Willie Mardos Hero Story

Willie MardosVoted “Most Artistic” in his senior class, Willie Mardos was an overachiever in high school, lettering in golf, football, and wrestling at Mount Union High School, Mount Union, PA. He continued achieving high honors after joining the U.S. Air Force in the buddy program. He excelled in basic training, graduating with the highest G.P.A. in his class and achieved a 4.0. G.P.A. in his student leadership classes.
But on October 16, 1984, while stationed at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado, Willie’s life was permanently altered. Willie was returning to his room after assisting with snow detail when the two and a half foot wooden fence he had to cross gave way and sent him flying forward.  “My head hit the ground and what sounded like an explosion roared through my ears. I knew instantly I broke my neck,” he recalled.  His friend, who convinced him to join the service, came to his rescue. Willie explained to him, “I broke my neck, don’t move me.”

Hours later, Willie was admitted to Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Aurora, Colorado, his condition was complicated by severe hypothermia. His body temperature had dropped to 93.6 degrees with a pulse of 50.  The attending medical team worked diligently to raise his body temperature and stabilize his condition.  “The hospital report read, ‘rendered immediately and completely paralyzed from the neck down.’ The doctors told me that I would never regain movement in my legs or hands,” he said. “I knew from that moment on that my life was going to be hard and one giant rollercoaster.”
After several operations, Willie regained partial use of certain back and arm muscles and some feeling in his hands.  He was transferred to the Cleveland Veteran’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, and there he learned he was classified as an incomplete quadriplegic. It was while he was at the Cleveland VA Hospital that Willie met representatives from Paralyzed Veterans of America.  “The PVA representative not only gave me a book of all of my benefits, he helped point out the benefits that would make my transition to living at home easier, and assisted me with the paperwork and forms to help me get my home ready and adapted for my return.”

Willie returned home to live with his parents before venturing back out on his own. “I was always a fighter and independent and knew I could make it on my own with just some nursing assistance,” he said. He moved to Newport News, Virginia, and began partaking in some of his previous pastimes such as boating, fishing and hunting, but Willie, who was always an extremely active individual, admits, “the hardest part of my recovery was lying around and dealing with the boredom.” 

Things began to look up for Willie when he met Chuck Willis, national service officer with Paralyzed Veterans who informed him about obtaining his driving license. “I couldn’t believe it would be possible to be able to get out and go again whenever I wanted.” With Chuck’s assistance, Willie completed his driver’s training courses and successfully passed his driving test.  As a licensed driver, Willie again had a freedom he once lost. “I’m thankful for what Chuck Willis, David Coffield and other PVA reps have done for me.”

Now, 26 years later, Willie still struggles with boredom but relies on his passion for art to get him through the toughest days. “Art is the one outlet that requires little to no assistance from somebody, and I still struggle with that lack of independence.” Willie has just recently started entering local competitions with his art work and is receiving blue ribbons for such work. Willie said, “I just won six blue 1st place ribbons at the local county fair for my drawings and paintings. I went ahead and entered a couple photographs into the photography category to give it a try and won a 2nd place ribbon.” People are most amazed at the ability he has with such limitations. He is unable to move his fingers.  His pen, pencil, charcoal or paintbrush gently rests between his thumb and finger as he works. 

Willie’s interest in other activities has picked up. In March, Willie was asked to participate in an Air Rifle competition hosted by the Pittsburgh Veteran’s Hospital and National Rifle Association.  Never having shot an air rifle, Willie still managed to win a silver medal in the SH2 class.  This competition gave Willie inspiration to attend the 31st National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Pittsburgh, PA,  August 1-6, 2011. “I am looking forwarding to competing this coming year with so many events to choose from. I am gearing up to enter several events for a chance to bring home another medal.”

Willie currently resides with his wife, Michelle and daughter, Haleigh in Salem, West Virginia. Willie admits, “Looking back when I was lying in bed and not able to even feed myself, I would’ve never imagined this day. I now have a family of my own and am living one day at a time, doing things I never dreamed I’d be doing, even reading, thanks to computers. My next goal is to write my autobiography and share all of my stories of my journey with everyone. I remember the saying, ‘behind every great man is a great woman,’ but even though I don’t feel like a great man, I’m still grateful for having a great woman.”

Paralyzed Veterans of America (Paralyzed Veterans) is the only veterans service organization that represents servicemen and  women who are paralyzed as a result of spinal cord injury or disease.

Paralyzed Veterans is a nonprofit organization and is financed solely through donations from generous and caring Americans.

To learn how you can help our paralyzed veterans, visit www.pva.org. 

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    Willie Mardos Hero Story