United States Department of Veterans Affairs

Washington DC VA Medical Center

Amputee Marathon Man Inspires Vets Across the Nation

Eugene Roberts, a veteran of the Vietnam war and double amputee

Eugene Roberts, a veteran of the Vietnam war and double amputee, has just completed a 3,100 mile run across America. Roberts used specially-designed artificial legs to accomplish this marathon mission which he hopes will be an inspiration to veterans and persons with disabilities.

The 62-year old Roberts visited the Washington DC VA Medical Center on April 4. He met with Chief of Prosthetics, Jackie Collins, and told her he credits his deep faith, his loving wife Alicia, and the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) for his success.

"We had 3000 miles of problems but we overcame them and here we are…. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the VA," Roberts said. Roberts, a patient at the VA Medical Center in Baltimore, MD, says the VA has been instrumental in helping him prepare for his nationwide run. "Whatever I need, they help me get it".

This deeply personal journey began July 2, 2007. The starting point was the chapel at Camp Pendleton, California and after a brief visit to Washington, DC, he ended his run on April 7, 2008 at his own VA Medical Center in Baltimore, MD.

Roberts’ journey was plagued with challenges and he had to make several visits to VA Medical Centers for care along the way. The constant pounding from running an average of 16 miles a day created blisters and unusual wear and tear on the prostheses. Robert says he fell 47 times.

Yet Roberts always managed to pull himself up and continue. This mental fortitude has guided him ever since loosing his feet and most of one leg in 1966 after only 18 days in Vietnam. He is an inspiring example to others that determination, faith and love can overcome anything.

Eugene and Alicia, his wife of 40 years, haven’t let much stop them. Alicia took a sabbatical from her teaching job to accompany him. "I’d follow him in the converted van, we slept at campgrounds and sometimes at military bases," Alicia said.

The journey was interrupted for more than a month while Roberts received care at the VA in Phoenix, Arizona. His injuries were cause by the friction of the prostheses on his remaining limbs. "We spent a lot of time at the VA out there, whenever we needed anything they came through". Roberts recalled.

Not deterred from their goal, as soon as his wounds heeled, he and his wife were back on course. "I wanted him to achieve his goal, but I really worried about him," Alicia Roberts said.
Spiritual faith and dedication kept the Roberts on course. They financed the run themselves, the few donations they have received were sent to a charity his family started to help build shelters for the homeless.

"He’s such an inspiration to people, I’m so proud of him. He doesn’t hear the comments people make, but I do," Ms. Roberts said. She recently overheard a mother tell her child, "whenever you think you can’t do something, think of him".

And there isn’t much Roberts can’t do. In 1970, Roberts was the first person to complete the Boston Marathon in a wheelchair. Although not technically entered in the race, officials allowed him to begin the course an hour early. He finished in a little over seven hours paving the way for future athletes in wheelchairs.

In 2001, he completed the Boston Marathon again, only this time on his prosthetic legs instead of a wheelchair. "Technology is great, but it isn’t going to make it a cakewalk. It’s hard to run on something that isn’t yours, these really aren’t my feet," Roberts said.

While visiting the DC VA Medical Center, Roberts met with patients in the Rehabilitation Therapy unit and staff members, one of whom is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom who also suffered the loss of his legs. He told the patients he visited, "Mental attitude is the main thing, and if God has a plan for you, nothing’s going to stop it," Robert said.

Roberts was inspired to run across the country after seeing a HBO special about Terry Fox. Fox, who had lost a leg to cancer, was attempting to run across Canada before the cancer returned and stopped him from accomplishing his goal. Roberts thought to himself: "If he can run across Canada, I can run across America".

The idea was born and Roberts spent the next eight years preparing and training to run across the country. He completed several 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons and even tried to swim the English Channel. In 2004, he ran across the state of Maryland, beginning at the end of Route 50 in Ocean City and finishing approximately 300 miles later in Western Maryland.

Now that the run across county is complete, the Roberts are looking forward to spending time with family and sleeping in their own bed.

"This is the first year I didn’t have Christmas with all the kids, I’m looking forward to cooking a big feast in my own kitchen," Ms. Roberts said. The Roberts have four children and 11 grandchildren.

In spite of the challenges and sacrifices, the Roberts have no regrets about the run.
"I’ve done everything I wanted to do, I’m blessed," Roberts said.
After a bit of relaxation and recuperation, Roberts plans to run the New York marathon in November.