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'Operation Helping Hand' Helps Families of Wounded War Vets

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 22, 2005 – A $10,000 check is a wonderful reward for doing something you'd do anyway without even thinking about being paid for your efforts.

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Bob Silah, president of the Tampa Chapter of the Military Officers Association of America, said the association-sponsored "Operation Helping Hand" not only helps families of severely wounded combatants from Iraq and Afghanistan with living expenses, it even had a mechanic fix a lady's broken car. Photo by Rudi Williams

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

That's how much money "Operation Helping Hand" was granted on June 20 as the first-place winner in the 2005 Newman's Own Awards competition. To enter, volunteer organizations were asked to present an innovative plan to improve the quality of life for the military community and receive funding to carry out the plans.

Judges selected 11 of 177 entries for top honors in the annual competition that's sponsored by Newman's Own, Fisher House Foundation and Military Times Media Group.

"Operation Helping Hand" garnered the top prize for lifting many burdens off the shoulders of 150 families of severely injured and wounded combatants from Iraq and Afghanistan being treated at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tampa, Fla. Sponsored by the Tampa Chapter of the Military Officers Association of America, the program ensures that families don't have to worry about food, car repairs, gasoline or other necessities of life so they can focus on their hospitalized loved one's recovery, according to Robert J. "Bob" Silah, president of the association's Tampa chapter. He accepted the award during Newman's Own ceremonies in the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes.

"Operation Helping Hand just got started less than a year ago," said Silah, a retired Navy captain. "The idea came from the James A. Haley Hospital in Tampa. We got a call one day asking if the Military Officers Association would be interested in helping families of the wounded. I'd never thought about it. I took the request to our board of directors, and surprisingly, they were unanimous in giving me the authority to do this."

The association's first move was to launch a solicitation campaign, sending out about 7,000 letters seeking donations to finance the project. The Tampa Chamber of Commerce liked the idea and sent out about 5,000 e-mails requesting assistance.

"We were blessed in that the money started coming in," Silah noted. "One of the biggest things I was worried about was that we made this promise and wouldn't have the backing. Thank God we had it and the money kept coming in and we kept helping the families.

"You can imagine that when the families start arriving to be with their loved ones, they don't get much help," Silah continued. "The government does help them with travel expenses and quarters, but that's it. When these families get there, they have very little help with food, local transportation, phone cards - you name it. There are so many requirements that we help with."

Family member stay at the Haley House, which is a series of rooms in the Holiday Inn near the VA hospital. A Fisher House is planned for the Tampa VA hospital grounds.

Silah noted that the VA hospital's spinal cord injury and comprehensive rehabilitation units treat some of the most severely injured servicemembers from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Patients' treatment at the hospital range from three to 10 months. The patients returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are treated for brain and spinal cord injuries, blast injuries, blindness and amputations.

"Every request for help goes through the hospital, and if it isn't verified by the chaplain, we don't approve it," Silah said.

"Once a servicemember wounded or injured in Iraq or Afghanistan is sent here to the hospital, his family comes in to be with him and we help them with their requirements - transportation, food, lodging, anything," Silah noted.

Family members include wives, children, moms and dads, brothers and sisters and grandparents. Some of them suffer being uprooted from jobs, loss of pay, and arriving in a strange city with no car and little money. They're viewed as important members of the VA hospital's rehabilitation team, according to Silah.

"We've even helped when some ladies didn't have proper clothes to go to a Purple Heart ceremony," he said. "A lady's car broke down, so we had a mechanic go over and fix it. Fortunately, we have enough money to do these things."

Silah said the organization also provides air transportation so the wounded troops can go home once in a while. "So we not only help them with requirements when they're in Tampa, we help them get back home for whatever needs they have," Silah said. Operation Helping Hand asks the public and business community to help the military families with rental or leased cars, bus or taxi fare coupons, cell phones or phone cards, gasoline coupons, amusement par and movie tickets, restaurant or food market gift certificates and any comfort or recreation items that will make the families' stay in the Tampa area more enjoyable, he said.

Corporations and businesses, civic associations, churches and veterans groups in the greater Tampa Bay area provide cash and in-kind donations. There are also many individual donations, including a Canadian citizen and a servicemember serving in the Middle East. One donor sent in food coupons clipped from a Sunday newspaper. Several people invite military families to stay in their homes while they're in Tampa.

"It's gratifying to help them for what they and their loved ones did for us," Silah said.

Operation Helping Hand receives thank you cards from several grateful families, such as one from Michael and Rebekah J.: "Thank you for the wonderful gift bag. It is organizations like yours that help bring light to situations like ours. Michael was injured in Iraq and suffered a head injury and loss of both eyes. Again, thanks you for the added support and prayers."

A card from Carrie H. M., mother of Pfc. Eric J. reads: "I just wanted to thank you for your help, extra help you provided. Unfortunately at times like these, problems mount and so does the frustration of trying to take care of everything. I appreciate all of what you do for us. Your organization is wonderful and you should be proud of what you do. It's nice to know that there are loving people out there when help is needed. God bless you all."

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