Military families live in a state of uncertainty, and circumstances are always changing. This is especially true of our Special Operations personnel, which since 9/11 have seen demands on them increase. The Special Operations soldier is a rare breed of human: expertly skilled, highly trained and wholly dedicated. Their challenges are particularly dangerous and unpredictable, which makes their job difficult on both the soldier and their family. The spouse and children of a Spec-Ops soldier may not know when their loved one will deploy, where or for how long. And, by the very nature of their jobs, they do not know whether they will return. An increasing number never do, leaving behind grief-stricken families who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Imagine how tough this is for their children. Losing a parent is psychologically devastating, of course, but it also has a ripple effect that stretches far into the future. The single parent left behind now has to be the breadwinner as well as the sole parent. The chaotic nature of a Special Operations soldier's duty — along with their youth — may mean that their family is not yet financially stable. In their grief, the family has to start thinking about financial concerns. College for the child, or children, left behind is often out of the question.
That's where the Special Operations Warrior Foundation (SOWF) comes in. You may never have heard of them, but for 30 years they have been providing college educations to the children of Special Operations soldiers killed in service. There are many ways to support the military: sending care packages to the deployed, volunteering with the USO, and aiding the wounded through donations. But the SOWF is unique in that they care for the children of the fallen by giving them the assurance of a higher education. This removes a great burden from the family in a time of unimaginable pain.
The Foundation began in 1980, after President Carter sent troops into Iran to rescue American hostages from the Embassy in Tehran. The mission, called Operation Eagle Claw, had problems from the start due to the rough terrain and the logistics of operating over sea, desert, and city landscapes. When a refueling operation went wrong, eight servicemen were killed. Between them, they left behind 17 children. The CEO of the Foundation, Col. John T. Carney, Jr., was on the ground during the Eagle Claw crisis, and he and his fellow warriors vowed to take care of the children of the fallen by giving them a college education. The SOWF was previously known as the Col. Arthur D. "Bull" Simons Scholarship Fund, but in 1995 it merged with several other scholarship funds to form one organization.
Since its inception, it has helped over 800 children of fallen Special Operations soldiers.
On average, it costs $16,000 for one year of college at a state university. The SOWF is dedicated to making sure kids of our bravest are able to go to college and fulfill the futures their late mom or dad would have wanted them to have. They also provide support services and educational counseling for children of all ages. Their mission is a great comfort to our deployed warriors, who now have one less thing to worry about while they are deployed. Naval Capt. William McRaven says, "It helps us all to do our job better to know our families are taken care of."
The Foundation also sends money to families when a Special Operations soldier is severely injured, so loved ones can fly to be at their side and aid in their recovery. An important part of healing from any type of injury is the support and care received from those who love. For families on a small military income, this is invaluable.
What better way to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country but to care for and nurture the children they left behind, who meant so much to them? It is, really, the least we can do but, perhaps, also the biggest gesture of all.
The supporters and beneficiaries of SOWF reflect the great character and impact of the organization, and we'd like to introduce you to three of them.
Focused, resolute and full of heart, Debra Argel-Bastian is a one-woman whirlwind who has raised tens of thousands of dollars for SOWF. Her generosity knows no bounds. For instance, in 2008, she and her husband completed a one-month, 6,000 mile motorcycle ride across the country to raise money for the Foundation. She helps the SOWF in any way she can and has plans for even more unique fundraising opportunities. For Debra, it's all about taking care of the children who have lost a parent. "I consider these children to be wounded themselves," she says. Debra points out the ongoing difficulties for a child who has lost a parent; for example, questions from other kids, having to explain what happened over and over, and the pain of not having that parent around to spend time with. Her mission is also, sadly, extremely personal.
On Memorial Day 2005, as Americans across the nation were attending barbeques and relaxing in the swimming pool, Debra received word that her son, Capt. Derek Argel, had been killed in Iraq. It was a mother's greatest tragedy. Debra says she was paralyzed with grief. On her way across the country to her son's base, "I had to be carried onto the plane," she remembers.
Derek left behind a wife and an 8-month-old son, Logan, who is now 5. Shortly after Derek's death, the SOWF reached out to Debra, and also to Derek's widow. The Foundation assured them that Logan's college education would be taken care of and they offered emotional support.
While coming to terms with what will forever be her new "normal," Debra began compiling all the correspondence she received after Derek's death describing the type of man he was and she wants to publish a book called "Letters for Logan." It is Debra's hope that the book will be a comfort to Logan and also to other families who have experienced the tragedy of a soldier killed in action. In addition to working on the book, Debra jumped headfirst into supporting the SOWF and helping other families who had been through a trauma such as hers. She also visited Iraq and spoke to people in small villages to try and understand the progress we've made over there (she says she had many people tell her, "Bless America.")
Derek was fighting for this progress. It's very moving to learn what kind of a person Derek was. Six foot six and a skilled water polo player, Derek knew in the fifth grade he wanted to serve his country. In his own words, "To serve God and country is not a right, but a privilege." He was also a man of great faith. Debra has heard from those who knew him that when Derek shook your hand, you could "feel the warmth. You knew you had a friend for life." And he loved his family very much. Two weeks before he died, he emailed his mom that he couldn't wait to get home and hold his son. He wanted to take him to Disney World.
It is a great heartbreak that he was never able to do that, but the legacy Derek leaves behind is in the strength of his mom, the pride of his wife and the character of his little boy, who gets out there every year with other Special Operations soldiers and does push-ups in his dad's memory. Debra works tirelessly to support the SOWF. Once a museum director and archaeologist, Debra stopped working in that capacity after Derek's death and now devotes her time to supporting families like hers whose worlds have been upended. It is, she believes, what Derek would want her to do; it is what he would do if he were still here. She explains, "Through the veil of tragedy, our fallen sons have made us better and more charitable. He brought me to this. This is my calling now."
Jason Redman is the type of soldier—the type of man—you don't even feel worthy of being in the same room with. He became a SEAL in 1995, and then later he graduated from Army Ranger Instruction. He has received numerous military decorations, has been involved with various operations in the War on Terror, and has conducted missions in Afghanistan and Iraq that have resulted in the capture or death of Al Qaeda fighters. For almost 20 years, Jay has been serving our country on the front lines.
But in early September 2007, his service was, at least temporarily, halted. Jay and his team were involved in a firefight in Iraq. (The term "firefight" is a benign term; basically Hell rained down in the form of machine gun and small arms fire.) Thankfully, no one from Jay's team was killed, and they wiped out the enemy. But Jay was shot multiple times, in his elbow and his face. He survived and blazed an amazing path back to health.
It may be our first inclination when we see someone suffering to whine about what could have been, wonder "what if" and pity the wounded. Jay Redman was having none of that. In anticipation of the sad faces he expected to see enter his hospital room and the endless commiserating that surely would occur after visitors got a glimpse of his injured face, Jay posted a sign on his door making it clear just where he stood. Written on bright orange poster board, it read, in part, "If you are coming into this room with sorrow, go elsewhere. The wounds I received, I got in a job I love… supporting the freedom of a country I deeply love. This room you are about to enter is a room full of fun, optimism and intense rapid re-growth." The sign took on a life of its own and became an inspiration to many, even capturing the attention of President Bush.
Jay's injuries were massive. A bullet ripped a destructive path through his head, and he was also dealing with the elbow injury that left him with limited use of his arm. He went home in a wheelchair. He had a tracheotomy for seven months; and his jaw was wired shut for six. To date, Jay has undergone 31 surgeries to repair damage and manage his facial reconstruction and he's not finished yet. It's unclear how many more he will need; understandably, Jay and his doctors have stopped guessing and they take each one at a time.
Jay's injuries essentially left him like a jigsaw puzzle. Doctors developed a 3-D model of Jay's head so they could analyze his injuries and plan their surgeries to put him back together again. Today, that model sits on Jay's mantel. Whenever he has a bad day, it's a re-minder of what he has been through. He says the bullet path through his head is so large he can almost fit his fist through it. Yet he survived, his optical nerve was not hit, and he didn't sustain any brain damage. Doctors can't explain any of it, only to say it's a "miracle."
Jay is a supporter of SOWF and sometimes gives motivational speeches on behalf of the Foundation. "I've always given to SOWF. There's a comfort in knowing that, regardless of what happens to you, your children will be taken care of." Jay and his wife are grateful to the Foundation for providing financial assistance after his accident so his wife could go see him.
Jay's experience prompted him to start his own charity called Wounded Wear (www.woundedwear.org), to support those who have been wounded in battle. Apparel with the Wounded Wear logo enables wounded veterans to proudly announce that the scars they bear were gained while serving the nation. A second aim of Wounded Wear is to develop custom-made clothing for injured veterans that will accommodate medical braces and equipment, which will allow them to lead a more normal life while they are recovering from injuries.
Jay's life revolves around family, work, charity and motivational speeches. He's also gearing up for a 5K in March, a half-marathon in October, and in July he hopes to climb to the top of Mt. Rainier to benefit Camp Patriot, which takes disabled veterans on outdoor adventures (www.camppatriot.org). (Yes, that's right: The man who got shot up in Iraq and has endured 31 surgeries to date is going to run races and climb a 14,000-foot mountain. And you can't get up off the couch to walk the dog?) He doesn't know if he will return to combat operations; that decision will depend on how well he recovers from his injuries.
On the battlefield or in civilian life, Jay Redman is a role model, a man of integrity and the very definition of a patriot.
Our country is lucky to have him, and his optimism is inspiring: "Okay so I got shot; I'm a little disfigured. Some guys look at what they lost. I look at what I still have."
Keith Zeier had always considered going into the military, because his grandfather had served before becoming a New York City policeman. But it was the tragedy of 9/11 that sealed the deal. Keith Zeier was being raised by a single mom. His best friend's father, Mike Crisci, acted as a father figure and always made sure Keith and his mom were taken care of. Mike Crisci was a lieutenant in the New York Fire Department; he died on 9/11.
So Keith joined the military with his mother's consent at age 17. He knew right away he wanted to enter Special Forces. In July 2006, 19-year-old Keith was in Iraq returning from a mission when an IED hit his vehicle, knocking him unconscious and causing shrapnel to tear through muscles and nerves in his left leg. The Foundation sent money to Keith's mother so she could be by his side. He says this meant everything to him, and to his mother.
In addition to his nerve-damaged leg, he suffered a traumatic brain injury, hearing loss and got an infection in his wounded leg, which ultimately caused him to contract Bell's Palsy. He had a long road ahead of him, so the doctors tried to manage Keith's expectations.
They said he would walk again, but most likely it would be with the aid of a cane. Keith pushed himself, fighting to go as far as he could go with his recovery.
It took him a year of struggling before he could even walk.
And then he decided to run. Not just to run down the block, but 100 miles (an ultramarathon) to raise money for the SOWF and bring attention to the Foundation. Keith chose the ultramarathon for the shock factor, figuring he could get a lot more publicity tackling an awesome challenge like a 100-mile race than he could with a 5K. And he did, raising $50,000. "I figured I would have to go big or go home," he said. The race, not surprisingly, was no picnic.
At mile 75 Keith was in pain, exhausted and dehydrated, and then he collapsed. Medical teams administered an IV and told him he needed to go to the hos-pital. Keith refused. "I never quit any-thing in my life," he says.
"I said, ‘I'll drop dead from dehydration before I quit this thing.'" Twenty-five miles later, he crossed the finish line.
Keith loved being in the Special Operations. "I miss the people; I miss the job," he says. If he hadn't gotten hurt, he would have stayed in the service.
Now he'll give back by becoming a nurse (which he decided to do after seeing what an impact nurses can have on a patient's life) and he supports his fellow soldiers by raising money for the children of those who have been killed. "I'm alive and a bunch of my friends aren't," he says. "That keeps me motivated."
These men and women are typical of Special Operations personnel; they don't rest on their laurels and they certainly don't hang around feeling sorry for themselves. Things happen and they deal with them; and even in their suffering they give back to try and make the lives of others better.
They also have an incredible ability to continue pushing themselves to be better people, no matter what their circumstances.
This pursuit of success is the essence of what the Special Operations Warrior Foundation is all about: It's giving the children of these individuals the tools to improve their lives and carry forward the achievements of the parents they have lost.
Those of us who aren't in the military probably don't think of those who serve as we go about our everyday lives but the contributions our soldiers make to this country are priceless. The things we take for granted, like being able to send our children to school, attend a concert, visit a ballpark, read the news, vote, and sleep in safety every night, is the direct result of a serviceman or servicewoman sacrificing their lives for us. Their families, too, pay a high price and any support we can give them helps honor the gifts these men and women in uniform bestow upon us. It can't be said enough that these are true American heroes and we owe them an enormous debt.
Members of the Special Forces and their families endure great burdens, but their commitment is inspiring. As they selflessly serve and sacrifice to maintain the freedoms upon which this country was founded, it is important that we support them by giving back and promoting the ideals for which they so valiantly and heroically fight. The Special Operations Warrior Foundation is dedicated to caring for the families of our heroes. Because freedom, as we all know, is not free.