Jeff East Hero Story
Jeff East has big plans, and he isn’t letting anything get in his way—including spinal cord injury.
The Danville, VA, native volunteers as an ad hoc board member for the Virginia Mid-Atlantic Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, mentors other paralyzed veterans on the path to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, counsels fellow veterans at his local Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center and manages to do all of it while attending college. His strong commitment to helping others all began with his own injury.
Jeff had enlisted in the Army in 1997 with dreams of a better future. “I was tired of just being around. I wanted to do something,” he said. He served first at Fort Bragg, NC, then at Fort Lewis, WA. He thought that life would change when he left the Army in 2004, making plans to go back to school. However, Jeff couldn’t have imaged how drastically his life would be altered just a few years later.
In September 2009, Jeff was on his motorcycle when an oncoming car dropped low in an S-shaped curve and Jeff moved higher up in his lane. Jeff lost control of his bike in the gravel and when he regained control of his bike he hit a tree. He knew immediately that he was paralyzed.
“My first thought was, ‘Call my dad; please don’t call my mom. She won’t be able to take it. Just call my dad,’ ” he remembered. While he knew that he was paralyzed from the waist down, he fought to regain movement in his right arm. “All I wanted was my arm,” he said. He underwent additional surgery to recoup movement, which was partially successful.
While Jeff had difficult days after his injury, he “doesn’t let it get me down. Nothing’s changed, I just can’t walk.” His injury was harder for his parents to accept. “I was the rock, I was the one they went to, and when I was injured, they didn’t know where to go,” he said.
The accident was a turning point in his life. Before he was injured, Jeff confessed that he “didn’t do much of anything, just played pool.” But once he completed rehab, that changed. He credited Chuck Willis and LaDon Chambers, president and treasurer, respectively, for the Virginia Mid-Atlantic Chapter for sparking his involvement in Paralyzed Veterans. “Without them, I probably wouldn’t have done anything.”
Today, in addition to being an ad hoc board member, Jeff is involved with the sports and recreation program. “Being young,” he said, “it kind of helps. You have new ideas; the younger kids have an easier time talking to me.” He often takes other members out bowling or to shoot pool. Jeff also attended the 2011 National Veterans Wheelchair Games, competing in trapshooting and billiards. This year he is mentoring another young and first-time Games participant, Army Cpt. Michael Luckett.
“He’s affecting me as much as I am him,” Jeff noted. Because the two men share the same experiences, seeing what Jeff has done after his own injury helps Mike realize his goals.
Jeff’s injury also inspired him to pursue a new career. He is studying to become a recreational therapist, hoping to work at a VA hospital. His own VA therapist, Billy Perkins, is a high-level quadriplegic. Billy’s story and recovery motivated Jeff to give back to another generation of injured veterans.
Meeting people like Billy and older members of Paralyzed Veterans continues to inspire Jeff to succeed. “There’s no reason that I can’t do it. It makes me feel good. Life is not over because we’re hurt.”
Kaitlin Inamasu is a George Washington University student and Communications intern at Paralyzed Veterans.