With a giant crowd lining the street, fire companies saluting and bagpipes blaring, you’d think it was July 4th or Memorial Day. But the cause for celebration on this balmy July Sunday wasn’t a national holiday. It was to honor the wounded U.S. soldiers and their families who were being treated to an all-expenses-paid vacation to Long Beach, N.Y., courtesy of the Long Beach Waterfront Warriors (LBWW).
Amid all the bad publicity surrounding scheduling discrepancies at VA hospitals nationwide and the plight of our returning troops in general, there’s another issue that’s seldom mentioned: the hardships borne by injured service members who require long-term hospital care.
Soldiers with debilitating injuries — both mental and physical—may never receive the warm hometown welcome depicted in car commercials. Instead, they go to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to receive treatment and rehabilitation until their doctors classify them as non-medical assist (meaning they no longer need to be at the hospital or require doctors and nurses to be nearby day to day). Depending upon the extent of their injuries, some soldiers are stuck at the hospital for indefinite periods of time.
So in 2009, John McLoughlin, a retired New York City fireman, decided to do something special for those service members by founding the Long Beach Waterfront Warriors. He modeled LBWW on The Graybeards, a civic organization in the Rockaways, N.Y., that runs an adaptive sports festival for the disabled. McLoughlin took this idea a step further, extending it to a weeklong summer vacation and paying for the entire trip and accommodations, as well as providing specialized activities.
This past summer, LBWW flew in 22 injured vets and 46 of their family members to the seashore community.
A few days after the parade, Luke, a Marine from the Midwest who had both legs amputated above the knees after sustaining catastrophic blast wounds in Afghanistan, sits on the beach with his parents and kid sister and talks about the more than 50 surgeries he’s endured in the past two and a half years.
“I was hoping to have my prosthetics for this [week], but…” Luke says with a shrug, referring to the never-ending succession of infections that snag his rehab and timeline for leaving the hospital. Through the Wounded Warrior Project, Luke is one of eight vets in a cyber security training program that upon completion should land him a job with NASA.
Luke’s wife and two kids are also with him in Long Beach (staying at the Allegria Hotel, which has partnered with LBWW for years), where he’s actually able to spend a rare week living with them. That’s because, while his family is able to live in on-base housing, he and the other inpatients on medical-hold stay in barracks on Walter Reed’s campus.
He doesn’t dwell on the subject and instead smiles, recalling the fishing charter he went on that morning. “It was rough out there,” he says. “We were like five miles out, and I got a little nervous for a minute in my wheelchair.” Luke caught the boat’s only keeper of the day, a 24-incher.
Luke and another double-amputee, Jose, are able to participate in perhaps LBWW’s most unlikely activity: surfing lessons. A team of instructors shows up in the early afternoon with boards specially designed to accommodate surfers with disabilities. Both are catching waves in no time.
Jose was enjoying the LBWW vacation with his wife and brother. He also lives at Walter Reed, and his family is burdened by the same circumstances as Luke’s. Fortunately, however, Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit that builds specially designed housing for disabled vets, recently broke ground on a new house for Jose and his wife on Long Island, not far from his family in Queens.
Historically, LBWW tries to help the most severely injured and those that have recently returned from deployment overseas. In fact, sometimes the families are being reunited for the first time. But as the role of the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan has wound down, the organization has also reached out to vets who’ve been in the hospital for an extended period of time — years or even decades.
Also lounging on the beach that day are 42 Vietnam veterans from the local Northport VA Medical Center. Most are afflicted with some combination of mental and physical illnesses. Ned, a potbellied volunteer with long gray hair and beard, nods to Ralph, a barrel-chested vet with no toes, and explains how much this day means to Ralph. “When he got up this morning, there was a big ‘0’ on the wall in his room. Tomorrow it’ll say ‘365.’ He counts down the days until we come out again next year.”
Just then, four teenage volunteer boys and Jerry, a retired fireman and boisterous volunteer with LBWW since its inception, lift Ralph into a specially designed beach wheelchair and roll him on the sand and into the surf, 10 hands securely on the handles as he bobs and smiles through the waves during his second dip of the afternoon.
The severity of Northport Vets’ disabilities made day trips a huge challenge for the VA’s staff. But with the enthusiasm and organization that LBWW has built over the years, it’s now safe and practical for the group to bring the Vietnam vets out as well. LBWW keeps a team of volunteer nurses from Long Island’s North Shore University Hospital on hand at all times during the week’s activities, led by Nurse Patty, a mainstay with the group.
Jerry explains that LBWW’s success is reliant on its relatively small size, and that repeating their model is best done at the local level. He says that large programs like the “Wounded Warriors Project have great resources” that can help LBWW get off the ground, “but they also have a huge infrastructure, which creates a lot of overhead.” With LBWW’s web of tight, local functionaries, every dollar raised goes directly to their cause. Aside from the considerable cost of plane tickets and accommodations, LBWW has also raised funds for a private tour of Ground Zero and Rockefeller Center, the weekend parade and BBQ, a 5K race, a Mets game and the fishing trip, not to mention three beach days packed with food, drinks, surfing and even a massage tent.
LBWW’s success has already inspired another group, the West Palm Beach Waterfront Warriors, who’ve been bringing wounded vets and their families to the Florida coast since 2011.
Which shorefront community will be next?
The names and identifying information of the veterans in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.