For veterans returning from action in Iraq or Afghanistan, the tranquility of Nantucket might seem worlds away. Yet, few could be more deserving of the peace and relaxation afforded by the island than these troops. It was with this in mind that longtime summer resident, Tom McCann, founded holidays for heroes, a nonprofit providing our wounded warriors with some much needed R&R.
THE HOLIDAYS FOR HEROES MISSION WAS TWOFOLD: Offer an all-expense paid vacation on Nantucket to Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans and their families, and establish a college scholarship fund for the children of those veterans. Tom McCann’s long-term vision for the program is ambitious. He is looking to make it an annual event, one that garners national attention and widespread support.
The idea for Holidays for Heroes came to McCann as he watched the somber Memorial Day ceremonies on television at his home on Nantucket. “I was watching those wounded warriors struggling to get up the steps to be honored for their heroic achievements,” remembered McCann, “and it occurred to me they were the heroes—they were the ones that deserved the holiday.” McCann marvels at how the community embraced the idea from the get-go. “I spoke to a few people about it and the next thing I knew, the entire island was behind me,” he said. “I had twenty emails and twenty phone calls every day. I didn’t reach out to anyone, they all approached me, all wanting to be involved.” He continued, “There are so many great causes on this island, but it seems like people have an emptiness in them about the wounded veterans. People want to do something to help, but don’t know what to do.”
A kick-off event was held on July 7th at the Nantucket Hotel, with several veterans on hand to speak about their experiences in the war, about the debilitating injuries they had sustained, and about the toll their ongoing rehabilitation had taken on their families. They spoke about the many ways their lives and the lives of their loved ones had been so drastically altered by their military service. But before taking the stage at the Nantucket Hotel’s ballroom, the soldiers were treated to a day of fishing by captains Pete Kaizer of the Althea K and Jay Starr of the Starrfish—just a taste of the type of fun McCann hopes to provide veterans at future Holidays for Heroes events.
Sean Bannon was one of the veterans who came to the island for the event. Bannon served three months in Iraq over the winter of 2007-2008. Stationed in Saidya, a residential district in south-western Baghdad, he was on routine foot patrol when a land mine concealed along the roadway detonated. Bannon sustained major shrapnel wounds to both legs. Once his condition stabilized, he was transported to the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he underwent fourteen surgeries over the next four months. While doctors were able to save both legs, Bannon lives in constant pain. “On a scale of one to ten, my pain is always at a three,” he said. “If I am horsing around with my two-year-old daughter, I can be sure I will be icing my leg the next day.” For Bannon and his wife and their two young children, a vacation on Nantucket was never something they considered an option. While he does receive VA disability benefits, the family has no other source of income. Bannon plans to return to school in the fall to complete his undergraduate degree and his wife, Seanna, is a stay-at-home mom to their two pre-school children. “We don’t have any extra money in our budget,” he said. “A trip to Nantucket was never something we thought we could afford.”
Josh Schichtl and his wife Emily also participated in the July event. Emily was the only spouse to attend, and spoke about the challenges of being the primary caregiver for her husband, Josh, who sustained severe facial injuries and brain trauma in Iraq, while she also cares for a growing family of five children under the age of nine. “There is really no state or federal programming in place that offers this kind of support to the families of veterans,” she explained. Emily also spoke about the college scholarship fund that will be generated through the Holidays for Heroes program, saying, “That it is just phenomenal. It’s really nice when you know that there are people out there that care about the future of your kids.”
According to a VA study of nearly 170,000 veterans of the Iraq War released six years ago, twenty percent have been diagnosed with psychological disorders. While there are many programs in place to assist the affected servicemen and women, there are few that support their families. That is a void that Holidays for Heroes hopes to fill. Since coming on board in mid-July, former Nantucket resident, Cheryl Bartlett, has made strides on the administrative end, incorporating Holidays for Heroes as a non-profit and writing the by-laws. She and McCann are working to assemble a board of directors and appoint committee heads whose task it will be to coordinate the many activities that will fill the week. A fishing tournament, a ladies’ spa day, a family clambake, a date night, and a variety of activities for young children are just some of the ideas being considered by the committee.
WITH THE FIRST EVENT SET FOR 2013,Tom McCann is surging forward with Holidays for Heroes, feeling confident that the program is on the right track. “With Cheryl’s guidance, as well as the countless Nantucketers who have reached out to passionately volunteer just about anything you could think of, we can make Holidays for Heroes a true Nantucket homegrown success,” he said. “I guarantee the 2013 Holidays for Heroes event will be one of the most exciting events to ever wash ashore this amazing island of Nantucket!”