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Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Altman: Operation Helping Hand in it for the long haul

America’s longest war is in its last months, but here is a sobering thought to consider.

More than 50,000 men and women have been wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq. As many as a half-million may be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And we, as a society, have an obligation to take care of these folks.

It is an obligation that will, in some cases, last nearly until the year 2100.

Supporting the troops and such is all the rage now, but will the interest still be there 10 years from now? Twenty? Fifty, when that 25-year-old missing limbs thanks to an improvised explosive device still needs care at 75?

One local organization that expects to maintain an enduring presence well past the end of Operation Enduring Freedom is optimistic.

“We are ready to help as long as there are patients,” says Bob Silah, who does as much as anyone to keep the faith with the wounded, ill and injured.

Thursday night marks a big milestone for Silah, a retired Navy captain, and the organization he helped create.

It will mark the 10th anniversary of the Operation Helping Hand dinners, a monthly event at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital that honors hospitalized active duty service members.

It all started, says Silah, at a dinner with Steve Scott, Haley’s chief of physical medicine and rehabilitation and polytrauma program. The two talked. “‘Some of the patients coming in have no money,’” Silah recalls Scott telling him. “‘Some of the parents were sleeping in cars, with no money for hotels. We don’t know how to handle it.’”

Silah brought the idea to the Military Officers Association of America, and that led to the first OHH monthly dinner.

Aside from honoring the patients and presenting them with gifts, the dinners serve as a main fundraiser, helping the all-volunteer organization raise between $20,000 and $25,000 a year. A bulk of the money goes toward air fares to bring immediate family members of the patients to Tampa. Another big expenditure, says Silah, is for rental cars to allow those patients able to leave the hospital a chance to do so.

“We rely heavily on community support,” says Silah. “The support we get most lately is from golf tournaments. I just went to one in The Villages the other day. They have been very, very supportive.”

The looming end of combat operations in Afghanistan does not mean a slowing in the number of patients, says Silah.

And so far, the interest in helping them seems to be holding steady.

“It seems as long as we put the Operation Helping Hand name in front of people, and the dinners help, people give us contributions.”

Even if interest begins to fade, Silah believes the organization will still be able to help.

“We built up substantial money markets and CDs in lieu of this possibly happening,” he says. “Financially, we are ready for any decline in interest. But I don’t think there will be a decline.”

For more information, go to http://www.operationhelpinghandtampa.com/

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Unless you consider E. Lee Ermey’s iconic barracks diatribes in “Full Metal Jacket” poetic, the first thing that jumps to mind when you think about a Marine isn’t poetry.

But don’t tell that to Maj. David Dixon, a Marine Corps AH-1W Cobra attack helicopter pilot whose done two deployments to Iraq and one to Japan.

And apparently he’s not the only lyrical leatherneck.

Dixon, on a temporary assignment as a Strategic Effects Analyst at U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, recently won the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s Robert A. Gannon Award. The award, named after the noted poet, is given for “a distinguished volume of original verse by a Marine poet dealing with Marine Corps life.,” according to the foundation’s website.

Dixon, who is 34 and grew up in Dallas, says he has been writing poetry off and on since middle school.

“Other than the Robert A. Gannon award, my only other accolade came in 1992 at my junior high Cultural Arts Fair where I won first place for a poem called ‘imagine that,’” says Dixon, who last year self-published a book of poems about Marine Corps life called “Call In The Air.”

“I have always enjoyed writing and my elementary school and junior high teachers in Dallas encouraged me,” says Dixon, “but I mostly stopped writing poetry after junior high and didn’t start again until my first deployment to Iraq in 2006 when I was a lieutenant.”

Dixon says he revisited poetry as a way to needle superior officers.

“I play the guitar a little and honestly most of my poems consisted of funny songs that I wrote to make fun of the captains and majors in our unit,” he says. “While in Iraq I kept a journal of sorts, and I and jotted down some ideas for poems. It wasn’t until I wrote this book that I revisited my old writings and put the poems together. Also, my wife Jackie majored in writing at Johns Hopkins University and she really encouraged me to put my poems into a book.”

Most people, says Dixon “are pretty dumbfounded to hear that I (or any Marine for that matter) write poetry.”

But that doesn’t mean he was worried about taking a ribbing.

“I have never really been worried about getting any grief because I honestly didn’t think anyone would ever read what I wrote,” he says. “I think any artist (musical, thespian, literary) is self-conscious to some extent about their work and worries that they will be mocked — I am no different. So, I suppose you have to be bold enough to put yourself out there and humble enough to take the criticism when it comes.”

Until last month’s foundation award ceremony, Dixon says he kept his writing to himself.

“Until the awards ceremony I hadn’t told any of my friends about my book (which I self-published through Amazon Kindle),” he says. “Before writing Call in the Air, I had published a few poems in various magazines and the reaction was very positive, which again encouraged me to polish my poems put them out there.”

Dixon, whose temporary assignment at MacDill ends Thursday, will return to Quantico, VA to resume his job at Marine Corps University where he serves as the Curriculum Manager for Officer Professional Military Education courses.

He may be done with Tampa, but he’s far from done with poetry.

Dixon says he is writing a series of military children’s books titled Goodnight Troops, which he will self-publish through his company, Callsign Enterprises, in July.

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Congrats to the 235-member Gaither High School Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps.

On May 1, they found out they placed third out of 620 schools in the NJROTC National Drill Athletic and Academic Competition, according to retired Navy Senior Chief Ed Donahue, who has helping to run the program for the past 12 years. A naval science instructor at Gaither, he works senior naval science instructor Jim Stauffer, a retired Navy lieutenant commander and naval science instructor Loney Cason, like Donahue a retired senior chief.

To win the virtual competition, the Gaither squad submitted a tape of a drill and took an online academic test.

But that wasn’t the Gaither NJROTC’s best showing this year.

Back in February, a five-member team finished second out of 1,720 NJROTCs in a national academic competition, says Donahue.

At times, Donahue had to shout over a crowd. That’s because about 50 of the cadets were participating at the Relay for Life event at Chamberlain High School, for which they raised about $2,500.

Bravo Zulu!

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The Pentagon announced the death of a soldier last week.

Pfc. Daniela Rojas, 19, of Los Angeles, California, died May 3, in Homburg, Germany, due to a non-combat related illness. She was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colorado.

There have now been 2,307 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.

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