LARGO - Mike DeLancey watched, grinning, as the joined driver's-side doors of his new white-and-gray camouflage Ford Explorer opened and extended with a hissing noise. A ramp rolled out, and the former Marine Corps lance corporal rolled in. DeLancey's wheelchair locked into place; then the ramp retracted and the doors closed. No need to move from his wheelchair to a driver's seat. "This thing is unreal," said DeLancey, 28, who was paralyzed in 2006 after a sniper shot him.
Tuesday, DeLancey received a 2013 Ford Explorer with prototype wheelchair accessibility technology. The prototype SUV, which DeLancey is leasing for $1 a year, was designed by BraunAbility and West Coast Customs to provide a more convenient and more visually appealing ride to disabled drivers. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, thousands of soldiers are coming home in wheelchairs, meaning they need customized vehicles that generally cost about $20,000 to $25,000 more than comparable vehicles, according to Shelby Curtsinger, owner of Wheelchair Vans of Florida. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers grants of as much as $18,900 to help qualified veterans buy accessible vehicles. Most vehicles adapted for wheelchairs are minivans because they are big and spacious, but designers at BraunAbility and West Coast Customs knew younger veterans would prefer something sportier. DeLancey's Explorer features custom seats, high-end speakers, a 42-inch TV behind the back seat and the custom paint job. BraunAbility, which makes wheelchair accessible vans, ramps and wheelchair lifts, designed the wheelchair technology. West Coast Customs, which does custom car designs and has been featured on shows such as MTV's "Pimp My Ride," designed the special features. DeLancey received the prototype because of his work helping other injured service members and because he lives a full life, said Kevin McMahon, executive vice president of sales and marketing at BraunAbility. "Our mission in life is ability," McMahon said. "Mike exemplified that." DeLancey, who graduated from Pinellas Park High School and still lives in Pinellas Park, did one tour in Afghanistan and another in Iraq, where he was shot in the back of his left shoulder while on foot patrol. The bullet shattered vertebra and pierced his lung. He flatlined three times, but he lived. Paralyzed from his feet to about halfway up his stomach, DeLancey said he spent three or four years being "lazy" because it was easier to sit on the couch than learn how to adapt. Now he goes kayak fishing, is studying business at St. Petersburg College, coaches a Pinellas Park Thunderbirds youth football team and works with the Wounded Warrior Project. In addition to getting his new ride Tuesday, DeLancey was reunited with Michael Guynes, who helped save DeLancey's life after he was shot. The two have kept in touch but have not seen each other since 2006. BraunAbility flew him in from Louisiana for Tuesday's unveiling ceremony. "They've started a revolution with these," Guynes said. "I want one." DeLancey's SUV will be featured on a West Coast Customs show on Fox Sports in the fall. And Tuesday night, he got to drive the Explorer onto Tropicana Field and throw out the first pitch at the Tampa Bay Rays game. "It's a little surreal, you know?" he said. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @saradrumm