By Mike Savicki
Upon meeting and chatting with Joel Rodriguez, it doesn’t take long to realize he is something special. Sure, Joel’s energy and zest for making the most out of every day set him apart from most. So, too, does his smile and overflowing joy when you see him together with his three year old son. And the relationship he and his wife share, one built on mutual respect, shared caregiving, plus just a bit of competitive support, is clearly evident, too.
But what I think truly sets him as an Army veteran, a quadriplegic, and as a human, is the fact that he is always up for a challenge.
Case and point? While it takes most newly spinal cord injured individuals years to get their footing and build confidence, let alone enter the world of adaptive sports, Joel, 30, who has been injured for only 5 years, recently finished his fifth season of wheelchair rugby (the sport more commonly known as MURDEREBALL, where Joel, a C5,6, plays as a 1.0). And the fact that he has already competed in multiple National Veterans Wheelchair Games, plus the Warrior and Invictus Games (held in Florida and Australia respectively), speaks volumes for the road he has chosen. With his medals being just one measure of competitive success, Joel has already racked up an overflowing armful, including two bronze and a silver (rugby, 100m race, discus) against the world’s Invictus best.
Speaking of roads, choices, and results, hearing Joel talk about his path back to driving is wholly motivating and inspirational. Those of us who use wheelchairs as a result of a traumatic injury have experienced (or at least heard stories of) that one less-than-optimistic doctor or therapist who does his/her best to keep our expectations for life, living, and independence as low as possible so as not to give false hope. Joel’s path back behind the wheel was fueled by one such individual.
“I remember the day very well,” Joel shares, “when someone who was supposed to be helping me get back on the road said after I explained I wanted a truck, ‘I don’t think you’ll ever be able to make that transfer on your own’. My wife said, ‘you don’t know my husband’ and that’s all it took.”
Rather than accept the recommendation and move ahead with a “less than desirable for a twenty-five year old” vehicle alternative, Joel challenged himself to continue his rehab, get stronger, and learn transferring techniques from other veterans and adaptive sport friends. One year later his efforts paid dividends as he took delivery of a blacked out 2014 Ford Raptor truck with an Adapt Solutions Link Seat. And two years later, to help transport his family, friends, inlaws, sports gear, etc., “from Florida to Denver to Chicago, to pretty much everywhere and back” he added a 2016 GMC VMI conversion van with a Ricon lift to his driveway. Both vehicles utilize push – rock hand controls.
Reflecting on his New York upbringing, his years as a firefighter, then his 7.5 years in the Army as an air traffic controller, along with what keeps him motivated, moving and challenged, Joel shares, “To this day I still have a great relationship with so many who have been in my life, especially the Army. I love interacting with the military types and I love encouraging everyone, no matter who you are, how old you are, or what function you have, to get out there and live the life you should. “Our warrior spirit,” he concludes, “is what keeps us going.”
Growing as a Brand Ambassador
Auto Express South’s GM, Tom O’Neil, describes his relationship with Joel Rodriguez
As told to Mike Savicki
I learned of Joel from the Warrior Games in Tampa. I took a vacation with my wife and we attended to volunteer with VMI driving Veterans. This was one of my first experiences in the community being a new VMI Signature dealer in early 2019. Right away after this event I knew I wanted to be engaged in the Veteran community.
When I returned from the Games I started my search and came across a news article about Joel and his family. The second I saw the video of his son crashing into him with a Little Tykes or, as Joel later referred to it as “try to put him over,” I knew I wanted to meet him. At the time my wife was pregnant with our daughter and everything about Joel’s family was just perfect. His son, Elijah, was adorable and had been on over 100 flights. He was part of the traveling team. His wife, Liannie, worked on the chairs between (rugby) matches and has a no BS attitude. When Joel slammed his head on my dad’s sports car dash during a “spirited drive,” he asked her for help getting out of the car. She just laughed at him and said “do it yourself.” It was something I’ll never forget because she loved him so much but she wouldn’t come right to his aid. She wanted him to be as independent as possible and knew everyday she was going to make him fight for that. They’re just a great team.
The second I met Joel I realized he wasn’t the Brand Ambassador, it was him and his family. You’d look at Joel and think his injury must have really stopped him in his tracks, it’s not the case at all. He didn’t miss a beat, he just changed the path in his life. His undeterred conviction is why I thought Joel would be a perfect match for us. I asked him what changed everything for him and made the difference and he told me it was the ability to leave his house and go anywhere. Just knowing you can leave is a game changer. This aligned exactly with what our team had for long term goals. I consider Joel just as much a friend as our brand advocate.
Sitting in front of the home computer screen, Army veteran Tim Kelly glides through Google Earth image views and bookmarks the National Parks, historical places of interest, landmarks, intersections, and even visible handicap parking spaces which will soon become the interwoven pieces of his next road trip. To date, he has traveled to 47 of the 50 states logging nearly 400,000 miles on his two (so far) NMEDA vehicles and he is just getting started. As Tim sees it, the road means freedom and there is always something new to see, a new place to explore around almost every corner.
Tim is meticulous in his preparation because every detail matters. He knows exactly how far he can travel on a tank of gas in different road and weather conditions. He knows where his next rest or food stop will be. He knows if (and when) he needs to buckle down and put in an 1100 mile day. And he knows when a full day of sightseeing might not involve his vehicle at all. When the vehicle stays parked, he clips to his wheelchair a Firefly power assist device and hits the pavement to roll through a city, visit a museum, or enter a park ranger station to add another stamp to one his overflowing National Park passport books.
What makes all of this even more remarkable is that Tim travels without maps, GPS or any in-vehicle navigation device. When he backs out of his South Hadley, Massachusetts, driveway, the work is already done. He has committed everything to memory. Tim Kelly has traveled from coast to coast and back without ever checking a map or missing a turn.
Tim has always loved driving and travel so getting on the road after his spinal cord injury in August 2001 was never a question. During his five months of rehabilitation at the West Roxbury VAMC, Tim, a C6,7 incomplete quadriplegic, was reintroduced to driving through the VA’s driver rehab program and quickly had the necessary hand control restrictions added to his license. He worked with (what was then) Rideaway to outfit a 2001 Ford E250 full sized van to fit his needs and hit the road. When the vehicle turned 350,000 miles, he connected with Advance Wheels of Technology to modify a 2016 Mercedes Sprinter 2500 complete with a Ricon lift and AbiliTrax flooring, so he can configure the seating and storage within the vehicle to match his itinerary whether he is traveling with his companion, Merri-Anne Shippee, and their gear or picking up friends and relatives who need seating along the way. Tim keeps extra parts like switches, wires, and fuses on board “just in case” and he travels with wiring diagrams and user handbooks onboard to simplify the diagnosis and repair process if the need ever arises.
Tim has a goal of visiting every National Park and, someday soon he hopes, spending a summer driving through Europe. His outlook serves as fuel for exploration.
“My biggest sin is to be bored, I hate it,” Tim shares. “So I try to be as active as I can and when I travel I try to see as much as I can without rushing and missing those hidden gems that are all around us, those unique parts of our nation’s history that so many people just miss.”
His advice for those working to get back on the road?
Tim explains, “Know yourself and what you can and can’t do. Start small and build bigger, short days into longer ones, small trips then bigger trips. Learn where the adaptive dealers are and know you are never far from one. And learn where and how to locate medical centers before the need arises.”
“Most of all,” he finishes, “make the most of your available time, resources, and ability, and enjoy the journey.”
Mike Savicki’s “Mobility My Way” is column which appears in NMEDA’s Circuit Breaker magazine.
** This post was originally published on https://nmeda.com/mmw-joelrodriguez/