Thursday, August 31, 2006

Wheels for Warriors

This article comes by way of Jim Savard in Colorado. It is encouraging to see such grassroots support for our troops. It is also discouraigng to read one more story of bureaucratic bungling by the VA! The address to send donations to Wheels for Warriors is given at the end of this article, which appeared yesterday in the Providence Journal.

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Dave McCarthy: Local group provides keys to van for wounded Marine

NORTH KINGSTOWN, RI -- Thanks to a special lady from Rhode Island, a quadriplegic Marine from Wisconsin will receive heartfelt cheers -- and a set of keys -- when he's wheeled on the field at halftime of the Naval Academy-University of Massachusetts football game.

Former Sgt. Jason Wittling, of Mason, Wis., will be on the 50-yard line Saturday, Sept. 9, at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md., to take the keys to a specially equipped van. With a Marine escort, and a general or two at his side, Wittling will receive the $60,000-van courtesy of Wheels for Warriors, a division of the North Kingstown-based Operation Support Our Troops, which is supported by donations and in-kind services from the public.

"There are a lot of good people on this earth and they seem to find me," said Mary Kay Salomone, who heads Operation Support Our Troops out of her home in North Kingstown.

Salomone comes from and has an Army family (a son is in Iraq and another served there). She launched Operation Support Our Troops soon after the start of the war in Iraq. Now a national organization, she mails tons of comfort items each year to our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. She started Wheels for Warriors two years ago after visiting severely wounded servicemen and women at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.

The war in Iraq, of which Salomone is no fan, has produced at least 8,000 severely injured service members, she said, with many missing limbs from the explosive devices the Iraqi insurgents used against the Americans.
Wheels for Warriors gave out its first van in April. Sgt. Wittling will be the second recipient of America's generosity.

Wittling was injured on May 3, 2003, when he and a group of Marines were blowing up a cache of captured RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). They had set their charges, and attempted to make a quick getaway in their HMMWV (High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle), better known as the Humvee.
As the Humvee sped around a corner, the Marines were suddenly confronted with an embankment they didn't know was there. The Humvee rolled over. Sgt. Wittling suffered a broken neck.

"He has a little movement in an elbow and a wrist," Salomone said. "But he's not going to get better."

Jason Wittling, 32, lives in Mason with his wife Maureen and their two children, Cody, 9, and Emily, 6. Mason is in rural northwestern Wisconsin. "There's Jason, the family and the moose," Salomone said, with a laugh.
But, she noted, the rural setting provides a serious reason for her board awarding the Wittlings the van. It's a long, long way to rehab and doctors' appointments.

The van cost Wheels for Warriors $38,000. It paid for such "extras" as leather seats, making it easier to slide Jason in and out of the van. The van will also have a DVD player for those long trips.

"Jason and the two kids can watch movies while Maureen does the driving," Salomone explained.

Wheels for Warriors may also have to shell out $22,000 for the van's wheelchair lift. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs normally pays for wheelchair lifts, but the VA has lost Jason's paperwork, Salomone said.
She said dealing with VA is "a nightmare."

"If the VA doesn't come up with the $22,000, Wheels for Warriors will pay and hopefully get reimbursed some day," Salomone said. "I'm not going to take the van away from this kid."

Referring to Jason's case as "one small case," Salomone asked, "What's happening to the rest of our vets. They are making it so difficult for veterans to get what they deserve. That's a disgrace."

Said Salomone: "The VA is underfunded, understaffed and overtaxed, but that's not the fault of the young soldier or the young Marine. A wounded veteran should not have to wait six, ten or eleven months for something he's entitled to."

While Wheels for Warriors' fundraising efforts produced the first two vans -- and has a third that's on the way -- the flip side is what others provide.
Jason Wittling and his family will be spending a week in the Annapolis-Washington area. Hotels are donating the rooms for their stay.
They'll be flying first class -- thanks to Northwest Airlines and one of its pilots.
Steven Middleton, who heads the Wheels for Warriors board, is a 1974 Naval Academy graduate. He graduated with the Northwest pilot. He contacted the pilot to see if he could get the Wittlings' tickets.

Northwest agreed to fly Mr. and Mrs. Wittling. The pilot said he would send Salomone a check for the other two seats. She expected $600. He sent $5,000, and told her to put what's left over in the van fund. Salomone said Annapolis was picked as the delivery site because of the connection between the Navy and the Marine Corps. Naval Academy graduates can opt to be officers in the Marine Corps. And, she said, "The Marines are part of the Navy. They're close to the Navy guys."

On the Friday before the game, the Wittlings will have lunch with the midshipmen. Then, Salomone said, "They'll get their van Saturday in front of the whole stadium."

A Marine general will stand with the Wittlings on the 50-yard-line, and the commandant of the Marine Corps may also make an appearance, scheduling permitting. In Washington, the Wittlings have asked to visit Arlington Cemetery and the Marines' Iwo Jima monument.

"They will have a Marine escort the whole time," Salomone said. "The Marines are taking care of one of their own."
With help from an Army brat in North Kingstown.

Donations can be made to:

Wheels for Warriors, PO Box 404, North Kingstown, RI 02852.

Dave McCarthy is the Journal's South County regional editor.

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Are there any readers of The White Rhino Report who have some pull within the VA bureaucracy? It does not seem right that "lost paperwork" should be allowed to stand in the way of getting the wheelchair ramp paid for.


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