By John Grady, ScoutComms Special Correspondent
With more than 40,000 organizations claiming to help veterans and their families, it’s hard to get a fix on which ones really are making a difference now, and how they will remain relevant well into the future.
These are important questions, because the costs of war don’t stop accumulating after a troop pullout, a peace accord, an armistice or even articles of surrender.
Last week, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, provided a platform to explore these complex and enduring questions. It did that not with white papers, but by highlighting three very different organizations that shared concrete examples of what they are doing to support veterans and why they are committed for the long haul.
Ed Nicholson, a retired Navy captain, said he was struck by an idea when he went in for treatment in 2004 at the old Walter Reed Medical Center, where “you can’t help but see the effects of war.” Even though he knew it might sound strange to some, he wondered if “maybe a few guys would like to go fly fishing,” a sport that he loves passionately and finds relaxing and peaceful.
He recognized from the start that most veterans are not fly fisherman, but teaching them specific skills and enabling them to have fun with others would be a small but important step in helping them reintegrate into civilian life and break the hospital care routine.
The idea took shape with strong encouragement from occupational therapists at Walter Reed, who thought it beneficial for wounded veterans to be learning “a new skill, a new sport.” More importantly, they would be “building relationships. The real healing goes into those relationships” with other veterans and with civilians who enjoyed the sport and wanted to share their experience. So over a three-year period, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing evolved at Walter Reed. But the breakthrough came when the project branched out to VA medical centers, hospitals and clinics and other military facilities.
With growth now into 180 facilities around the country, the project taps into existing programs such as Trout Fishing in America and other groups, who provide volunteers and trip organizers. In the first quarter of 2015, Nicholson said 2,000 volunteers went with 3,000 veterans on fishing trips.
“Being with their own [other veterans not just from Afghanistan and Iraq] is something they really miss” when recovering in a hospital, noted Nicholson.
According to Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., a retired Navy SEAL, “The VA doesn’t provide family” in its care and it can’t be expected to provide the individualized attention that programs such as Healing Waters can.
Fred Schremp and “a bunch of 70-year-old guys” from the U.S. Military Academy’s Class of 1967 were determined that things would be different for the surviving family members of these more recent wars. His class “had the highest casualty rate of any graduating class” during the Vietnam War. The surviving spouse and children were given $10,000, and their husbands given a free burial, he said.
“I don’t want to leave anyone behind,” he said, explaining how the recently chartered not-for-profit Folded Flag Foundation came into being.
The Folded Flag Foundation provides financial aid and educational assistance for spouses and children under 26 of veterans who died in combat or while on active duty and government civilians who risked their lives for their country. The assistance includes tuition from kindergarten through college or trade school and educational summer camps.
The Folded Flag Foundation seeks to raise $100 million to close that gap between government death and education benefits to survivors and actual costs, according to Schremp. So far, his foundation has raised $3.6 million for its program, with its small overhead costs being covered by corporate sponsors.
Low overhead and delivery are key to the success of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, said Vice Adm. (ret.) Joe McGuire, USN, the former commander of Naval Special Warfare Command. The foundation has consistently been awarded a four-star rating by Charity Navigator, a well-known vetting organization of not-for-profits.
“We have 14 people in the foundation. We like to be lean and effective,” McGuire said in explaining the wide range of services that begins with “a $3,000 check to get them through the first week” of leaving their home and arriving at a military medical center to be with their spouse for an indefinite period of time.
The need is real in the special operations community. Special operators constitute two percent of the armed forces, but suffered 10 percent of the casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq.
McGuire’s foundation raises $1 million a month to provide assistance to families in the command who are supporting a wounded warrior or coping with the loss of a spouse. McGuire said the foundation is paying tuition and additional expenses for 300 students in college and another 700 in kindergarten through high school for those who died in combat or training exercises.
“It is young men who fight wars, and they have young children,” said McGuire. The toll was highest among the enlisted, who took the majority of casualties in these wars. Fifty more families in need are added each year, so the need for fundraising and outreach continues well into the future.
When members of the special operations community were commissioned or enlisted after Sept. 11, 2001, “they all knew they were going to war. The burden is all of ours,” McGuire said. Today, his organization, like the others who spoke at Heritage, are keeping a covenant with veterans and their families in recognition of the sacrifices they made to protect the U.S.