In 1946 Robert Moss rolled his wheelchair down to Grand Central Terminal in New York City and led his fellow World War II veterans in a passionate protest. The comrades, who suffered devastating spinal cord injuries in combat, had only one goal in mind: to simply reintegrate back into society and be afforded the rights and benefits they deserved. Sounds easy right? Not so much.
The lack of resources, accessibility and knowledge of disabilities left the men lacking proper healthcare, the ability to get an education, and unable to work. But their courageous actions and determined spirit to fight for what they deserved spawned a movement that would play a major role in the formation of United Spinal Association and improve the lives of millions of future generations of Americans; VetsFirst.
“Although United Spinal Association now represents all Americans living with disabilities, we must never lose sight that we started as a veterans’ advocacy group. Veterans are the soul of our organization and I think we do a great job of remembering and serving them with VetsFirst,” says Ross Meglathery, Vice President of VetsFirst.
Pushing for greater independence, equal civil rights, and better treatment at VA hospitals, the men formed the congressionally chartered Paralyzed Veterans of America. The PVA served as both a support group for the men to vent their grievances and as a platform to bring awareness on a legislative level of the needs and rights of those who were left paralyzed fighting for their country. Soon, the group expanded across the country forming localized chapters one of which was the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association (EPVA), which transformed into the humble beginnings of United Spinal Association.
“These veterans sought to re-enter the workforce or get an education through the new G.I. Bill. However, they were often not able to get physical access to those things. They organized an order to push for action to allow them entry to those opportunities that they had earned through their service,” says Meglathery.
“All categories of Americans living with disabilities owe a debt of gratitude to these veterans, for if it was not for them calling attention to their difficulties in getting access, wheelchair accessibility would not be what it is today.”
VetsFirst and United Spinal soon merged and over the past 70 years, VetsFirst has blossomed into a premier program of United Spinal Association, helping paralyzed Veteran’s and their families acquire the benefits they deserve and ensure they realize their full potential, achieve the highest level of independence and live a great quality of life. From Korean War vets paralyzed over 60 years ago to Iraq veterans injured two weeks ago, VetsFirst helps all generations of veterans advocating for such things like optimal healthcare, benefits, education and employment services, disability compensation, rehabilitation, and counseling services just to name a few.
And the group’s voice goes far beyond assisting those with paralysis, advocating for wounded veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries as well.
“We have three core principles by which we stand,” Meglathery says of the organization’s mission. “Community Integration and Independence, Timely Access to Quality VA Health Care and Benefits and Rights of Veterans with Disabilities.”
An injured Iraq War veteran himself, Meglathery has served as Vice President of VetsFirst for the past seventeen months and says the job has fulfilled his strong desire to still serve his country and help his fellow veterans.
“I am a combat wounded Marine veteran of Iraq. Having served in the military, many of my friends are veterans and I am aware of the issues that affect them,” he says. “After my time on active duty, I entered the private sector and worked in the consulting industry. I did not feel fulfilled. While I knew it was time for me to leave the active component of the military, I wanted to continue to serve. I went back to graduate school where I earned a master’s degree in Public Administration. A former United Spinal Association employee informed me of the position at VetsFirst which was right up my alley. Fortunately, it worked out and I am in the very job I had envisioned for myself.”
Providing much more than just supportive words or an encouraging hug, VetsFirst takes their advocacy straight to Capitol Hill to bring awareness and fight for solutions to the issues that affect injured Veterans, achieving numerous major victories over the past seven decades.
— Maureen Gazda