Chuck Hart doesn’t like the term “amputee.”
“There’s something about the word,” he said. “It bothers me. I’m a man-made midget, not an amputee.”
Hart lost both of his legs to peripheral vascular disease in a string of surgeries starting in 2003. For more than six months, he’s been confined to his 5 Beech St. home in Gloversville because it didn’t have a wheelchair ramp.
“I don’t really leave the house much,” he said.
That all changed early Thursday morning as a crew of volunteers from area Home Depot stores arrived in trucks carrying tools and lumber. They set to work while frost melted on car windows, ripping out Hart’s rickety stairs and drilling into the concrete pad to build a sloping ramp.
“You have no idea what this does for me,” Hart said. “It’s freedom. It’s everything. I can go to the store myself.”
Hart is a veteran. He joined up to follow his brother to Vietnam, but three weeks into basic training, the troops began coming home. The remainder of his enlistment was spent in Hawaii, but Hart was actually disappointed.
“I wanted to go,” he said. “I think I had something to prove.”
Nothing that happened in the military cost him his legs.
“Cigarettes,” he explained, flicking a smoldering butt onto a corner of his frozen lawn.
Even so, it was his military service that brought the volunteers to his home Thursday.
“I don’t categorize veterans,” said Gerry Bar, who helps local veterans through the Center For Independence. He met Hart doing amputee counseling at Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital in Schenectady. In their conversation, Bar realized Hart couldn’t get out of the house unassisted.
Hart has a small manual wheelchair. It’s light enough for Hart to just push it down the stairs and climb in, except that he lives on a steep hill.
“I can’t get back up the hill,” he said. “I have a power chair that could do it, but I can’t just push that down the stairs.”
Hart rents the place, can’t work and couldn’t pay for a ramp himself. Bar said the situation was unacceptable and started looking around for grant programs to get a ramp built.
“I was a military policeman in Vietnam for six years,” Bar said. “I’m not afraid of paperwork.”
In the end, he landed a grant from the Home Depot Foundation, which assists a number of veterans each year with similar projects.
Jason Gregory, a store manager at the Home Depot on Central Avenue in Albany, promised $1,500 in treated lumber and deck boards and free volunteer labor. He and half a dozen other Home Depot volunteers unloaded that lumber Thursday morning and went to work. Additional donations included one from AT&T, which provided Hart with Wireless Home Phone service. The service connects to the wireless network via a landline phone. The company also gave him one year of free phone service.
“We do a lot with veterans,” said Home Depot's Gregory. “No one here is getting paid.”
While Gregory worked, members of local veterans’ groups heated coffee and gave away doughnuts. They all seemed pretty happy to be there, but Bar said it never should have come to a community effort.
“When we were much younger men,” he said, “we signed a sheet of paper that said we would defend this country with our lives. We shouldn’t still be fighting when we get home.”
Bar himself deals with some major limitations. He fell from a tree stand while hunting five years ago and broke his neck. He can stand, but his balance hasn’t returned since the injury, so he spent the day in a wheelchair. He said it shouldn’t matter whether a veteran is injured during or after service — they deserve government help.
As for Hart, he’s just happy to be able to get out of his house.
“I’m going to go down to Stewart’s and get some coffee,” he said. “And some cigarettes.”