By Jason Schock
The stated mission of The Wounded Warrior Project, founded in 2003 by U.S. Marine veteran John Melia, is “To honor and empower Wounded Warriors.”
The vision: “To foster the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded service members in our nation’s history.”
And, purpose: “To raise awareness and enlist the public’s aid for the needs of injured service members; to help injured service members aid and assist each other; and to provide unique, direct programs and services to meet the needs of injured service members.”
Each of the five fingers on your hand stands for an individual WWP core value: fun, integrity, loyalty, innovation and service – and through teamwork, these core values are lived out daily to make a cultural fist, successfully complete that mission and ascertain that vision.
Melia, who was injured in a helicopter crash in Somalia in 1992, started the WWP by assembling backpacks containing miscellaneous items such as socks, T-shirts, toiletries and playing cards and donating them to injured soldiers at Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Twenty years later, the handful of backpacks had transformed into a corporation generating $300 million in annual revenue (2013) and serving more than 56,000 wounded vets and nearly 8,000 family members. WWP helped nearly 7,000 veterans submit benefit claims, and helped place some 2,000 in jobs. The organization offers peer mentoring, employment assistance services, physical health and wellness activities, and long-term support initiatives.
Since the overall theme is quality of life, by no accident is “Fun” listed first among the WWP core values. Through Wounded Warriors, vets can participate in all sorts of activities, from art class to ice hockey.
Hunting and fishing are popular among vets, and just happen to be within middle America’s wheelhouse as well. So when a group of Wounded Warriors from Minnesota considered a turkey hunting expedition, Mike Lewis, of Fairfax, MO, knew exactly where to lead them.
Supporting our troops and separating the war from the warrior are more than slogans and bumper stickers around these parts – in this particular corner of so-called flyover country, folks practice what they preach. So with arms wide open, Lewis, long-time friend and former neighbor Kim Koelzer, her husband Leon, of rural Rulo, and friends a couple weekends ago freed their timbers, gassed up their Gators and served up some southern (Nebraska) hospitality for the northern vets. Not in the name of glory, but rather the pursuit of poultry.
While on a fishing expedition in Minnesota, Lewis befriended Justin Lightfoot, full-time hunting and fishing guide, Air Force vet and board member of the Wounded Warriors Guide Service, a non-profit that provides disabled vets with outdoor recreation activities to help with the healing process.
Lewis, an employee with the Missouri Dept. of Roads for 21 years, and Lightfoot just a couple months ago arranged a turkey hunt in southeast Nebraska and vets Jamie Allen and Marty Caraway jumped at the opportunity.
As the party wounded down on the final day of hunting, Lightfoot gave the experience an overwhelming “thumbs up.”
“This one has to be the best I’ve been part of,” he said. “We’ve been taken care of so well – there have been trips that didn’t go so well – but the community was very supportive and welcoming.
“It’s amazing down here – I’m hoping to continue. Mike has done a wonderful job for us and things have gone so well, I really hope we can come back.”
Lewis, too, was taken aback by the response locally.
“It’s just been phenomenal. I never asked for anything – people came up to me, asking to donate food or whatever. It’s really been a humbling experience for me, being with these guys. It’s a way for me to give back – I didn’t know what else I can do for these guys.”
Adam Meyerkorth set the guys up with lodging at the plush digs at Meyerkorth Aviation in Rock Port, MO, and the Koelzers arranged for the hunting.
“Leon really ran with it – he arranged for all this hunting ground that I wouldn’t have had access to,” Lewis said.
Lightfoot, 39, of Bemidji, MN, served in the Air Force from 1994 to 1998 and didn’t see combat. He got involved with Wounded Warriors, though, because of all the comrades he saw returning from Desert Storm in the early 1990s and both wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in this century suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
“I was never hurt, but I saw so many of my peers hurting when they got back – that’s why I got involved,” Lightfoot said.
Because of guys like Allen, 37, who spent 12 years in the Army National Guard, beginning in 2001. He first fought in Bosnia in 2003 and then was in Iraq at Camp Attaque from 2005-07. His initial deployment was 14 months, but the troop surge made it a 19-month commitment.
“The troops are always the last to know – but it’s not something you can get upset about. You can’t quit; you can’t go home,” Allen, who has dealt with PTSD, said.
A roadside improvised explosive device claimed two men in his unit – the second was killed during route security detail near Fallujah, 43 miles west of the Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq.
“We were already supposed to be home by then,” he said.
Allen witnessed the IED detonate under the humvee directly in front of his. The vehicle was carrying 900 22mm canon high explosive rounds.
“It took five hours to cook off,” he said.
Caraway, a 33-year-old native of the Twin Cities (and one-time batboy for baseball great Darryl Strawberry when the slugger played for the Independent St. Paul (MN), uh, Saints), served in the Marines from 1999 to 2005 and was deployed twice.
He served 18 months total in Iraq, mostly in the area of Civil Affairs.
“Our primary job was to win the hearts and minds of Iraqi people,” he said.
Caraway and the other 15 members of the team played an integral role in the first government-held elections in January 2005, as well as the issuance of new Iraqi dinar coins and notes by the Coalition Provisional Authority upon the deposition of Saddam Hussein.
“Our team developed a good rapport with sheiks and other community leaders. We worked with farmers, helped build schools and hospitals.
“The Iraqi people trusted us and we got a lot accomplished,” Caraway said. “But after we left, the next guys had to start from scratch in developing the same trust. Now I feel like we’re letting them down. We destroyed everything they knew and now they can’t sustain the peace.”
Caraway is the Redwood (MN) County Veterans Service Officer and in 2011 was appointed the legislative chairman of the National Association of County Veteran Service Officers. He represents NACVSO at the national level by fulfilling various duties that require knowledge of bills pending and passed which are pertinent to veterans and veterans issues, writing letters of support to members of Congress regarding veterans issues, testifying before Congress when asked, meeting with legislative aides and congressional members to discuss veterans bills.
Caraway makes quarterly trips to Washington, D.C. to sit on the De-partment of Veterans Affairs quarterly forum in an effort to allow veterans to stay up to date on federal regulations.
Four trips a year to D.C., but perhaps also the occasional visit to this area and an altogether different kind of face-to-face with a bunch of turkeys.