Thomas Mandrell's life was changed in July of 2011 when a roadside bomb exploded under his vehicle in Afghanistan. Recently, some area businesses tried to help him change it one more time with the gift of a gleaming black 2015 Jeep.
Mandrell, a U.S. Army combat engineer, was working a route clearance assignment, when a bomb tore apart his vehicle.
Since then, he's been getting care at the Buffalo Veteran's Administration Medical Center for injuries to his back and legs, as well as post traumatic stress syndrome and brain injuries. But he hasn't been able to easily get to the VA because he didn't have a car.
The Lancaster resident was selected to receive the restored 2015 Jeep by the Disabled American Vets association. The car came via a partnership between Auto Collision & Glass of Niagara Falls and GEICO, through the National Auto Body Council's Recycled Rides program. About 1,000 vehicles have been given away through the program since it began in 2007.
Mandrell, who works at a manufacturing company, said that without a car, he was also unable to get a better job or to pursue his dream of opening his own mechanic's shop.
"This is just the gateway to my new life," he said with a smile after taking possession of the keys to the jeep.
Sen. Robert Ortt, a veteran himself, was among the politicians on hand for the event. He praised American soldiers like Mandrell, "We talk about the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and all the things that make America what it is. They turn them into reality."
Employees at Auto Collision & Glass volunteered about 100 hours to fix the car, which was donated from GEICO's salvage yard. Auto Collision was able to repair the vehicle with the contributions from local vendors, including Pilkington Glass, Auto Finishers, Niagara Towing, and United Auto Mechanical. Other area businesses who supported the project were Advanced Network Services, Firth's Jewelers, Otto Redanz Funeral Home and Joe Cecconi's Chrysler Dealership.
Richard Greenawalt, co-owner of Auto Collision & Glass with his sister, Juanita Greenawalt-Slobe, said he hoped the car will be the first of many Recycled Rides Giveaways.
"We hope this one small act of kindness can be a gesture of our thanks for such a large and heroic act of bravery," he said during the ceremonies to present the car to the vet.
"Being able to restore this vehicle and awarding ownership to a deserving Army veteran we can only hope will show our gratitude for Thomas Mandrell's service and dedication to our country," Greenawalt added.