Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) began on October 7, 2001, when American and British warplanes commenced combat missions against Al-Qaeda and Taliban targets throughout Afghanistan. Not long thereafter, American and allied ground forces began engaging enemy positions at Mazar-i-Sharif, Qala-i-Jangi, and Tora Bora. The United States was at war, a war that would grow all the more intense in March 2003, with the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).
Casualties are inevitable in any war, and the United States has sustained serious losses over the past seven years. According to the Department of Defense, as of late August 2008, over 3,700 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines have been killed in action, while over 15,000 more have been seriously wounded (i.e., their wounds have prevented them from returning to duty within 72 hours).
In a sense, the number of wounded personnel represents a welcome development. Thanks to improvements in body armor, rapid-response medevac, and emergency trauma treatment, today many more American service members survive wounds that would have been fatal just a few years ago.
Welcome as these developments may be, they exact a responsibility—a responsibility, as Abraham Lincoln put it, “to care for him who shall have borne the battle.” Wounded American veterans gave their youth and their health to the service of their country. Their country owes them a debt of honor. And it is a debt that many donors are eager to help pay.
A variety of grantmakers and nonprofits are already working hard to ensure that the nation’s newly wounded veterans receive the assistance they are due. By partnering together, these organizations are committing themselves to providing the care and resources that our young men and women, as well as their families, need and deserve.
Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund
The largest foundation-led effort to help service members is the Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund (IADIF), a Los Angeles-based component fund of the California Community Foundation. The fund was established in 2006 by a small group of donors whose intent was to help meet some of the needs—from financial hardship to physical and mental trauma—of the men, women, and families affected by deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq.
So far the fund has distributed close to $200 million to over 50 nonprofits addressing a variety of needs facing OEF/OIF troops, veterans, and their families. Nancy Berglass, principal of Berglass Community Investment Consulting, directs the IADIF program. She notes that the fund has made grants in the areas of direct services, core operating support, public awareness, re-granting and financial assistance, and policy and advocacy. “We are attempting to improve outcomes for those with deployment-related needs, strengthen the field of organizations that serve them, and increase public awareness so that individuals and grantmakers alike can make smart investments in nonprofits that address the unmet needs of our troops and vets,” says Berglass. “It’s a relatively broad stroke, but one, we think, that has demonstrated a tremendous and holistic impact.”
One organization the fund has worked closely with is the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). IAVA is a New York-based nonprofit that is heavily involved with veteran advocacy and outreach. It is particularly focused on health care, with a special emphasis on traumatic brain injury (TBI). IAVA has worked closely with the national media to call attention to the TBIs suffered by many servicemen. (Bob Woodruff, an ABC correspondent who was seriously wounded in Iraq, worked with IAVA to report a major story on the issue.) IAVA convinced the Department of Defense to institute mandatory TBI screening, and has posted detailed information about TBI symptoms on its website. “We were able to force traumatic brain injuries to be a top issue,” says IAVA executive director Paul Rieckhoff.
For Rieckhoff, the fight to improve returning veterans’ health care is personal. He served in Iraq during the opening year of the war, leading 30 men in combat. What happened to his soldiers when they came home left Rieckhoff deeply discouraged.
“These guys were not getting enough help,” Rieckhoff recalls. “I had a squad leader who lost both legs, another guy got divorced, another guy committed suicide. So it started out as a personal issue, but it grew from there.”
One outgrowth of Rieckhoff’s commitment has been the involvement of IAVA in the legislative debate over veterans’ issues. It lobbied for the recently passed G.I. Bill, and has published a series of “Issue Reports” on other policy issues affecting veterans, as well as papers on TBIs, mental health care, and strategies for negotiating the bureaucracy surrounding veterans’ benefits.
IAVA has also been at the forefront of harnessing the power of the internet to the service of wounded veterans. “We want to be a cross between the local VFW and Facebook,” says Rieckhoff. “It is the next generation model of helping veterans in an online media environment.” To that end, IAVA uses its website (iava.org) as a clearinghouse for up-to-date information for recent veterans. Aside from its comprehensive list of resources available to veterans—including information on health care, housing, employment, and legal assistance—it also publicizes a variety of events and fundraisers for soldiers. From a recent benefit concert in Richmond, Virginia, to Pat’s Run, a 4.2-mile run/walk held to honor Pat Tillman, in Tempe, Arizona, and San Jose, California, iava.org actively promotes veterans’ events nationwide.
Another group working to support wounded veterans is Operation Homefront. Its specialty is helping the families of injured service members. The organization was originally founded in southern California in 2001 and provided emergency assistance to families in need while servicemen were deployed.
“It’s Murphy’s Law,” says Mark Smith, executive director of Operation Homefront. “When a husband is deployed, the car breaks down, the roof springs a leak, and the computer blows up. And now the service member is thousands of miles away from home. The family might be in an area where they really don’t know anybody. How do they even begin to deal with those situations?”
Through its 30 state chapters and approximately 4,500 volunteers, Operation Homefront helps provide some of those services. But the organization has since broadened its mission to help provide financial assistance, and even temporary housing, for wounded veterans and their families.
According to Amy Palmer, executive vice president of Operation Homefront, the organization helps bridge the financial gap for wounded veterans and their families while they are working through all of the paperwork to receive disability payments.
“For a lot of veterans, our help is a one-time deal,” says Palmer. “While they are dealing with all of their financial and governmental paperwork, they need assistance with the rent and utilities. It can be pretty hard to support a family on $640 per month.”
Other families, however, are in more dire financial straits, especially when the veteran has suffered severe injuries and faces months of painful rehabilitation. Often the family wants to be near the service member, but lives too far away from the medical facility where the veteran will recuperate.
“A lot of the time they live in another area,” says Palmer. “Their house is in another state and they just cannot afford to live in two places. They just need somewhere to stay.”
To that end, Operation Homefront has established Operation Homefront Village. Each village provides fully furnished two- and three-bedroom apartment units, free of charge, to veterans and their families. The first village opened near Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, in March 2008. A second village opened near Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., in July 2008. The villages offer a wide variety of activities and services, including swimming pools, a community center, play-space for children, and shuttle service to nearby medical facilities.
But Operation Homefront does more than provide free accommodations for the families of wounded veterans. It also works hard to help residents get ready for the challenges they will soon face reintegrating their wounded veterans into the civilian world. Operation Homefront offers free classes on job placement, counselors to assist with benefit claims, and educational assistance for scholarships and college enrollment. In order to retain their housing privileges, residents must participate in these classes and programs.
“They are not going to be living here permanently,” Palmer underscores, noting that the leases run on a month-to-month basis. “But we want to help them with their housing, and we want to help them reintegrate back into civilian life.”
Demand for space has been overwhelming. Both villages are filled to capacity. And while Operation Homefront is looking at ways to expand what it can offer, Palmer acknowledges that demand is simply outstripping supply.
Palmer has witnessed the success of Operation Homefront Village first-hand. She tells the story of a service member in San Antonio who was diagnosed with a serious incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). His disability payment was $700 per month. He had a wife, four children, and a disabled sister who depended on him. The family was at a breaking point.
“For people in that situation, there really aren’t a lot of good options,” says Palmer. “The wife called me almost every day. When we officially opened, they moved into what was supposed to be the model unit. Without the village, they would probably be out on the streets.”
The Invisible Wounds of War
PTSD and TBI are growing concerns for many donors looking to help wounded service members. These issues have led the Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund to underwrite into the deep psychological scars of war.
Chief among IADIF’s grants was a research award of $3.5 million to the RAND Corporation for Invisible Wounds of War, a comprehensive study of the mental health effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report focused on PTSD, TBI, and major depression, examined the prevalence of these conditions in returning service members and the economic costs they incurred, and identified gaps in care throughout the system.
The study unearthed some startling conclusions. The researchers found, for example, that 18.5 percent of returning service members meet the criteria for either PTSD or depression, and 19.5 percent reported experiencing a probable TBI during deployment. (About 7 percent meet the criteria for both a mental health problem and a possible TBI.) While the report notes that the military’s ability to treat these injuries has improved, it emphasizes that gaps in access and quality remain. Only slightly over half of those who suffer from PTSD or depression and have sought help have received even minimally adequate treatment. Many more wounded soldiers do not attempt to find any help at all, partly out of concern that mental health counseling can have a negative impact on their military careers.
The report claimed that while treatment for these disorders can be expensive, the price of not providing treatment is even greater. The study notes that “if 100 percent of those needing care for PTSD and depression received treatment . . . the cost of depression, PTSD, or co-morbid PTSD and depression could be reduced by as much as $1.7 billion—$1,063 per returning veteran.” The study concludes with a series of recommendations to help deal with these psychological wounds, including increasing and improving the capacity of the mental healthcare system, changing policies to encourage more service members and veterans to seek treatment, delivering evidence-based care in all settings, and investing in research to close the remaining knowledge gaps.
The report and its conclusions have already received significant media attention and interest from Capitol Hill and the Pentagon. “We have received a lot of attention about this report, its findings, and recommendations,” says Terri Tanielian, co-director of the study and a senior research analyst in RAND’s Military Health Policy Research division. “There is a good deal of legislative activity now about ways to improve policy to address these important issues.”
Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund
Traumatic brain injuries are also a major concern for the New York-based Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. Intrepid recently broke ground on the $80 million National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), to be built adjacent to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Its goal: to be a world-class facility for the treatment of traumatic brain injuries. The 72,000- square-foot center will be equipped with $25 million worth of state-of-the-art technology, which will be used to examine and diagnose TBIs, as well as to research and create new treatments for major head traumas. Over 500 soldiers per year are expected to pass through its doors when it finally opens. Groundbreaking took place in June 2008, and construction should be completed in 14 months.
NICoE represents a unique partnership between Intrepid, donors, and the military. Intrepid is raising funds from individual donors and grantmaking foundations, and has taken the lead in the construction of the building. “The military has great faith in our motives,” says Bill White, president of Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. “They know we are just trying to help the troops and their families.”
About half of the $40 million has already been arranged from private donors. Helping to lead Intrepid’s fundraising efforts is Arnold Fisher, a senior partner at Fisher Brothers, a New York-based real estate partnership. Fisher serves as the honorary chairman of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund and is the nephew of Zachary Fisher, who established the original Intrepid Foundation in 1982 with his wife, Elizabeth. From 1982 until Zachary’s death in 1999, the couple made contributions of $10,000 to $25,000 to the families of service members who lost their lives in the performance of their duties.
After Zachary Fisher’s passing, his nephews—Arnold Fisher, Richard L. Fisher, and Tony Fisher—took over the foundation, continuing its work. In October 2003, the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund was established as an independent entity, and, after legislation enacted in May 2005 significantly increased the military’s death gratuity, the fund redirected its efforts to support catastrophically disabled military personnel and their families.
Since 1990, the foundation has been at the forefront of building houses that serve as a “home away from home” for the families of wounded and hospitalized service members. (The idea is similar to the concept of the Ronald McDonald Houses.) Today, there are 40 Fisher Houses in operation, with plans to build another 22 houses in the next four years. Since the program began, the houses have provided nearly three million days of lodging to over 110,000 families. The facilities are located on land provided by the Department of Defense, built with funds from private donors, and handed over to the services or the Department of Veterans Affairs, who agree to operate and maintain the houses in perpetuity.
In similar fashion, once the funds are raised and NICoE is complete, Intrepid will hand it over to the Department of Defense for its ongoing administration. “We are going to provide our veterans with a facility that will offer the best medical care on the planet,” says White.
Intrepid has already successfully opened one such medical facility: the Center for the Intrepid, a medical facility for recently wounded veterans who lost limbs or suffered massive injuries to their extremities. Intrepid built the four-story, 65,000-square-foot, cutting-edge rehabilitation center near the Brooke Army Medical Center. Ground was broken in October 2005, and the $50 million center opened in January 2007. Its construction was funded entirely by private donors, and the center features clinical space, computer-assisted rehabilitation facilities, a gait lab, and a prosthetics fabrication lab—as well as a pool, an indoor running track, and a two-story climbing wall. The center aims to provide veterans who lost limbs in the service of their country with the opportunity to rebuild their strength and return to productive lives.
But Intrepid plans to do more than offer healthcare interventions. Working with the Department of Defense, they are creating a tracking system that will allow the military to keep tabs on the mental health of soldiers throughout their entire careers. The system is intended to track any and all possible brain injuries, from pre-enlistment screening to post-conflict tracking. “We want veterans to have great care, but we also want to help them when they return to civilian life,” says White. “We are tying a string to their big toe, and the string will go out as far as it needs to.”
Veterans’ assistance has proven to be an area with many opportunities for collaborative partnerships. Take the McCormick Foundation of Chicago. McCormick has actively worked with outside partners on one of its signature veterans’ outreach programs, Welcome Back Veterans.
For its Welcome Back Vets campaign, McCormick has partnered with Major League Baseball to raise awareness about veterans’ health issues. Over the Fourth of July weekend, all of the Major League Baseball teams hosted local Welcome Back Vets events and fundraisers at their ballparks, with all the proceeds going to nonprofits that serve wounded warriors. Grant recipients included both direct-service nonprofits and more long-range projects that research PTSD and TBI.
The idea to work with professional baseball originally came from Fred Wilpon, owner of the New York Mets, who convinced other club owners to take more interest in veterans’ health care. In order to help jumpstart fundraising, McCormick has pledged to match 50¢ for every $1 raised, up to the first $4 million, for Welcome Back Veterans.
David Grange, president and CEO of the McCormick Foundation, says that programs like this show the importance of working together with strategic partners on national issues. “This is not an Army issue or a Marine Corps issue,” Grange insists. “This is not just the responsibility of the armed forces. This is a national issue and a national responsibility. We are going to partner with other organizations to raise awareness nationwide. All of the organizations involved bring something to the partnership. That synergy is where you make strides. In these cases, one plus one doesn’t equal two. It equals three or four.”
Coalition for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans
Helping to coordinate all of these efforts across the larger philanthropic community is the newly formed Coalition for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans (CIAV). Comprised of nearly 50 IADIF-funded agencies nationwide, CIAV is the brainchild of Berglass and the leaders of Swords to Ploughshares, a San Francisco-based agency that provides housing, substance abuse counseling, and advocacy for homeless veterans. CIAV seeks to bring together all of the major nonprofit groups devoted to helping service members, in order to strengthen the infrastructure for nonprofit support to troops and veterans. The coalition held its first meeting in May 2008.
“We want to act as a policy and community hub, a clearinghouse for all the groups dedicated to veterans,” says Amy Fairweather, director of the coalition. “We think it is important to combine our efforts so that we can serve veterans and their families in the best possible way.”
A recurring issue that the CIAV confronts is the somewhat complicated relationship between the military and the nonprofit sector. The military, proud of its own traditions and resources, has a culture that is often reluctant to ask for outside help. “While America has a longstanding tradition of civilian support for the armed forces, there has never been a formal relationship between the military and organized philanthropy,” says Berglass. “Our work may not always be easy, but it’s proven innovative and effective. Every new partnership and every grant helps pave the way for new and innovative public/private partnerships between our two sectors.”
Moreover, nonprofit terminology can be off-putting to the military. “Charity” has a precise meaning within the nonprofit sector, but many veterans know the term in its ordinary sense. They are extremely resistant to the idea that they need to depend on help from others.
“We are a charity, but our work is not a charity,” says White. “When you have a young soldier who has come back from war with no arms or legs, he or she is not interested in being a charity case. That’s why we emphasize that it is our duty to take care of these vets. They have given so much for us. We owe them.”
Such mutual misunderstandings are exacerbated by the unfamiliarity of many civilians—including the philanthropic community—with military culture and traditions. “Most people don’t have members of their family in the military,” says Fairweather. “They don’t know about the complex culture of the military, the issues they face, their struggles and hardships. Greater public understanding is essential,” says Fairweather.
In an effort to introduce these issues to American civilians, the Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund is working with the Ad Council and IAVA on a major public awareness campaign that will reach out to OEF/OIF veterans and assist them in their efforts to secure the health care and services they need, while simultaneously educating the American public about the issues facing today’s veterans.
“By working with the Ad Council, we are hoping to create an iconic campaign about our veterans’ needs—one that will create an indelible imprint on the minds and hearts of those who are in a position to make a difference,” says Berglass. For over 50 years, the Ad Council has delivered seminal public interest media campaigns, including the “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk,” “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” and Smokey the Bear’s “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” commercials.
Even with all of the challenges, nonprofits on the ground believe that some progress is being made, one step at a time. All of the organizations praise the foundations that have already taken the initiative to support veterans. “The Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund has just been amazing. Thank God for them. I just wish we had 10 other groups like them out there,” says Rieckhoff. Palmer agrees. “They were just a godsend,” she says. “We would not be able to serve families without them.” Both Rieckhoff and Palmer hope that other grantmakers will take notice.
Looking to the future
The willingness of civilians to support homecoming veterans is every generation’s debt of honor to the nation. Foundations and the nonprofit sector could play a major role in meeting the challenge. But reaching that goal will take more than token gestures.
“A lot of people buy bumper stickers that say ‘Support the Troops.’ Don’t get me wrong, I like those bumper stickers. But we need to do more than just put a bumper sticker on a car,” White observes. “Let’s face it. Each of those bumper stickers costs about $2, and every time I see one, I think about all of the money that could have gone to an organization that is spending 100 percent of its resources on helping veterans. We need to take care of these soldiers, and it’s not clear that the government is up to the challenge. We all need to make sure that we treat these vets right.”
“We are going to have 2 million new veterans in the not-distant future,” says Rieckhoff. “There is a lot of work ahead. It is going to be a generational challenge to meet our obligations to our troops. Our veterans are going to need help. Hopefully, we learned some lessons from the past.”
Bryan O’Keefe is a writer in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.