They came bearing wounds and guide dogs, along with honor and faith in service to their country.
The second annual “Indy Orchid Gala” Wednesday in the Savannah Center was a night to showcase heroic sacrifice among sisters and brothers in arms. Every seat was sold for a dinner to honor female veterans and raise money to help all wounded soldiers through the Independence Fund.
The event raised $120,000.
Leslie Nicole Smith is legally blind and lost her left leg as a result of service in Bosnia.
Despite the devastating losses, Smith gained something more.
“What happened turned into a blessing because I discovered an inner strength I didn’t know I had,” said Smith, a retired Army Captain. She stood with her guide dog, Isaac nearby. “When I came back, I couldn’t wear the uniform or fight the fight. But you can’t look back with regret. I found that helping other injured soldiers was therapy and healing for me.
“It was a new mission and it opened a whole new world for me. Helping other veterans gave me inner peace and joy. That’s why it’s great to be here tonight to honor women vets for their sacrifices and service.”
Smith’s words described the atmosphere that permeated the “Indy Orchid Gala.”
You could feel the emotion when Brian Mast, who lost both legs in Afghanistan, said the Pledge of Allegiance and led the audience in singing “God Bless America.”
“This is more than we expected,” said Villager Marie Bogdonoff, who wiped away tears after Mast’s appearance. Bogdonoff has long worked for the Independence Fund and Villagers for Veterans. “I’m so excited and so emotional. It means so much to me and to the wounded veterans to see this kind of support. People in The Villages are so generous.”
You can see a clip of Mast leading the song at the Villages-News.com Facebook page at the link below:
Last year the gala raised just over $12,000 and this year Bogdonoff hoped to top that figure. The goal was to raise money for two Track Chairs, specially designed All-Terrain Vehicles for disabled vets. They cost about $15,000 each.
Jennifer Griffin is a star reporter for Fox News as national security correspondent. She works out of the Pentagon and has personally witnessed the tragic results of modern warfare. She was the guest speaker at the gala and is a driving force behind the Independence Fund, to help severely injured vets find special wheelchairs. Thus far, Griffin has helped the organization donate 1,000 special chairs.
“I’ve spent a lot of time at Walter Reed (National Military Medical Center) and I’ve seen so many wounded veterans, including double, triple and even quadruple amputees,” said Griffin who, with her husband Greg Myre, wrote “This Burning Land,” about the Middle East. Both Griffin and Myre were reporters who covered the region.
“In previous wars, these wounded soldiers wouldn’t have survived,” Griffin said. “But battlefield medicine has improved so much in the last 15 years that these severely wounded soldiers are coming home.”
Helping veterans inspires Griffin. “I feel I can be a positive force and raise awareness about them.”
A few years ago, she faced her own personal challenge with breast cancer. In a very real way, that physical battle helped Griffin understand what some veterans face with their own bodies.
“Helping these veterans is so important to me,” Griffin said. “One of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had is working with wounded veterans.”
She said the goal of the Independence Fund is give severely injured veterans, “the freedom, independence and dignity they deserve.”
Griffin also said that the gala is another sign that, “women veterans are finally getting the recognition they deserve. It has been a long time coming.”
BriGette McCoy believes there is still a long way to go. She served in the Army from 1987-91 and suffered a back injury. She also battled psychological issues, including Military Sexual Trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“Women have come a long way in the military but people need to be more aware of what women are doing,” she said. “For the last 15 years or so, women have been getting combat pay.”
Coming home also can be difficult for a woman veteran.
“Basically, you’re anonymous; nobody knows where you’ve been or what you have done. You have to start all over again and fight for everything you get.”
The public can help women and all veterans by “voting to ensure benefits and care for veterans,” McCoy said. “You have to be involved and know what your political representatives are doing. You can just say ‘thanks for your service’ to a veteran. You have to become active and make sure he or she is taken care of.”
Rev. James H. Rockey, pastor of the Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, believes that is the least we can do for vets.
“We’re here tonight because of people like BriGette who fought to keep us free,” he said. “This is a night to celebrate their lives and share our faith with them.”
Outside, in the lobby of the Savannah Center, three veterans in wheelchairs and their dogs, were grouped together.
“Tonight is about giving back to those who have given so much for our country,” said Brett Clingan, with his dog named Elvis at his feet. Clingan was near his brother, Robert, who had a dog named Ferguson. “Life can be very hard sometimes but people here are so much better off for what we did,” Brett said.
Ryan Barlow sat nearby, with his dog, Ethan and smiled, saying, “tonight is a nice way for people to say thank-you.”