"It was just meant to be," says Jim Brunotte. "I look at Oct. 1, 1968, as my day to become a triple amputee and lose my eye. I've had to accept it."
Brunotte never has been one to feel sorry for himself, or for anyone else, and he certainly doesn't like to hear anyone say, "You can't."
Brunotte is in Washington to accept the President's Trophy from Rosalynn Carter. It is the highest award given a disabled American. He also has been named Handicapped American of the Year by the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, and will be honored at the committee's annual meeting Thursday at the Washington Hilton.
Brunotte is an accomplished horseman, water skier, scuba diver, swimmer and mountain climber, despite having no legs, one arm and one eye-damage wrought by a 35-mm artillery shell in Vietnam.
His war injuries are not the only ones Brunotte, 31, has had to overcome. He was stricken by polio at age 6 and was told he probably would never walk again.
Two years later he was walking and riding a horse.
Brunotte has dedicated himself to showing other disabled people that they, too, can enjoy life and do anything they put their minds to.
He not only has shown them what can be done, but how to do it, as well.
Brunotte, his wife Jeryll and his father Tom operate a ranch in Creston, Calif., they call "Rancho Kumbya." There, they teach the mentally and physically handicapped many of the skills Brunotte himself has learned.
Since 1974, more than 600 disabled persons have gone to the 367-acre ranch and come away with a new appreciation for themselves and what they can achieve.
"Many disabled people are in an institutionalized atmosphere and, at the ranch, we get them out of that," Brunotte said.
About 120 people came to the ranch last year and stayed from one day to two weeks, all free of charge.
"Medical bills are big enough as it is for a disabled person," Brunotte said.
The ranch is run with public donations, and in those months in which ends don't meet, Brunotte uses his pension money to make up the deficit.
There is no staff except for Brunotte, his father, wife and three adopted daughters, aged 11, 9 and 2.
"There is something special about being able to ride a horse," Brunotte said. "A handicapped person can get on a 1,000-pound horse and not think about his handicap. He has control over the animal and he can go anywhere."
So that he and other amputees could ride a horse safely, Brunotte invented a special saddle.
He also will demonstrate his skills as a horseman and instruct disabled youths Monday at 10 a.m. at the Rock Creek Horse Center.
"The thing that has enabled me to accomplish all I have is that I've had a good family behind me and they've stuck with me," Brunotte said.