RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas - J.R. Martinez, Coalition to Salute America's Heroes spokesman and war veteran, presents a plaque to Dallas Stars hockey player Jeff Halpern for donating his season tickets to military members. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Beth Del Vecchio)
RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas - Sergeant Kenneth Albarran (left), a war veteran undergoing treatment at Brooke Army Medical Center, and several other San Antonio military members and veterans stand as they are recognized in between periods at a Dallas Stars hockey home game Feb. 23. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Beth Del Vecchio)
RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas - —
A solemn look overcame the young man's face.
"In all seriousness I want to thank you for all that you've done for those men and women wounded in action and their families," he said. "You'd be amazed what just one night of fun can do - a change of scenery where they can take their minds off of what they're going through."
The young man, once a corporal serving with the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, spoke of his hardships after sustaining third degree burns to about 40 percent of his body as well as internal damage from smoke and fumes inhalation after being trapped in a burning vehicle for 15 minutes.
"It's hard coming back from the war, only 19 or 20 years old and disfigured, not knowing if the world will accept you," said J.R. Martinez. "The physical and emotional trauma can be overwhelming."
In all, Mr. Martinez has undergone 32 surgeries at Brooke Army Medical Center since sustaining his injuries in April 2003. As an infantry soldier he was providing security for a convoy when the left wheel of his vehicle detonated a land mine.
Now a full time spokesman for the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes, a non-profit organization focused on helping severely wounded and disabled Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom veterans and their families rebuild their lives, Mr. Martinez recently visited with Dallas Stars hockey player Jeff Halpern to show him gratitude for donating all of his 2006/2007 season tickets to military members and their families through the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes.
Chief Master Sgt. Stephen Page, 12th Flying Training Wing command chief master sergeant, 1st Sgt. Benjamin Martin, BAMC Student Company first sergeant and former chief clinical NCO, Daniel Vargas, Coalition to Salute America's Heroes Family Support Network director, and other local military members, also visited with Mr. Halpern, presenting him with a U.S. flag flown over Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, a plaque and other small items including some personalized military challenge coins.
"What you've done for these great men and women is extraordinary," Chief Page told Mr. Halpern. "It's people like you who make me proud to put on this uniform every day."
Mr. Halpern is just one of many Coalition to Salute America's Heroes supporters. In Texas alone, the organization has teamed up with LeAnn Rimes, Big and Rich, Montgomery Gentry, Gretchen Wilson, Toby Keith, Darryl Worley, Dave Matthews, the Black Eyed Peas, 311, Roger Staubach, the Texas Rangers, Dallas Stars, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Texans and Houston Astros. The Coalition to Support America's Heroes was created to provide individuals and corporations a means to support the veterans and their families.
Mr. Halpern said he has always been a big supporter of the military and those men and women who serve. As part of the Washington Capitals organization the first six years of his career, he had a lot of contact with the soldiers undergoing treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center and wanted to remain just as active when he transferred to Dallas.
"Military members and their families make so many sacrifices for our country every day," he said. "This is just a small token of my appreciation for what they do."
Mr. Vargas, who retired from Randolph in January, said his involvement with the Coalition to Support America's Heroes stems back to Chief Page.
"Chief Page told me he had visited a wounded Air Force troop at BAMC one day and I remember asking him what the troops do for fun, to which he replied not much," he said. "I thought of myself in that position and decided to try and do something to help the morale of our wounded service members."
Through some networking, Mr. Vargas was able to get tickets to a Toby Keith concert donated to the BAMC patients, at which event he met Mr. Martinez who introduced him to the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes. From there, he volunteered with the organization for two years, before taking on a full time job when he retired from the military.
Since then, Mr. Vargas has been working with celebrities and organizations from across the United States to boost the morale of wounded service members and their families, including sending Senior Airman Daniel Acosta and his family, who are living at Randolph while he undergoes treatment at BAMC, to a Chicago Cubs game, where he threw the first pitch; and Tech. Sgt. Israel Del Toro, who is also undergoing treatment at BAMC, and his family to a Texas Rangers game when they played the White Sox, Sergeant Del Toro's favorite team. The sergeant was also able to meet up with the team before the game.
"I truly believe in what the Coalition is doing and in what they stand for," said Mr. Vargas. "Severely wounded and disabled War on Terror veterans fight even tougher battles here at home as they struggle to adjust to their newfound circumstances and post-war life."
"The Coalition to Salute America's Heroes enables all of us to express our appreciation and support to these heroes by reaching out with much-needed programs that will help them succeed in their challenging new world so they may ultimately enjoy a productive and rewarding life," he said.
Aside from special events, the Coalition has also provided financial help to disabled veterans and their families getting back on their feet, calling cards and computers for keeping in touch, hosted holiday parties and organized other special gatherings and giveaways.
"To me there is no greater calling then giving of yourself," said Mr. Vargas, "These young men and women were there for us, now it's our turn to be there for them."
For more information about the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes, visit www.saluteheroes.org.