Just as you might remember a birthday or an anniversary, a wounded soldier will never forget the day his or her life was forever changed on the battlefield. In nearly any society, those who have come into harm’s way in the service of their country have long been honored for their sacrifices. Parades welcome them home, governments award them service medals and, for a time, they have the collective thanks of a grateful nation. But societies soon forget, and the sacrifices of the brave few are left behind, relegated to the pages of history. For the soldiers, however, they cannot forget because time does not, in fact, heal all wounds.
Tom McCann refuses to accept society’s short-term memory when it comes to the sacrifices of these brave men and women. A longtime Nantucket summer resident and international businessman, McCann found an unexpected, mid-life calling on a lazy Memorial Day afternoon here on Nantucket in 2012. Having just finished a morning of fishing with his brothers, McCann was in front of the television watching a program celebrating Memorial Day and the service of the men and women of our nation’s armed forces. What he saw that day so impacted him that he immediately set about starting Holidays for Heroes, a non-profit organization aimed at identifying and serving wounded veterans who are adjusting to lives away from the military. The group provides a dream Nantucket vacation for soldiers, many of whom have lost limbs or experienced severe battlefield trauma. Most recently, McCann and company launched the American Dream program, which helps wounded veterans start businesses, complete their educations, and achieve their American dreams out of uniform.
“I was just sitting there and it hit me,” said McCann at a small gathering of the visiting soldiers and key donors this past September. “I realized I couldn’t just sit back anymore and do nothing for these guys who’ve done much for the rest of us.” Since then, McCann, along with his co-chair Cheryl Bartlett, and his board of directors (a mix of Nantucket seasonal and year-round residents) have brought more than a dozen wounded war veterans to the island and worked with several soldiers on a day-to-day, year-round basis. “The American dream part of it is a lot of fun and it’s what I want to do with the rest of my life,” says McCann. “As long as I’m here on earth, I’m here to help these soldiers.”
The first to receive the organization’s American Dream assistance were three former Marines: B. J. Ganem, Master Sergeant Davey Lind, and Corporal James Sheehan. Sheehan was nineteen years old when he joined the Marines, and the events of the morning of May 8, 2010, were what ultimately brought him and McCann together. “That was always the path I was on, and I knew that is what I wanted and needed to do my whole life,” said the Midwest native who began his military service three weeks out of high school.
Near Marja, inside the Helmand Province of Afghanistan, Sheehan’s unit was ambushed while on patrol. “We began taking small-arms and RPG fire,” he recalled. “My friend got hit and when I ran down to help him I took a 7.62 round to my hip.” From there Sheehan was transferred from hospital to hospital, receiving many sur- geries, ultimately arriving at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he remained hospitalized for several weeks, then began what would be more than a year of physical therapy. Despite what happened to him, Sheehan said he would not change a thing. Now a husband to Laura Lee, father to Annaleigh, student, and owner of a small home-inspection business, which Holiday for Heroes helped him to start, he is more motivated than ever to conquer his challenges and provide for his young family.
“I still feel the same way I did the day I went in,” Sheehan said of his service. “I don’t regret anything I’ve done. I still have that sense of patriotism and because I can’t operate the way I did before, I’ve taken my discipline to another field.” As Sheehan said to the hundreds gathered at this year’s Heroes Gala on September 13th, his determination to recover from the physical and mental traumas of his injuries has led him to bicycle three thousand miles across the United States, summit mountaintops, and build on his education.
Though older and much more experienced, Master Sergeant Davey Lind’s story is similar to Sheehan’s, as he was injured after several battle-zone assignments. In the aftermath of his injuries, he also made the decision to pick up the pieces and rise above the immense challenges he faced. Lind’s goal is to become a sponsored athlete, motivational speaker, and owner of a CrossFit franchise, all things McCann is confident they can achieve together. These soldiers know McCann as the boldest and most confident of men, unwilling to ever take no for an answer, and quick to ask, “What do you need?”
McCann indicated this year’s Nantucket gala raised a large amount of money to continue their work into the next year, and his vision has no end in sight. He hopes to grow the existing program, adding soldiers to the American Dream program, along with identifying mentors who can work with soldiers individually to achieve their desired goals. While the beginnings are small, the goals are great and they serve the immense needs of a group of people who’ve given more than we as a nation can ever repay. Tom McCann knows this and he is quick to remind everyone he meets.