Hope for the Warriors

Meet a woman who made it her mission in life to come to the aid of wounded veterans.

Posted in , Sep 25, 2012

Robin Kelleher

More than 49,000. That’s how many American servicemen and women have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. A sobering number.

Sadder still are the new battles they face to reintegrate into life at home, a life that, for many, has been forever changed by the physical and psychological wounds they’ve sustained in the service of their country.

My family experienced the effects of combat through multiple deployments. We were also living on a military base and surrounded by servicemembers and their families who were dealing with the severities of war.

Our close friend Marine Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Maxwell and his unit, based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, experienced the worst that combat has to offer. In 2004 shrapnel from a mortar attack left Tim with a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI), one of the signature combat wounds of these wars.

He didn’t get a big welcome-home celebration with his unit. Instead, Tim went from one military hospital to another for treatment, transferred from Germany to Maryland to Virginia.

For a while his wife, my friend Shannon, was making the five-hour drive from Camp Lejeune to the VA hospital in Richmond several times a week.

She never seemed to let it get her down, but I could tell it was hard on her—balancing being caregiver, wife and mom to two small children with her new role as a patient advocate, navigating a military medical system that wasn’t yet equipped to handle the surge of wounded returning veterans and the types of injuries they had.

“We’re blessed to have so much support,” Shannon told me in the fall of 2005, after she and Tim had returned back to Camp Lejeune. “But what about all the families who don’t? The ones who need someone to talk to? Someone to show them how to manage the paperwork and tell them about the best hospitals or how to talk to their kids about their parent’s injuries? It’s got to be even more overwhelming for them.”

Maybe it didn’t have to be. Maybe something could be done to give Tim and other wounded vets the welcome home they deserved and raise money to help their families. Something that would remind people how important our servicemembers’ sacrifices are. But what?

I was pregnant with my second child and at home on bed rest that fall, so I had plenty of time to think about it. An auction? A benefit dinner? A bake sale? Nothing seemed dynamic enough to make people feel involved.

Maybe it was because I missed being active myself, but one day in October I kept thinking about my favorite form of exercise pre-pregnancy: running. How could that help wounded vets? Wait! I had it! I grabbed the phone off the nightstand and called Shannon.

“What do you think about putting together a race?” I said. “The registration fees can go toward wounded servicemembers and their families and we’ll have a big celebration too, to welcome them home. People will see that they can do more than just write a check. They can run! As a show of support.”

The words tumbled out from somewhere deep inside me.

For a moment Shannon was quiet. Then she said, “Robin, I love it! Let’s do it.” Within minutes we had a name: Run For The Warriors. Over the next few weeks we tossed around ideas. Where would the race be held? How would we get the word out?

We turned to Bonnie Amos, wife of Lt. Gen. James F. Amos and the II MEF Commander for help. I e-mailed her and laid out our idea. She wrote back right away, demonstrating amazing support.

Major General Robert Dickerson, Commanding General of Camp Lejeune, gave us permission to hold the event there. A race wasn’t the typical type of event held on the military base, but both Generals were passionate about the needs of the wounded and their families, and offered their full support.

“No pressure,” Shannon and I joked. We talked to a few other military wives and got them on board. We picked a date for the run. What better than the next Armed Forces Day, May 19, 2006?

We had seven months to get everything lined up. All of us volunteers were motivated. But it wasn’t easy planning an event of this magnitude when we had families to care for, regular jobs to do. Just months in I gave birth to my daughter. With a toddler son to chase after too, I was exhausted.

And that was peanuts compared to what Shannon faced. She was my inspiration.

Still, I sometimes wondered if we were doing the right thing. Talking to God has always been part of my life, and I turned to him more than ever. Lord, will this event make a difference? Will people even show up? Please let it all work out...and keep an eye on the weather, okay?

Early that spring of 2006, Shannon, the other military wives and I spread the word about the race. We were stunned by the response. The entire community surrounding Camp Lejeune stepped up.

Church groups, the Junior ROTC, the Boy Scouts and other organizations came forward with donations. Now the pressure was on. This had to be a success.

On May 19 I arrived at the starting line at Camp Lejeune. Shannon and Tim—who’d made amazing progress in his recovery—and their kids were there too. Shannon and I took a look around. More than 2,000 runners...what a turnout!

But one look at the sky and our hopes crashed. It was overcast. Windy. You could feel the rain coming. Big rain. If the race got canceled and everyone went home, the vets wouldn’t get their celebration. People wouldn’t see the impact of the run. We would fail in our mission.

No, no, I couldn’t think like that. My faith kicked into high gear.

Lord, I prayed, please don’t let it rain. If it’s too late for that, please let people enjoy this run. Let it mean something. Just then, the Base Sergeant Major walked up. “What’s your rain plan, Mrs. Kelleher?” he asked. Marines always have a plan.

“There’s no plan for rain, sir,” I said. “We’re going to stay outside.”

With that, the skies opened up. The rain came down in sheets. Really, Lord?

Shannon grabbed my arm. “Look!” she said. Men, women, children, community leaders and more—they were all running, all drenched, all having a great time honoring our wounded heroes, laughing, yelling, singing. Willing to sacrifice. Who minded a little rain?

After all, wasn’t “Improvise, Adapt and Overcome” the unofficial motto of the Marine Corps? The first-ever Run For The Warriors raised over sixty thousand dollars. More than Shannon and I dreamed.

By the end of the year, we’d turned our group of military wives into a nonprofit called Hope For The Warriors. Run For The Warriors has become an annual event, held in cities across the country.

We added other programs too. Like A Warrior’s Wish, which grants wishes to severely injured servicemembers, Team Hope For The Warriors, which provides adaptive equipment and race support to ensure that our warriors are defined by their achievements rather than by their injuries, and the Outdoor Adventures Program, which gives injured heroes the chance to take part in outdoor sports.

The end goal of every program is the same: to restore self, family and hope for wounded servicemembers, their families and the families of the fallen, and help them with immediate financial and moral support as well as long-term needs.

Folks across the country contribute to Hope For The Warriors in their own personal way. Schoolchildren have started lemonade stands and illustrated cards. One military wife even wrote a cookbook and donated the proceeds to us. It’s amazing to see.

One thing I’ll never forget is the letter I received from Marine Colin Smith’s father. Colin had mobility and other issues as a result of TBI. At first, his dad didn’t want any help. But he quickly went through his retirement money and the family’s house wasn’t safe for someone in a wheelchair.

Then he found Hope For The Warriors. We provided them with a home loan so they could afford a customized handicap-accessible house.

“There aren’t words to thank you all enough for what you’ve done for us,” he wrote. “Because of you, my son has a safe place to live, and I know that we truly aren’t alone. That people really do care.”

That was when it hit me that this organization that started with a small group of military wives and a race in the rain had grown into something so much more, kind of like the mustard seed in the Bible that grew from a grain into a great tree with branches big enough to shelter all the birds.

We at Hope For The Warriors work tirelessly for the day there will no longer be a need for a nonprofit like ours. Until then, we’ll keep marching forward, like the brave men and women who serve our country.

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