On Saturday nights, Pat Troy pays tribute to U.S. military men and women with a toast, a prayer, and a song. The mood starts out upbeat and light: Pat, an Irish pub owner in Alexandria, Va., leaps onto the stage with a fuzzy unicorn head strapped to his own and leads patrons in a hilarious rendition of the Unicorn Song. The Guinness flows as people sway and sing along. Then Pat’s program turns patriotic.
While there on a recent Saturday night, three of my friends were recognized and thanked for their contributions and sacrifices in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Two young Marines and a Navy corpsman stood onstage while Pat explained how moved and humbled he was by their service and how proud they make him to be an American. Eddie, Jose, and Andy are all amputees and are being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Eddie, 29, lost both hands when a grenade was launched at his rifle as he was engaging the enemy. You might remember him as the Marine who, with his bandaged stump, saluted President Reagan as Reagan lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda a year ago–the powerful picture was featured in newspapers around the world. Jose, 25, is a Navy corpsman whose left arm below the elbow was blown off by an RPG in Fallujah. And 21-year-old Andy is a Marine who lost his right leg below the knee to an IED on Thanksgiving Day.
Pat invited everyone to sing the Star Spangled Banner. It was indescribably touching. Patrons applauded and cheered, and some were moved to tears. I beamed with pride for my friends on stage and my countrymen in the audience.
As my friends returned to our table, fellow patrons started sending drink after drink after drink. Many stopped by to chat and thank the young servicemen personally. A 30-something USAF veteran came over and apologized for not getting the job done in the Gulf War while he was in Iraq. My friends wouldn’t hear it. “Hey man, it’s our job, we were happy to go when we did, and would go again tomorrow.” It was a very special night.
I met Eddie, Jose, and Andy through my work as a volunteer for the Helping Our Heroes Foundation, a non-profit corporation that provides a way for donated funds and services to directly reach our injured military. HOHF is unique in that it is an all-volunteer effort. There is no paid staff.
HOHF provides mentors, coordinates specialty counseling, identifies and funds educational opportunities, and provides emergency cash grants for wounded soldiers and their families–with no red tape. Many parents and spouses give up a second income to move to Washington in order to care for their relative. HOHF has been able to give thousands of dollars in support immediately. One Army wife left her job and her house and spent her entire life savings keeping up with bills to care for her severely injured husband, who is at Walter Reed. Feeling completely diminished after yet another agency denied her request for financial support, we cut her a check that day. Upon receipt, she burst into tears and promised to pay it back so another family would have the same help when they needed it.
Since its founding in October, HOHF has taken in over $100,000 in unsolicited donations. These monies have been transferred to wounded soldiers and their families. At Christmas, HOHF provided over $20,000 in gifts, food, and winter clothing for the patients being treated at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Medical Center. Fifty plus morale gifts and supplies have been shipped this year alone to the combat-support hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, numerous items have been sent to support the morale of the medical teams as well as items for them to take when going out on civilian missions in the local towns.
Volunteering with HOHF is the most meaningful work I have ever done. It is a great feeling to watch the progress each soldier makes from month to month, to see them walking and running when they were once in wheelchairs or on crutches. After cochlear-implant surgery, a young Ranger–completely deaf a year ago when an RPG blew out his ear drums–can hear again. Another soldier has accepted a great job with a defense contractor in Washington and is looking into getting an MBA. The strength, courage, and humbleness of these patriots are inspiring. I know these guys are going to be okay.
When thanked for their service they often shrug and say they were just doing their jobs. This Fourth of July I am grateful to all who were just doing their jobs, wearing the uniform of the United States of America.
–Emily Cochran is communications director for the Helping Our Heroes Foundation. The foundation launched a fundraising campaign this week to raise $40,000 to fulfill emergency grant requests that have been recently submitted.