It is the knock on the door that no service family ever wants to get, and for Trish Lawson, it came in August 2008. “We were living in a small community at the time,” Lawson said, “so I naturally looked out the window when I heard a lot of car doors slamming.
“Our front door had the long transom windows on each side, so you could see quite clearly the people that were coming up the walk. So when I saw the five men in uniform headed up to my front door, I bolted to the phone and quickly made arrangements to have the children picked up by one of the neighbors. I knew what was coming next, and my heart just sank.”
Lawson’s husband, Capt. Garrett Lawson, was 31 and supporting combat operations in the Herat province in Afghanistan as a weapons specialist and aviator assigned to the U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations Command when he was killed by an improvised explosive device on Aug. 4, 2008. Capt. Lawson left behind two young boys, Ryan, 4, and Caden, 2, at the time of his death, so young that they probably won’t remember how smart their father was, with his two advanced degrees, one in mechanical engineering and one in aerospace engineering.
“I waited about three days to tell the kids that daddy wasn’t coming home,” she said. “Garrett used to make and send home what he called ‘daddy deployment books.’ He would take a manila envelope and he would write the basic things he was doing over there for the kids, and he included pictures of him and the kids and me. And we had just received a new daddy deployment book about two weeks prior to his death. On that third morning, my oldest son, Ryan, was lying in bed with me, so I went and got the book that Garrett had made, and said, ‘Remember what daddy was doing in Afghanistan, and how he said it was dangerous? … well, daddy got hurt at work and daddy died.’ And like a true 4-year-old child Ryan exclaimed, ‘So he’s not taking me to the fun park ever again is he?’ And somehow he instantly knew how permanent the situation was. No matter how much I tell them, I am not Garrett and they will never know how much Garrett had to offer them. He was such a wonderful father.”
At the inception of No Greater Sacrifice (NGS), the idea was to fund charities already in existence that had similar goals, such as the The Special Operations Warrior Foundation and The Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation. But as the organization evolved, the founding four friends decided they needed to push their limits and stretch the funding to the children of every fallen and wounded soldier, no matter which branch of the military. The seeds of this young organization sprouted from the inspirational dedication of a man who was deeply affected by the 9/11 attacks on New York City. On Sept. 11, 2001, Paul McKellips was running his own entertainment media company, writing and producing high-profile films and television shows. After the attack, he found himself in a military recruiter’s office, trying to get himself “into the fight.” Being in his mid-40s, McKellips was turned away for exceeding the age limits.
Determined to find a way to get overseas and serve his country, McKellips was hired on as a Global Outreach Officer for the State Department assigned to Iraq. “He was a civilian that was determined to serve his country in some noble way, and he put his life on the line by embedding into a ground infantry unit in some of the worst neighborhoods in Iraq,” stated Peter G. Bilden, president and co-founder of NGS. Embedding with the U.S. military in the Diyala province of Iraq, McKellips worked as a war correspondent covering issues ranging from Iraqi health care and agriculture to media and women’s rights. He even lived with several Iraqis at a once-abandoned radio/television center, helping to get them back online.
“Paul ended up having two tours to Iraq within 13 months,” said Kirk T. Rostron, chairman and another founder of No Greater Sacrifice, “and during the second one he called me from Iraq and said, ‘Kirk you’ve got to get some steaks for the boys and get them over here right away.’ So I called up all our friends and we got as much steak, venison, and turkey as we could, and sent it over there. But that was just the beginning. When he came home, Paul had definitely been affected by what he had experienced in Iraq, and he said to me: ‘These men and women were making the supreme sacrifice, and we have to do something to help them.’”
Rostron and McKellips had become close allies a few years before his tour in Iraq, while McKellips was coaching Rostron’s son’s football team. And McKellips knew that Rostron was a guy who could make a few phone calls and get things done fast. But it wasn’t until an annual gathering of four old high school friends in the fall of 2007 that the idea actually took shape, and within a matter of months the No Greater Sacrifice Foundation went from a dream to reality. Rostron took McKellips’ words to heart, and recruited two of his closest childhood friends, Eugene Sullivan and Andrew Daniels, to be co-founding members of NGS. Sullivan and Daniels immediately warmed to the ideas behind Rostron’s proposal and knew that there was one more person they needed to call on: Bilden.
Commissioned through Duke University’s Army ROTC program in 1994, Bilden served as an Army officer and aviator, commanding company and platoon-level scout units in Korea and Egypt. He also led a special operations aviation training cell at Fort Bragg, N.C. Bilden had the unique combination of being able to straddle both worlds as a military officer and as a civilian working on Wall Street.
“I actually met Kirk through one of my best friends from college,” Bilden said. “… so I see it as something that brought together people who all shared a common passion for being good Americans and concerned citizens. The fact that we were all in a place in our careers that we could work our expertise and our contacts for NGS was the finishing touch for this project.”
In late 2007, there were 4,200 fallen solders and 3,800 wounded soldiers. The group estimated that every soldier had about 1.7 kids, with the average age coming out to 7 years old. After factoring in the current value for a college education for each child, the team set the fundraising goal for themselves at $80 million. With nothing but 100 percent pure volunteer effort since day one (no professional fundraisers have ever been hired and there is currently no paid staff for NGS), the four friends went to work gathering support for their cause, with their main target being Wall Street.
“We were not intimidated by this number; in fact, we thought we could raise this in a couple of nights by just calling the contacts we already had,” Rostron recalled. “In fact, we had seen it done by other charities in New York, so there was no reason to believe we couldn’t do the same thing. Our original thought was we were going to be the fundraising arm for these fellow charities by utilizing the deep pockets of Wall Street.
“Wall Street guys are the most patriotic bunch of guys you’ll ever meet,” Bilden remembered. “Don’t forget they were directly attacked and impacted by 9/11. But Wall Street has always prized the military community, and had a deep appreciation for the guys who make the private sector possible. Rest assured it is definitely not lost on the titans of industry about who provides the safety net for them that gives them the ability to make money.”
And with that, the No Greater Sacrifice volunteers launched their inaugural event on Feb. 13, 2008, with the first annual No Greater Sacrifice Freedom Award going to Col. David Sutherland, then-commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division. By all accounts, it was a success, with the Freedom Award proudly being presented by James Kimsey, the founder of AOL, and special guest attendees including Sens. Joseph Lieberman and John Thune, and former FBI Director Louis Freeh. But unfortunately, it wasn’t $80 million successful.
“When we officially launched in February of 2008, you have to remember we were four years into the invasion into Iraq and there was a growing anti-war sentiment,” Bilden said. “There was a certain Iraq-fatigue at this point. It was also unfortunate timing because that was when the economic world was also starting to fall in. … We had just had a credit crunch nine months earlier in spring of 2007, and the sub-prime market had tanked. Lehman Brothers had just taken a tumble … we were in the most dramatic dislocation of wealth since the Great Depression.”
Things were looking bleak for NGS as they stared these two large macro headwinds in the face. The team was going to have to change its approach. As the word about the formation of this new charity spread through the ranks, it started to resonate with Main Street America, the moms and pops of the world who want to do right by their men and women in uniform. So the NGS team switched gears and started knocking on mainstream America’s door, by challenging them to donate just $10 each. Their mission became to get just 8 million Americans to each donate $10 dollars, thus solving the crisis of covering every child who lost a parent in the line of duty.
“For lack of a more appropriate term, we moved from Wall Street to Main Street with our mission for raising money,” Bilden explained. “Fortunately, our mission really resonated with ordinary everyday Americans who wanted to support their soldiers. I mean it is the ultimate feel-good mission and a ‘no brainer,’ no matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, every penny of this is for the troops and their families.”
With no paid employees, NGS can afford to remain flexible with its goals and shift the focus to fill needs as they arise.
“We originally started out mainly supporting children of the fallen,” he said. “We choose to support solders that have gone above and beyond the call of duty or if they have an extreme situation at home that warrants our help. We are proud to acknowledge that since No Greater Sacrifice has stood up, the Post-9/11 GI Bill has been passed, and when that kicks in, in August of 2010, the government will now finally be very generously accomplishing what we had set out to do as an organization.”
The new Post-9/11 GI Bill that recently passed in Congress states that the Marine Gunnery Sgt. John David Fry Scholarship will now grant the children of service members who die in the line of duty their own Chapter 33 (new GI Bill) benefits. These children are entitled to the full new GI Bill and they have until their 33rd birthday to use the benefits. The VA will start issuing payments on Aug. 1, 2010, but any student eligible for this program will receive payments retroactively back to August 2009.
“Because of the passage of the Sgt. Fry scholarship fund, as an organization we are transitioning our monetary support over to the wounded warriors,” Rostron said, explaining what it now means for NGS. Currently children of the wounded only get issued one VA scholarship per family, regardless of how many kids they have. And what if that soldier is severely injured? He or she may not be the same for the rest of their lives, and be completely unable to hold down any job at all. His or her kids won’t receive any college money because they didn’t die in combat. There are huge gaps between the benefits for children of the fallen and children of the wounded, and it is our job to fill in those gaps. That is why we exist.”
Widows like Lawson readily admit that they wouldn’t match the same earning potential that her husband Garrett had.
“I have a college degree, but I definitely didn’t have the same education level and would be on a much lower pay scale than my husband was,” she said. “And when Garrett passed, I was a stay-at-home mom, so I am thankful and relieved that the No Greater Sacrifice foundation funded my kids through The Special Operations Warrior Foundation. Life can change in an instant, and its nice to know that even though I am doing my best to ensure my kids future, I can rest easy knowing they will be getting the education Garrett and I had always wanted for them.”
Lawson was invited to attend the most recent NGS event, where a surprise guest speaker won her heart.
“Last year they really won me over when they had an Iraqi citizen come speak,” she said. “This gentleman spoke of the good and the hope that he feels about his life and his country, because of our help. And he said that he will make sure that his children will know and appreciate the sacrifice that our people have made. Garrett was always preaching about the greater good he was doing over there, and it was the first time I was able to acknowledge that if my kids have to give up and sacrifice something as great as their father, then it really was worth the greater good. And trust me, as a surviving spouse, that is a tough pill to swallow. That speaker truly warmed my heart and I wish every person who has lost their spouse in this war could hear this gentleman’s perspective.”
The co-founders of No Greater Sacrifice, where everyone works entirely for free, are truly providing the ultimate payback to these men and women who are making sacrifices day in and day out on the battlefield away from their families. Should you wish to see if your children qualify for NGS scholarship money, the family of the wounded or fallen soldier can fill out the online application form and supply their VA medical discharge rating at www.nogreatersacrifice.org.
This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2010-2011 Edition.