I am blessed. Not only do I have a beautiful wife and two awesome kids, I am a Marine with two combat action ribbons who came home with not even a scratch. Between my wife, (an active duty Marine) and me, we have both served with, and personally know many others who have not been so fortunate.
When I came home from a 2004 ground tour in Iraq I had an opportunity to work in Wash D.C. at a newly created joint center set up by then Sec of Defense Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. I wish I could say that I was effective and had a positive impact in the lives of many of the severely injured service members and their families that I came in contact with. Unfortunately, I can’t. At best, I’d say that I was a good listener and that I learned a lot from listening to the myriad of problems faced by the, mostly young, veterans and their families. At best, I can say that I tried, and hopefully brought some small measure of comfort, on a personal level, to some of the families whose paths I crossed in that brief year.
Many of the families I met during that year became a part of my life to this day. Months after departing the job II found myself still fielding calls seeking advice or guidance. Didn’t matter that by this point I was no longer wearing a uniform and was living the hippy life. Was I aware of any new treatment that might be available for traumatic brain injury? What changes in benefits for family care-givers have occurred? How do we best navigate the complex medical retirement process the military has in-place? These were typical calls. After a year of so of this it seemed logical to start my own non-profit, and thus, the Independence Fund was born.
Currently, the fund has two operating rules: (1) no one associated with the fund will be paid, and (2) the Board will be comprised entirely of combat veterans. There are many non-profits that are “supporting the troops,” and many are doing a good job, but these two rules make us unique. In the past 2 & 1/2 years, quietly but steadily, we have raised and distributed nearly $750,000 to deserving veterans and their families in wisely targeted grants. My frustrations with having been unable to do anything to help these deserving folks while I was in uniform have been replaced with the satisfaction of knowing that we now are actually doing something (however small) that is making a difference. And being small is just fine if it allows us to operate ethically and maintain the integrity with which we started.
Because we are small and relatively unknown, we have had to learn how to be creative in raising funds. As far as celebrities go, one would be hard pressed to name an entertainer who has done more to demonstrate support for the troops than Gary Sinise. Many have labeled him the “New Bob Hope.” However, I’m not sure that descriptor does him justice. As beloved as Mr. Hope was by the troops and the military establishment, Bob Hope made his livelihood by being the “entertainer of the troops.” Mr. Sinise has quite a successful career in place, and, if anything, the time and energy he puts into supporting the troops probably detracts from furthering that career. (If his wife is anything like mine, he’s probably seen her roll her eyes a time or two when he sheepishly tells her that he agreed to do another non-paying gig for the troops.)
Again, I have to say I am blessed. Two months ago, the following was proposed to Mr. Sinise: “How would you feel about bringing the Lt. Dan Band to the 2010 Beaufort Shrimp Festival?” (I wish I could claim credit for the idea, but that credit is directed towards the XO of MCAS Beaufort). “I haven’t been to Beaufort since we filmed Forrest Gump. Sounds like a hoot! Set it up,” was the reply. A week later, I walked into Main Street Beaufort’s office, and the Executive Director, LaNelle Fabian, rather than throwing me out the door as I fully expected, said, after I presented the concept, “sounds like a hoot, let’s set it up.”
So we’re setting it up. In the next six months I think you will be hearing more and more about this event, partly because the editors of the Lowcountry Weekly have, against all reasonable judgment, agreed to give me a column where I can beat the drum about the Lt. Dan Weekend that is being held in conjunction with the 16th Annual Beaufort Shrimp Fest. And folks, I plan to make the most of it. My goal, in the coming months, is to convey to you exactly what it is that I find so compelling about these severely injured veterans, their stories and their families, and explain what it is that motivates me to spend 60+ unpaid hours a week trying to make a difference in their lives. My hope is that you come to know them as well as I do, and, if touched, even remotely, in a similar manner, to offer you some guidance on ways that you, too, can make a difference.
This will be an amazing event, one that will not only deeply affect the lives of the severely injured veterans who attend, but one that will deeply touch the lives of the residents of our heavenly Lowcountry, as well. I personally cannot wait until October.
More on Main Street Beaufort’s 2010 Shrimpfest, the Independence Fund and Lt Dan Weekend can be found at www.ltdanride.com and on facebook at LtDan Weekend.