Los Angeles, started out as a Segway enthusiast with no connection to injured veterans. He bought his first Segway in 2003, and he used it to tool around his neighborhood, to run errands, and to pick up takeout food from restaurants where parking is scarce.
Soon after, his adult daughter was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That got him thinking that Segways could be useful to people with mobility problems.
Later that year he met Jerry Kerr, a St. Louis man who injured his spinal cord in a diving accident and used a Segway to get around. Somehow their conversation turned to the wounded warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and both knew immediately that they had to help.
Others joined the effort, and by 2005 they had raised enough money to buy two Segways to give to two Iraq veterans. By 2006 they founded Disability Rights Advocates for Technology, or DRAFT, using $28,000 in seed money from a philanthropic trust Kaplan controls through the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh. The organization focuses on its Segs4Vets program, which so far has given Segways to more than 1,000 veterans, including 29 distributed Wednesday.
For his children
Marine Staff Sgt. Marcus Burleson, originally of Odessa, Texas, was among the recipients.
A bomb technician, Burleson lost both arms and sustained severe facial, neck, and shoulder injuries when an explosive detonated as he tried to dismantle it.
He still wears a military ID card around his neck. The photo of a youthful, smooth-skinned face only slightly resembles the reddened, scarred one that was rebuilt during 28 facial surgeries.
But it's the injury you can't see, the one to his spinal cord, that keeps him from playing with his three children and staying through the last inning of their Little League games.
"I can usually go for a little while, but then I have to rest," Burleson said.
The Segway will let him be the kind of father he wants to be, he said during a training session Wednesday.