Thursday, November 18, 2010

Spirit of America

Old friend and fellow former Army officer/Iraq vet Chris Hellie recently sent me a link to an organization he's involved with, named Spirit of America. A nonprofit group, Spirit of America's objective is to provide charitable goods directly to the people in war torn regions, in order to augment the efforts of American military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Africa. Frankly, I can't think of a better tool in a counterinsurgency fight - the red tape of securing funds and goods in the military is exhausting and usually takes months, and an organization like Spirit of America can fill that crucial time gap, both in pragmatic terms of distribution, and in the more abstract sense of relationship-building.  

But don't my word for it! I'm sitting in a New York apartment in my boxers, after all. (Admit it, Internetz, you love that mental image. Chicken legs are all the rage.) Take it from someone who just finished Embracing the Suck in Afghanistan, like Marine commander Lt. Colonel Ben Watson, who wrote the following in an email to Jim Hake, Spirit of America's Founder and CEO:

Our success was enabled by a remarkable group of men, and you are one of them.  The support that SOA provided throughout the deployment was (and I am not patronizing you) truly significant in enabling us to accomplish our mission here.  There were 5 functioning schools when we arrived; now there are 20 with approximately 3,000 students (increasing every day), and the "adopt a school" program ramping up.  We could not have gotten there without your support.  The Afghan Security Forces are increasing their size and operational capability; the radios you provided have helped to make that happen.  The swords and K-bars helped to cement key relationships that will benefit the next battalion and help to keep positive forward momentum in the Garmsir team of ISAF, ANSF and local government officials.  Those are but a few key examples of how SOA has helped us to succeed here. 

The full email can be found here, at Spirit of America's blog. Check out their full site if you feel so inclined, I think we'll be hearing a lot more from them in the months and years to come.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Veterans Week

Even though this is my second year in New York, this is the first year I participated in Veterans Day/Week events, as I was maniacally and broodily editing the Kaboom manuscript at this point last November. (City Girl just informed me this has been "a positive evolution." Not sure I appreciate the inferences in that, but so it goes.) Anyways, as a member of IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America), I was able to participate in some really memorable events that were both humbling and inspiring.

I spent Tuesday in DC, doing book signings at Fort Belvoir (holy field grades without combat patches, Batman!) and the National Press Club. I caught the midnight train back to NYC (surprisingly, some really strange people travel at this time ... like man talking to a toy parrot strange), and prepped for the IAVA's Heroes Gala. Held at Gotham Hall in Midtown, the Gala is part celebration, part benefit. Hosted by NBC's Brian Williams, other speakers included IAVA's founder and director Paul Rieckhoff, motivational speaker and Iraq vet J.R. Martinez, former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher, and Wes Moore, author of the book The Other Wes Moore. Moore's speech proved the most memorable, as he recounted his journey from a tough upbringing in Maryland, to Valley Forge Academy, to Afghanistan, and finally to New York, where he works at Citigroup and serves as a IAVA board member. And he told a dick joke!

As the Gala ended, Williams announced that the after party would be held at a nearby Irish pub called the Galway Hooker. I *may have been* (see: was) the guy in the back of the room hooting loudly at this point. Great merriment ensued and new friends were made, all with the strictest adherence to moderation, of course. (Hi, Mom!)

The next day, the IAVA gathered at the Flatiron Building in anticipation of marching in the Veterans Day Parade. Military veterans are old hands at the "Hurry Up and Wait" game (pictured), and the IAVA gurus did a good job keeping the masses entertained, with trivia, rousing speeches by Rieckhoff, and free burritos. In fact, the burritos proved so enticing that a group of homeless individuals joined our group. Unable or unwilling to turn away street people that may very well have been veterans themselves, the volunteers handed the homeless dudes burritos and IAVA sweatshirts for good measure. (Note: homelessness isn't funny, it's a very serious concern for many people and many combat veterans. But this situation was pure comedy, and if you disagree, I. Will. Fight You.)

About 1:30 p.m. or so, we got the word - time to march. And march we did, straight up Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, following an Air Force Reserve contingent of some sort. I'm not the biggest rah-rah guy in the world, and I tend to avoid public displays and gatherings for a variety of reasons, but I'll admit ... this was different. The people that were there genuinely cared, and wanted to do nothing else but convey that to us. WWII, Korea, and Vietnam veterans, many of whom had gone ahead of us in the Parade (and ahead of us in the metaphysical sense), saluted as we walked past. The old stirrings of pride and honor returned, and it felt right, you know? Really an experience I'll treasure for the rest of my life.

But of course, I am also an irreverent asshole that values absurdity, so I was on the lookout for ridiculous signs. Mission Accomplished! My favorites:

1) Rabbis 4 Troops!
2) Support US Toops in Afghaniland
4) If I'm a Babykiller, what does that make Michael Jackson?
5) Bring back the Draft! Make future politicians dodge!

It turned out that this was the biggest Veterans Day Parade in the history of New York, and many people reported that the IAVA group received the loudest and most enthusiastic response, something City Girl - who was sequestered at the corner of 52nd Street with her aunt - confirmed. From there, we moved to the post-Parade party, at a place called Providence, where IAVA had catered food, Miller High Life, and most importantly, seats.

I hung out at Providence for a few hours, but had to leave early, to participate in a Veterans Day reading at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn. From there, I went home, crawled into home, and entered an exhaustion-induced coma. I don't have access to Rip-Its anymore, these long days take a toll, you dig?

Big ups and mad props to everyone who made Veterans Week so memorable! (Yes, props are best when angry.) And, of course, my thoughts, prayers, and respect go out to those that went before. See you at Fiddler's Green.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A True War Story

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.  There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil ... You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don't care for obscenity, you don't care for the truth; if you don't care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.

- From Tim O'Brien's short story "How to Tell a True War Story"

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Internetz does Unintentional Comedy

Things that are awesome - when the New York City NBC affiliate interviews you.

Things that are even more awesome - when the online gurus at said television station mix up their Veterans Day stories, so you accidentally age by 60 or so years.


In their defense, I am rather cranky and love naps.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Stand Up for Heroes Report

The disconnect between civilian America and the military community is as real as it is palpable, but that doesn't mean there aren't good people and organizations out there trying to fill that gap. Bob Woodruff and the various organizations involved with Stand Up for Heroes are living proof (the Supreme Court believes corporations are individuals, so that adjective works in this modern age, yo) of such.

The evening got off to quite a start - on my way to dinner, someone jumped in front of a Subway, causing the entire line to stop while, uhh, the mess was cleaned up. Needless to say, I cabbed it, instead.

The fine people at Sears Holdings,, Euro PR and the Woodruff Foundation hosted the dinner at an excellent restaurant in the Upper West Side, called Compass. (open bar + rare meat + potatoes = happy writer.) It was here I met up with some other guest milbloggers, such as Bouhammer and Colonel and Mrs. Kissinger of Military Avenue.  I also had the chance to speak with Tom Aiello, a Sears Holdings Division Vice-President, West Point graduate, and former Army combat engineer officer. Sears employs over 20,000 veterans, and its' Heroes at Home project is three years running, but Aiello said the company asked itself "how can we help those veterans still serving?" This question is what led Sears to team up with the Woodruff Foundation.

A very short walk separated us from the restaurant and the famous Beacon Theatre, the location of the official STFH event. (Even the non-Cav scouts were able to navigate their way there, amazingly. The infantrymen, of course, were disappointed to be unable to SMASH SMASH anything along the chosen route.) We strolled on in, walking past General and Mrs. Casey and Bob Woodruff (pictured) who were getting the red carpet treatment, and found our seats.

I know I'm guilty of hyperbole, but I don't think I've laughed so hard in one night in a long, long time. Jon Stewart, fresh off his Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear domination, struck the perfect balance for a charity event host between funny and substantiative. Though Joel McHale's stuff clearly was hit-and-miss for the crowd as a whole, I've always loved his off-beat and quirky approach. And Jerry Seinfeld, who closed the event, brought down the house in classic Seinfeld "are you kidding me?!" style. But it was Bob and Lee Woodruff who earned the top comedic prize for the evening, showing a comfort and understanding of military humor and camo culture that is frankly a pretty rare thing in the brights lights of NYC. Mrs. Woodruff constantly joked about leaving Bob for one of the active duty servicemen seated in the front three rows of the theatre, and Bob only shrugged his shoulders and went along with the ribbing.

And then there was the music. Tony Bennett (yes, that Tony Bennett!) crooned like it was 1960, and gave a shout-out to his fellow Grunts in the audience. And then there was Springsteen - I now understand why every woman with a pulse in the Western world shudders at the mere mention of his name. A very memorable experience, and as Mr. Aiello recalled the next day in a telephonic interview, "his music is just so soulful." Well said.

Beyond the festivities though, was an auction and fundraising for the Woodruff Foundation. The guitar Springsteen used this night went for $140,000 by itself (!), just the tip of the iceberg in a night of very generous donations. If one needed visual proof of where these funds went, they simply needed to walk amongst the many wounded warriors attending the event - men and women who wouldn't be capable of doing so without the support of organizations like the Bob Woodruff Foundation, and people like Bob and Lee Woodruff.

Thank you to all those involved in putting together Stand Up for Heroes - it was both an amazing and a humbling experience. Please support the Bob Woodruff Foundation if you can!

Photo credit - image taken by Marcos Rivera and is property of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Stand Up for Heroes 2010

The blogging life isn't usually very rock n' roll, unless you consider Cheeto Puffs and singed leg hairs glamorous. Tomorrow evening though, that changes, at least temporarily. Thanks to the kind people at Sears and their Heroes at Home program, I'm getting an amazing opportunity to watch some of America's funniest comedians and most talented musicians perform for an honest to God altruistic cause - a total win-win. That's right Internetz, I'll be attending the fourth annual Stand Up for Heroes, hosted by Jon Stewart, and featuring Jerry Seinfeld, Tony Bennett, Bruce Springsteen, Max Weinberg, and many others. Put on by the Bob Woodruff Foundation and their public education movement, Stand Up for Heroes is a benefit whose sole purpose is to provide help to America's wounded veterans and their families.

Woodruff, of course, is the ABC News television journalist who was seriously wounded in Iraq in January, 2006, when his convoy struck an IED. Receiving shrapnel wounds in addition to the blast impact, doctors had to remove a piece of his skull to reduce the damage from brain swelling. Woodruff spent 36 days in a medically-induced coma, and then spent months dealing with memory loss and expressive aphasia. Thirteen months after he was wounded, Woodruff returned to Iraq to visit American soldiers, certainly a testament to his strength and resolve.

During Woodruff's recovery process, he and his wife, Lee, established the Bob Woodruff Foundation, whose vision "is to provide resources and support to injured service members, veterans and their families -- building a movement to empower communities nationwide to take action to successfully reintegrate our nation’s injured heroes ... back into their communities so they may thrive physically, psychologically, socially and economically." Pragmatically speaking, they accomplish this by working with smaller, more local charities that lack the funding and name power of the Woodruff Foundation.

I spoke with Woodruff via telephone this afternoon, and he couldn't have been nicer or more forthcoming. He admitted that his personal road to recovery has been "filled with a lot of frustration" and that "though many things came back to me with time, there are some things that I'll never get back." He's also very blunt about the financial realities of veterans' care. Even after the wars end, Woodruff said, "these issues will not be going away. We're talking trillions of dollars (in care) long-term." Hope persists, though, and the Woodruff Foundation is a part of that. "If we can encourage some of these injured vets to get immediate help, be it for physical wounds or invisible ones, that'll get them when they need it the most and also reduce that (financial figure) in the long-run."

If you're in the NYC area, there are still a few tickets to Stand Up for Heroes 2010 available. And I'd encourage all of you to check out the reMIND website. "People want to help but often don't know how," Woodruff told me. "Our goal is to show them how and to remind them that they need to."

Some disclaimers:

1) I like Woodruff, and not because he's got a dapper smile, or because he's a fellow Theta Chi Brother, or because he's also a Taji vet. (The IED explosion that injured him occurred near Camp Taji, in fact.) I like him because of all three of those things.

2) As a part of attending the Stand Up For Heroes event, Sears Holdings offered to provide my travel and accommodations to New York and will provide a FlipCam to capture on-site footage. I almost wish I didn't already live here, so I could take them up on the room and board offer. No complaining here though, since they got a car service to drive me to my apartment from the Beacon Theatre after the event. Good, generous people at Sears and Euro PR.

3) Pabst Blue Ribbon recently bought the rights to my ab muscles. (6-pack? Get it?) Stay tuned for corporate-approved tattoo and/or sticker photos!