Giving the gift of mobility back to Americans, with the American Mobility Project
Gary Linfoot can’t walk, but he’s still harder to keep up with than many others. That is in part due to the high-tech iBot he navigates the world from, and in part due to his determination to conquer any excuse he may have to sit back and watch life go by.
And he’s got the perfect excuse to do so.
Gary was on his 21st combat deployment when his helicopter experienced mechanical failures and crashed. The impact left Gary with severe injuries. A proud member of the Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) Night Stalkers with 1200 hours of combat operations to his name, Gary was now paralyzed from the waist down.
It was a catastrophic injury for him and a devastating blow for his wife and children.
Mari Linfoot, his wife, vividly remembers the moment she learned of her husband’s injury.
She’d been out with her daughter all day, and they’d just returned home with some ice cream for her son. Thoughts of spending some time with him as he enjoyed his treat were at first interrupted by the sound of the phone ringing, and then shattered with the words her husband spoke.
“Mari,” came Gary’s voice, “has anybody from the unit contacted you?”
She was a seasoned military spouse. She’d seen enough of her friends and women in her military community become widows to know a question like that meant something bad had happened. But because it was her husband speaking to her, Mari relaxed slightly as she braced to hear how someone else’s world had been changed forever.
Shock was her first reaction when her husband told her of his accident. But he was alive, and talking to her, and he was a big, bad, nightstalker. A broken back would mean he was sore for a while, but was not something to worry about.
Even when he told her he couldn’t move his legs, the part of Mari that recognized that to be be very bad news was squashed by the protective side of her subconscious that refused to allow her to consider anything other than a temporary setback before he would be back on his feet.
“This is going to take a long time to get over,” she remembers thinking, but still did not consider the true implications of his injury.
Mari focused on the comfort of hearing her husband’s voice and the gratefulness for him surviving a crash – she’d always known he ran the risk of dying in a crash, because she’d assumed such a thing would be unsurvivable. That just went to prove how strong her husband is.
It would all be fine, they told their kids as he spoke to them as well. Dad is alive and coming home.
The relief was immense. Their son even saw it as a good thing- his dad would finally come home and stay home. That had never happened before, and he’d always struggled missing his dad in his life.
The relief never left – but it did become muted under the weight of their new reality.
Gary Linfoot would never walk again.
Everything changed for the Linfoots.
Routines changed, expectations changed, and purpose changed. It is not the kind of injury he would ever fully heal from. He would lose muscle mass in some areas and have to compensate for that in others. He would have to figure out what to do about going upstairs – would they carry him? Build a ramp? Or would he just forget upstairs existed and live life on one floor?
What about showers – how would those happen now? And how does a person absorb the reality that they will never walk on the beach, feel the sand beneath their toes, dance with their wife, go for a hike, or simply navigate the world with the ease which they’d taken for granted before?
It’s a lot to process and adapt to. For his family, they too would have to adjust to their own altered expectations. Then there was the matter of Gary’s purpose.
Aside from his wife and children, being a pilot is what made him who he was. It was his job and his identity. That was gone now, and it was not easy for him to accept.
“When you’re injured the way I was injured,” says Gary, “ what you think was your purpose in life is totally shattered.”
It turned out that Gary didn’t have to worry about finding his new purpose because it found him – much like the solution to most of his mobility challenges did.
The military community the Linfoots are a part of is no stranger to injuries or rebuilding life after injuries. That community made sure it did not take long for Gary to receive an offer of an iBot.
This high-tech, motorized wheelchair can climb stairs, traverse different terrains, and raise the user up to eye level with others, restoring a largely taken-for-granted- sense of normalcy to a person who is physically disabled.
The Linfoots gratefully accepted this offer from an organization now known as Independence Corp, and Gary’s transition into his own new life was made much smoother than it would have been otherwise.
The Linfoots began traveling to schools throughout the country to talk to students about citizenship, the cost of freedom, and their own story. Each time Gary took a stage he would also showcase the high-tech iBot and talk to the students about the importance of STEM learning that led students like them toward careers involved in developing such life-changing technology.
It was during those trips that the Linfoots met students and adults who were also in wheelchairs- but not the ones like Gary had.
For the most part, says Gary, while there is absolutely room for improvement in veteran care, veterans like himself tend to have more access to equipment like the iBot than civilians do.
“It always pulled at out heart strings,” says Gary, to see kids unable to enjoy the same freedom he does.
Mari and Gary discussed this often over the years. As they gratefully accepted a specially adapted new home from the Gary Sinise Foundation, an exoskeleton that allowed Gary to walk his daughter down the aisle from the Infinite Hero Foundation, and other incredible support from a massive military community, they felt that tug more and more.
The Linfoots knew they wanted to do something to extend the same life-changing support to others as had been given to them.
Mari and Gary moved forward through the years, living their lives and doing their best to show continued support for the communities that supported them. For 10 years they lived in fear of Gary’s iBot breaking – the product had been discontinued and no parts or repairs were available.
It was a weight they carried every day, never knowing if today would be the day his chair broke and his mobility would be drastically reduced.
Their relief was immense when another company began producing a new, even more advanced version of the iBot, and Mari and Gary were right there waiting to make the most of it. The Infinite Hero Foundation came forward again, and donated a brand new iBot to Gary. Not only did this significantly enhance life for the Linfoots, it encouraged them even more to pursue their own work.
For years they’d been developing their own concept of a non profit. The American Mobility Project was officially launched in 2019. Through fundraising and community support, the organization has already donated two iBots to young recipients. They have donated other adaptive equipment to other recipients whose families are already reeling with the enhanced financial fallout of an injury or disability, and for whom smaller levels of equipment is also life-changing.
Jeffrey has been using a sip and puff wheelchair since he was paralyzed on the football field. The American Mobility Project cannot miraculously restore movement to his body, but they gladly provided that wheelchair so he can continue his outdoor lifestyle.
Fifteen-year-old Meg was born with a genetic disorder. She can barely walk. The American Mobility Project provided Meg with a wheelchair stroller that drastically improved life for Meg and her mom.
The Linfoots are not sure where their path will lead them next.
They plan to grow their foundation and enhance as many lives as they can. They live with a sense of gratitude and hope, and are committed to paying their blessings forward.
Sudden and catastrophic change is extremely difficult to move forward through. With their faith in God, and the support of a community, the Linfoots prove that our purpose is not always limited to one thing:
“My purpose was flying helicopters and doing bad things to bad people,” says Gary. After his injury he became a flight instructor using simulators, and that was his purpose. Speaking to students became their joint purpose and today, The American Mobility Project is front and center in their lives. “This has become our purpose in life right now.”