Fred Downs and Jim Mayer are career employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Both men were profoundly injured in Vietnam. Mr. Downs lost his left arm and nearly all of his other extremities as well. He was scarred all over by shrapnel and the harvesting of the uninjured skin to graft onto his wounds. Mr. Mayer lost both of his legs below his knees. Now, more than 30 years after their experiences, Downs and Mayer are positive men who are helping other Veterans heal. They both volunteer and work with soldiers, sailors and airmen who have recently suffered traumatic injury. Neither harbors bitterness or resentment because of their disabilities, though it is hard for them to do what many of us take for granted like getting up at night and getting out of the bed to go to the bathroom.
Both men share their stories with soldiers who have similar injuries. They serve as an inspiration, and the soldiers realize there is life after amputation. Since April of 2003, the pair has visited in excess of 60 wounded soldiers at Walter Reed and National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland as volunteer amputee peer visitors. Their motive is to help other amputees in any way they can. Their service began during the 1991 Gulf War. They heard news reports that Saddam Hussein had dispersed a million land mines to maim and kill coalition forces if they invaded Iraq. They strategize to figure how they could best help the wounded. They remembered their recoveries and when they most needed someone.
Mr. Downs and Mr. Mayer organized field trips, picnics and hosted backyard barbecues for the injured from the Gulf War. After the war was over, the team continued visiting service members injured in training accidents or deployments. They keep in touch with many of the patients they have met, and 22 of the 58 wounded soldiers Mr. Mayer met during the Gulf War showed up at his house for a July 4th barbecue in 1996 for a five-year reunion. They see other troops at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games and the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. Mr. Mayer also sponsors “Alive Day” celebrations. He has held them every year since 1970 when he almost died on April 25th.
Mr. Downs encourages the soldiers to do things on their own to aid in recovery. He believes in encouragement because it worked for him. After his injury he went to school, get married, started a family, wrote three books and he leads the Veteran Affairs multimillion-dollar prosthetic and sensory aid service. He has also established land mine survivor programs in several countries.
As American troops began the build-up for Operation Iraqi Freedom, Mr. Downs and Mr. Mayer expanded their volunteer roles by meeting with military surgeons at Walter Reed. They shared their insights in to the traumatic injuries and talked to them about how they felt when they were injured. The pair also discussed how they thought the medical staff could help the wounded soldiers. These two men are positive and upbeat and always look for a way to encourage someone. Mr. Downs wrote a book, Aftermath, that discusses his year of hospitalization and the 52 plastic surgery operations he underwent to survive. Their example has been important to the young men and women recently injured and frightened about what that change will mean in their lives.