Veteran battles back from disease

June 11, 1998|By STEVEN T. DENNIS

An Army veteran and Hagerstown native who battled back from a crippling disease has received a long-overdue medal 17 years after leaving the service.

Joe Shelleman, 55, of Grand Junction, Colo., spent his early years in Hagerstown and joined the Army Reserve in 1962 before being called up to active duty in 1965.

In 1981, while stationed in South Korea as a protocol driver, he was told he would be awarded the Joint Services Commendation Medal. Before the honor could be officially bestowed on him, he was stricken with Guillain-Barre syndrome during a softball game.

What started as a slight tingling in his hands progressed over a few days to paralysis from the neck down.

The rare disease eats at the membrane surrounding nerves. Some patients are crippled for life; others recover somewhat.

Shelleman became a quadriplegic for nine months before he learned how to move and eventually walk again with physical therapy at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Grand Junction.


In April, he was awarded the medal at a ceremony in Colorado.

"It really makes me feel good that the country can remember a little old sergeant - I was an E-7 - after all of these years," he said.

In battling the disease, Shelleman skied before he could walk.

"It was a motivator. Seeing everybody else ski, I thought, 'By God, I'm going to do this,'" he said.

Shelleman uses special skis that compensate for his weakened legs.

He won a gold medal for slalom skiing in the Regional Handicapped Winter Sports Games in Lake Tahoe.

At the urging of Sandy Trombetta, chief of recreational therapy at the Grand Junction VA Medical Center, Shelleman, an avid golfer, returned to the links. He learned how to golf using only his upper body.

"I shoot anywhere from an 82 to a 94," he said.

Last year, he came in second at a tournament sponsored by the Disabled Golf Association.

Shelleman's struggle to ski and play golf inspired Trombetta to start the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, held annually for more than 300 veterans at Crested Butte, Colo.

"Everybody goes through self-pity. Then you've got to reach way down and go for it," Shelleman said.

Shelleman said he plans to return to Hagerstown for the first time in nine years this summer to see family and friends, including his father.

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