By CDR Byron D. Varner, U.S. Navy (RET)

Paralyzed veterans celebrated two kinds of “independence” during the week of July 4, 1996 - their country's and their own. If every American could attend the VA/PVA National Veterans Wheelchair Games, each might gain a better understanding of what people with disabilities face in their daily lives. They might also witness the true meaning of brotherhood.

Native Americans have a saying, “Never judge others until you've walked in their moccasins.

I “walked a short distance” by using a wheelchair for a while during my coverage of these 16th Annual Games. The difference was that I could get up and leave my wheelchair whenever I chose to, but they must depend upon this form of mobility for the remainder of their lives.

Of course, there is no way that my brief experiment would allow me to tell any of these paraplegic and quadriplegic game participants that “I know how you feel,” because I couldn't possibly know how that perpetual hindrance must feel to them. But it did give me a superficial understanding of their plight, along with a reverence for their unyielding spirit and determination in a quest to overcome life's tragedies.

I learned that it is no easy task maneuvering up and down Seattle's inclined streets — moving through traffic, navigating curbs and around merchandise counters in stores, and going in and out of doors barely wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs. I noted expressions on faces of pedestrians who regarded me with varied reactions: some kindly and caring, others giving me the impression that I was an obstacle in their path.

Using elevators, escalators, public restrooms, hotel rooms, restaurants, avoiding inclement weather, etc., are everyday occurrences that most people take for granted, but are real problems for the disabled.

Fortunately, Seattle is one of the nation's better cities for wheelchairs, with curb ramps at every street corner in the downtown area and other necessary assists. Hopefully, many other cities will follow this example.

In addition to these small but enlightening experiences, I learned a larger lesson in life merely by observing these great American veterans and their families — a true brotherhood and sisterhood with no social or racial barriers, expressing a love and appreciation for each other that the rest of us would do well to emulate.

By overcoming limitations and conquering the near-impossible, even in a small way, each participant demonstrates his and her faith and determination to “be all you can be.”