'Milkshake Man' Inspires Fellow Disabled Vets, Wounded Troops
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo., Apr. 5, 2006 When he was undergoing treatment 16 years ago following a near-fatal accident in Germany, Paul Miosek asked Red Cross volunteer Jim Mayer for just two things: a poster of Madonna and a milkshake.
Disabled Army veteran Paul Miosek (left) reunites with Jim Mayer, a Department of Veterans Affairs employee and long-time volunteer at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, at the 20th Annual Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, in Snowmass Village, Colo. Miosek credits Mayer with opening his eyes to new possibilities while living with a disability. Photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
What the Army veteran didn't realize was that Mayer would also help reopen the door to a fulfilling life.
Miosek had been loading Bradley fighting vehicles onto a train in Germany when he hit an overhead line, sending 15,000 volts of electricity surging down his head and through his body. He awoke from his coma six weeks later, a double amputee with other serious injuries.
As he struggled to cope with his situation while recovering at Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Miosek met Mayer, who lost both legs years earlier after stepping on a booby trap in Vietnam and called on patients at the Army hospital regularly to cheer them up. Often Miosek didn't reveal that he was a double amputee or that he had a daytime job at the VA's Washington headquarters.
Mayer and Miosek became fast friends, and Mayer frequently brought his younger friend milkshakes that Miosek could enjoy while on a liquid diet. It's a habit Mayer has continued through the years, earning him the nickname "Milkshake Man" as he arrives at Walter Reed several times a day toting a dozen milkshakes at a time for wounded troops.
In addition to milkshakes, Miosek said, Mayer brought him encouragement and hope. The first time he was able to leave the hospital grounds, it was to visit Mayer's home. So when Mayer suggested that Miosek consider attending the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in 1996, he decided he'd give it a go.
What Miosek discovered at the clinic, a six-day program that helps veterans with disabilities push their limits and discover their capabilities, astounded him. "I was amazed at what I could do," he said after attempting activities he never dreamed he'd be able to do: downhill and cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, fly fishing, sled hockey, and scuba diving.
"My wife said I came home on a psychological high," he said of the trip.
This week, Miosek is back here at the Winter Sports Clinic for the eighth year, testing new limits and exploring new opportunities. In addition to his full schedule of activities, he said, he plans to try his hand at one of the clinic's newest activities, wheelchair fencing. "I haven't done it, and I like trying new things," he said.
And he's reuniting with Mayer, who in addition to volunteering at Walter Reed is a full-time employee in the VA's Office of Seamless Transition. There he helps disabled veterans leaving the military care system transfer to the VA system.
Miosek said he'll forever be grateful to Mayer for bringing him a Madonna poster and milkshake, but more importantly, for friendship, inspiration and an introduction to the Winter Sports Clinic. "He brought me a new way of life and helped me to discover what's possible," Miosek said. "And what I've discovered is absolutely amazing."
Mayer said he finds tremendous gratification in befriending and offering a helping hand to wounded troops and veterans he meets at Walter Reed. Often when he arrives with a tray of milkshakes, patients he's never met tell him, "I've heard of you," he said. "It gives you an internal sense of reward."
Veterans Affairs Secretary R. James Nicholson praised Mayer in 2005 during an "Alive Day" ceremony in Washington. Noting how Mayer's life changed in an instant in Vietnam, Nicholson said he came alive "with renewed hope, with an uplifting heart, and with a mission unlike anything probably imagined in the years, weeks, days and seconds before the landmine exploded."
Nicholson thanked Mayer for caring for, cajoling, kidding and consoling patients through the years since his own accident. "To be truly alive is to offer one's life in the service of others. Jim, you are doing that seven days a week," he said at the ceremony. "You made a commitment to serve when you joined the armed forces, and you did it again as a combat-disabled veteran when you pledged your new life to care for your brothers and sisters in their times of need."
But Mayer shrugs off such praise, saying he's the one who gains the most through his volunteerism. "Don't let anyone tell you that volunteers don't get paid," he said here this week. "We get paid very, very well."