Spirit of a Hero Gears Up for Latest Assist to Wounded Warriors
Critically injured veterans are buoyed by military philanthropist and his organization's 8th annual gala.
By: Richie Whitt, Dallas
From soldier. To savior.
As a member of the United States' 82nd Airborne, Rick Turner was shot in the head by a sniper in Panama. But that wasn't even the worst part of the worst day of his life. Because Turner was shot in the head ... while cradling his team member in his arms. And watching him get shot. Shot again. And dying .
"Some memories," says Turner, eyes welling and tears trickling, "they just never go away."
But instead of withering away psychologically in the wake of a traumatic event, Turner - who was saved by his Kevlar helmet - instead decided to help other military members cope with similarly horrifying experiences.
His foundation: Spirit of a Hero . Its motto: No legs. No arms. No problem.
Rick Turner and wife Tancy.
As founder and president of Spirit of a Hero, Dallas-Fort Worth's fastest-growing military nonprofit organization, Turner, 48, spearheads programs to help critically wounded soldiers that have literally sacrificed life and limb for their country. You need a hero? SOAH's annual award recipients include single, double, triple and even quadruple amputees.
"I'm not sure where I'd be without Rick," says Omar Milan of Mansfield, TX (that's him, far right, in the image at the top). Milan was SOAH's 2015 "Hero" and lost one leg, nerve functionality in the other and most of his left hand when he encountered four IEDs (improvised explosive device) in 2012. "I'd probably be in some apartment, not this house that I love. Who knows? I might not be here at all. I can't put into words how much that organization has helped me."
SOAH - which will hold its 8th annual fund-raising gala Sept. 14 in Frisco, Texas - assists its beneficiaries with everything from adaptive training fitness centers, customized homes and emotional and financial support.
The group's other main fundraiser is an annual motorcycle ride and benefit concert. The one in memory of 2018 SOAH Award was pretty amazing:
"I just felt moved to help those not as fortunate as me," says Turner. "I have PTS, my back kills me, I walk with a limp and, yeah, I got shot in the head. But, trust me, I'm one of the lucky ones. I just had to do something."
One of the things he's done is provide hope. And one very special reunion.
THE STORY OF MAN AND MAN'S BEST FRIEND
Through blood, sweat and gears, SOAH's annual motorcycle rides have raised almost $1 million for DFW veterans. But the story that stands out involves one man ... and man's best friend.
Brian Aft of McKinney, TX, was on routine foot patrol in Kajaki, Afghanistan in 2011. By his side, beloved bomb dog and trusted partner, "Buckshot." Sensing IEDs in an irrigation ditch, the two leaped over it to the other side, only to land on another mine.
The resulting explosion blew off both of Aft's legs above the knees, and inflicted life-threatening injuries to Buckshot.
While rehabbing for two years at Walter Reed Hospital, Aft often inquired about his dog. Repeatedly, he was told only that Buckshot had been "retired." Back home in Texas, Aft attempted to mitigate the pain and depression by abusing drugs.
After another surgery and a checkup back in D.C., he was slumped in his wheelchair in a hallway, slowly nibbling the only "food" he could choke down - ice chips. He looked up to see a 3-star General, who offered a refill.
"Son, I'd be honored to help any way I can," he said.
Replied Aft, "I just want my dog back."
The latest to deliver the heartbreaking news, the general explained that hundreds of thousands of dollars are invested into bomb dogs and that "the military doesn't just give them away, medically retired or not."
The soldier who lost his legs will never find his dog.
So the next time you begin to utter some shallow, first-world whining, allow Aft to blind and mute them with his unique ray of sunshine. Often when he exercises at Adaptive Training in Carrollton, he wears a T-shirt depicting shattered stick figures: Combat veteran. Some assembly required.
Jokes Turner, "He's accepted his fate and makes the best of it. What else you gonna do?"
Answer the door, for starters.
A month after his brief interaction with the general at Walter Reed, Aft received a visitor at his Collin County home. It was a woman in uniform, flanked by two soldiers.
"Corporal Brian Aft?" the woman said. "Sign here."
Confused but intrigued, Aft pushed for more information.
Announced the woman, by way of official government proclamation, "You, sir, are now in sole possession of $196,000 worth of retired military equipment." The order was signed by the 3-star general.
"Things are great. I've got my wife, family, my friends and I've got Buckshot," says Aft. "I'm not sure what in the world I could complain about?"
(Rick as Forrest Gump and Brian as Lt. Dan, Halloween 2018)
THE MARINE IN NEED BECOMES HERO
SOAH further wowed Aft's world, naming him its 2017 "Hero." Turner's crew totally remodeled Aft's backyard, transforming it from a wasted space with hilly, uneven terrain into a leveled playground friendly to both dog and wheelchair. There's a patio. An arbor. Shade trees. Flower beds. An outdoor grill and refrigerator. And when the neighborhood initially balked at the extensive renovations, Turner and SOAH intervened and got the project approved.
"I'm unbelievably appreciative," says Aft. "Rick did it all. I'm out there every day with Buckshot and my other dogs. Can't put a price on something like that."
Says Turner, again tearing up, "That right there - makes it all worthwhile."
We hear stories about our veterans being homeless, hopeless. It's nice to tell one with a relatively "happy" ending.
Brian (center) and Rick (to his right) promote the motorcycle ride.