Harley L. Thomas, 68; Became Advocate For Disabled After Spinal Cord Injury

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Harley L. Thomas, 68, a health policy analyst who advocated on behalf of paralyzed veterans and others with disabilities, died Sept. 4 after a heart attack at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville.

Mr. Thomas, a retired Navy chief petty officer, began working to improve health care and other circumstances for those with disabilities after injuring his spinal cord in a motorcycle accident in 1982. He had worked the past 10 years with the Paralyzed Veterans of America in Washington, first as associate director of its legislative program and since 2000 as associate director for health policy.

He helped found and was president of a sports program in Colorado for physically disabled youths and served as executive director of the Mountain States Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America before moving to Washington in 1997.

For the veterans group, he coordinated the Independent Budget, a comprehensive policy and budget document that is submitted annually to Congress by four veterans service organizations. He testified before Congress about rising health-care costs for veterans and represented his organization nationwide.

Doug Vollmer, associate executive director of the PVA's government relations department, said that Mr. Thomas helped make life better for people with disabilities and his fellow veterans.

"Harley Thomas exemplified what Paralyzed Veterans of America is all about," he said. "Following his spinal cord injury, not only did he maximize his independence and live life to its fullest, but he also committed himself to helping others."

Mr. Thomas, who was born in Eureka, Utah, joined the Marines as a teenager. After leaving the Marines at 19, he enlisted in the Navy. He served 18 years before retiring in 1976 as a chief petty officer.

He did tours in Japan and in Vietnam. He later was attached to the Defense Communications Agency and gained expertise in large mainframe computers. He received a business degree from the University of Virginia during his military service and later worked in the information technology industry in California and Colorado.

Mr. Thomas was posted to Japan when he became enthralled with motorcycle racing. He raced for many years, until he was injured in an accident in Mexico. He began using a wheelchair.

He led the Veterans Administration Volunteer Service Advisory Committee and served on the board of the Paralyzed Veterans Research and Education Foundation. He was a member of the Veterans Health Administration's National Center for Ethics Project, the Strategic Management Council of the Accessibility Forum and the Patients' Cure coalition.

He was an immediate past president of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association and had served on the board of the ENDependence Center of Northern Virginia.

Mr. Thomas also served as a judge for the National Organization on Disability's Accessible America Award. He was a member of the Vietnam Veterans Association.

His marriages to Sandra Thomas and Mildred E. Thomas ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Nancy Starnes Thomas of Arlington; two sons from his first marriage, David L. Thomas and Larry R. Thomas, both of Boone, Iowa; three children from his second marriage, Scott H. Thomas of Lakewood, Colo., Todd Thomas of Ethel, La., and Julie Lamana of Greenwell Springs, La.; 23 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

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