Billy W. Bowens, who sustained a spinal cord injury while serving in Vietnam (1966–68) in the 173rd Airborne, was recently honored as Disabled Employee of the Year by the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) for his work in the Los Angeles Air Force Base Commissary.
The 71-year-old veteran is a client of Operation PAVE (Paving Access for Veterans Employment), Paralyzed Veterans of America’s vocational rehabilitation program for veterans with severe disabilities, especially veterans with spinal cord injury or dysfunction.
By 2005, Billy’s injury led to tetraplegia (incomplete), and he was admitted to the Department of Veterans Affairs Long Beach Medical Center for treatment, never expected to walk again. In 2006 he had surgery on his neck (C-2 through C-8 vertebrae) and began a long rehabilitation process.
“I lived each day in a wheelchair with faith and hope that someday I would walk again,” Billy said.
Two years later, after physical therapy five days a week, he was able to walk and use his hands again through “keeping faith, hope and good therapy.”
Then he was ready to return to work, and in October 2009 met with Long Beach PAVE vocational counselor, Joan Haskins, to discuss the potential of part-time employment.
“Billy has over four decades of retail store produce manager experience so when he was ready, we began identifying part-time positions and employers,” Haskins said.
DeCA, recognizing Billy’s extensive knowledge in the retail grocery business, hired him in 2010 at the Los Angeles Airforce Base Commissary. “Very little in the way of job accommodations were necessary” and Billy has maintained a “near perfect” attendance record, according to Haskins, just part of the reason for his recent honor.
“Billy is a lovely man, and sometimes he does work that he doesn’t have to do. I have to remind him all the time that he doesn’t have to be Superman,” Haskins said.
Haskins believes that Billy is the “unofficial ambassador” for Paralyzed Veterans and Operation PAVE because “just because he was paralyzed doesn’t mean that he couldn’t work again,” she said, and, “he shows that you don’t have to be a recent veteran to receive the help you deserve. We’re out to help any veteran who can use our assistance.”
Learn more about Operation PAVE
Sam Gubitz is an undergraduate studying political science at The George Washington University.