In an era when partisan bickering and gamesmanship seem to have become permanently rooted in the American political landscape, examples of our shared values as a nation come as welcome reminders that there is still much that binds us together as a people.
Who can forget the spontaneous, raucous salute for firefighters, EMT personnel and law enforcement officers – local, state and federal alike – in the hours after the second Boston bombing suspect was taken into custody this past April? A similar celebration by grateful homeowners greeted local and federal “smoke-jumpers” who risked their lives fighting the recent forest fires along Colorado’s front range that damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes.
As we celebrate our nation’s birthday over the Fourth of July holiday in the coming days, it is worth keeping such moments in mind. They provide a powerful antidote to the shrill harangue from some quarters that would have us believe the best days of our nation are behind us.
There are countless everyday reminders of our national cohesiveness, ones that just don’t get the full-blown media attention of fugitive terrorist hunts or devastating natural disasters. Indeed, there is no shortage of examples of neighbors helping neighbors in this country when such help is needed most.
But that’s nothing new. Americans have always been a generous lot.
In his signature work “On Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville noted all the way back in 1838 how remarkably giving Americans are to charitable causes – helping their neighbors, towns, schools and churches almost reflexively – much more so than their European counterparts. This trait persists to this day. While western Europeans generally look to their governments first and foremost for solutions to civic problems, Americans are much more likely to look first to themselves.
After a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, opinions on the merits of those conflicts remain as deeply divided as they were at the outset. Still, no matter what their view on how we got into those wars, most Americans remain strongly supportive of the men and women in uniform who fought and sacrificed in battle.
And when it comes to those wounded in body or spirit, Americans of all political stripes have stepped up to support and volunteer with organizations that pick up where the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) leaves off.
One such organization is the Wounded Warrior Project. It was founded in 2003 by a group of friends in Roanoke, Virginia who wanted to help the earliest wounded soldiers recovering from their injuries in Afghanistan and Iraq. At first, their efforts were small: care packages filled with everyday comfort items from back home. But from those modest early acts of kindness and gratitude the organization has grown into one that has touched the lives of thousands of wounded service members and their families. And the scope of their efforts has grown to include a range of services to help wounded veterans navigate the often-difficult transition back into civilian life.
Programs fall into four main categories, focusing on mind, body, economic empowerment and engagement. Taken together, they seek to provide an integrated, rather than piecemeal approach to recovery.
Such personalized, comprehensive efforts are where private groups like The Wounded Warrior Project and The Gary Sinise Foundation really shine. The military and the VA may be well-suited to helping soldiers recover physically from their injuries, but as a massive bureaucracy with a backlog of over 50,000 claims just for the Tampa Bay Region’s Bay Pines facility (which includes southwest Florida in its service area), that type of holistic approach is hopelessly out-of-reach. With the current backlog, it can take up to nine months just to get a response to a basic claim.
Such delays bring with them a level of frustration that is the last thing a veteran needs when trying to get their life back on track after a traumatic physical or emotional injury.
Actor Gary Sinise founded the organization that bears his name in response to just that sort of bureaucratic Rubik’s cube. In addition to his role on the television series CSI: NY, he is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Lieutenant Dan in the film Forrest Gump, where he played a Vietnam war era platoon leader who lost both his legs in combat. Sinise was so inspired by the public response to the character he brought to life that he committed himself to helping real-life wounded soldiers get the help they need to once again live meaningful, productive lives. His efforts also honor the memory of his brother-in-law, a fallen hero. In fact, his CSI NY character Matt Taylor and his son are both named after him.
Sinise, an accomplished bass player, was in Florida in early May to perform with his “Lieutenant Dan Band” to raise money to build a new “smart” home for Mike Nicholson, a Marine sergeant who lost three limbs to an improvised explosive device (IED) while serving in Afghanistan in 2011.
Speaking with local media in Tampa before his band’s performance at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, he addressed the backlog of Veterans Administration cases:
“Has it ever not been a problem?” he asked rhetorically. “The VA should be the first place a veteran should go for immediate assistance and support. When a veteran feels like they have to go to the VA and fight over benefits or support or help or whatever, then the VA isn’t serving its function. The fact is there is still this always-ongoing problem with veterans trying to get benefits they were promised. That’s sad. They served their country, go off to war, get shot, see their buddies get killed and come back and have to fight with the VA over what they are supposed to get? That shouldn’t happen.”
But perhaps the frustration Sinise expresses is a backhanded blessing of sorts. When the injustice of such delay and denial becomes widely known, it provokes just the sort of response that brought thousands to Curtis Hixon Park to help Sergeant Nicholson get the kind of home than can accommodate his special needs.
Americans are an impatient lot. They seem to have a tacit understanding that people work better, smarter and faster than large bureaucracies. It seems inconceivable that any such plodding agency could ever meet the specific, individual needs of someone like Sergeant Nicholson, much less all the thousands of others like him.
But for a motivated group of committed volunteer citizens led by someone like Sinise, nothing is impossible. In fact, there’s something of the Marine Corps credo of “No one left behind” to it. People can care for each other in ways that huge bureaucracies are functionally incapable of.
And the action inspired by that understanding is an example of American exceptionalism at its best. It is engrained not just in our founding document, the Constitution, but in our national character as well.
If you would like to learn more about or contribute to either The Wounded Warrior Project or The Gary Sinise Foundation, their websites are a good place to start. Their web addresses are www.garysinisefoundation.org and www.woundedwarriorproject.org