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Vietnam veteran gets a different kind of medal

WINFIELD, W.Va. -- George Jackson has been hand cycling for about a year -- about the same amount of time it's been since his right leg was amputated.

Last month, for the first time, Jackson, 69, attended the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Richmond, Va. He won a silver medal in the 10-kilometer race.

"There were about 80 cyclists, my division had 40," Jackson said. "It was amazing to see so many veterans participating -- that many people doing that many things out of a wheelchair -- there were over 800."

 Now, he's getting ready to participate in next year's games, which will be held in Tampa, Fla.

His success at the games probably wouldn't surprise those closest to Jackson, who played quarterback for the Bluefield State College football team for four years. When therapists at the VA Medical Center in Huntington introduced him to hand cycling, he caught on quick.

 "I like doing it, it's challenging and it keeps me active. It's something I can do on my own ... I just put [the bike] in the back of my car and head to the track," he said.

 VA staff members are having a hand cycling bike made on a stand so Jackson can practice during the winter months. It should be ready in about five weeks.

 Hand cycling isn't easy. Cyclists manually crank the wheels with their hands. There aren't any handlebars to help steer. To turn, they have to lean to the left or the right.

 "You have to learn how to do it, you just don't jump in and ride," he said.

 Jackson, though, is used to learning how to adapt. After being drafted into the U.S. Army immediately after graduating from Bluefield State, Jackson was hit by mortar fire in Vietnam.

 "I messed my right leg up pretty bad," he recalled. "They told me I probably wouldn't walk again, but I went right on into work."

 He worked for Floats Unlimited in Washington, D.C., once building a float for the George H.W. Bush presidential inaugural parade. He later moved to Florida to build floats for the Orange Bowl.

 "But for 40 years I dealt with pain and medication," he said of his leg injury.

 A few years ago, his knee got infected when he broke a bone in his leg after slipping in his garage.

 "That was the worst pain, worse than getting hit [in Vietnam]. I was sick as a dog with that infection," he remembered. "Finally, the doctor said 'let's take it off.'"

 Jackson said it would be easy, after an amputation, for someone to get discouraged and think living an independent life would be a thing of the past.

 "I know a lot of guys that get a prosthesis and don't even wear them," he said. "I'm just now getting to the point where I can wear it all day. I used to only be able to for four hours at a time." When he cycles, he removes his prosthesis, because his hand hits it while he turns the wheel.

 Jackson is now on his third leg since surgery. Doctors ease patients into different prosthetics over time.

"As I progress, I move to another. Each one I can do a little more on," he said. "My doctor said I'm moving faster than the leg can be made."

Jackson wants to inspire more veterans to take part in the wheelchair competition. Six other West Virginians attended the games this year, and Jackson met them during the opening ceremony.

"After we met, we supported each other," he said. "I hope we can have a team [from the state] next year."

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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