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The week of Nov. 11 will be one of homecoming, remembrance and promise for James “Tip” Tipton.

The 1984 graduate of North Carroll High School and 22-year veteran of the United States Air Force will arrive in town from his home in Panama City, Florida, on Veterans Day, speak at American Legion Post 31, in Westminster, on Tuesday and hold court at a special fundraiser at Greenmount Station restaurant in Hampstead, Wednesday evening.

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Medically retiring from the Air Force in 2010 after an accident left his legs paralyzed, the always athletic Tipton had battled depression before getting involved in wheelchair athletics, and, in 2018, acquiring a special cart that allows him to stand up and participate in athletic activities.

On Wednesday, Tipton will be raising money for his new passion in life: purchasing these carts — known as the Paramobile — for other veterans who need them through his chapter of the Stand Up and Play Foundation.

“This is a multi-faceted chair. It was approved by the FDA as a medical device,” he said. “You can stand up and shoot archery, play golf, even go out on a beach where the sand is firm enough.”

The fundraiser will take place from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and is $45 in advance, $50 at the door, for a buffet dinner with two drink tickets.

“That will go directly to a veteran, amputee or paraplegic that requires one of these carts,” Tipton said, and added, “It’s incredible that Todd Mitchell is doing this for me.”

Mitchell is the finance officer at Post 31, and a member of Business Advocates for Veterans, which has put on the American Legion veterans luncheon for the past seven years. He and Tipton are also old friends, and so Mitchell has been organizing the Greenmount Station fundraiser ahead of Tipton’s arrival.

“I was friends with him growing up and then we kind of lost touch because I was Army, he was Air Force," Mitchell said. "Then I heard about his circumstances so I reached out to him. When I learned what he was doing, I was like, ‘Hey, I want to help ya.'”

Epitome of the uniform

Tipton enlisted in the Air Force in August 1985 and entered basic training the following February.

“I started out doing nuclear weapons, I did that for four years, and then I cross-trained over to conventional munitions, and then made it to become a munitions superintendent,” he said. “I built munitions for the majority of my career.”

Assembling rockets and missiles, the warheads and detonators, took Tipton out on deployments both foreign and domestic, from Kuwait to Turkey to California. He took part in Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, among others. He did two tours in Iraq, his last ending in 2008.

He reached the rank of E-8, or senior master sergeant, but Tipton also served for seven years as a first sergeant, which in the Air Force is a role rather than a specific rank.

“Basically the first sergeant is responsible for the health, morale and welfare of all the enlisted troops,” he said. “I was the epitome of what the Air Force uniform is supposed to look like, because that was my job as a first sergeant; the morale, health and welfare of the uniform. I was the uniform police.”

His uniform kept perfect as an example, Tipton made an example of himself, maintaining an athletic training regimen that saw him playing everything from lacrosse to basketball to men’s fast-pitch softball.

I was 9% body fat when I was in the uniform," he said. “I was always running 3 to 10 miles a day.”

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But being the uniform police would not be enough to get Tipton promoted to E-9, and so he volunteered for that second tour in the Iraqi Desert. Way out in the desert.

“You don’t keep munitions on a base. All the explosives, if they blow up the munitions storage area, it means you kill 11,000 people, whatever you have on the base,” he said, which also made his place of work a major target. “They are mortaring us, they are shooting at us, we’re shooting people — we’re doing everything we can to protect our assets.”

They went through hell, as Tipton puts it, but he came away relatively unscathed.

“But when I came home three days after my last tour in Iraq, a lady ran a stop sign and hit me head on and broke my back,” he said. “That’s how I ultimately wound up in a wheelchair.”

That was December 2008.

Lost

For awhile, everything unraveled, and Tipton felt lost.

“There were several years of going through physical therapy and mental health therapy,” he said. “Going through depression and drinking — I was in a bad place, and I really mean that. I was in a really dark place.”

It’s difficult for Tipton to talk about without becoming emotional, but it’s a message he said he really wanted other veterans to hear. That there is a despair that can settle on you after such a traumatic injury knocks your life off the rails.

“When people become paralyzed, amputees, quadriplegics, paraplegics; they get this reserved thought in their minds sometimes that their life is over,” Tipton said, his voice quavering. “Or that sometimes we can’t go on.”

Tipton indulged that thought for awhile, and he even considered it, not going on. But after a particularly dark time, he found the light again.

“I realized at that point just how precious life is, man,” he said. “So I called my buddy up who is a paraplegic and said, ‘Dude, you have to help me. I need some help bad.’”

That buddy happened to be the chairman of American Wheelchair Bowling Association.

“He said, send me $200 and I’ll give you a lifetime membership in the association,” Tipton said. "We’ll send you a bowling ball, we’ll send you a shirt.”

Initially skeptical that bowling from a wheelchair was even possible, Tipton found not only that it was possible, but that he was good at it.

“In my first four months of bowling from a wheelchair, I made $6,000, because we compete for money,” he said. "And it’s fun."

Becoming active again began to turn things around for Tipton, and soon his doctor was encouraging him to do more.

“She slipped a piece of paper across the desk and said, ‘I want you to sign up for the national veterans wheelchair games,’” Tipton said. “So I signed up for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games and I won three gold medals and bronze medal in my first year competing.”

That was in 2018, and it was that year that he met Antoni Netto.

Found

A golfer who was paralyzed after an initial accident while serving in the South African Defense Forces, Netto was co-inventor of the Paramobile, initially called the Paragolfer, and founder of the Stand Up and Play Foundation. It was Netto who donated one of the all-terrain wheelchairs to Tipton, changing his life forever.

“I called him back up after I got the chair awarded to me and I said, you know what, this isn’t enough. I need more,” Tipton said. “He goes, what do you mean? We just awarded you a $30,000 Paramobile?"

What Tipton meant, he explained, was that he wanted in.

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“You have absolutely given my life back and I want to be a part of this,” Tipton told Netto. “I need to be a part of this organization. I need to be able to help people. I need to give the gift. I need to help people.”

And so Tipton founded his own chapter of the Stand Up and Play Foundation. So far in 2019, the foundation has issued 46 Paramobile chairs to veterans or other amputees or paraplegics across the United States.

“I’m in the process of working on about 15 of those myself,” Tipton said, “and that’s just since the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in August.”

It was this renewed purpose and meaning in life that Tipton has found in helping others regain their lost mobility that so inspired Mitchell to jump in and help arrange the fundraising event.

“It’s made such a difference in his life that now he’s getting dedicated himself to raise funds to help buy these for other paralyzed veterans,” Mitchell said. “If you talk to him there is no bitterness about him. It’s just, ‘I’ve got to keep going,’ because that’s just the way he is.”

And if part of Tipton’s message is that the darkness can come, the other side of that message is that you can find that light again. That as you once served, you can find joy in serving others in new ways.

“The gratitude I get from that, it’s so rewarding to me, it’s priceless,” Tipton said. “Nothing can replace the joy I get from that.”

If you go

What: Support Paralyzed Veterans Fundraiser, with retired US Air Force Sr. Master Sgt. James “Tip” Tipton

When: 6 p.m.- 9 p.m. Wednesday Nov. 13

Where: Greenmount Station restaurant, 1631 N. Main St., Hampstead

Cost: $45 in advance, $50 at the door

For tickets, call Todd Mitchell at 410-967-5454 or send email to tmitchell@janney.com

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