WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Florida ranks third in the nation for the highest number of veterans, and each year, the Wounded Veterans Relief Fund is on the front lines helping disabled veterans stay on track.
Christopher McCarthy didn't earn the nickname "The Hammer" for nothing.
"Every time I left the wire, I would pretty much say, 'you know what, I'm probably going to die in this mission,' but let's get it done," McCarthy said. "I was clearing caves and blowing them up."
McCarthy worked on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2004 on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. The hunt is long over, but improvised Explosive Device (IED) blasts took their toll.
”I have a traumatic brain injury, nerve damage, and my back is completely shot," he said.
McCarthy retired from the military, but he says the adjustment climbing the corporate ladder in physical security engineering can be just as unpredictable.
"I lost my job earlier this year and then came COVID-19," he said.
Over the summer, Wounded Veterans Relief Fund paid two months of McCarthy’s mortgage and car payment. He says if it can happen for a decorated marine, it can happen for anyone.
”It’s tough to ask for help, and in the military, we're taught failure is not an option,” he said.
Seven days a week, a team of five within the Wounded Veterans Relief Fund handles referrals coming in from the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers across the state. Putting other veterans like Thomas Reynold's back on track, who now works as a human resources director in California in August 2020.
"I don't know where I would be with the Wounded Veterans Relief Fund," Thomas said. "The help they’ve given me not only monetarily but peace of mind. It’s mental. I'm a Purple Heart recipient who was just doing my job who got wounded — but life still goes on. I was out of a job and exhausted all my resources last November before I found my current career."
Mike Durkee is the executive director of Wounded Veterans Relief Fund unsatisfied with the number of veterans in survival mode. The fund provides housing assistance, utility assistance, and financial help with emergency vehicle repairs and payments.
"Especially now during COVID-19, unfortunately, the suicide rate has gone up 20-percent among our veteran population," Durkee said. "There's more veterans faced with evictions. And faced with foreclosure.”
Retired Lt. Gen. Robert Chelberg is the fund’s board of directors president. He’s zeroed in on the issues facing today’s veterans and now collaborates with agencies like Career Source in Palm Beach County and the United Way of Palm Beach County.
”They have earned the right for us to help them because they have done things that many people have not,” Chelberg said.
Seventy percent of the funds allocated by the Wounded Veterans Relief Fund goes to basic living expenses. But there are new initiatives on the horizon. One in the works addresses high dental costs, and both Career Source in Palm Beach County and the United Way of Palm Beach County are part of a growing coalition of supporters.
”This year, we did support this nonprofit with a grant to help veterans," said Dr. Laurie George, United Way of Palm Beach County CEO and president. “It is so personal to me because my son is active military. And I hope that when the time comes for him when he leaves service that there are such resources available."
It's helped veterans like McCarthy’s contingency plan for the future.
"I didn't fail. I just needed my battle buddy to help pick me up," McCarthy said. “I finally feel hope again. In the next six months, I’m looking to start my own business, or I’ll be re-entering my field.”
There are plenty more veterans like McCarthy who need help rebounding.
Every year, the Wounded Veterans Relief Fund’s largest fundraiser is the annual ball -- the telethon in collaboration with WPTV will hopefully help the deficit. You can donate to the Wounded Veterans Relief Fund telethon by calling 561-273-1144. The phone lines will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.