Lafayette resident and United States Marine Corps veteran Brittany Elliot never expected a trip to the mall to change her life, when an accident involving a drunken driver left her paralyzed without sensation below the collarbone.

Now, three years and multiple surgeries later, she continues to advocate for veterans with disabilities, even as she faces new challenges from her specially-equipped vehicles breaking down.

“I’ve had to have major surgeries to both shoulders and my wrist twice,” Elliot said. “The transmission failed in my van when we were trying to leave to go the hospital. We’ve gotten estimates anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000, and I said, ‘That’s not going to happen, I just had surgery.’ My family has to take me everywhere, and we have to schedule everything around my appointments because of that.”

Elliot’s story eventually made its way to Facebook after a conversation with a fellow Marine, and the Shelter Foundation — a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting veterans — stepped in to help. With an emergency assistance grant from the foundation, Elliot’s family was able to repair her Lincoln Navigator, and the organization is also managing a GoFundMe campaign to fix the transmission in her Ford van, the easier of the two for her to operate.

“(The assistance) means the world to me,” Elliot said. “I also try to work with other veterans. I don’t ask for help. I’m usually the one to offer it, but words can’t describe this.”

Elliot has continued to speak on behalf of veterans’ issues, recently meeting with members of Congress in St. Louis. Among them was Rep. Phil Roe, the chairman for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

“I’ve had managers at restaurants tell me things aren’t their problem and that they don’t care,” Elliot said, noting her difficulty with finding properly-accommodating, handicap-accessible restrooms. “Even in Macon County, I can’t go to either theater, because they don’t have handicap stalls. There’s nowhere in this county I can go to use the hand cycle that was given to me, and the pool has a lift, but the temperature is too cold for people in a wheelchair.”

Elliot also faces challenges because her injury was not a result of her military service, something she addressed to the Congressmen.

“With Brittany’s example, it’s not a service connected issue, so she can’t access those benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Shelter Foundation President Michael Williams said. “A lot of veterans are left out in the cold because of that.”

Before the car accident, Elliot worked at the local Walmart while recovering from a training injury and was less than a month from being able to re-enlist. She was inspired to join the Marines because of her family’s military history, and she also wanted to join because her brother had a medical condition that kept him from enlisting.

“My primary and secondary sources of income were taken away,” Elliot said. “You can draw disability, but that won’t go far to support you coming from a full-time job. I had to change focus, and right now, that’s on using my voice to help other veterans.”

Elliot also spends time working to raise money for the Fisher House Foundation, a network of comfort homes for military and veterans’ families to stay as their loved ones go through treatment. She and her family stay in a Fisher House monthly while on medical visits, which she said are typically five-hour trips because of the services she needs.

Another system she works to raise awareness for is the ReWalk, a device that assists people with spinal cord injuries by allowing them to stand upright, walk and climb stairs.

“(The ReWalk) is an exoskeletal, full-body system I transfer out of my chair into,” Elliot said. “People compare it to a Transformer or Iron Man. Most people don’t understand the difficulties we face and won’t get on our level to speak with us. With the ReWalk, I can stand up, and it commands respect.”

According to Elliot, several labs across the U.S. are working on study programs related to the ReWalk, and she has able to use one as part of a testing period.

 

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“You go through a training period where you have to have so many hours, and you need enough upper body strength to support the exoskeleton,” Elliot said. “The day after we brought it home, I went to Key Park and walked a mile-and-a-half, because that was my goal. It’s life-changing, and the rewards are more beneficial than anything I could have imagined.”

After her study period ends, Elliot plans to try out the Indego system, which functions similarly to the ReWalk, to see which one better meets her needs.

Along with medical appointments, scheduling conflicts and speaking engagements, Elliot and her family said that they are involved in ongoing legal proceedings associated with the accident.

Williams said that while working with Elliot through the Shelter Foundation, he has repeatedly seen perseverance through hardships and setbacks.

“(Brittany’s) got a really positive attitude,” Williams said. “Sometimes she gets down, but she’s got that fighting spirit. Not having access to the van, she doesn’t feel independent, and she’s looking forward to getting back on the road with it.”

As of last Friday, the fundraiser had reached approximately 10 percent of its $5,000 goal. For more information on the Shelter Foundation’s involvement or to donate, visit www.gofundme.com/help-fix-disabled-veteran039s-vehicle. 

“I didn’t realize the challenges I would face after the accident, and I’m trying to use my voice to make a change,” Elliot said. “It shouldn’t matter if it’s a small town or a big town. People with disabilities shouldn’t be excluded.”