Wednesday, July 20, 2005

In the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American people face returning troops seriously wounded in the campaign against terror.

Although the U.S. government takes care of disabled soldiers, many of whom will never fully recover, certain aspects of their lives, such as long-term financial stability, have escaped the notice of both the American people and the government, say veterans advocates.

Enter the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes. The organization was established by Roger Chapin to help recovering servicemen and women find their place in society and have financial freedom while dealing with their injuries.

“I don’t think it’s possible for anyone who hasn’t talked to them to understand the hardships they are enduring or their appreciation for help,” Mr. Chapin said.

Originally founded to pay tribute to the troops and “do things we didn’t think the government could be expected to do,” the coalition quickly moved to focusing on the soldiers’ finances, he said.

“We found out interviewing these guys that the wives had had to give up jobs in order to be able to become caregivers to their husbands,” Mr. Chapin said. “That, combined with no longer having combat pay, means they are losing over half their incomes, which are probably modest in the first place.”

Because of the financial hardships, Mr. Chapin said, many of the former soldiers find themselves facing trouble from credit-card companies or landlords over unpaid bills.

“We’re adding insult to injury here,” he said. “It’s one thing to get your leg shot off and another thing entirely to face getting your electricity shut off or evicted from your house through no fault of yours. The country needs to understand what these fellows are going through. We all need to do our part — I’ll get fired up about it.”

“This is one of several organizations that are doing enormous good for people in a very needy situation. And the government tries to help — it’s not that they aren’t doing a tremendous amount — but, as you might guess, as someone recovers, the long-term capacity is not there,” said retired Brig. Gen. Charles Fox, former commander of Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston, Texas. “So reaching out from the civilian sector is a tremendous asset.”

“I really believe that if President Bush personally was aware of this situation, he would be the first one to do something about it and demand that this whole situation be taken care of,” Mr. Chapin said. “Our job is to move things along, and the short-term solution is to get this thing started.”

The first step, Mr. Chapin said, is ensuring the public is made aware of the situation.

“The American people have not gotten this story — the media has not picked upon the financial hardships these guys are undergoing,” he said.

To bridge this gap, Mr. Chapin and board members of his coalition decided to sell red, white and blue wristbands for $2 each, with proceeds going toward helping the discharged soldiers.

To do this, they needed a venue. So an appeal was made to Giant Foods to host bins of the wristbands.

“Our first real public exposure is in Giant,” Mr. Chapin said. “They were wonderful — they jumped right on the bandwagon. We are in something like 500 stores, and [the wristbands] have done extremely well. They’ve sold, at the last count I have, roughly 300,000 bands since they started.”

At least $50 million is needed to help all the seriously wounded soldiers, the coalition said.

The Giant promotion, which started June 26, was to continue only through the beginning of July. However, because the bands have done well and because there are still bands left, Giant will continue to sell them indefinitely, said company spokesman Barry Scher.

The company was impressed by the coalition’s sincerity and enthusiasm for the project, Mr. Scher said.

The coalition is not the first charity work that Mr. Chapin, 73, has done. During the Vietnam War, he started the Vietnam Gift Pac program, which distributed more than 600,000 gift packages to some of the most dangerous areas of Vietnam.

Mr. Chapin thinks Americans, given the opportunity, will contribute willingly to worthy causes.

“One of several things I believe is that the American people are very generous, and when you give them a vehicle, they typically are very responsive,” Mr. Chapin said. “The coalition is just an extension of that.”

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