Syracuse University Magazine

Committed to Those Who Serve

Unique alumni-led initiatives enhance life for troops and veterans

By Renée Gearhart Levy

There are more than 2.5 million veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, one of the most diverse groups to have served our country. Novel initiatives by six Syracuse University alumni have improved the quality of life for troops while deployed overseas and are helping this growing demographic lead fuller, healthier lives once home.

Meek3.jpgHelping Veterans Take Their Next Steps Forward  |
Chris Meek ’92
Soldier Strong

The Goal: Help veterans get back on their feet, both literally and figuratively. The group has funded and awarded nearly $2 million in medical devices over the last two-and-a-half years, including prosthetic devices to individual veterans and bionic exoskeleton suits—which allow paralyzed individuals to stand and walk—to military rehabilitation centers. In an effort to fill in gaps in the post-9/11 GI Bill, the organization also established three scholarship funds, including one at the Maxwell School to support veterans who want to continue life in public service as private citizens.   

Backstory: In 2001, Meek ran the floor trading operations for Goldman Sachs at the New York Board of Trade. On 9/11, he was across the street on a conference call when terrorists struck the World Trade Center. As he fled to his apartment uptown, he recalls the people running into the buildings to try to save others. “I knew that at some point I’d need to pay it back, but I didn’t know how or when,” he says.

How It Started: Fast forward to 2009. A mentor, who happened to be a retired Marine captain, shared a letter from a Marine in Afghanistan asking for tube socks and baby wipes for personal hygiene. The Marine’s unit was living out of Jeeps and hiking all day; they didn’t have enough water to drink, let alone shower. That struck Meek as a simple way he could help. Soldier Socks, which started as a grassroots effort packing baby wipes and tube socks in his driveway, collected and shipped more than 70,000 pounds of wipes and socks to 73 units in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2009 and 2015. When the withdrawal of troops began, Meek switched his focus to the needs of veterans returning to the United States.

Impact: Out of roughly 46,000 military-focused nonprofits, Soldier Strong is the only one that focuses on medical devices. To date, the organization has donated 12 exoskeleton suits, providing roughly 25,000 paralyzed veterans with the ability to stand and walk again. “When you see somebody who was injured serving our country and told they’d never walk again do just that, well, that’s why we do what we do,” Meek says. ■

Peace-Palace1.Hanna.jpgThrough Bunkers in Baghdad, Joseph Hanna G’14 has provided U.S. soldiers with tons of golf equipment, so they can swing away in their leisure time.

Sharing His Love for the Game  |
Joseph Hanna G’14
Bunkers in Baghdad

The Goal: Provide soldiers, veterans, and wounded warriors across the world with donated golf equipment as a means for much-needed stress relief and injury rehabilitation.

Backstory: A sports and entertainment lawyer and avid golfer, Hanna was struck by a 60 Minutes segment that showed soldiers in Iraq hitting golf balls into the desert as a way to relieve stress during downtime. Shortly after, he saw an article in Golf Magazine that highlighted a makeshift driving range in Iraq. He had old equipment that was gathering dust, and figured plenty of other golfers did as well.

Joseph HannaHow It Started: Initially, Hanna reached out to family, friends, and the pro shop at his golf club for donations, but soon secured sponsorship from such manufacturers as Callaway Golf and LoudMouth Golf Pants, and began fundraising to pay for shipping. He created the Bunkers Buddies program to engage students from elementary school to college to help collect equipment and monetary donations. Donations are sent to Hanna’s law firm, Goldberg Segalla in Buffalo, which provides office and equipment-storage space for the nonprofit. “Many of the firm’s attorneys have connections to the military, either as former members themselves or through family,” Hanna says. “This is their way to give back.”

Impact: Since 2008, Bunkers in Baghdad has sent more than 6.5 million golf balls and 480,000 clubs to soldiers in 37 countries and to wounded warrior programs across the United States. Each shipment includes letters and cards from students who are part of the Bunkers Buddies program, which counts 300 schools in 47 states. The best part is the notes he receives in return. “They’re so appreciative,” says Hanna, who enrolled at the Maxwell School to earn an M.P.A. degree so he could better lead his nonprofit, commuting three days a week from Buffalo while working full time. “The program gave me a much stronger knowledge base for fundraising and the administrative aspect of running a nonprofit,” he says. “It’s amazing how a simple idea can snowball.”  ■

jim-1024x994.jpgCreating Community Connections  |
Jim Lorraine ’85
America’s Warrior Partnership

The Goal: Empower the veteran population of partner communities through a model program that includes mentorship, collaboration, advocacy, and education to ensure veterans have successful access to the benefits they are entitled to. While the program currently operates in six communities—Augusta, Georgia/Aiken, South Carolina; Pensacola, Florida; Charleston, South Carolina; Greenville, South Carolina; Orange County, California; and Buffalo—Lorraine’s goal is to create tools and offer guidance so any interested community can replicate the program. “Our model is unique,” he says. “We want to create an ecosystem of veterans who give back to other veterans and to their communities.”

Backstory: Lorraine was on active duty with the military for 23 years, serving as an Air Force officer and flight nurse, including operations in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. During his last two years, he served as a special assistant to Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, leading his program for warrior and family support, and as deputy command surgeon for the United States Special Operations Command. For Lorraine, this work is personal. Both his wife and his father are veterans. “My father served during World War II on two battleships that sunk, but never set foot in a VA hospital because he didn’t know he was eligible,” Lorraine says.

How It Started: After retiring from active duty in 2005, Lorraine continued government service as a federal employee as founding director of the U.S. Special Operations Command Care Coalition, a wounded warrior advocacy organization that he ran for six years. After relocating to South Carolina, Lorraine got involved with the Augusta Warrior Project, where he applied what he had learned at Special Operations Command with notable results, reducing the homeless veteran population in Augusta from 195 to seven in under a year.  The Wounded Warrior Project asked if the efforts in Augusta could be applied on a larger scale, and in 2014, Lorraine launched America’s Warrior Partnership.

Impact: Since it was established in February 2014, America’s Warrior Partnership has underwritten and built its Community Integration Program in its six partner communities with more than 19,000 veterans, two-thirds of whom are post-9/11 vets. Of those post-9/11 veterans, 75 percent of those eligible have enrolled in VA health care; 64 percent have enrolled in VA benefits, and a third of those eligible have enrolled in educational programs and are on track to graduate. In addition, 187 homeless have been housed, and 1,478 unemployed veterans have secured jobs. “What we’re doing is making people aware of existing services available to every veteran, and then helping these veterans take the next steps to make use of them,” Lorraine says.  ■

SisSoldier.jpgMyraline Morris Whitaker G’74 (right) at a massive packing party at the American Medical Association’s headquarters in Chicago, June 2010.

Packaged With Care  |
Myraline Morris Whitaker G’74
Sister Soldier Project

The Goal: Improve the quality of life for female soldiers of color serving in the Middle East by providing them with hard-to-come-by African American hair-care products.

Backstory: Whitaker was COO of a small group of hotels in the Central Coast of California when one of her executives shared a story about her roommate in the Marines—an African American woman—burning her hair with chemicals to keep it straightened to comply with military standards. “It struck me as how difficult it was for her to do her hair, which is something all black women can relate to,” Whitaker recalls. She went home and did a search on the website, where military personnel make requests for care packages. “When I zeroed in on African American women, every single one of them asked for hair-care products,” she says.

How It Started: Whitaker began calling hair-care companies asking for donations and organized “packing parties,” where groups of friends would gather to pack the items and pay for postage. The first was her book club. After the Los Angeles Times wrote an article about the effort, Whitaker began getting requests from groups across the country. “This was something that resonated for black women. All I asked was that they commit to packing and shipping 100 packages,” she says. “The smallest packing party was with about 20 local people. The largest was on Long Island with a group that did 1,000 packages and the post office came to us.”

Impact: From 2008 until 2013, the Sister Soldier Project sent more than 7,000 hair-care packages to military personnel in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, and ships at sea. “We were told that every package touched eight to 10 people because the women always shared,” says Whitaker, who received thousands of thank-you notes in return. “These women were so appreciative that we understood their needs. They wrote about their families left behind and the work they were doing overseas.” The project ended in 2013 after the draw down of troops; Whitaker recently donated her collection of letters and photos to the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. “Someone doing research is going to be interested in this segment of the population,” she says. “These women made history and their stories will be told forever.” ■

Winston-Fisher_2.jpgWinston Fisher ’96 on the road, competing in the Race Across America.

Competing for a Cause  |
Winston Fisher ’96
Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund

The Goal: Raise money for the treatment of traumatic brain injury (TBI). The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund financed construction of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), which opened in 2010. The 72,000-square-foot facility, located adjacent to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, focuses solely on the treatment of TBI. In 2013, the fund began a campaign to build nine Intrepid Spirit Centers at major military bases around the country to act as satellite treatment centers.

Winston FisherBackstory: Fisher, a trustee of both Syracuse University and the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, is a self-described adrenaline junkie. When a friend proposed competing in Race Across America—a 3,000-mile bicycle race—he was all in, for a cause. In 2014, his eight-person team won both its division of the race and the highest fundraising total. In 2015, his four-person team earned the same distinctions. Both years, Team Intrepid Fallen Heroes netted $650,000 to help treat veterans suffering from TBI. “Anyone can run a race for charity, but this was a way to do something outsized from a fundraising perspective,” Fisher says.

How It Started: The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund was founded by the Fisher family in 2000, and has provided $120 million to support veterans of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and their families through death benefits; the construction of the Center for the Intrepid, a $55 million physical rehabilitation center at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio; NICoE; and the Intrepid Spirit Centers. “I love that we as a family have been able to help the military’s medical system by giving things that are profoundly changing the lives of people,” Fisher says.

Impact: Through two Race Across America competitions, Team Intrepid Fallen Heroes raised $1.3 million, donating 100 percent to the charity. This year, Fisher is organizing a 200-mile running race around Central Park, which he hopes will raise another $650,000 through the four-person teams that participate. “It’s not political,” says Fisher of his motivation. “I don’t care if you’re for the Iraq War or against it, these people went over to serve our country and they came back injured. We need to help them.” ■

Matt-ndJanis_Ghazni_Afghanistan08.jpgMatt Zeller G’06 (left) and his Afghan translator Janis Shinwari

Honor Bound  |
Matt Zeller G’06
No One Left Behind

The Goal: Assist Iraqi and Afghan translators who served U.S. troops in gaining asylum in the United States and help with resettlement. “We’re the only veterans’ organization that works with this population,” Zeller says. “These people either make it to America, or they die a horrible, brutal death because they’re viewed as spies.”

Backstory: Zeller spent 2008 as an embedded combat advisor in Afghanistan, training Afghan security forces on intelligence. It was a dangerous assignment: The unit his replaced had a 50 percent casualty rate. Zeller says his life was saved two weeks after arriving when the Afghan who would become his translator shot two approaching Taliban. “He told me I was a guest in his country and he was honor bound to take care of me,” Zeller says. “I asked to have him assigned to me for the rest of the year.”

How It Started: In 2013, Zeller was working as a management consultant in Washington, D.C., when he received a Facebook message from his former translator. There’d been a draw down on troops and he would lose his job in three months. He’d received threats from the Afghan army—“leave when the Americans do or we’ll sell you to the Taliban as an American spy.” Zeller had been helping him with his visa since he’d left, but now went into overdrive. Three months later, Janis Shinwari arrived in Washington, essentially with the clothes on his back. “I quickly learned there was no resettlement agency that helped people like Janis,” Zeller says. “They’re basically given a visa and abandoned.”

Impact: Drawing on media attention from Shinwari’s story, Zeller used money raised to start No One Left Behind. The organization helps translators who make it through the rigorous visa process resettle in the United States by providing short-term housing, furnishings, a car, and assistance with employment—a cost of $15,000 per family. Since 2013, the organization has helped resettle more than 1,500 people in nine cities across the United States, 1,335 in the last year. His goal is to assist the remaining 40,000 still in the Middle East, within 10 years. He says it’s not only a moral obligation, but also one of national security. “People talk about how it’s a matter of national shame what happened to the Vietnamese who stood with us after we left that war,” Zeller says. “If we don’t honor our commitment to these translators, who is going to help us next time?”  «