For 12 years, Dan Kaiser, 60, has been able to go only where his wheelchair can take him.
And that’s not far.
Once, Kaiser’s motorized wheelchair got stuck in the mud, and the Air Force veteran had to drag himself back to his Rochester house. He gave up going down to the road to get the mail for fear of getting stuck again. During a recent snowstorm, Kaiser was stuck inside his house.
He’s even had difficulty refilling the hummingbird feeder that sits just outside his window.
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But in March, Kaiser was finally able to explore a muddy, wooded portion of his property, thanks to a contraption that looks part wheelchair, part bulldozer.
“It turns me back into a normal person again,” Kaiser said. “I just can’t believe it. I can’t stop smiling.”
TracFab, a Pennsylvania company, delivered Kaiser’s specialty outdoor wheelchair last week. The company’s co-founder, David Kennedy, made the trip to Rochester to deliver the machine himself.
The gas-powered wheelchair runs on tracks, making it less vulnerable to mud, tree roots and other outdoor hazards that would cause a calamity for a regular wheelchair. Kaiser’s model also is fitted with a snowplow and a tow hitch. He hopes to start mowing his own lawn soon.
Kaiser said he’s been about 90 percent numb from the belly button down for about 12 years, when an injury he sustained in the Air Force caught up with him.
When he was 18 years old, he was in a traffic accident. He was launched several feet from his truck and hit a tree.
Kaiser said he spent six weeks in the hospital and was told he’d likely develop arthritis. But complications have left him with near constant pain and limited mobility.
He saw a TracFab wheelchair in a magazine about a year ago and submitted an application for funding through the Independence Fund, which supports injured and wounded veterans by giving them the tools they need to achieve independence, according to their website.
The Independence Fund then ordered the wheelchair through TracFab.
Kennedy said he and his cousin, Ben Ridenbaugh, started TracFab in 2013 as a fun weekend project. They live in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, and worked for a company that deployed robots to blast furnaces, which are used in smelting.
Kennedy has a degree in electrical engineering, and Ridenbaugh is a self-taught machinist.
They built their first wheelchair for a grandmother. When the woman could no longer use the wheelchair, she insisted Kennedy and Ridenbaugh sell it so that someone else could benefit from it.
The machine sold quickly, and 10 other people placed orders, Kennedy said.
TracFab began partnering with the Independence Fund almost immediately.
“If a veteran calls about our products and can’t afford them, a lot of times we refer them to the Independence Fund,” Kennedy said.
“When the VA doesn’t step up, that’s when foundations like the Independence Fund step in and make things happen.”
Kaiser said he wants to make sure other South Sound veterans know about TracFab and the Independence Fund, given the presence of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“I’m sure there are lots of vets out here who would be really interested,” Kaiser said. “They need to know that this exists.”
Kennedy stopped by Kaiser’s house in mid-March to give him a tutorial. The next morning, Kaiser took his first lap of his property.
He was thrilled.
“I’d never seen anything down there before today,” Kaiser said. “My son and his fiancée go down there all the time and told me all about it, but I’d never seen it. I’m going to have to go back down and explore.”
After several days of rain, Kaiser’s property was soggy. At one point, he hit a huge muddy patch. But the chair had no trouble — he drove on through.
Kaiser already has started shopping for tow-behind lawn mowers. He said he might enjoy the yard work so much that he’ll mow his neighbors’ yards, too.