By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
When the inspector from the Veterans Administration completed his on-site visit and gave his approval on the project that transformed their Shenandoah Avenue home into a handicap accessible residence, Linda Thomas was so pleased that she wanted to find a way to thank the VA.
“It seems like everything you hear about the VA is negative, but they’re really for the veteran,” Linda Thomas said. “They have been wonderful to my husband. We started looking into this grant to make our home handicap accessible about two years ago. It takes a while, but the VA has been absolutely awesome.”
Tech Sgt. Aaron D. Thomas Jr., a native of Moran, Texas, joined the U.S. Air Force in 1954 and retired after 20 years in the service. Prior to being stationed at the Pentagon in Washington at the end of his career, Thomas was assigned to the crypto code center at the Air Force Base in Da Nang, Vietnam. According to his wife, during that time, the base was subject to frequent night attacks from the Viet Cong, and the U.S. used a defoliant called Agent Orange to remove the vegetation cover around the base.
“It wasn’t until March of 2010 that Aaron started to suffer from aliments from his exposure to Agent Orange,” Linda Thomas, 71, said. “The first symptom was when he couldn’t get out of a chair. That came as a result of his ischtemic heart disease. Then he started to show symptoms of Parkenson’s disease.”
“But only in the lower part of my body,” Aaron Thomas, 76, said. “It mainly gets my legs.”
“He applied for disability,” Linda Thomas said. “It took about a year, but they totaled him (awarded him total disability). After that, Aaron qualified for a specially equipped car and then we applied for a grant to make our home handicap accessible. The VA is learning more all the time about health problems that can be related to Agent Orange exposure.”
The Thomas family had lived in Texas, Michigan and even Florida before settling in Bluefield in 2006. “We were looking for a place to retire and we saw a magazine article that said Bluefield was among the top 20 places in the U.S. to retire to. In November of 2005, we came for a visit and absolutely loved Bluefield. When we walked into this house, we fell in love with it. It was the right size for us, and we have beautiful views of the mountains.”
After Aaron’s mobility became impaired, the Thomases looked for a handicap accessible residence in Bluefield, “but our realtor said there wasn’t any available,” Linda Thomas said. When Aaron and Linda lived in Texas, they made money by buying old houses, restoring them and selling them for a nice profit. “Aaron was a handyman. He could fix anything,” she said.
When there were no existing handicap accessible homes available in Bluefield, the Thomas family applied for a VA grant to transform their house. They talked with Chuck McGonagle with Bluefield-based MaC Contractors LLC, who started the transformation work in September 2012. During the process, MaC employees built a ramp from the front door of the house to the Dodge Grand Caravan. The van has a swivel seat to facilitate access, as well as space to transport a motorized scooter chair. MaC employees also built a ramp around the back deck in the rear of the residence so Aaron has two ways to exit the house in case of emergency.
MaC contractors widened all of the inner doorways to 36 inches wide in every room on the main level of the house, and built an addition on the house in order to enlarge the bathroom near the master bedroom to be about four-times larger than it had been. The new bath room now features a roll-in shower stall where Aaron can take a shower in relative comfort and handicap accessible facilities.
“The VA spent $63,000 for all of these renovations in the house. They also paid most of the cost of the van, paid to have the access chair installed and paid for the scooter,” Linda Thomas said. “I just want the people in Beckley to know how much we appreciate all of this.
“The Lord has blessed us. He has really blessed us,” Linda Thomas said. “Aaron is just such an easy patient to work with. He never complains. He just doesn’t want to wake me at night when he needs to get up. He’s just the best patient. I don’t know if I could be like him if our roles were reversed.”
Linda Thomas said that Chuck McGonagle started working on the project before the VA had approved the grant. “He told us not to worry about it,” she said. “He said he knew we were good for it.
“The VA is absolutely for the vets,” she said. The VA made its inspection of the improvements on April 16.
— Contact Bill Archer at firstname.lastname@example.org