Keystone PVA wheelchair athletes earn 56 medals at annual Games

Keystone PVA’s 13 wheelchair athletes brought back a total of 56 medals from the 37th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Cincinnati, Ohio from 17 through 22 July.  Of the total, 35 medals were gold.  Above: Our guys and gals pose right before the opening ceremonies at the Cincinnati Convention Center; photo by Agnes Strang.  Last year at the Games in Salt Lake City, our 14 participating athletes earned 55 medals.

Benjamin M. Williams

Benjamin M. Williams

Member, Board of Directors; Chairman, Building Committee

I was inducted into the Army in 1953 and served in the Korean War. I served as a tank commander and was released from active service in 1955. Under the universal military training act I was in the Army Reserve for another eight years and was honorably discharged in 1963.

During my time in the service I accidentally fell, broke my leg and injured my back. After I was discharged I continued to have back and leg problems. Over the years, I broke my leg three more times. With no warning, I would lose all feeling in my legs and fall. I was finally diagnosed with spinal stenosis paraplegia.

I joined the Keystone Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America so I would be able to associate with and help my peers. The chapter provides many opportunities, not just sports and recreation, that we might not otherwise be able to enjoy.

Besides serving on the chapter’s Board of Directors, I am the chairman of the Building Committee. I serve as the chapter’s deputy VA Voluntary Services representative for the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, both the Oakland and Heinz campuses, and spend about 300 or more hours on that task. I hear and monitor problems that our members might have and I pass along canteen coupon books purchased by the chapter to help them buy items they need from the commissary. I urge everyone to visit a veterans’ medical center and talk to some of the disabled veterans there.

I help promote PVA and the Keystone Chapter by staffing the chapter’s exhibit booth at the annual Washington County (Pa.) Sports Show.

I feel strongly about my fellow vets; I keep in touch with many. I especially commend our more active wheelchair athletes and how hard they work to earn those gold medals in competition.

As a veteran of the Korean War, It is important to me to remind people that there remain over 7,000 MIAs from that conflict.

For veterans in the Pittsburgh region:

VAPHS Town Hall for all concerned veterans:

Tuesday, 26 September 2017, 1 p.m.

The VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System will hold its next Town Hall for veterans as shown above.  We will provide the campus and the room in which it will be held here, but if you are a vet who gets care from the VAPHS, you should receive a notice with details from the VA.

The format is usually a couple of brief presentations on concerns of general interest, then a question-and-answer session.  The VA usually has health care AND benefits specialists on hand if your situation is particularly acute.



Keystone PVA office: 412-781-2474, 800-775-9323, or e-mail us!

Tom Strang

Tom Strang

Member, Board of Directors
Site Leader: Hospital Liaison, and VAVS Representative (VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System)

I am 71 years old and married to Agnes Strang, the Volunteer Coordinator of Keystone PVA. We have two children, Loren and Tom; both married. They have blessed us with seven beautiful grandchildren – one boy and six girls.

In the early 1960s, I served on the submarine USS Carp (SS-338). My rank was Torpedoman Second Class SS and I was in charge of the aft torpedo room.

My spinal cord injury level is complete and my level of function is paraplegia.

In the past 16 years I have served at times as your Treasurer, Secretary, member of the Board of Directors and Sports Director, and Hospital Liaison Officer.

At present I am your Membership Officer, Associate Sports Director, member of the Board of Directors and Hospital Liaison Officer in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System (VAPHS). I am the Keystone Chapter’s VA Voluntary Service Representative at the H. John Heinz III Progressive Care Center and the University Drive hospital of the VAPHS. I monitor the SCI clinic and the wheelchair seating clinic at the Heinz PCC.

My goals and those of the Chapter are to uphold the commitment to improving the quality of life and protecting the rights of spinal-cord injured and neurologically impaired patients. The major areas of effort lie with providing health care benefits, service rights, SCI research, recreation, sports activities and working to create legislation to ensure employment opportunities and civil rights and to become leaders in the fight against barriers in the everyday world. Our goals are: Consistency, Determination and You – our members.

James E. Riemer

James E. Riemer

President; National Director; Site Leader, Hospital Liaison, and VAVS
Representative (Butler VA Medical Center)
Residence: Jefferson Township, Butler County, Pennsylvania

I was in the final draft in 1972 so I decided to enlist in the U.S. Navy Reserves. I attended Storekeeper “A” School in San Diego, California then reported for active duty in June 1973 serving in the supply department issuing supplies, ultimately serving as the Financial Manager of the Supply Department on the USS Dale (DLG-19). I was discharged from active duty to my U.S. Navy Reserve Center in Pittsburgh in June 1975. Upon discharge from active I had advanced to the rank of Storekeeper 2nd Class and remained in the reserves for two more years.

On April 1, 1985 I fell from a roof and sustained a C-4, C-5 incomplete injury which left me a quadriplegic. In February 1989 after a long rehabilitation, I decided to get a baclofen pump to control my spasms. Since I received the pump, I have been able to drive an equipped van.

I graduated from the Butler Community College with an Associate’s Degree in Accounting in 1990. While attending College I volunteered in the Fiscal Department at the Butler VA Medical Center. In the late 1990’s I joined PVA and elected to participate in their recreation program.

While serving as a member of Keystone PVA I have held many positions. They include Board member, Sports Director and Treasurer from 2000 thru 2005 and Vice President from 2005 until the present.

I have also served as Keystone PVA’s National Director from 2001 thru 2007 and 2010 thru the present. I also served on PVA’s Finance Committee from 2005 thru 2008.

I volunteer over 1,000 hours annually at the Butler VA and Keystone PVA.

Projects That Need Your Support

Keystone PVA performs services and conducts events for its members and other veterans. While we make the most of every dollar we receive, we still need some dollars to serve these vets.
We’ve prepared a list of some of our projects and a synopsis of each, plus an estimate of the costs. It would be our privilege to discuss support with you. Please take a look at our Projects and Programs pages and tell contact our executive director, Joe Dornbrock, 412-781-2474 or 800-775-9323.

The Benefits Box

THE BENEFITS BOX A service of PVA’s National Service Officers
This Benefits Box has been provided by PVA Health and Benefits Specialist II Charles Tocci, based in PVA’s Syracuse, N.Y. Regional Office.

The ReWalk Exoskeleton System

As we all fight with technology on a daily basis, the company ReWalk Robotics has produced a new gadget that is changing our member’s lives nationwide. In December, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first powered exoskeleton to be issued for personal use, which is called the ReWalk, and is quickly gaining popularity.

What is the ReWalk?

The ReWalk is an exoskeleton system that allows individuals with spinal cord injuries (SCI) to sit, stand, turn and walk. The system is carefully adjusted specifically for each person and strapped to the user.  The main goal of the system is to mimic natural gait in a controlled, independent system while being accompanied by a trained companion.

How can I get a ReWalk?

Although process is lengthy and entails an involved procedure, the product is not difficult to obtain. The evaluation can be initiated in a few ways. First; you can self-refer yourself. Second; your VA provider may contact your SCI Center, and as always, you may reach out to your local National Service Officer (NSO) to assist you in obtaining the ReWalk.

Once a consult has been placed, you must undergo a comprehensive evaluation to see if you meet the criteria. For instance; the system requires the use of two canes so upper extremity strength is critical. Numerous other strengths and functions are assessed as well. As you might expect, height and weight are also determining factors to include leg lengths. Some other aspects taken into consideration are bone density, blood pressure while standing, skin integrity, risk of autonomic dysreflexia, and as previously mentioned, a companion that can actively participate in training and supervise while using the ReWalk at home. Unfortunately you cannot qualify if you have a diagnosis of a neurological injury other than SCI.

Now for the fun part, which is testing! This is the lengthy portion of the process. Rigorous testing is conducted because you are literally learning how to walk again.  You will need to achieve certain skills like getting in and out of the system, go to and from sit to stand, operate the communicator, and walk at least 10 meters with minimum assistance.  After more practice with the device and the certified therapist agree you are eligible, one may be loaned for home use under supervision for a minimum of 45 days.  The SCI Team will then collaborate for the purchase of the ReWalk system.

For more detailed information concerning the ReWalk system, contact your VA provider or Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) NSO.


Loan Amount

Maximum Guaranty

Special Provisons

Up to $45,000 50 percent of loan amount 25 percent on interest rate reduction refinancing loans
$45,000 – $56,250 $22,500 Same as above
$56,250 – $144,000 40 percent of the loan amount, with a maximum of $36,000 Same as above
$144,000 or more Up to an amount equal to 25 percent of the county loan limit Same as above

To qualify for a VA home loan, a veteran or the spouse of an active duty service member must certify that he or she intends to occupy the home. When refinancing a VA-guaranteed loan solely to reduce the interest rate, a veteran need only certify to prior occupancy. A loan can not be guaranteed by the VA without first being appraised by a VA-assigned fee appraiser. The requester pays for the appraisal upon completion and according to the fee schedule approved by the VA. The VA fee appraiser estimates the value of the property. This is not the same as a home inspection and it does not guarantee the house is free of defects. The VA only guarantees the loan and not the condition of the property.

For purchase home loans, payment in cash is required on all closing costs. The VA appraisal, credit report, loan processing fee, title search, title insurance, recording fees, transfer taxes, survey charges, inspection, hazard insurance premiums and prepaid taxes may not be included in the loan. These closing costs must be paid by the veteran, unless if you are refinancing a loan wherein most of theses costs can be included into the loan. If you are refinancing a loan all such costs may be included in the loan as long as the total loan does not exceed the reasonable value of the property.

An eligible borrower can also use a VA-guaranteed Interest Rate Reduction Refinancing Loan to refinance an existing VA loan to lower the interest rate and payment. Typically, no credit underwriting is required for this type of loan. The loan may include the entire outstanding balance of the prior loan, the costs of energy-efficient improvements, as well as closing costs, including up to two discount points. Interest rate reduction loans may include closing costs, including a maximum of two discount points. If the lender charges discount points on the loan, the veteran may negotiate with the seller as to who will pay the points or if they will be split between buyer and seller. Points paid by the veteran may not be included in the loan (with the exception that up to two points may be included in interest rate reduction refinancing loans). The term of the loan may be for as long as 30 years and 32 days.

Please be aware that the VA does charge a funding fee that ranges from as low as .05 percent to as high as 2.4 percent depending on the type of loan you choose. The funding fee must be paid to the VA unless the veteran is exempt from such a fee. Exemptions include: those who are in receipt of VA disability compensation; or are rated by the VA as eligible to receive compensation as a result of pre-discharge disability examination; or are the unmarried surviving spouses of a veteran who died in service or as a result of a service-connected disability. The funding fee can be paid in cash or it can be included into the loan. The VA funding fee and up to $6,000 of energy-efficient improvements can also be included in the VA loan.

The Periods of Service required for entitlement to eligibility are as follows:

World War II: (1) active duty service after Sept.15, 1940, and prior to July 26, 1947; (2) discharged under other than dishonorable conditions; and (3) at least 90 days total service unless discharged early for a service-connected disability.
Post-World War II: (1) active duty service after July 25, 1947, and prior to June 27, 1950; (2) discharge under other than dishonorable conditions; and (3) 181 days continuous active duty service unless discharged early for a service-connected disability.
Korean War: (1) active duty after June 26, 1950, and prior to Feb. 1, 1955; (2) discharge under other than dishonorable conditions; and (3) at least 90 days total service, unless discharged early for a service-connected disability.
Post-Korean War: (1) active duty after Jan. 31, 1955, and prior to Aug. 5, 1964; (2) discharge under other than dishonorable conditions; (3) 181 days continuous service, unless discharged early for a service-connected disability.
Vietnam War: (1) active duty after Aug. 4, 1964, and prior to May 8, 1975; (2) discharge under other than dishonorable conditions; and (3) 90 days total service, unless discharged early for a service-connected disability. For veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam, the beginning date is Feb. 28, 1961.
Post-Vietnam: (1) active duty after May 7, 1975, and prior to Aug. 2, 1990; (2) active duty for 181 continuous days, all of which occurred after May 7, 1975; and (3) discharge under conditions other than dishonorable or early discharge for service-connected disability.
24-Month Rule: If service was between Sept. 8, 1980, (Oct. 16, 1981, for officers) and Aug. 1, 1990, veterans must generally complete 24 months of continuous active duty service or the full period (at least 181 days) for which they were called or ordered to active duty, and be discharged under conditions other than dishonorable. Exceptions are allowed if the veteran completed at least 181 days of active duty service but was discharged earlier than 24 months for (1) hardship, (2) the convenience of the government, (3) reduction-in-force, (4) certain medical conditions, or (5) service-connected disability.
Gulf War: Veterans of the Gulf War era — Aug. 2, 1990, to a date to be determined — must generally complete 24 months of continuous active duty service or the full period (at least 90 days) for which they were called to active duty, and be discharged under other than dishonorable conditions. Exceptions are allowed if the veteran completed at least 90 days of active duty but was discharged earlier than 24 months for (1) hardship, (2) the convenience of the government, (3) reduction-in-force, (4) certain medical conditions, or (5) service-connected disability. Reservists and National Guard members are eligible if they were activated after Aug. 1, 1990, served at least 90 days, and received an honorable discharge.
Active Duty Personnel: Until the Gulf War era is ended, persons on active duty are eligible after serving 90 consecutive days.

In order to obtain a Certificate of Eligibility complete VA Form 26-1880 — “Request for a Certificate of Eligibility” — and mail it to: VA Eligibility Center, P.O. Box 20729, Winston-Salem, NC 27120. Once your Certificate of Eligibility is received from the VA you can apply for a VA loan.

The VA does provide assistance to veterans who are in default. If a veteran’s home loan becomes delinquent, the veteran should immediately contact their lender and explain what caused the missed payments, and discuss how they can be repaid. Depending on a veteran’s situation the lender may offer any of the following options to avoid foreclosure:

Repayment Plan: Make a regular payment each month plus part of the late payments.
Forbearance: Lender temporarily suspends payments to allow veteran time to accumulate funds to reinstate the loan or sell the property.
Loan Modification: Lender provides a fresh start by adding delinquency to the loan balance, and establishing a new payment schedule.
Compromise Sale/Short Sale: Lender approves a sale of the home for less than what is needed to pay off the loan. The remainder is written off and/or paid by VA guaranty.
Deed-in-Lieu-of Foreclosure: Lender accepts a deed to the property instead of going through a lengthy foreclosure process.

The VA does not have the funding to lend to veterans who are behind on their payments, but they can offer financial counseling to veterans with VA-guaranteed, conventional, or sub-prime loans. For veterans with VA-guaranteed loans, the VA may be able to intercede with the lender to help arrange an alternative option to foreclosure, but does not have that authority on other loans.

For additional information about the Home Loan Guaranty please contact your local PVA National Service Officer or the VA’s toll-free number for the Home Loan Guaranty program is 1-877-827-3702.

Michael J. Kruse is a United States Air Force and Persian Gulf War Veteran. He entered the military in July of 1990 and worked as a Tactical Aircraft Maintenance Specialist on the F-15 Fighter. He was stationed at Holloman AFB New Mexico, Langley AFB Virginia and King Abdul Aziz Air Base Dhahran Saudi Arabia. He completed his four year enlistment and was honorably discharged in from the Air Force in 1994. Mike has gone on to earn his Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from Medaille College, and Paralegal degree from New York Paralegal. As an accredited representative, Michael has spent more than 12 years assisting veterans and their dependants obtain education, health care, compensation, and or pension benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. He is the Senior National Service Officer at the Paralyzed Veterans of America office in Buffalo New York.


George “Murph” Neelan

George “Murph” Neelan

Vice President
Residence: West Deer Township, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania

I served in the U. S. Air Force. I continue to serve on the Keystone Chapter’s Board of Directors with a special interest in serving and treating veterans with multiple sclerosis. I serve on committees and task forces at the pleasure of the Board and the president of the Chapter, such as recently, as chairman of the Board Election Vote Committee.

William D. Lightner

William D. Lightner

Residence: Hollidaysburg, Blair County, Pennsylvania

I joined the Air Force at age 18. After basic training I was stationed at Edwards Air Force Base, where I served as an aircraft machinist starting in 1983. In 1986 I was involved in an automobile accident that broke my neck, resulting in my becoming a paraplegic.

After several major surgeries and about four to five months of rigorous rehabilitation to stabilize me, I returned to Pennsylvania to complete many years of physical and occupational therapy. I still do physical therapy to keep me in shape and active.

I joined the Paralyzed Veterans of America in the early 1990s when I was approached by a Keystone Chapter member and that’s when I joined the chapter and became active. I am involved in all types of sports and recreation programs whether it be local, state, or at the national level, such as the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, for the past ten years, where I’ve been awarded with many medals and awards for my efforts.

I’ve served as the chapter’s Deputy Representative of the VA Volunteer Services program at the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona, Pa. for many years, and I am now the primary Representative. I also am a member of the Patients Centered Care Committee and the Veterans Advisory Council at the Altoona VAMC. I’ve been a regular volunteer at the Altoona VAMC for almost ten years and have been acknowledged with many pins, certificates and awards for my hours of dedication to veterans for my efforts.

In 2013, I was elected to the chapter’s Board of Directors and then as the board secretary. I also am the Keystone Chapter’s hospital liaison officer (HLO) for the chapter, which involves monitoring and reporting on the care of veterans at the Altoona VAMC, and I am the chapter’s site leader for Keystone Chapter members in the Altoona-Johnstown-Somerset region.

I want to give back to my fellow veterans as much as possible, because Paralyzed Veterans and the VA were there when I needed help and they still continue to meet my needs. I am honored to be part of this fine organization and love to help with my fellow veterans in any way that I can.

William D. Jakovac

William D. Jakovac

Residence: Shaler Township,  Allegheny County Pennsylvania           

I have retired from a U.S. Navy career that ran from March 31, 1970 to October 31, 1990. My first day of boot camp was on April Fools Day and I retired on Halloween. As an Electrician’s Mate, I was usually assigned to the engineering spaces in power generation and distribution. My fifteen years of sea duty have all been with the Marines in the amphibious forces — the Gator Navy. I have traveled extensively through the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas, and transited the Panama and Suez Canals. I became a Shellback crossing the Equator off the coast of Kenya, and became a Blue Nose (twice) when I crossed the Arctic Circle off Norway. I have been fortunate to see the Crown Jewels of England, the Acropolis in Athens, and the Great Pyramids and the entire King Tut exhibit at the Cairo Museum in Egypt.The medical condition that qualified me for membership in the Paralyzed Veterans was transverse horizontal myelitis. The chickenpox I had as a child reactivated around my spinal cord. Although nothing was broken, my spinal cord was inflamed at the T-4 vertebra. As the inflammation wore off, the senses returned.

Personal awareness of what paralyzed veterans go through is my reason for being an active Paralyzed Veteran. Before I was paralyzed, I never really spent time with those who were paralyzed or otherwise disabled. Having seen and experienced a new world from a wheelchair, I became aware of the problems we face and what we do to overcome them. The chapter introduced me to adaptive sports and speaking to members of Congress on behalf of our members. I enjoy talking about our chapter and what we do.

Jobs or positions I’ve held for the Keystone Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans include Secretary-Treasurer, Service Officer, Fundraising Chairman, Combined Federal Campaign speaker, and Sharing and Caring Committee representative. I turn in a monthly report of the time I spend on chapter business, but I do not keep track of my yearly hours. I spend my time to make Paralyzed Veterans a better organization.

You might like to know: My wife Jean joined my naval career in 1976 and survived fourteen years as a Navy wife. She works with me at chapter functions. We have a daughter, Stacey. I have an Associate Degree in Specialized Technology from Dean Institute of Technology. I relax and enjoy doing needlepoints. Most of them have been given as gifts or in support of raffles for veterans’ programs. Many colorful ones help brighten the rooms of our veterans in the hospice wing of the Lebanon VA Medical Center.