Jeff East Hero Story
Having endured a motorcycle accident just two years earlier that left the former Army sergeant a T-6 paraplegic, East had for a time given in to the belief that life in a wheelchair equated to no life at all. Aside from attending his regular therapy appointments and some night classes in pursuit of a degree, East determined to stay within the four walls of his home.
“I didn’t like being out, and I was uncomfortable doing anything,” East says. “For almost two years, I didn’t do anything or really go out anywhere.”
But in 2011, after bravely coming out of his shell and attending a trap shooting event hosted by the Mid-Atlantic chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, East began to see his future reflected in a veterans service organization that served he and his fellow veterans so selflessly, in much the same manner he had served his country. “It spurred me on to become more active,” he says.
After being encouraged to attend the National Veterans Wheelchair Games – co-presented by Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Department of Veterans Affairs – in Pittsburgh that year, East determined to no longer let his disability define him.
“For me to go to Pittsburgh and see so many like me who were overcoming their injuries, and for my mom to see that, it was overwhelming,” East says. “Now, I’m very self-sufficient, and it’s really the Games that inspired me to do that. It was my breaking point in discovering that life isn’t over because I’m in a chair. It’s just a new day and a new obstacle.”
The discovery inspired East to do all he could in service to the Mid-Atlantic chapter, serving in 2012 as a chair for the NVWG in Richmond and later as chapter treasurer. He also took charge of the chapter’s website and outreach and began giving classes to medical school students on spinal cord injury, wheelchair transfers and adaptive equipment.
Work as chapter treasurer opened new doors for East, who began pursuing his bachelor’s degree in business management with a concentration in finance from Liberty University. While still working towards completion of the degree, East has since stood up his own home-based business doing personal taxes and budget reviews. He also runs his own photography business and in 2016 will have a photo published in Fuse magazine.
“When it comes to work and photography, people are often skeptical about me at first because they see the wheelchair,” East says. “But then they see my portfolio and are more encouraged to work with me.”
East also serves as a peer mentor and instructor to newly injured veterans at the Richmond VA Medical Center, a role in which he’s aligned his mission with that of Paralyzed Veterans of America – to be a “partner for life” to the veterans he serves.
“Of the 10 to 15 veterans I’ve mentored since my injury, I’ve had the blessing of never having anybody who has fallen behind, given up or quit,” he says. “It makes me feel good to see how they’ve progressed, and our relationship never stops.”
Armed with the influence of his military grandfather, East wakes up each morning reciting a phrase he instilled in him: “You’ll never know where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from.” It’s a sentiment that guides East through each day, knowing that while in a wheelchair, he can be grateful for those behind him who paved the way for accessibility – in sports as well as public life.
“I want to pave the road,” he says. “I like to think that what I do today will enable someone else to have a better future. What keeps me motivated is that I don’t let my disability define who I am. I define myself.”