DANVILLE — Each time Desert Storm veteran Toney Blanchard went to the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System in Danville for therapy, he looked forward to riding the AmTryke.
Fifteen years ago, the Arcola man suffered a massive stroke that left him disabled. The specially designed tricycle for people with disabilities gave him a chance to increase his mobility and build his strength and endurance.
And "it was fun" to ride, Blanchard said with a big grin.
Blanchard received his own AmTryke from the Danville Chapter of AMBUCS on Wednesday. The service organization, which is dedicated to creating opportunities for independence and mobility for people with disabilities, has been donating the cycles to children for a number of years. This marked the first time it gave one to an adult, said Donna Carlton-Vish, the local and district AmTryke Committee chairwoman.
Carlton-Vish teared up as she and Blanchard's parents, Rick and Susie Blanchard of Tuscola, watched him test-drive the shiny red trike, which he propelled with hand-powered pedals, outside of the Danville Boat Club. "We can never repay our veterans for what they've done for us, but at least we can try to make their lives a little easier here at home," she said.
Blanchard, 45, grew up in Urbana and graduated from Urbana High School in 1984. Then he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and was stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., for four years. After he was discharged, Blanchard, who was married and had started a family by then, returned to East Central Illinois and worked at Kraft Foods. But when the Gulf War started, Blanchard decided to enlist in the Army.
"I wanted to serve my country," said Blanchard, who was inspired to do so by his father, a Vietnam veteran.
Blanchard was part of a scout platoon with the 4th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division, which led the assault on the Republican Guard, Saddam Hussein's elite troops in the Iraqi army, during Operation Desert Storm.
Blanchard's family was relieved when he returned home uninjured. But a couple of years later while hospitalized for pneumonia, he had a stroke that left him mostly paralyzed and unable to talk.
"No one has been able to say what exactly caused it," Rick Blanchard said, adding he believes it was combat service related.
Doctors said they feared Toney Blanchard would never walk or talk again, his father recalled. But, his son amazed everyone when he began to improve.
"He's stubborn," his father added, prompting his wife and son to nod and laugh. "He gets it from his mother. If you tell her she can't do something, she'll do it."
Toney Blanchard was able to walk again after about three years of intense rehabilitation at Carle and then the veterans hospital. He later regained some of his speaking ability. His parents said their son, who can't work, continues to work on improving those and other skills on a daily basis.
"He'll try anything," Rick Blanchard said, adding he has gone scuba diving, zip lining, water skiing and biking and done other outdoor activities through the Wounded Warriors Project. Now, he'll be able to ride his AmTryke in his neighborhood, or more likely, all over town.
"I'm just so thankful," said Susie Blanchard, who can't wait for her grandchildren — a nurse practitioner in Bloomington, an Army soldier serving in Afghanistan, and another in boot camp at Fort Jackson, N.C. — to see pictures of their dad on his trike on Facebook. "I feel so good knowing he will be able to get out and ride. It will really help him improve the strength in his (weaker) right arm."
AMBUCS has been working on donating AmTrykes to disabled veterans across the country who could benefit from them, said veterans' initiative coordinator Bill Fulton. He's been spreading the word about the program and trying to identify recipients and raise funding.
Carlton-Vish said the local chapter donated one to the veterans' hospital about 18 months ago to use in therapy. It also has ordered trikes for three more area veterans, and she hopes to present them in a couple of weeks.