This group of builders has overcome veteran discrimination and kept on building, thanks to the local VFW and Legion
By Tim Engstrom
LAKEVILLE — Terry Branham’s father lost his left leg above the knee at 18 years old as an anti-aircraft gunner on the USS Downes, a Mahan-class destroyer, in the South Pacific during World War II.
In his later years, he needed a ramp to get out to go to the VA hospital, visit people, attend church and so on. The family could not afford the cost of a ramp, and young Terry was still serving in the Army.
“It was a huge regret by our family,” Branham said. “Dad had this saying: ‘You can never have enough deck.’”
Branham had a 26-year career in the Army, enlisting in 1967, then going to Officer Candidate School, then Flight School. He flew Cobra helicopters in Vietnam in 1969-70, then commanded field artillery batteries. He commanded an aviation battalion in Korea in 1978, and he commanded an Apache helicopter squadron during the Persian Gulf War.
“I would come home on leave, and we would build or rebuild decks for family and friends. I learned how to work with wood from my dad and loved it,” he said.
Branham, a Lakeville resident and member of American Legion Post 44 and VFW Post 210 in that south-metro suburb, took a medical retirement in 2009.
He learned of the St. Paul-based Metropolitan Center for Independent Living’s Ramp and Home Modification Project in 2009 when he could no longer work as a result of Agent Orange exposure. The MCIL has a program specifically for veterans, their widows or their children who needed ramps in the seven-county metro area.
“The pain in my lower legs was too intense,” Branham said. “I found if I was moving around that I did much better, so I joined the MCIL ramp guys, and my team finally took over when a double-amputee Vietnam veteran could no longer run the teams.”
MCIL started a veterans ramp program thanks to grants and donations, then it lost the funding. A Lakeville senator and representative led the charge to garner state funding, and $100,000 was appropriated. MCIL hired a coordinator to manage the funds, and Branham handled creating ramp plans, submitted them for approval and funding, and submitting photos of the finished work.
That lasted for three years, with up to 15 projects a year, and in 2012, a new director took over at the MCIL, and he told Branham he would need to find funding elsewhere.
“His exact words were, ‘I’m just not into this veteran thing.’”
The director further explained it as a risk-management decision, that someone could get hurt and sue.
Branham said no one has been hurt in all these years. He said it is another case of the Twin Cities letting the veterans down while enjoying the freedoms they secured.
Four years ago, MCIL stopped developing ramps altogether, whether veteran or civilian, after funding was lost. The nonprofit now provides guidance. (See sidebar on MCIL below.)
Branham’s team broke off on its own. They actually went to the Legislature and asked for funds where vets could apply for $3,000 ramp grants — but no state agency or nonprofit would administer it.
“This was 2014 or 2015. They passed the bill, but there was no mechanism to apply to get funding,” Branham said. “So we just went our own way. The lack of support was embarrassing.”
He coordinated with the MCIL coordinator and the county veteran service officers to get leads on who needs ramps. Tee It Up for the Troops was a large donor of equipment at the time and now the Lakeville VFW Post funds and manages the account that pays ramps and other home projects, with support from the Lakeville American Legion Post, too.
The mission grew to nine counties, and they call themselves the Lakeville Ramp Team.
The team has 14 people this summer; most are men over 70 years old. Five are veterans and the rest are their friends. They get information about who needs ramps from county veteran service officers and the general public.
The Lakeville Ramp Team builds about eight a year.
“Every home is different,” Branham said. “The height of the ramp is different, and the way it stoops to the driveway is different, so I have to design each one.”
He works with city officials throughout the metro, and he said they are kind to veterans by waiving the building-permit fees, except two cities — Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“They say, ‘We don’t give waivers to anybody,” Branham said.
They charge full price, yet inspectors from Minneapolis and St. Paul never come to inspect the work of the Lakeville Ramp Team.
Sometimes, the need isn’t even a ramp. Sometimes, the team widens doorways so wheelchairs can fit, or add egress windows or fix restrooms.
The Lakeville Ramp Team passed the mark of 80 projects last year, and Branham documents them all in a big book they bring to an annual New Year’s Eve get-together.
“We keep it a nice, little family atmosphere, just like the military,” Branham said.
Know a veteran in the nine-county metro who needs a ramp? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Veterans and the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living
“It’s a new day at the MCIL,” said Todd Kemery, vice president of the Minnesota Paralyzed Veterans of America.
Kemery said the present-day director, Jesse Bethke Gomez, was not there when the ramps-for-veterans program was cut. (See story.)
Kemery is a Marine veteran who suffered a spinal-cord injury near the end of his military stint and gets around these days in a wheelchair. He is on the MCIL board of directors.
“They sought me out four years ago,” he said.
Kemery said what the PVA does for veterans the MCIL does for the civilian world, but it, too, serves veterans. Kemery said the MCIL and Centers for Independent Living across the country have grown very pro-veteran. He said they are working with the VA Health Care System on medical services to vets. That includes efforts to work with the Minneapolis VA.
Some of those efforts, he noted, have been on hold because of COVID-19, but the desire remains. They are working to be CARF-certified in order to qualify for VA status. CARF stands for Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, and it sets standards.
Gomez gave a response, too: “I am red, white and blue, tried and true.”
His great uncle was an Army paratrooper in World War II in the Pacific and survived the Battle of Corregidor. Another great uncle served under Gen. George Patton and was wounded in Sicily. An uncle was in the Army in Korea. Two more uncles served in the Army and another uncle in the Marines, in addition to a current generation of family members in the armed services. His in-laws have a military history, too.
“I have a deep commitment to honoring veterans, notably elevating in Minnesota the contributions of Latino veterans,” Gomez said.
These days, his agency works with an array of ramp providers. When anyone calls inquiring about ramps, MCIL offers a menu of ramp builders.