Having just returned from leave, Luis Puertas was in the lead of a four-vehicle patrol unit in Iraq on Sept. 20, 2006, when an IED, hidden at the base of a street lamp, suddenly exploded. As a result of the blast, Puertas lost both of his legs and several members of the 4th Infantry Division were injured. Dozens of surgeries and years of rehabilitation put Puertas’ life on hold, and relaxation was the farthest thing from his mind.
But this summer, Puertas received a much-deserved vacation, thanks to Holidays for Heroes.
Founded in 2013 by summer resident Tom McCann, Holidays for Heroes brings Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families to Nantucket, Mass., for all-inclusive retreats. Banners at the nonprofit’s events say “Honoring Their Sacrifice,” which is exactly what the group does. With two to three retreats, dubbed “holidays,” per summer, they organize everything from beach barbecues and dinners to outings and entertainment for wounded warriors. Often, it is just unstructured rest and relaxation, though, which the veterans want most — so the organization’s primary task is simply to enable that by hosting them at no cost on the island. During Fourth of July weekend, the nonprofit hosted two heroes — Puertas, who is from Tampa, Fla., and Joel Dulashanti of Portland, Ore.
Scores of volunteers work tirelessly to make the holiday a perfect experience for visiting veterans like Dulashanti and Puertas. As year-round Nantucketer Donna Hamel says, “It might be a little overwhelming for some of the veterans, especially if they have disabilities.” And it can also be hard for the organizers — feeding, housing, entertaining and transporting the vets takes tremendous effort.
But that’s never been a problem.
“[Holidays for Heroes] gives people an opportunity to do something for a different cause than they might usually,” says Hamel. And it’s exactly that involvement that has driven a lot of the group’s success. As McCann says, “We’ve been very fortunate that every single club, organization, business and individual on this special island has gotten behind the Holidays for Heroes mission.” From clothing boutiques to inns to restaurants, support has poured in. For instance, the Independence Day Firecracker 5K has existed for years, but it adopted Holidays for Heroes as a benefitting charity.
Even with such great community support, however, the veterans’ holidays would not be possible without McCann and the Holidays for Heroes leadership. For both McCann and the organization’s executive director, Magdalena Padzik, helping our servicemen and women is more than just a way to give back, it’s personal — their individual experiences have informed a deeper love for and commitment to our veterans.
On Memorial Day 2011, McCann was on Nantucket with his family. They fished, went to the beach and rounded out the day with a barbecue. That evening, while watching the celebrations from Washington, D.C., on television with his wife, Mary-Jo, McCann saw Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise perform a veterans’ tribute. It was at that moment McCann realized that the great day and the beautiful place — Nantucket — that he was blessed to experience should be shared with those who sacrificed for America.
Drawn by the idea of helping our veterans, McCann knew that doing so would require starting a nonprofit. To help him get Holidays for Heroes off the ground, he enlisted the help of his longtime friend Cheryl Bartlett, a fellow islander. Currently serving as the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Bartlett leads a life of service. When McCann pitched the idea to Bartlett, she loved it, and has been his co-chair ever since.
Padzik, another key leader, joined the group after meeting McCann at Holiday for Heroes’ first event. She and her family lived in Soviet-era Poland, and her father was part of the Solidarity Movement, a non-communist trade union that the U.S.S.R. tried to destroy through martial law. In order to stay safe, the Padziks moved to America when Magdalena was 4 years old. For more than a decade, she’s lived on Nantucket.
“Freedom is not something we had [growing up], which is really why this is so important to me,” says Padzik, whose appreciation for those who defend her liberty runs deep.
While Padzik’s days are already full — she’s a mother and works as the manager of a local bank — she, like McCann, can’t ignore the plight of veterans.
McCann says that “once you walk into Walter Reed [Medical Center],” where Holidays for Heroes finds most of its veterans (including Jason Redman, an Iraq vet and founder of the nonprofit Wounded Wear) to invite for a weekend on Nantucket, “and meet all these amazing young men and women… it just opens your eyes forever. The cause is big and the need is huge.”
Especially in light of the recent Veterans Affairs hospital scandal, the void in assistance for America’s armed forces is something that is not lost on Holidays for Heroes. While the centerpiece of the organization’s work is its world-class Nantucket getaways, it’s also beginning to reach out to veterans across the country to help them start businesses and fund their children’s education.
While similar programs do exist (such as Landing Zone Grace Veterans Retreat), Holidays for Heroes is unique because of the people of Nantucket that embrace both the organization and the veterans that it hosts. On the island with his fiancé, Amber, and daughter, Emilia, Puertas explains that the weekend arranged for him by the organization was “a lot more than just a vacation…it [was] much deeper than that.”
That kind of experience, though, is sadly not the norm for America’s veterans. But whether it’s the countless hours put in by McCann, Bartlett, Padzik and other volunteers, or simply someone on vacation running with and cheering on heroes and civilians alike in the 5K, Holidays for Heroes and the whole island community shows everyone a unique model of service for those who’ve served.
As Puertas says of McCann, “There’s a lot of things in life we want but can’t have, but he takes that pressure away and treats you like you’re part of his family… we could hang out together and not feel so alone.”