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One email from Iraq, one Walter Reed visit, one mission

Tori McClure
David J. Kaplan is the president of a real estate development company in New York and is also the Founder and President of the Kaplan Public Service Foundation. He can be contacted via email.

My brother Mitchell and I founded The Kaplan Public Service Foundation this past year with the goal of encouraging American civilians to become more involved in the support of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coastguardsmen.

The question we are most often asked is what motivated us, two attorneys in the real estate business, without military backgrounds, to become so passionate about supporting our troops? For me, the answer was Joseph Dow Covey, a former co-worker of mine, who quit his job on Wall Street to join the Army shortly after 9/11.

To show support for our friend, Mitchell and I sent Joe and his men numerous care-packages during his two tours of duty in Iraq. But it was an email, sent by Joe on New Year's Eve, 2008 that lead me to become much more involved then just sending junk food and movies.

His email was mostly factual, talking about where his platoon was based, the Arabic nick-name given to him by the locals ("Mullazem Yusef," Arabic for "Lieutenant Joseph") and the various fire fights he and his men were involved in. But I also picked up on an overwhelming sense of guilt in his message.

While Joe had been on a brief visit to Kuwait, his former platoon, the 4th of the Black Sheep, was attacked by a suicide bomber. Seven soldiers -- one quarter of his former men -- were seriously injured in the attack. The worst of the injured, a soldier whom I will leave nameless, is now lying in a coma at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.. Knowing Joe couldn't be there and sensing his terrible guilt for not being with these men at the time of the attack, I boarded a train to D.C. to visit the injured man. I knew my visit would mean a lot to Joe, but I didn't anticipate the impact the hospital visit would have on me.

What I saw at Walter Reed was numbing. The hospital, despite the negative reporting at the time, appeared gorgeous. As I made my way up to the injured soldier's room, I must have passed at least five soldiers, both men and women, all with missing limbs. As I walked into the room of the injured soldier I had come to see, I was immediately struck by the devastation this injury had on both the soldier and his family. The soldier in front of me was barely 20 years old, and he was missing a large part of his head. At his bedside were his 19 year-old wife and their beautiful newborn baby daughter. He couldn't speak, eat without the help of a feeding tube, or move most parts of his body.

I introduced myself to his parents and wife who still appeared to be in a state of shock. All were deeply touched that their son's former platoon leader would have a friend visit in his place while he was still fighting in Iraq. I tried speaking a few encouraging words from Joe to the injured soldier, never knowing whether he heard or understood me. From that moment on, I knew I had to do anything I could to get American civilians more involved in their support for our troops and their families regardless of their personal positions on either war.

Today's public support of our war fighters is actually very high. According to a 2010 Harris Poll, Americans trust the military more than any other institution. It's great to hear people say, "support our troops," but relatively few do anything to back up these words, unless they are a family member or close friend of someone serving. This isn't a result of the American public's lack of interest or care. Quite the contrary; I believe it's mostly a factor of people not knowing how to help or even where to get started.

The easiest way to help out is to get the name and address of a serviceman or servicewoman in Iraq or Afghanistan and send them a care package. My brother and I have sent out almost 100 care packages these last three years mostly to people whom we have never met. Mitchell became so close with one unit in Afghanistan that he actually played a very minor roll during a Taliban attack one winter's night. Hand warmers he had sent this unit kept their fingers warm when returning enemy fire. Something as simple as a $25 care package filled with junk food, hand warmers and old DVD movies makes both you and these recipients feel great.

For those that really want to support our troops on a first-hand basis, there is the Defense Orientation Conference Association (DOCA), which runs five trips a year to American military bases throughout the world. There is also a great Defense Department civilian outreach program, the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference (JCOC). I would highly recommend both for those who want a first-hand look at what our Armed Forces are capable of doing.

Our organization, The Kaplan Public Service Foundation, has no staff and is much smaller than both DOCA and JCOC. We run one trip a year for approximately 25 to 35 civilians, with 40% of all registration fees going directly to military charities and the other 60% going to meals and transportation. Last summer with the help of both the Navy and Coast Guard, we ran our first trip to New England, where we spent our first morning on a Virginia Class fast attack submarine, and the afternoon at Surface Warfare Officers School Command (SWOS) and the Naval War College.

We were the first large civilian group to have visited these schools in at least two years. According to the sailors we were with, no civilian group in their memory had ever asked before. The next day we spent the morning at the Coast Guard Academy in New London and the afternoon patrolling the waters off the coast of New Haven with the Coast Guard.

For me, the trip highlight was the reaction of an 18-year-old high school senior named Jackson Floyd who was starting Dartmouth College in the fall. Jackson was participating on this trip with his father Chuck Floyd, the CFO of Hyatt Hotels and 30 other civilians. While visiting surface-warfare school, Jackson said that his day with the Navy was the best of his life. Jackson is now a freshman on the Dartmouth College Football Team. With his influence, his football team got together last month and sent a $200 care package to a group of soldiers in Afghanistan.

On April 21st and 22nd our foundation we will be in Washington, D.C. at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Andrews Air Force Base, Capitol Hill and The Marine Corps Barracks. I try to make our trips both educational and fun for the participants. But most importantly, I like to show our servicemen and servicewomen that civilians are not only paying attention and interested, but sincerely care about their well-being.

Today less than one percent of all Americans are serving in the Armed Forces. The fact that some of these men and woman are now on their fourth or even fifth tours is nothing short of tragic. The toll it has taken on both them and their families is well documented. Ask yourself, what have we as Americans sacrificed over the last nine years of war? We civilians haven't been asked by our government to sacrifice much nor have we been inconvenienced in any way. My hope is to do everything in my limited power to reverse this trend.

READ MORE: Ranks of amputees have risen steadily in 8 years of war
WATCH: Lt. Joe Guyton, 'It's a weird club to be part of'

By David J. Kaplan

 |  March 29, 2010; 9:12 AM ET |  Category:  Nonprofit leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Wasted lives in a War About Nothing.

The Iraqi people loath us, throw shoes at our leaders in an ultimate act of insult and can't wait to see us leave.

Posted by: patrick3 | March 29, 2010 11:10 PM

For awhile I had a job making artificial limbs. I always looked upon it as job helping people walk, or pick things up. I never really considered that I was literally supporting the troops as it were...

If people want to support the troops, they need to do a better job of supporting veterans. The biggest overall thing they could use is one of the most simple. Jobs. Starting with the jobs they're supposed to be able to come back to.

There needs to be more of a mechanism to hold companies feet to the fires on that issue than there has been.

Posted by: Nymous | March 29, 2010 6:53 PM

Thank you Mr Kaplan for doing this, and to the Washington Post for highlighting these simple acts.

Posted by: cbl55 | March 29, 2010 5:08 PM

Put the axes away and get out and do something to support those who volunteered to serve so that you don't have to. You are entitled to your opinions but they are inappropriate here. Try spouting them to a recovering soldier at Walter Reed who has lost half his skull or his arm; you'll get a feeling for how inappropriate they are in this context. This column was not about you and your opinions--it is about you and your duty as a member of this society. Do something positive.

Posted by: levelhead1 | March 29, 2010 4:35 PM

David L. Kaplan,

Thanks for doing this.

That said,

What was the role of your present company, or your personal role in any prior employment, in creating the awful mess on Wall Street, including the subprime mess and swindle? Are you connected, or similar to, any of the many kinds of real estate interests, big and small, that Michael Lewis chronicles in The Big Short?

We look forward to your answer.

Posted by: axolotl | March 29, 2010 1:04 PM

The best way to "Support the Troops" is to keep them out of unnecessary wars. These wounded, these lives wasted, are the result of hubris, . . the self-righteousness of ignorant and incomplete personalities in charge of real people. The cowardly Bush Administration did this to us, for the sake of his "greatness" (his actual word!).

We must not only heal ourselves, but ensure that we deal with those responsible for these disasters, these wars, these crimes. We are supposed to be a Nation of Laws!!

Posted by: gkam | March 29, 2010 12:00 PM

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