Jason March, recipient of an Operation Comfort Warriors grant to go horseriding, hugs Sonia Campa after finishing the ride, which took place during The American Legion's 99th annual National Convention in Reno, Nev. Photo by Lucas Carter/The American Legion.

OCW helps wounded vets, caregivers heal

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The timing of an Operation Comfort Warriors (OCW) trip could not have come at a better time for retired Army Sgt. Danny O’Neel and his wife, Faun.

They are among three wounded veterans and their caregivers who are attending The American Legion’s national convention in Reno, Nev., learning about the Legion, interacting with veterans and participating in special activities.

“We are absolutely grateful for this experience and to be introduced to The American Legion and the many good things that they are doing,” O’Neel said.

He says a highlight has been learning more about the Americanism programs of the Legion. “I met some great youths who are involved in some of the Americanism programs,” said O’Neel, who lives in Folsom, Calif. “They are teaching not just youth but folks across America about patriotism, which I think has been my favorite part of the week. I also got to meet a lot of fellow veterans from all across the U.S. It’s been amazing.”

The five-day trip is also a welcome distraction for the O’Neels.

“I actually found out a little while ago that one of my brothers committed suicide this morning,” said O’Neel, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). “So to be able to come here and think about that has been a good thing to keep focused on — doing good things in the veteran community and keeping a positive mindset. We have to do something — the care is inadequate — we are having issues. I want to make sure that we are doing our part; I know my family is. And The American Legion is a good facilitator of those needs.”

OCW provided everything from entertainment to meals to unique outdoor activities for the three wounded veterans, who are all members of The American Legion. On Saturday, OCW funded a trip to Lake Tahoe where Tim Senkowski and his stepfather and caregiver, J.R. Rigdon, experienced a 40-minute glider flight.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Senkowski, a double leg amputee from the war in Afghanistan. “It was exciting to go up there and be flying. It’s great to get to meet and hang out with other soldiers out here with The American Legion.”

He appreciates the opportunity for a getaway from the routine back home in Indiana. “All this support means a lot,” Senkowski said. “It’s great to know that there are people out there still supporting veterans and it means a lot for people to support the troops overseas. It’s not about the conflict. It’s not about the war. It’s about the soldiers who were over there, boots on the ground, especially when they come back hurt.”

Rigdon, a member of the Sons of The American Legion, enjoyed spending time away from home with his stepson.

“It’s been really awesome,” he said. “The glider ride was phenomenal. I’ve never done anything in my life like that before. Soaring up there with no motor was the highlight of the day. Just to be a part of that has been phenomenal.”

As a caregiver, Rigdon understands how important the OCW-sponsored getaway is for Senkowski. “It gets Tim out of his real world,” he said. “You are able to come and do something that you are not able to do. It’s nice to be able to get away and relax.”

Sonia Campa accompanied her boyfriend, Jason March, on the trip to Reno. March, a retired Army sergeant, was shot in the head by a sniper outside Fallujah, Iraq.

“It’s been a rough road,” says Campa, who has known March for about seven years. “(This week) has been great to experience different things. Get away from hospitals. And not having to worry about the hospital and pain and stress. This is just fellowship to have friends and partners to have fun.”

It’s the instant camaraderie that helps Camp and March heal.

“Sometimes we go on knowing that life is hard but know that it is going to be OK,” she said. “That great brotherhood, that respect for one another — and to say, ‘It’s going to be all right.’ It’s wonderful to be able to just say, ‘Thank you for your service.’”

For his activity, March chose a four-hour horseback ride along the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

“I haven’t done that in so long — and I’m from Texas,” said the San Antonio resident. “To get out and do that … and see the hills, and the streams and river. It was awesome. It was challenging for me because I am paralyzed on one side. And managing to get on the horse and control the horse with only my right hand was hard. But the guide and the whole staff were great in helping me.”

March was grateful for the donors who provided the funds for the OCW activities. But he is just as grateful for the caregivers who share the journey with their wounded warriors.

“Thank you for supporting our wounded warriors and our warriors, period,” he said. “What people around the world don’t understand is that the hero isn’t the wounded warriors or the veterans. But the real heroes are the spouses, the caregivers, the people behind the scenes that nobody sees. Those are the real heroes.”