Carolyn L. Higgins – Contributing Writer
“I’m not your typical grandpa,” said Vietnam veteran Skip Milne. With a trademark nickname like “Flaming Head Vet and a head tattoo to match,” having earned a spot in the upcoming National Veterans Wheelchair Games, and with enough children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to start his own village, he certainly owns up to that admission.
Milne recently noticed something a little different in the back of his multiple sclerosis newsletter from the Veterans Administration (VA). There was the usual information and tips on exercise and well being; however, what caught his eye was the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG). “I am a double amputee above the knee, and I have multiple sclerosis (two of the three alternatives for registration), so I thought ‘what the [heck],’” said Milne. “There were only 600 from all over the U.S. that were going to be accepted.” He thought he had as good a chance of winning as anyone else, but if he didn’t try how would he know. So Milne visited the website, followed the instructions and was elated after his doctor’s release and his acceptance.
This is the 38th Annual Veterans National Wheelchair Games to be held July 30 through Aug. 4. According to its website, ”NVWG is open to veterans having spinal cord injuries, amputations, multiple sclerosis or other central neurological conditions who require a wheelchair for athletic competition.” It also specifies that the injury must be permanent and the veteran must be eligible for VA healthcare.
There are 19 different categories, and Milne has chosen to compete in bowling, rifle shoot, motorized rally (wheelchair obstacle course) and nine-ball (pool).
“I am registered and a competitor in the novice division, and I already have a number,” said Milne. “They match you up with competitors with the same disability and the same age group, so it is a pretty even playing field. You can earn medals in the categories and that’s my plan.”
NVWG is a partnership between the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America offering inspiration to veterans to “increase their independence, healthy activity and quality of life through wheelchair sports and recreation.” Each year, the administrators select a different city to afford veterans opportunities to learn about accessibility, travel and adaptation. This year’s location is Orlando, Fla. Skip and his grandson, 20-year old Zachary Smith, are traveling together, and Zachary is excited to have quality time with his grandfather who has 10 children, 33 grandchildren, and 22 great grandchildren.
“He is pretty proud of me,” said Milne. “This trip is going to be a lifetime experience for him. I‘m a little horse of a different color when it comes to grandfathers. I’m 70 years old, but I look at age as a gift. I tell it like it is. I don’t hold back anything.”
Neither did the two-tour veteran hold back when he decided to enlist for the Vietnam War in 1968. It was an unpopular war, but he felt it was something he had to do. However, at 19 years old, he was not prepared for what awaited him and still to this day holds back information when describing atrocities to family and friends. The NVWG is a different tour of duty for which Milne is prepared. He admits to being “pretty much naturally good” in the activities he has chosen for NVWG. When asked about the obstacle course, he describes how he takes care of his yard using the mower and the weed eater, stacking firewood and handling his other chores.
“I’ve been getting around obstacles for five years in this thing,” said Milne with a chuckle. “I don’t let anything get me down. I just do what I gotta do. Nothing holds me back.”
His wife Marjorie Milne agrees.
“I think it’s great. I mean, he’s full of energy anyway; he’s always outside doing something. Nothing keeps him down. I’m proud of him for really attempting it. I think he’s an inspiration to a lot of people.”
Because of his good attitude, he was invited to the VA to talk to other amputees. “The day after they took my leg off, I got out of bed and was in my wheelchair,” said Milne. “And the nurse said ‘how’d you get out of bed?’ I said ‘I just got out.’ She said ‘you’re not supposed to do that.‘ I never sit back. Legs or no legs.”
Milne was a self-employed motorcycle mechanic who customized bikes most of his life. He would sit and look at the bike for hours, and the next morning he would know exactly how it was going to look.
“I’m pretty much a jack of all trades,” said Milne. “I would say it was due to my upbringing. I was brought up old school and when you don’t have a lot of money, you learn how to do things and just as well.”
“I’m leaving on July 28, because I used to live in Florida, and I have a few friends I want to see down there ahead of time,” said Milne. “I rode motorcycles down there and did motorcycle work down there.” Milne stopped mid-sentence and with lightning speed, rolled away and returned with a photo of his motorcycle decorated with flames and a Bart Simpson toy for the emblem.
He admires the other veterans and their spirit.
“I get most of my inspiration from the fellow veterans that I associate with. They can’t believe I’m doing this. They’re really pulling for me. This is a great opportunity for the community and the veterans of Macon County.”
They’ve backed up their inspiration with funding. Milne says he is thankful for the generosity of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post #7339 (VFW) and the Macon County Vietnam Veterans of America #994 (VVA). The VFW is paying for lodging and the VVA is footing the bill for meals.
Rick Norton, Milne’s friend of eight years, is a member of the veterans groups that chose to support his trip. “He is an inspiration, and I think Skip is going to do well,” said Norton. “I just think he won’t be denied. This is a guy who is a double amputee, yet he is determined that nothing is going to get him down. Life gives us all kinds of challenges, and it’s up to us whether we’re going to stand up and take it and deal with it or cave into it. He’s very strong-willed. He is bound and determined he is going to succeed, and I think he’s going to win a medal.”
Milne, having received three purple hearts for wounds he received in combat, looks forward, in contrast, to winning medals in the NVWG competition.