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Quadriplegic Willard Allen lives life on his own terms

Willard Allen and his specially equipped pickup
Jia Chen
Texas Public Radio
Willard Allen and his specially equipped pickup

By most measures, Willard Allen was a successful, happy person. The Air Force veteran had served as a crew chief on B-52 bombers. He owned two businesses and spent about half of every year as a fishing guide on the Texas coast.

But on July 15th, 2006, life as he knew it came to an end. Allen was leaving a children's charity event in Bandera in the Texas Hill Country on his Harley. The accident happened less than a mile away. The first thing he remembered was waking up in the hospital with his wife at his bedside.

She would tell me 'You had an accident,'” said Allen. “And I'd say, ‘No, I don't have accidents.’ She said, ‘Yes, you did.’ And I go back to sleep and wake up asking the same thing. Yeah, I did that for, like, nine or ten days.”

The accident left him a quadriplegic and in a wheelchair with only a slight ability to move his arms. He was 48 at the time. Allen's recovery was hard, but he wasn't ready to give up an active life.

On a warm summer morning at the National Shooting Complex in San Antonio, the now 65-year-old Willard competed in a sporting clay shooting tournament.

Allen explained how he learned to shoot a shotgun all over again.

I'm able to pull the trigger, what I call the sip and puff device, where it actually has a little tool that lines up with my mouth when I hold the gun up, and I'm able to just make the slightest vacuum on that and it pulls the trigger.”

Willard Allen and his modified shotgun
Jia Chen
Texas Public Radio
Willard Allen and his modified shotgun

The tournament is sponsored by the Texas chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. David Bradshaw is the group's vice president. He's also in a wheelchair and has known Allen for years.

And we help them through introducing them to the sport by talking with them and showing them that they can do a lot more than they think disabled people can do,” said Bradshaw.

He said the biggest problem for someone in Allen's condition is the loss of identity.

You know, one day you're one of the healthiest people on the planet, to being the disabled person that needs help with everything,” Bradshaw said.

Shooting sporting clays is not the only thing Allen has been able to do from his wheelchair with some help from his friends and the PVA. He fishes in a tournament once a year at the coast, goes hunting and he can drive his own vehicle.

The pickup truck he drives is outfitted with a hydraulic lift so he can get in and out by himself. It's a symphony of switches and levers that make it all happen. Allen's best friend, Jodie Valenta, has helped him install, configure and maintain the vehicle's complicated systems. He enjoys the challenge.

What will work, what doesn't work, and how to make it work with what a person has,” said Valenta. “It's interesting.”

Valenta said he doesn't worry so much about his friend driving, even though they have been in an accident together.

I think that, yeah, that pole jumped right in front of him and stopped us pretty quick. And yeah, I've got an airbag, so we're good,” quipped Valenta.

Valenta said he's learned from his friendship with Allen.

If you're in his situation, that's one thing you've got to know is patience,” he said. “It does not happen fast. And he's taught that to me.”

Allen said he manages to stay motivated and gets up every morning to face the day's challenges.

Just get up and keep going. It’s all you can do. You know, you don't have a choice. Either give up or go,” he said. “So we go.”

And he's determined to live and end each day with laughter.

Different doctors will ask you what your goal is,” he said with laughter. “My focus, my goal has always been to outlive my mother in law.”

The Paralyzed Veterans of America helps their members and their families, veterans and all people with disabilities and accessibility issues. You can find out more at TexasPVA.org.

Jia Chen contributed to this report.

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.