It was 1995 when Joe Jackson, a board member of the Lone Star chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, introduced the idea of creating the first wheelchair Honor Guard team in the United States.
Four years later, Jackson saw his idea put into action. Chapter Executive Director Glendon Bentley, a 20-year paralyzed Army veteran, along with Cecil Gilliam, a World War II veteran and associate member of the VFW Honor Guard, resurrected the idea before the board in hopes of securing a team for the dedication of the Dallas National Cemetery.
“The board of directors agreed to do it and tasked me and a couple of others to put together a team,” Bentley says.
The initial team was comprised of eight members mostly from the chapter’s board of directors. Using weapons from the VFW post that Gilliam procured for the team, the Honor Guard began performing the time-honored military tradition at funerals and memorials across the state of Texas and Washington, D.C.
The initial launch of the team was a learning experience for team members as some had performed Honor Guard duties during their service but had to learn how to modify those movements for a wheelchair. Bentley along with Mike Bruscino, an Army Special Forces veteran who was wounded and paralyzed in Vietnam, trained the initial team to perform the standard arms to accommodate the wheelchair.
Those accommodations include placing the bottom of the stock on the center of the wheelchair seat instead of holding the weapon out in front while presenting arms. A facing movement involves team members keeping one hand on the wheelchair and one hand on the weapon to use as a pivoting point, while trail arms involve laying the weapon across their lap so they can push themselves in their wheelchairs. A special plank is clipped onto the wheelchair to hold the flag during the presentation of colors.
Now in its 15th year, the team has grown in both popularity and size – to 14 team members, six of whom served on the original team. Bentley stepped down as commander of the team in 2000, passing the duty onto Bruscino. In 2005, John Fay, a founding member of the team, stepped in to command the team, initiating new standards and training for new members.
Aside from rendering final salutes at veteran funerals across Texas, the Honor Guard is involved in various parades in ceremonies, including posting the colors and 21-gun salutes at Memorial Day and Veterans Day services at Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, Laurel Land Memorial Park in Dallas and Fort Worth, the Dallas VA hospital, and Dallas city hall.
Bentley said the Lone Star chapter has encouraged other Paralyzed Veterans of America chapters to launch their own Honor Guard teams, but thus far, his group remains the only wheelchair team in the nation.
“We encourage other Paralyzed Veterans chapters to get involved, and we offer to go and train them if they’ll pick up the cost of our team members’ travel,” Bentley said.
Learn more about Paralyzed Veterans of America
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.