It’s often called the “nerd prom,” the one time of the year when Washington elite, Hollywood celebrities and powerbrokers from around the country descend on the nation’s capital to break bread and make light of an often tense and divisive political atmosphere, when even sharp barbs at the leader of the free world are in bounds.
In the midst of the glitz and glamour, The Washington Times used the weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner as an opportunity to thank the nation’s veterans and their caregivers, the unsung heroes of the Wounded Warriors campaign.
On Friday, The Times, in partnership with the Freedom Alliance, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, Mission BBQ and the Washington Redskins Salute program, welcomed veterans and their families for a private event featuring country music star Sunny Sweeney.
“We’re proud to have our wounded vets, soon-to-be retired vets and caregivers here,” Times President and CEO Larry Beasley told the crowd.
John Solomon, the newspaper’s editor and vice president for content and business development, said the idea of using the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner weekend as an opportunity to salute Wounded Warrior caregivers sprung from an encounter he had this year with two women at Mrs. Dole’s foundation who shared personal stories of caring for their wounded husbands.
“Their stories educated me about the tribulations and triumphs of the caregivers, many of whom have stepped away from their careers to provide a 24-hour, seven-day support system for our wounded heroes,” he said. “They pick up where the VA and Walter Reed and the medical system leave off, and they are juggling jobs, children and caregiving with no complaint.
PHOTOS: Salute to Wounded Warriors
“They’ve become the unsung heroes of our wartime era, and they are making 30-, 40-year commitments to spouses, children, brothers and sisters who returned from the battlefield as wounded heroes. We want to use our bullhorn to educate the country about this amazing community and the needs it faces going forward.”
Mrs. Dole’s foundation has taken up the cause of the caregiver, issuing a detailed study a year ago on the community’s long-term needs and empowering nearly 200 caregivers to be ambassadors to Congress, the Veterans Affairs Department and the Pentagon as foundation fellows.
The Times announced at Friday’s concert that it is preparing a 31-day campaign to publish the story of one Wounded Warrior caregiver a day on its front page for 31 consecutive days.
Miss Sweeney of Austin, Texas, who blazed onto the country music scene in 2010 and by 2013 was nominated as one of the industry’s rising female stars, performed a few songs for the veterans and their families, as children danced and sang along in the crowd.
“My stepfather is former military and [both] my grandfathers were in” World War II, said Miss Sweeney, who recently toured with Miranda Lambert. “Just the fact that [veterans] have gone and sacrificed the things that they [have], it touches my heart completely, so anytime anybody asks me to do anything regarding any solider, I’m 100 percent all in.”
Miss Sweeney also has a personal connection to veterans issues: her husband, Jeff Helmer, served in the Air Force before joining the Austin police department, where he now serves as a sergeant.
Everyone at Friday’s event had some connection to veterans and their families. Mission BBQ, which formed on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to focus on catering events for the military, police and firefighters, donated enough food for a feast to complement Miss Sweeney’s entertainment.
The Redskins Salute program, which focuses attention on active-duty and retired military members, donated game tickets to all the wounded warrior families in attendance, sending Ginny Jurgensen, the granddaughter of the legendary quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, to deliver the news.
Calvin Coolidge, executive director of retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North’s Freedom Alliance, spoke of how a soldier’s injury can turn family life upside down, a challenge his organization tries to address head-on.
“Oftentimes when their loved one is injured, they leave their life behind and they come to Walter Reed and spend months, if not years, while they take care of their kids and their spouse to see them through recovery,” Mr. Coolidge said. “[We] thank the unsung heroes of our military community: the spouses and caregivers. We do that through events, whether it’s taking an injured soldier, sailor, airman, guardsman or Marine out hunting, or taking the whole family out for a vacation and allowing them to reconnect and heal. And that’s what we’re all about. We’re honored to be a part of it.”
The big night
Miss Sweeney and her husband were among The Times’ guests at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner on Saturday evening at the Washington Hilton on Connecticut Avenue, joining the likes of Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Hollywood figure and poker celebrity Dan Bilzerian, another champion of active-duty and retired military members.
Mr. Bilzerian this year offered his personal help, including a helicopter, to help transport a Marine who was freed from captivity in Mexico.
“The best thing about [the dinner] is the mix of people,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “I’ve always had an appreciation for that fact that Hollywood and those in the entertainment industry have a fascination with the political side of what happens in Washington, and those in Washington have a fascination with those in Hollywood and the entertainment industry. And this is the one time they all come together.”
With a smile, Mr. Hutchinson added, “And hopefully we won’t influence each other very much.”
Fox News political and international affairs analyst Monica Crowley traveled from New York for the event, which she said she greatly enjoys.
“It’s always fun to see colleagues and friends out of the workplace, in a different context,” said Ms. Crowley, who is also The Times’ online opinion editor. “It’s nice doing things outside out of the workday context and have some fun with people you know and respect. It’s more loose, and everybody’s dressed and looking pretty.”
“This is the Super Bowl of politics,” said Rod Nenner, vice president of the Washington Redskins.
Walking the halls of the Washington Hilton, the famous and the important connect with colleagues and make friends prior to the official dinner, which is open only to C-SPAN reporters.
Longtime “Today” show weather guru Al Roker told The Times that he appreciates the “fantastic” food, and former Olympic figure skaters Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski, in addition to soaking up the atmosphere, took a moment to discuss the issue of persecution of gays in Russia, where last year’s Winter Olympics were held.
“I spent a great deal of my competitive life as a figure skater and my life in general in Russia, so I have a bit of a different experience than the average LGBT person going to Russia,” said Mr. Weir, who was in a recent film called “To Russia With Love,” which examines the situation of gay Russians who have competed in the games.
“For me, I’ve never had a struggle in Russia, but it is still a struggle for people there,” he said.
“[I’m] really happy to be at this event,” said his companion, Miss Lipinski. “When I got the call, I screamed. It’s overwhelming.”
MTV personality Sway said he appreciated the variety of people, which he said reflected the country’s “big melting pot. People with different opinions, different views politically, musically, culturally, coming together and breaking bread and having a meal and telling jokes. That’s what the makeup of this country is supposed to be all about.” Sway said it was amazing for a rapper from Oakland, California, to be dining with the president. “That’s not a bad life,” he said.
Real estate mogul Donald Trump, who is building a luxury hotel in Washington set to open next year, said of the long-reported rumors that he will seek the Republican presidential nomination next year: “We’re looking at [running] very seriously.”
When asked by The Times about a lawsuit to have his name removed from his former properties in Atlantic City — although his name still appears on the Taj Mahal — Mr. Trump bemoaned the boardwalk town, where he made a great deal of money but which he believes is in epic turmoil.
“I got out seven years ago, and I made a great decision. I’ve been given a lot of credit for that,” he said. “My timing was good because I could see what was going to happen to Atlantic City. And it’s very sad when I look at it, but [my former business partners] haven’t.”
When asked about the future of the city that made him a fortune, he said he believes it will be “very tough.
“They made a lot of mistakes, [and] that’s why I got out. I made a lot of money in Atlantic City, I had great success there, but … I left. I feel badly because Atlantic City is warm to my heart,” he said.