Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: veterans

“Can Do” – Brad Soden’s Amazing Tank Chair

Can Do. That “can do” attitude about overcoming challenges helped make American great. We like to see ourselves as a people eager to innovate and determined to solve problems. How much the “can do” philosophy defines the American character today may be open for debate. But I’d like to share with you the story of one man who just wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. His name is Brad Soden, a former veteran, fireman and plumber, who found an innovative way to give disabled vets and others the means to regain an active, engaged life.

When people loose the use of their legs they also loose something the rest of us take for granted – the ability to get from here to there without even thinking about it. Wheelchairs help, but they’re designed for smooth, friendly surfaces – floors, sidewalks and streets.  If you have a yen to strike out across a grassy field, move along a dirt path or visit a sandy beach you’re flat out of luck. Until Brad Soden found a way, there was no way. You were stuck on smooth.


Liz and Brad Soden from the Tank Chair website

Brad had a very personal motivation – a car accident left his wife Liz wheelchair bound. The Sodens were outdoors people, loved hiking and camping. But after the accident, that all changed. Liz couldn’t just glide her wheelchair down a woodsy path. A bond that united their family was fractured. Brad was determined to do something about it, to find a way to give Liz the kind of mobility she had before the accident that damaged her spine.

Photograph by Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Businessweek2

Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Businessweek

He was used to working with his hands, but creating a device that Liz could use to navigate rough terrain was an almost insurmountable task. Without any formal training as an engineer or even a college degree, Brad’s efforts failed again and again.

The first challenge was the motor. He tried gasoline and diesel. No go. Then he switched to electric. Moving on a smooth surface is one thing – but as soon as the wheelchair left the road it would get stuck. To navigate a field, or difficult terrain, you’d need oversized tires – but any motor that could fit on a wheelchair was too puny to power the tires. Wires would melt, motors burn up. Brad’s off-road electric wheelchair had hit a dead end.

Bloomberg Businessweek‘s Joshua Green continues the story:

Engineers Soden consulted advised him to give up. “They kept saying, ‘According to the laws of physics, what you’re trying to do will not work,’ ” he says, laughing. “Well, according to the law of physics, bumblebees and helicopters aren’t supposed to fly, but somehow they get off the ground.”

Brad refused to quit.

The breakthrough came one day in the garage with Liz’s dad, Barry. “We were just sitting out there,” Soden says, “and he says to me, ‘Man, you know what’d be cool? If we could put tracks on it, like a tank.’ ” Soden felt as if he’d been hit by lightning. “That’s when I knew exactly what it was going to be,” he says. “It made so much sense.”


photo from the Tank Chair website

He still needed to solve some technical problems. He reached out to some robotic experts and, with their advice, he found a way to make it work. He calls his invention “Tank Chair.”


Tank Chairs from the website

Joshua Green writes:

To most people, the chair is a stunning piece of equipment. But to Soden it represents something much bigger and more important—an assault on the idea that a physical handicap, no matter how severe, should constrain a person’s ability to live the life he wishes to.

Photograph by Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Businessweek

Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen for Bloomberg Businessweek

Tankchair LLC is a family affair run out of a small industrial garage in North Phoenix. Although Tankchair is a business, the enterprise has the feel of a cause. Every chair is customized to the unique and demanding needs of the client, and behind every one is a story.

Here’s a terrific video from Bloomberg TV that tells the Tank Chair story.

Since hooking up with the Independence Fund, Tankchair has focused almost exclusively on veterans, whom Soden often visits to take measurements and learn about their hobbies and passions. He also tries to deliver the chairs himself when he can, because there’s nothing like seeing someone do something he had never imagined being able to do again—playing on a football field with his son, going hunting, mowing the lawn.

Here’s a link to Joshua Green’s story about Brad Soden and the Tank Chair and a link to the Tank Chair site.

I find the Tank Chair story very inspiring. It’s just amazing what one person can accomplish when they put their mind to it. Brad’s determination not to quit, his belief that if he kept trying he’d find a way to make it work, was key to overcoming the roadblocks. Equally important was being able to see solutions where others see problems. When Brad’s father-in-law said “put tracks on it, like a tank” it made all the difference.

“Can do” isn’t simple, it takes grit, a firm belief in the importance of what you’re trying to accomplish and a determination to keep going. But that’s what innovation is all about.




Writing as a Path to Healing

Can writing be a path to healing? That’s what I discovered when I went to my first Creative Mornings meetup not too long ago. Creative Mornings are monthly opportunities for learning and sharing – a morning seminar I found very stimulating, plus a chance to meet other people working in a creative field.


photo from the DC Creative Mornings site

Creative Mornings are the brainchild of Tina Roth Eisenberg, a designer/entrepreneur who likes to call herself Swiss Miss. In a previous VisionThing post I wrote about how her Creative Mornings concept started in New York and then inspired similar monthly morning meetings all around the globe. Talk about the power of ideas.

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photo by Tom Lee from the DC Creative Mornings site

Each Creative Morning has a theme and the one I attended here in DC was about bravery. As part of the presentation I listened to Ron Capps, the founder of the Veterans Writing Project, read some of his poetry. Ron, who served tours of duty in five wars, found creative expression was a way to understand and deal with his wartime experiences. Not only did he feel a deep need to write as a way of expressing himself, he also saw writing as a healing process.


mask photo from NICoE Healing Arts Program workshop

As he thought about his own experience and how much writing helped him deal with his PTSD, he felt that other veterans could benefit too – and he wanted to share what he’d learned from his graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins. That was the impetus for creating the Veterans Writers Project (VWP), as Ron describes in JWMM, a quarterly literary journal:

Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers Magazine

Ron Capps photo by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers Magazine

“The VWP is a nonprofit organization that we set up to provide no-cost writing workshops and seminars for veterans… Less formally, I think of it as a team of writers who were all veterans or veteran’s family members, those of us who are working writers, who give away what we’ve learned in our work or in our graduate writing programs to people who are just getting started at writing.”

An overwhelming experience, something that might trigger PTSD, can leave you trapped in an emotional maelstrom. Finding the words to externalize that experience, so you can examine and share it, can help calm that internal storm. That was Ron’s personal experience, as he explained in the NEA Arts Magazine:


from the Pages and Places website, photo by Karen Blixen

“Writing helps to create a little bit of distance. The way that I think of it is as if you have this traumatic memory and it’s hot or radioactive. You pick it up with your bare hand — your bare brain so to speak — you can’t manage it, it’s unmanageable. But by putting art or music or writing in between, you have a filter — it’s like putting on a pair of gloves. You can reach out and pick it up.”

There is some scientific evidence that the art of writing can also be a healing art. The National Intrepid Center of Excellence, devoted to understanding and educating about traumatic brain injury, is planning further research to explore the arts as a way of helping heal PTSD. You can find out more about that in the same NEA Arts Magazine.

Jacqueline Hames, Soldiers Magazine

photo by Jacqueline Hames, Soldiers Magazine

As Ron likes to say, “either you control the memory or the memory controls you.” This perceptive NYT article takes the thought further:

For a generation weaned in a multimedia confessional society, and at ease with blogging and Facebook, it makes sense that sharing war experiences and fears would be an effective, or at least familiar, way to examine and overcome what Mr. Capps describes as the “powerful sense of isolation” that greets most veterans once home. They leave behind a culture built on teamwork for one that doesn’t seem to value community, doesn’t appear to be at war and doesn’t understand them.

The military is looking to writing and other art forms, like painting and music, to help rewire the brain after trauma. At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Ron Capps leads weekly workshops for service members recovering from PTSD and traumatic brain injury. He starts them off with two fundamental questions: What is different about the military experience, and why do we bother writing things down?

“We write,” he explains, “to bear witness.”

Ron asks participants to step away from their war experiences and observe the details in new ways. To become better writers, they talk about character development, narrative structure and point of view.

As a writer I understand how writing can be cathartic and healing. Of course, you have to communicate too, otherwise you’re just doing it for an audience of one. But more than that, the VWP is a way for people to share their experiences – and for those of us who weren’t there to gain some insight into what they went through.


Cover art is “Under the Mulberry Trees” by retired Marine CWO2 Mike Fay

You can read the work that comes from the VWP on their website 0-Dark-Thirty.  They print a quarterly literary magazine The Review which you can read online here or subscribe and they’ll send you a copy. They also publish work more frequently online in The Report, which you can access here.

You can also donate and send The Review directly to veterans, as 0-Dark-Thirty explains:

“We’re already providing copies for every patient at the Defense Center of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, and to the Warrior Writers’ Program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Our targets include VA hospitals and clinics, units with a high deployment OPTEMPO, and VSOs.”

David Vergun, Soldiers Magazine

photo by David Vergun, Soldiers Magazine

It used to be fairly common that when people returned from war they would be reluctant to talk about it. Having those experiences locked inside created an emotional wall that was hard to breech… for many, that silence held them apart from the stream of daily life.

More importantly, serving in the military is a time of community – people share similar experiences and grow to trust and depend on each other for their very survival. Coming home from that shared existence – and the sense that someone has your back – to civilian life is challenging at best.

Drew Angerer:The New York Times

photo by Drew Angerer:The New York Times

Kudos to Ron Capps and his fellow veterans for creating these writing programs. They’re helping their fellow veterans find a path to understanding and a means for sharing those terrifying moments when death and destruction are a routine expectation. Trauma brutalizes the psyche – it takes a deep personal trust and faith going forward to bring words to a stilled voice and succor to a troubled heart.

You can read Ron Capps’s essay “Writing My Way Home” here.

Social Entrepreneurs Hit Pay Dirt

our mission

From the Sword & Plough website

Social entrepreneurs strive to do well by doing good – they’re change agents looking for creative business solutions to address social problems. They’re about starting a business that’s concerned with more than making money – they also want to help make the world a better place. Too idealistic, you say? Well what does it take just to be an entrepreneur?

Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship

from the Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship website

I’d bet we’ve all had at least one idea for a business that got our imagination rolling. We could see the potential – how our great idea could turn itself into something people would embrace. That’s the essence of an entrepreneur’s vision. Yes, ideas are borne of necessity… but sometimes they also come by putting the pieces together in a way no one has done before.

Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship2

from the Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship website

Whatever the vision, having an idea is never enough. You have to nurture it, turn it around in your mind, see it from all the angles, imagine it as a full-blown reality and then you have to do something about it – prove its worth. That’s what separates the dreamers from the doers.

In the past, you’d have to be obsessed and relentless in pursuit of your dream – and often you’d find yourself going it alone. You’d have to hit up friends and relatives for support, launch and manage your venture and have a lot of the entrepreneur’s best friend – luck – on your side. With all that… most new businesses fail within 5 years.

Today, things are different – with the web there’s more opportunity. Take for example the path blazed by Emily Nunez and her sister Betsy.


Betsy and Emily Nunez photo by Jason Malmont The Sentinel

While a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, Emily signed up for ROTC and then to serve in Afghanistan. She started thinking about the difficulties veterans face when they return home and try to find work. The two sisters had often talked about creating a business together and that gave Emily an idea.

Paul Chaplin Pennlive.com2

Sword & Plough bags photo by Paul Chaplin

They could repurpose army surplus slated to be thrown out and reuse it to create sustainable products, produced here in the USA. They could work with companies that hired unemployed veterans to create knapsacks, tote and messenger bags and other items people could use.

from Kickstarter site

photo from the Sword & Plough Kickstarter site

They also decided to donate 10% of profits to organizations that help veterans – Veteran Green Jobs and the Wounded Warrior Project.


Emily Nunez from the Sword and Plough site


“I wanted to create something that would emotionally and physically touch civilians in their everyday lives and remind them, in a beautiful way, of the challenges our country and servicemen face.”

But how to turn her idea into something tangible? Enter Middlebury College and their new Center for Social Entrepreneurship. They helped Emily apply to the Dell Social Innovation Challenge where her idea made it to the semi-finals. After a three week intensive at Dell, she had a business plan, a brand name and a prototype canvas bag. Then she entered the Harvard Pitch for Change Competition where her social entrepreneur idea won first place, $6,500 seed money and free business consulting. With Emily training for Afghanistan, Betsy quit her job and went to work as the new company’s first employee and Sword & Plough was born.

Paul Chaplin Pennlive.com3

Kickstarter launch day photo by Paul Chaplin

They decided to create buzz and launch their company on Kickstarter. They hoped to sell 500 bags and raise $20,000. They used some of their seed money to make prototypes, do a photo shoot with professional models and make a pitch video.

When their Kickstarter campaign started April 15th, they reached their goal in two hours.

kickstarter image2

from the Sword & Plough Kickstarter site

Here’s a link to their website, Sword and Plough.

Why was their Kickstarter launch so successful? There are several reasons. As social entrepreneurs they have a clear, simple mission and business approach that will help them accomplish what they set out to do. They have a popular product that appears well-designed and well-made. The story of their company – and their story – is well-conceived, appealing and timely.  And they’re providing work to unemployed veterans and donating 10% of the profits to veteran causes.

our mission

Sword & Plough seems well on the way towards becoming a viable business and helping solve a thorny social problem. What do you think? Leave a comment.

From the Sword and Plough Kickstarter site

From the Sword & Plough Kickstarter site