Marine's flash of inspiration: Ride to East Coast to aid comrades
by Thomas K. Pendergast
After more than a decade of wars and despite more money, America's veteran services are fighting to stay afloat through a tsunami of damaged men and women filling veterans hospitals and standing in unemployment lines.
According to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) statistics, medical spending for veterans doubled between 2000 and 2009, from a little more than $20 billion to more than $40 billion each year. By 2010, the number of veterans with service-connected disabilities that were added throughout the past decade was approaching a million, bringing the total number to more than three million veterans with disabilities, nationwide.
The VA says its total funding has increased dramatically, from $67.3 billion in 2005 to $126.9 billion in 2010, even as the total number of veterans has steadily declined by about three million over the last decade.
Perhaps more disturbing is the VA statistic that "Gulf War II" veterans faced a 13 percent unemployment rate in 2009, well above the national average and before the recession bottomed out.
This year, the VA plans on treating a total of 5.6 million veterans, a 1.4 percent increase from 2011. The roughly one million veterans now receiving in-patient treatment is projected to increase by three percent, or about 30,000 people.
"These guys are coming home with life-crushing injuries, double amputee, triple amputee … but the biggest problem that these guys are facing is something that they can't control," says Tim Tuomey, a retired Marine, as he sits outside a Clement Street cafe on a chilly and cloudy afternoon. He holds his dog Reno on a leash, speaking passionately while keeping his eyes on people walking by and going around the black Labrador Retriever.
"Where these guys are really getting hurt is financially. When they come home their wives are having to work two or three jobs. The kids are not being fed. The kid wants to go play football. He should have a new pair of cleats. He should have the gear that he needs. That's where the Semper Fi Fund comes in and fills those financial gaps. It's a great organization from that standpoint alone."
They also fund rehabilitation centers, he says, and they help families unite with wounded Marines and sailors when they first arrive back in the country.
Tuomey served in a Marine Corps special forces reconnaissance unit between 1986 and 1990.
On April 20, the 46-year-old veteran will ride his bicycle across the country, with a plan to start from the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training School in Bridgeport, California, and ending up at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, by June 22. He hopes to raise $50,000 for The Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.
Calling the trip "operation awakening," he's seeking donations and sponsorships. So far, he says he has collected more than $19,000 and picked up six sponsors, including the Clement Street business Kumquat Art, which is run by his wife Keverne.
"Of course Kumquat is my biggest sponsor," he says, with a big smile. "Without her the whole thing wouldn't have gotten off the ground. My wife is the reason why operation awakening, in my opinion, is successful from a support standpoint."
Tuomey said he got the idea while hiking alone over a glacier on Mount Starr, in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. He wasn't inspired so much by the majestic scenery or the snow he was walking on, as by what happened after some of it gave way beneath his feet and he fell into a hole and couldn't get out.
"I didn't get out until the next morning. A lot of survival things go through your head and one of them was 'what do I love the most? What do I consider important? What's the most tangible thing to me? My wife, my family and this brotherhood that I belong to," he said.
"Sitting in that hole ... maybe it was dehydration or exhaustion but deep down inside I could feel a sense of humiliation for myself and the brothers who have passed on before, that I served with, who are just kind of laughing at me and saying 'why are you feeling sorry for yourself? You can get out of this situation and when you do, make something of it, make something bigger of yourself with this. Do something bigger with yourself and quit feeling sorry for yourself.'"
When he finally did get out, it took another three hours to get his gear up and then another 12 hours to get back to civilization because a broken toe slowed him down.
"I think everybody finds their power in certain survival situations," he says. "Mine is in the deep appreciation of what other men have done before me and realizing those sacrifices and the sacrifices that continue on today. … Those men and women who are serving today, at home, injured. Please, it was small potatoes compared to what these folks are going through."
The bike he'll be riding more than 3,000 miles has a Fuji Silhouette frame, with a customized H Loop Bar handlebar system installed by one of his sponsors, Jeff Jones Custom Bicycles of Medford, Oregon. He'll sit on a Brooks B-17 saddle and he'll carry his gear in Ortlieb Pannier bags on Old Man Mountain racks.
Tuomey says he's still squaring up his finances to pay for the trip, which will cost about $1,500. Much of that money has been raised by selling T-shirts.
To monitor his progress, Tuomey will be carrying a small Dell laptop computer and a GPS tracking device with a SPOT Satellite GPS Tracker, which relies on dedicated satellite technology. On his "operation awakening" website there will be a link that will take viewers to a web portal where they can keep tabs on his progress to within a quarter of a mile.
As well, people can ride along with him or sign his journal, which he will present as a gift to the Wounded Warrior Battalion-East regiment at Camp Lejeune.
Tuomey says right now the important need for vets who have seen combat is to reintegrate them into society.
The VA admits that one of the lingering issues plaguing veterans in recent years is a backlog of disability claims. Some veterans have been forced to wait months or even years for the VA to determine their level of disability, so payments to them can begin. Many of these disabled veterans are separated from the military while they wait ... perhaps not getting a paycheck.
"Something happens to the brain if you don't help a brother or sister out quick enough," Tuomey warns. "They're going to go out and just drift and that's when problems begin."
He mentions Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the 38-year-old Army soldier and father of two accused of an early morning shooting rampage that killed 16 Afghan civilians, many of them children. The New York Times reports that Bales had already served three previous combat tours in Iraq and been wounded twice, one a brain injury received when a Humvee he was riding in hit an improvised explosive device (IED) and turned over, and the other when he lost part of his foot in an explosion.
The New York Times also reports that his house had recently been put on the market as a "short sale," meaning he and his wife owed more money to the bank than what it could sell for.
The day before the incident, Bales reportedly watched one of his comrades get a leg blown off from a buried mine.
"It was horrific what happened," says Tuomey, about the slaughter of Afghan civilians. "He did that over there and that's wrong but imagine if he came home and did it in a shopping mall? These guys need, most importantly, money, and then they need resources to reintegrate back into the world. "
Tuomey said many veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan will have similar issues to deal with, and he describes some of them as "ticking time bombs."
"They couldn't see that IED coming," he says. "They couldn't know that their friend was going to be killed that day. We can see it. So, let's get in front of that bomb. Let's diffuse it and take it apart and take resources and reintegrate them back into society like they did in 1945. Let's get these men and women back into the work force."
For more information or to make a donation, go to the websites at www.opawakening.com or www.active.com/donate/operationawakening. Checks can be mailed to Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, 825 College Blvd., Ste. 102, PMB 609, Oceanside, CA 92057. Donation is for "operation awakening."