Severely wounded military veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars participating in this week's sixth annual Road to Recovery Conference and Tribute at Walt Disney World were urged to maintain their passion for service and not allow their injuries to prevent them from playing leadership roles in meeting the needs of their country and communities.
During the final day of the conference being put on by the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes and The American Legion, several presenters highlighted to the more than 500 attendees the importance of servicemembers continuing to channel their motivation and sense of purpose into fulfilling and worthwhile activities.
"The identity of this generation of veterans is being determined right now," said Mary Yonkman, chief strategy officer of The Mission Continues, a non-profit group dedicated to helping those who took part in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom find further opportunities to serve , thereby shaping public attitudes about their value to society. "In 20 years, we want to be able to say we won this fight, and that this generation has gone on to be civic leaders."
With colleague Mike Pereira, Yonkman invited the service members to apply for one of The Mission Continues' three- to six-month fellowships with other non-profit or governmental groups that provide tangible goods and services in the community. To date, the three-year-old organization has arranged 92 such fellowships, which include a modest living stipend, but it recently received funding from the investment bank Goldman Sachs to underwrite 500 more over the next five years.
The pair also encouraged the attendees to volunteer for any of the hundreds of service projects that The Mission Continues coordinates annually with charities such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and the American Red Cross as a means of directly exposing members of the public to military veterans they might not otherwise encounter.
"For an ordinary American, who hasn't had the experience of meeting a recent war veteran, one of the most transformative things that can happen is for the two of them to build a house alongside each other, or rehab a local school together or clean up a park. That meaningful interaction, where a veteran's skill set is clearly on display, can be really powerful," Yonkman said.
Underscoring those same points, retired Army Sgt. Dana Bowman called on the wounded servicemembers to focus on their ability rather than disability in pointing to the future. A former Special Forces soldier and member of the elite Golden Knights parachute team, Bowman lost both his legs in a mid-air collision during a 1994 training exercise, yet returned to active duty nine months later as the first double amputee to re-enlist in the Army.
"We can't give up. We have just one chance in life, and today we're giving each and every one of you that chance," said Bowman, who has made more than 1,000 jumps since his accident. "I challenge you all to go out there and make a difference. We have to show them what we're worth, and how we can land on target together."
Upon conclusion of the conference, The American Legion will be providing follow-up services to the attendees in their respective communities across the country.