When a former CIA operative tried to offer financial help to recovering troops, and bureaucracy got in the way, he did as he was taught: "I ended up using my intelligence training just to get my own government to do its job," said Eric Egland, an Air Force Reserve lieutenant colonel.
Lt. Col Egland, 40, first launched Troops Need You in 2007, and applied to be an approved nonprofit at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He was told to come back the following year while the hospital finished drafting plans to include private charities in their work.
Egland insists he wasn't asking for anything complicated, he just wanted the hospital to hand out the details of his nonprofit when wounded troops needed help, as an alternative to government backed assistance programs. "I believe the American people have an important role to play through private charity as well," he said.
Despite the roadblock, he devised a plan to help anyway. "I figured phase one is we have to raise awareness, so you raise awareness through information operations," said Egland. He ended up going around the bureaucracy by taking out a full-page ad in the Journal, the newspaper of the Bethesda medical center. Several families got in touch.
Phase two, he said, was "'Recruit and activate an intelligence asset to penetrate the target.' If you're going in to help a bunch of wounded marines, who do you send in? A wounded marine."
Egland met Marine Sergeant Jimmy King while King was recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center. He and his wife were about to lose their car, which was towed after his disabled placard expired. The Kings didn't have the time or money to retrieve the car, and when the fines hit $3000, the state of Virginia threatened to sell it. King got in touch with Troops Need You just days before the sale. The nonprofit argued the fine down to $1600, raised the money and wired it over.
The following Monday, Egland said, King got an eviction notice on his apartment. "This happens all the time," said Egland. "They can't take care of the everyday administrative things in life. One surgery, there's complications, they have to have follow-up surgeries, they're totally consumed, and so they fell behind on their rent." Again, the nonprofit sprang into action, negotiating with the landlord and raising enough money to cover the missed month of rent and keeping a veteran on his home. "So $3,100, on time, on target, saved a healing marine's house and car," said Egland.
Egland decided King was the perfect "intelligence asset," sending the marine and his wife into to the Bethesda medical center to spread the word. They came back with more families in need.
Egland said he hoped the nonprofit would eventually reach each of the families of America's 40,000 healing troops, and provide everything from handwritten notes of support to home-cooked meals to money to meet their needs. "Over 30,000 people have stepped up as battle buddies," said Egland, referring to the title given to donors. Many, he said, donate between $10 and $35. Some donated thousands, or simply asked a recovering service man or woman what they needed, went shopping on their behalf.
Despite some reluctance to accept charity, "80 percent of the people at Walter Reed and Bethesda have some serious unmet needs," said Egland.
These needs can range from furniture, to travel expenses, to a wedding. One serviceman "wanted to marry his sweetheart and just didn't have the money to do it right," said Egland. "We don't offer one specific thing, we just listen and deliver, we say, 'What do you need to move forward in your life?'"
Eric Egland attended the United States Air Force Academy after high school, eventually becoming an intelligence officer, and went into counter-terrorism, which he said, developed his entrepreneurial mindset. Because of this, he said, he understands how to harness technology.
"Al Qaeda orders stuff from Silicon Valley online. They buy American technology using American sources like Amazon, and then they ship it to say, Kuwait, and then they use it in roadside bombs, and they make them more advanced than the billion-dollar jammer that we [have]," said Egland.
"There's that sort of sick irony there where it costs lives, so I'm thinking "hey, let's don't we use our own tools to help our troops whether they're healing or they're overseas.""
So he uses technology to foster a culture of transparency. For example, each time he raised money to help out Marine Sergeant King, he posted receipts online so donors could immediately see where their money went. "These are everyday Americans who want to help in a meaningful way, we don't have corporate sponsors. These are small donors," said Egland.
Egland said he wants the nonprofit to be transparent to build trust, he said, so when people donate their hard earned money, they know it's being well spent and well stewarded. "It's a great way for people to go beyond the symbolism, and say 'I want to thank you and contribute for what you need.'"