Luke Shirley lost an arm and a leg to an IED blast in Iraq 10 years ago. The wounded warrior was recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center when he met Sarah Wingfield, a Washington Redskins cheerleader ambassador who was visiting the troops. That was in May 2007. That encounter led to an initiative called Luke’s Wings. Since the nonprofit began in January 2008, the organization has raised more than $3.5 million to help military families in immediate need of travel tickets and travel planning services to be with their wounded loved ones receiving medical care.
A team of five staffers at Luke’s Wings said they believe that having loved ones by soldiers’ bedsides during their long and difficult recovery and endless surgeries is “mission critical” to help pass the time, boost spirits and, in the most extreme cases, helps alleviate depression and reduce the risk of suicide. Since its founding, Luke’s Wings has helped more than 2,400 wounded-warrior families and veterans in hospice care.
“We know that suicide rates among our military is rising and we want to make sure that during a time of year that can increase feelings of loneliness, our combat injured and veterans in hospice are surrounded by loved ones,” said Jennifer Magerer, Luke’s Wings’ executive director of family communications and logistics. “Through the gift of travel, we hope to be a mitigating service and provide love and comfort during hospitalization.”
Luke’s Wings operated from January 2008 through 2012 on a strictly volunteer basis, with no salaries or office space and bare bones operating expenses. All costs were limited to fundraising activities and flights for wounded warriors and their families. Since 2012, Luke’s Wings has developed long-term relationships with foundations and corporate America. Luke’s Wings also works with Delta Airlines as a Delta SkyWish partner. Delta flyers with more than 1,000 air miles can donate them online.
“Through the gift of travel, we hope to be a mitigating service and provide love and comfort during hospitalization.”
“We accrue miles in an account — even the smallest mileage donation adds up to help us book flights all year round,” Magerer said. “Our small team of five reaches out to companies and foundations of all kinds on a daily basis. It is our hope that we can say ‘Yes!’ to all in-scope requests we receive and be fully funded for years to come!”
Magerer said the biggest challenge Luke’s Wings faces is keeping awareness around the fact that servicemen and women are still being injured in combat.
“The data is shared, but with so many world events coinciding with the wars abroad, often the information is lost or overlooked,” Magerer said. “We make it our personal mission to let the community know our service men and women are deployed and remain in harm’s way.”
Nonprofits such as Luke’s Wings fill a gap left by government agencies.
“The military is only able to travel resources to the immediate family once the service member is initially injured,” Magerer explained. “With over 55,000 service members injured since we began the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we know that providing flights for a wounded warrior’s birthday or for the first time they walk in a prosthetic would be nearly impossible.”
“We understand government resources are limited and that is why supporting nonprofits is so important,” she added. “We can make a direct impact as our efforts stem from the needs we see firsthand. We can make decisions and support military families immediately.”
Magerer said “nearly all civilians” are shocked to learn how long the recovery process can be for an injured service member.
“As a civilian, our view on a ‘hospital’ visit is limited to a few days or weeks, at most,” she said. “The average rehabilitation for a military members lasts at least 24 months. The recovery process is quite long and the need to support is ongoing.”
Magerer said beyond hospice care, Luke’s Wings hopes to be able to expand its program to other populations of veterans.
“While we don’t wish for war or injuries, we do know the reality of the situation,” she said. “We hope to be around and funded as long as our troops need our services. Additionally, in 2017, due to the increase in domestic terrorism, Luke’s Wings will expand to include the Fallen Officer Transportation Assistance Program to provide airfare to the loved ones of law enforcement officers injured or killed in the line of duty resulting from domestic terrorist attacks.”
Magerer encouraged readers to visit http://www.lukeswings.org/contribute/ to explore different ways to give financially. Luke’s Wings also accepts in-kind contributions through time. People who wish to volunteer their time and host a fundraiser to raise funds and awareness for our program can reach out to Dakota Bierly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Luke’s Wings operates on the generosity of individual and corporate donations, but we also very much appreciate the gift of advocacy,” Magerer said. “Sharing our mission with others in the community is incredibly helpful!”
Carrie Sheffield is a senior contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield and on Facebook.