‘We can all be soldiers'

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:46

    WARWICK-Al Giordano always knew he would grow up to become a Marine. "I was born on a Marine Corps base and knew I was going to be in the Marines," said Giordano, 42, of Warwick. His father and grandfather were Marines; his brother served. "I'm from a long line of military people." What he didn't know, was just how much he would impact the lives of his fellow soldiers as they returned broken from war. He and his buddy, John Melia of Roanoke, Va., saw first hand the wounded soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. They came back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., with little more than the clothes on their backs. And many times, with much less, having lost limbs, their sight, or badly burned. So Giordano and Melia started kicking around the idea in mid-2002 about starting a program where returning wounded soldiers would receive some essentials to hold them over until they get their bearings. The Wounded Warrior Project was born. "If you remember the Vietnam generation, it bothered me how they were treated when they came back home," Giordano said. "We have a new crop of soldiers and Marines coming back home. We wanted to welcome them back the right way." The Wounded Warrior Project gives those soldiers a black backpack with the group's logo on it—a soldier carrying another soldier from the battlefield—which is from an actual picture. Inside, are socks, underwear, a T-shirt, sweat clothes, toiletries, a phone card and a CD player. Giordano said HBO recently donated DVDs to the group, which have been packed into the backpacks as well. Everything going into the Wounded Warrior Project is donated. And Giordano is getting some big names to champion this group that started out as a little, grassroots organization but has grown more than Giordano could have ever dreamed. "We are mentioned regularly on Fox News," Giordano said. "HBO has been great. We've had New York Giant's quarterback Kurt Warner and his wife come down to Walter Reed and visit with the guys. Some big organizations are making some nice donations to us." Like the New York Yankees—they just donated $75,000 to the group. Next month there will be a $1,000 a plate fundraiser on Wall Street. The Bravo network's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" has done a show on one of the vets. The project has been featured on The Today Show. Dan Marino of HBO's "Inside the NFL" has visited Walter Reed, too, and the show filmed a segment on the group's recent football outing to Giants' Stadium. Alec Baldwin does the voice-over for the group's public service announcement. "America has just poured their hearts out to us," Giordano said. The group does more for vets than provide essentials contained in the backpack, though. It is a shoulder to lean on, a counseling group, helping these young men and women get their lives back. Giordano knows how difficult that can be. He served in the Marines during the 1980s but was an inactive reservist when the first Gulf War started in 1991. By then he was living in Rockland County and, along with his wife, Beth, owned a successful deli and catering business. That all changed one day when he received his letter saying he was needed. "I got a letter and six days later was out in California training," Giordano said. He never made it to the Persian Gulf. He injured his leg while training and the war ended. But two years later, when he completed rehabilitation, he had lost everything. His business did not survive. But he found so much more. "I applied for VA benefits and met a double amputee from Vietnam who worked with Disabled American Veterans," Giordano recalled. "I went to work for them for 10 years. I found what I wanted to do in life." Giordano represents veterans who go before the Veteran's Administration. He is studying for the Bar exam, which he will be taking in soon. Founding the Wounded Warrior Project with his buddy has again opened his life to a new chapter. One year ago, the project became part of the United Spinal Association, a non-profit group that was previously known as Eastern Paralyzed Veterans. "All the money donated to Wounded Warrior stays with Wounded Warrior," Giordano said. "United Spinal picks up the administrative tab." Giordano said the group also helps bring families to their wounded warrior when he or she returns home. "I knew of a kid, and they are just kids, whose wife was selling her furniture to buy a plane ticket to come see him at Walter Reed when he returned," Giordano said. "That should never happen. We provide transportation for family members when it is needed." The group has been involved in getting new legislation passed helping these people who come back and have to readjust to an entirely new life, including a $50,000 lump sum dismemberment policy. "If someone is severely injured and creates financial hardship, they will be eligible for this lump sum." Giordano and his colleagues have a Web site — woundedwarriorproject.org. It shows photographs of young soldiers who are trying to adapt to life after war. Their own words describe what happened to them. The Web site also shows how you can donate. So far, they have handed out more than 6,000 backpacks to returning warriors at Walter Reed, Bethesda, Ft. Bragg, Camp Pendleton and the burn unit in Texas. Meeting so many of these soldiers has made an impact on Giordano. "This really is a band of brothers," he said. "They check on each other, they look after each other." And Giordano sees a bright future for the country because of them. "We're going to be okay because of this generation," he said.