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After wreck paralyzes gay officer, his crew and community give back

Sep. 19, 2013 - 07:09PM   |  

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Cmdr. Brian DeLaney, right, poses with his partner, Frank Havens, and Bracie, the mascot for Embrace San Diego, a charity assisting the couple with home renovations after DeLaney's motorcycle crash. (Courtesy of Embrace San Diego)

About the charity

■Renovations to Cmdr. Brian DeLaney’s San Diego home are being done by Mission: H3, also known as Healing our Heroes’ Homes, a program under the Embrace banner that targets disabled veterans.
■Embrace works with veterans and civilians, including homeless outreach programs and meal service.
■Sean Sheppard, who is featured in the video with DeLaney, founded the program in 2000.
■Key sponsors of the renovation effort include McCarthy Building Companies, Inc., The Jack in the Box Foundation, The Home Depot Foundation and San Diego Gas & Electric, Sheppard said.
■For more information, visit www.embrace1.org and www.embrace1.org/mission-h3.html.

An October motorcycle accident severed Cmdr. Brian DeLaney’s spinal cord, ending his career as a skipper and turning daily activities — even entering his house — into challenges.

A San Diego-area nonprofit has stepped in to remodel DeLaney’s home. The renovations, worth about $85,000, will be done before the one-year anniversary of his Oct. 30 crash. The charity, Embrace, put out a YouTube video of DeLaney’s story that was featured on The Huffington Post.

Along with letting DeLaney tell his story, from the crash all the way to an emotional meeting with his former crew members from the amphibious dock landing ship Harpers Ferry, the video also served another purpose: It showed DeLaney at home with his partner of 14 years, Frank Havens.

“The video,” DeLaney said, “was actually the coming out.”

“I just completely separated my personal and professional lives 100 percent,” DeLaney said of keeping his relationship secret. “Four ships and two shore commands — I just totally separated my personal and professional lives. My personal life had no bearing on how I ran the ship.”

Even after the 2011 repeal of the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, DeLaney didn’t discuss his private life. “At least I didn’t have to worry about if someone found out,” he said. “Frank was very, very understanding. He would never put my career in jeopardy.”

That career took him to the Harpers Ferry as executive officer in September 2009, then as CO in June 2011. He led the amphib through its midlife modernization, an overhaul that takes more than a year.

“Cmdr. DeLaney was a fantastic captain who dedicated his heart and soul to the crew and the ship,” Cmdr. Steve Ilteris, the current Harpers Ferry CO who served under DeLaney as XO for more than a year, said Sept. 12. “He was a great officer to work for — positive and always interacting with the crew and the officers.”

Crash and aftermath

Those interactions, on occasion, involved motorcycle safety. As a regular rider, DeLaney said he felt it was his duty to be a safety advocate for other bikers in his crew. He took all Navy-mandated courses and made sure “my sailors knew I wasn’t going to be last on motorcycle safety.”

On his way home from the ship the evening of Oct. 30, the CO’s mind wasn’t on his bike. Occupied with thoughts of recent repairs and other events related to post-workup sea trials, DeLaney was in the fast lane of an eastbound highway and needed to cross traffic to reach his exit.

He realized he’d hit the ramp too fast, slammed on the brakes and felt the back end of his motorcycle fly out.

“That’s when I realized, this is not going to be good,” he said.

DeLaney hit the guardrail. The impact severed his spinal cord “where the shoulder blades meet in the back,” he said, leaving him unable to move from the armpits down, with no prospects for recovery.

“I knew I was paralyzed [immediately],” he said. “I was trying to move my right leg, and it wouldn’t move.”

He said he didn’t recall much over the next few weeks.

“While in the hospital, I got cards from each one of my divisions,” he said. “I got posters signed by sailors. It was amazing, the amount of support and amount of caring.”

He attended the ship’s change-of-command ceremony in April; he’d been unable to turn over command as planned in January. In his speech to the crew, he repaid some of the thanks.

“You are the best there is at what you do,” he told them.

More support

His home’s existing layout hasn’t done DeLaney, or his wheelchair, any favors.

“The bathroom downstairs, it’s just tight to get into,” he said. “For me to even take a shower was a major effort.”

He’s fallen over at least twice — once backward, once forward — on a ramp that lets him enter his living room. The outside, if anything, was worse.

“The lower portion of his yard is nothing short of a valley,” said Sean Sheppard, head of Embrace. “That possesses a unique challenge. We’re actually going to remodel the entire entranceway of the home. There’s some unique things about this remodel that we’re excited to do. When you get enough nerds in one room, you get excited about what you can do.”

DeLaney applied to Sheppard’s charity in June after talking with a contractor doing some remodeling on a neighbor’s house. The builder had previously worked with another Embrace project that renovated the home of a disabled Marine veteran, Capt. Sarah Bettencourt. When Bettencourt asked Sheppard how she could repay the favor, he asked her to help identify other disabled vets. All the pieces fell in place.

Donations and volunteers are coming from Sheppard’s usual sources, as well as at least one place he didn’t see coming.

“We received feedback from the Harpers Ferry,” he said. “Men and women on that ship [who] did not deploy have made it very clear that they want to be part of this remodel. They have already begun discussing a collection because they would like to donate to Embrace. I was very touched by that and surprised by that.”

DeLaney, 40, said the support hasn’t changed a bit since the video, which he said is how most of his former crew — except for then-XO Ilteris and the his chaplain — found out he was gay.

He’s still not far from the minds of the crew.

“His accident was a shock. ... It hit us all very hard,” Ilteris said. “It’s a testament to how great a man he is and the positive effect he had on people that I get asked all the time, ‘How is Brian doing?’ ”

DeLaney hopes to pass down his ship-driving skills to sailors during the rest of his Navy career, and beyond.

“I would love to teach,” he said. “I have all the experience: 18 years in the Navy, four years at the Merchant Marine Academy. I told my detailer that’s what I want to do. If that’s something I can continue to do after I retire, I want to do that for the Navy.

“I never thought I would be so passionate about it. The worst thing about this accident is I can’t go as far as I wanted to go.”

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