Group Honors Wounded Warriors, Families of Fallen
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 6, 2009 In 2005, David Dominguez of San Diego noticed casualty reports in Iraq and Afghanistan were barely making news. After several years of war, the American public had settled back into its routine.
Dominguez set up a nonprofit organization to remind people of the sacrifices being made on their behalf. He called it “Freedom is Not Free.” The name Dominguez chose gave expression to his sentiment that the brave men and women serving in the military, and their families, were shouldering the price for the freedoms that all Americans enjoy.
Dominguez brought his long-time friend and Vietnam veteran Carl Frank on board, and together, they began to develop the organization’s framework. They wanted to create a safe environment where Freedom is Not Free’s supporters would feel confident their donations were actually going to help those most in need.
Jay Kopelman, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and the company’s executive director, said the duo intentionally created a lean organization with a special emphasis on financial checks and balances.
“I am the only paid employee of the organization, taking a very small salary, … with one volunteer who works three days a week, and a college intern who is a former sailor and whose husband is a naval officer,” he said. “We keep the overhead low so that we can direct as much money as possible to programs and the individuals and organizations who come to us for support.”
Transparency in regard to the allocation of funds to the most worthy recipients was of utmost important to the co-founders. This led to the establishment of the Purple Heart Board, a group of carefully selected, highly committed veteran and active duty Purple Heart recipients and their relatives.
“It gives us transparency in awarding grants,” Kopelman said. “The Patriot Advisory Board members help me raise money, and the [Purple Heart Board], without knowing where the money is coming from, helps us decide who gets it.
“They get a summary of each applicant's individual case from us and then review all the information,” he added. “Sometimes they'll recommend more money for an applicant, and sometimes they'll recommend less.”
The Patriot Advisory Board was established in a similar vein to advise management and assist in promoting programs and fundraising initiatives. This board is made up of a diverse group of individuals who all share the “passion for the mission and the will to make a difference,” Kopelman said.
Freedom is Not Free has assisted with travel expenses for wounded servicemembers’ families and helped with living expenses, among other things.
“Primarily, we provide financial assistance when these heroes find themselves in a situation … that has become critical and they have nowhere else to turn,” Kopelman said. “For example, many times a spouse becomes the primary caregiver for her husband, who's been medically retired from the military, but whose benefits and pay have not yet begun.”
The organization also works with what Kopelman calls “nonconforming relatives.” If a wounded servicemember has no traditional next of kin, Freedom is Not Free will help the person the servicemember considers next of kin. They’ll help to defray travel expenses for a fiancée, for example.
“We'll assist with air fare, hotel bills and meals while that hero's 'next of kin' is by his side,” Kopelman said. “We also run programs for the children of our military families.”
In August, the organization hosted 70 children of military families at Little Warriors Surf Camp in San Diego. The children learned to surf, and they each got a surfboard to take home.
“We feel it's especially important to recognize the sacrifices these children make, not only when a parent is wounded or killed, but also when a parent is deployed for seven months to a year at a time,” Kopelman said. “It can be very difficult for these kids. They already know they're different from other kids whose parents work 9-to-5 jobs and are home for every birthday and holiday, and we want to do everything to show them they're appreciated.”
The organization will show its appreciation in a slightly different way next month. It’s hosting a movie night aboard the USS Midway Museum in San Diego on Veteran’s Day. The movie will be “The Hurt Locker,” Kopelman said, adding that he’s arranged for some Marine Corps explosives ordnance disposal personnel to attend the screening and share their experiences with the audience. It’s possible that some of the movie’s stars and its director may be in attendance as well, he added.
Information on Freedom is Not Free and its programs can be found on the organization’s Web site. The group also uses social media outlets such as Facebook, where there’s a Freedom is Not Free fan page, and Twitter, where people can look for @HelpingVeterans to connect with its audience.