American Heroes: Soldiers Build Wheelchairs for Iraqis

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:22 PM EDT

( - U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq have distributed more than 1,000 free wheelchairs to disabled Iraqis since July 2005, according to a non-profit group that donates the chairs.

Jonathan Abramson, a spokesman for the California-based Free Wheelchair Mission, said his group has worked with the U.S. military and the governments of Iraq and Kuwait to make the chairs available to needy disabled people.

The specially-designed chairs are made from modified plastic patio chairs, mountain bike wheels, and steel frames. Each chair costs less than $45 for parts and shipping.

According to the group's website, the design makes the wheelchairs durable and the mountain bike wheels enable the operators of the chairs to navigate rough terrain where a traditional wheelchair would give them trouble.

Pfc. Erik Meyers, who helped assemble a wheelchair for a young girl in the town of Baladiat, Iraq, on Feb. 8, said in a Defense Department press release that it was "an awesome experience."

"The family expressed gratitude for the new wheelchair and said they look forward to seeing more of Troop B (3rd Battalion, 67th Armor Regiment) in the future," Meyers said.

Soldiers and other volunteers use their free time to participate in the program. Soldiers assemble the chairs and distribute them to Iraqis of all ages who have debilitating diseases like cerebral palsy and injuries that limit mobility.

Since its founding in 1999, the Free Wheelchair Mission has distributed more than 92,000 wheelchairs to more than 45 countries, according to the group's website. The group's founder, Don Schoendorfer, is one of 11 nominees for the Reader's Digest 2005 Hero of the Year award. The winner will be announced March 9.

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