- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009

On May 12, the nonprofit organization Operation Support Our Troops Inc. (OSOT) presented a van to Army Staff Sgt. Jason Letterman of Missouri and his wife, Elena.

OSOT gives the gift of mobility and independence to the severely wounded. The Chrysler Town and Country Van was specifically outfitted by Ride Away — a company that specializes in modifying vehicles — to accommodate Sgt. Letterman’s wounds.

During his third tour in Iraq, on May 22, 2008, Sgt. Letterman’s vehicle hit an improvised explosive device (IED). He suffered a broken right femur, right shoulder and left clavicle; he was left with a lacerated liver and impaired vision; he incurred a traumatic brain injury; and lost both legs above the knees.

“Day after day, year after year, these men and women sacrifice their lives so we can have our freedoms. It is only fitting that we deliver freedom back to them any way we can,” writes Ride Away President and CEO Mark Lore on the company’s Web site.

The van can help restore mobility. It has a navigation system, two DVD players (one for Sgt. Letterman and one for his three children), is wheelchair accessible with a ramp and will be outfitted with hand controls. This vehicle means independence for Sgt. Letterman and his wife, because it makes it easy for her to help him move from the hospital back to Fisher House, a private-public partnership that provides “comfort homes” at major military and VA medical centers.

Mary Kay Salomone — an Army daughter, wife and mother of two soldiers, whose family represents four generations of military service — received a call from an Army chaplain stationed in Germany in November 2001, asking for help. He wondered if she could send some basic supplies for the arriving wounded, such as T-shirts, sweat pants and underwear.

Mrs. Salomone called on her contacts at West Point, her friends and family for help. By Valentine’s Day 2002, she was so successful that she turned her operation into a nonprofit. Since then, she has sent nearly 2 million pounds of goodies and supplies, along with messages of thanks and encouragement to the men and women who are deployed and in harm’s way.

The Wheels for Warriors program was conceived in 2005 while Mrs. Salomone was on a visit to the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. She delivered model-car and airplane kits to the wounded to help them pass the time, give them a sense of achievement, and help with their fine motor skills.

She then also discovered another issue that required immediate attention. She was sitting at a bus stop, and within 45 minutes, she “saw not one with all four limbs or not in a wheelchair.” She was thinking “like a mother,” and wondered how they would get around, how they would get home, she said. She realized that the injured and their families lose a sense of independence, and that this loss is often debilitating. She decided the answer would be modified vans, tailored for every wounded person’s needs.

In 2006, a Wheels for Warriors program was added to OSOT’s many activities.

In addition to raising money to purchase the modified vans, the group also pays for a year of low-deductible insurance. Each van costs about $50,000.

In three years, the group has donated 16 vans. Three will be presented later this summer at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center in Tampa, Fla. Mrs. Salomone says she and her board raise money “one nickel at a time,” without using professionals. They raise funds through their Web site (www.west- point.org/family/support-our-troops) and sometimes with the help of volunteers. In January, $120,000 was raised when a sports club owner in Conn. organized a fundraising spin-a-thon. Another group of ladies knit blankets for donations. And OSOT does not forget to provide gifts for the families. With each presentation, children and the wives receive treats such as toys, books and gift certificates to spas.

The criteria for obtaining a van are simple: Any member of the armed forces who was injured in either Operation Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan is eligible. The 14-member board of directors also considers marital status, dependents, prognosis for recovery and special circumstances.

In 2008, Mrs. Salomone received the Jefferson Award for Outstanding Public Service. This honor, started in 1972 by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Sen. Robert Taft Jr., usually goes to large operations. But, in this case, the organization recognized the remarkable efforts of one woman to help wounded warriors.

• Linda Bartlett is a writer in Annandale. Her husband is a retired Army colonel.

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