It was 8:45 at night when Carrie Strickland set aside The Blind Side to answer the call she'd dreaded and yet somehow expected. "My son said, 'I think its Daddy,'" she told me two years and a day after she heard the news. In fact, the Red Cross was on the other end, calling about her husband, Legrand Strickland, who seven months earlier, in August of 2010, had deployed to Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne. "They said, 'your husband has been wounded. He's in critical condition. We don't know if he's gonna make it'," she said.
An IED had exploded under his Humvee. Five days later, when she saw him for the first time after the blast, she confronted the gravity of his injuries: both legs had been severed, his liver and kidney lacerated, hip and spine fractured, jaw shattered, and his brain so swollen from the impact of slamming into the Humvee behind him that parts of his skull had to be removed and eventually replaced.
Today Strickland uses prosthetic legs and a wheelchair to get around, and suffers from a seizure disorder that's typical of those who've endured a traumatic brain injury. His home in Bentonville, Arkansas is not set up for wheelchairs, and visiting his mother takes work because she lives a few flights up. Other than his physical limitations, "he's the same person," Carrie said. "His attitude is, 'I'm blessed -- I'm going to live life to the fullest.'" On the second anniversary of his injury, Carrie, "Grand," and teenage sons Noah and Nathan told stories about the day and remembered the two men who died in the same explosion that wounded Strickland, Captain Daniel Whitten and Private Zachary Lovejoy. "Grand tries not to think about himself," Carrie explained in an email after the anniversary. Next year at this time he wants to be running again.
As Trish Lawton told me about the day her husband was killed in action, she paused periodically to soothe the eight-month old baby girl she's fostering. Trish's husband Garrett died in Afghanistan three-and-a-half years ago when his Humvee packed with ordnance drove over a bomb and exploded. His sons Ryan and Caden were six and four at the time, and today Caden has little memory of his Dad. "My children have lost the most," Trish told me in early February about the forever impact of her husband's death. "They'll never know Garrett's unique laugh -- a full-belly, heart-warming laugh -- they're never going to remember or know that laugh," she said.
What can ordinary Americans, those of us who have lost our treasure but never our blood in this nation's wars, do to help the Strickland and Lawton families -- and the thousands of unknown others -- who live with the wars' consequences every day?
Besides paying taxes, which ultimately provide families of dead and wounded members of the armed services a modest yearly income and reliable medical care, some are donating their skills and resources to charitable organizations that offer more than Washington can provide. Operation Support Our Troops, the Wounded Warrior Project and Operation Homefront, to name three of the more prominent national nonprofit groups, mobilize dollars and volunteers to provide military families with everything from vehicles to child care, to home repair, to care packages, among countless other services. Each of these nonprofits distributes tens of millions of donated dollars every year to assist returning service members and their families.
No Greater Sacrifice is a little-known cousin of these national organizations with a sharply defined but no less ambitious mission: to fund the college educations of those children with a parent at home who was severely wounded in war. "Education is one of the most important things to all parents," Peter Bilden, a founder of the organization, told me about the genesis of the charity's goals. "What's the one thing Dad cared about his kids having, besides having him as a role model? Probably the biggest milestone is going to see them go to college," he said. "If you've given so much for your country, the least we could do is see to it that your most important asset, your children, are taken care of," he told me. "It all comes back to education."
Bilden is a retired Army Special Operations aviator with long family ties to the services; his father was a naval commander in Vietnam, and his maternal grandfather a World War II veteran. Having set up the charity before Congress updated the GI Bill, Bilden and co-founders Kirk Rostron, Paul McKellips, Eugene Sullivan and Andrew Daniels initially set out to fund the college educations for selected children of the killed or wounded. Trish Lawton's two boys were some of the organization's earliest beneficiaries.
But since Congress passed the post-9/11 GI bill in July 2008, Uncle Sam now pays the college costs for those children whose parent has been killed or "permanently and totally disabled" in an overseas military operation. No Greater Sacrifice has adjusted its goals accordingly. While upholding all its original commitments, the organization now aims to help the offspring of those who were wounded enough to require extensive rehabilitation and care, but not wounded enough to qualify for government coverage. This leaves a lot of military families who need help paying for college.
For many families of the returning wounded, accumulating enough money to send their children to college is daunting, if not impossible. Some of the injured are not fully disabled, but are unable to earn an income of any kind and may require full-time care. This means that the only family member who is capable of earning an income often has to quit her -- and it's nearly always a 'her' -- job, and give up her income to look after her injured spouse. Monitoring medications, driving to medical appointments, and managing the new reality of having a permanently injured husband with all the blowback his deployments and injuries might have set in motion -- PTSD, personality changes, mood swings -- can be crushing all on their own. Finding the cash for unexpected financial hurdles, like repairing the transmission on the mini van, or replacing the broken-down dishwasher, adds to the hardship. Saving for college tuition? Unthinkable.
This is the sweet spot for No Greater Sacrifice. So far, the organization has committed to paying the college costs for 26 children from afflicted military families. Legrand and Carrie Strickland's two boys, Noah and Nathan, received scholarships in 2011.
This fraction the organization helps is dwarfed by the volume of children who will likely need financial assistance to go to college. According to a year-long study undertaken by Sapient Government Services in partnership with No Greater Sacrifice, an estimated 46,459 American children have lost a parent or seen one return home with severe injuries as a result of combat operations in Afghanistan or Iraq. The cost of higher education for all the children who lost a bread-winner to death or injury during our recent military engagements is estimated at $1.2 billion -- a long way up from the $4 million raised so far by No Greater Sacrifice. Even with the funding from the GI Bill, many more pockets -- and a lot deeper ones -- will have to be emptied to pay for these children to go to college.
Bilden believes that both the upper end of the business community and those with more modest means want to do more for the families of returning service members. Indeed, the charity's organizers, who donate their time to No Greater Sacrifice when they're not carrying out their day jobs in banking and finance, are looking for ways to deliver their message beyond the one percent crowd. The charity's Chairman of the Board, John Brown, believes that the broader population of Americans will help fund children's educations for wounded service members once they recognize the need. "It's an achievable number. It's large, but it's something that will catch people's attention," he told me. "It's a grass roots effort, and we need all the help we can get."
For her part, Trish Lawton marvels that people she's never met would be willing to donate their time and energy to a family like hers. She and her two boys and her foster child are getting by without her husband Garrett. "I'm doing well because he loved me, he loved me wholly and my heart is full," she told me. She decided to become a foster mother because she has the gift of time to do so, thanks to the generosity of strangers who stepped up to help after her husband was killed, as well as that full heart. "We're going to give her what we can," she said about the baby girl she's fostering, "you never know what direction life will take." Her boys have grown attentive to the baby's needs, which is especially gratifying because "it requires them to think of somebody else beside themselves," she said. To those who question how she could bear to care for and then give up a baby, she is clear: "I tell people I know about love, I know what it's like to lose, and loving is worth the losing."
April Marcum and her husband Tom, a retired Air Force weapons specialist suffering from a traumatic brain injury as well as PTSD, also received scholarships from NGS for their two boys. Tom was injured in a mortar attack during his third tour of Iraq. She described the experience of receiving the phone call from Bilden telling her that No Greater Sacrifice would fund the boys' college educations. "I am not a crier, but I just cried and cried and cried," she told me. "This thing they're doing for my kids -- paying for their educations -- means more to me than anything else," she said.