Step up for Soldiers: Serving Those Who Serve Us
On November 24, 2004, Thomas Russell was reading the local newspaper and preparing for Thanksgiving with his family. A story about two local National Guard soldiers from the 1/120 Combined Arms Battalion (CAB) caught his eye. The soldiers were returning home from Iraq after a rocket-propelled grenade had struck their fighting vehicle. They survived the nearly fatal incident, but each had suffered the devastating loss of a limb.
“My wife thought it would be a good idea for me to go out and build ramps for these guys,” says Russell. “It hit home that these families were suffering. And that was the beginning of Step Up For Soldiers.”
Building on his past
Prior to his retirement, Russell served as the building inspector for the town of Kure Beach.
“That’s how I knew all of the building codes,” he explains. “I was also a police officer and served with the US Army for two years (1966-1968). And that’s why I felt a connection to these guys.”
In building ramps for the two soldiers injured in the Iraq blast, Russell found his passion. He became the founder and president of non-profit 501-(c)(3) organization Step Up For Soldiers (SUFS) in November 2004.
“I founded it, but I’m really just the head volunteer,” says Russell.
The all-volunteer organization serves all members of the United States Armed Forces and their families whether they are located in Leland, Wilmington or even as far as Durham. Russell doesn’t limit where he will travel to help.
“I’ll help anyone associated with the military in our local area,” Russell says. “I don’t make a distinction where you live. If you are local military and you need help, we’ll do it.”
Although the organization’s official documents state that Step Up For Soldiers serves veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and events forward, Russell doesn’t turn his back to anyone.
“I get involved with so many things and so many people,” says Russell. “Yesterday I helped install a metal ramp for a World War II veteran. The ramp had belonged to a man’s wife that had passed away and he no longer needed it. So I connected the two people. I can’t deny a man just because he doesn’t fit my fine print.”
Going beyond the call of duty
Russell and his team of volunteers don’t limit their craft to just ramps. The group has completed 13 construction projects to date, including widening doorways to accommodate those on crutches and in wheelchairs, building decks, installing wooden floors so that wheelchairs can more easily maneuver and crutches can be freed from common carpet frustrations. The Step Up For Soldiers crew has even completed a comprehensive home renovation.
“A lot of these guys don’t need ramps,” explains Russell. “Several of them get prosthetics and, with physical therapy, can really do amazing things.
They can run and jump and even finish marathons. They’re unbelievable. So, we help them in different ways around the house. We usually just build ramps now for those that are completely paralyzed or with brain injuries.”
The team is currently working on its 14th project, a two-car garage for a blind active duty U.S Army Captain in Raeford, North Carolina. Volunteers are working hard to create a garage structure that will be used as a workout facility for this hero so that he can train for the Iron Man competition in Hawaii.
“He runs, swims, bikes and event snow skis,” says Russell.
“And he’s blind?” I confirmed.
“Yep. Blind. And he’s still active duty, a Special Forces recruiter.”
Families and fund-raisers
Step Up For Soldiers was originally founded to help wounded soldiers, which are, obviously, also superheroes. But Russell has found that the families of the injured are in need, too.
“The family suffers as much as — or more than — the soldiers because they don’t know what to do for them,” explains Russell. “So we try to be assistance to the family too.”
Russell and his team help with home needs when a soldier returns injured but they also help while soldiers are deployed. The group coordinates a Food Bank program for military families, as well as helping with things around the house from fixing screen doors to repairing leaks. Step Up For Soldiers has helped more than 20 families to date.
The organization’s next recipient is a Special Forces Army National Guard, a triple amputee with three children. The group is currently raising money in order to take care of the soldier and his family, exact needs still to be determined.
SUFS knows that there are so many in need and it would love to help everyone. Because it’s clear that it’s not the heart holding them back, only one thing stands in their way: finances. With no funds from government grants, Step Up For Soldiers relies solely on fund-raising events and private donations. Supporters can visit the organization’s website at stepupforsoldiers.org to make a secure donation online.
In addition to fund-raisers, Step Up For Soldiers also holds several special events for military families throughout the year. Coming up is the Sixth Annual Kids Fishing Day on June 11 and a SUFS Cook-out on the Fourth of July. Such events are free and open to military families: active, reserve and retired. (See sidebar for event details.)
“It’s just a way we can give back to the families,” says Russell.
Making a difference
Russell is hardly living a traditional retirement lifestyle. He, along with three of his other volunteers, each put in close to 40 hours a week with Step Up For Soldiers. And it’s easy to see how that’s possible.
When the team isn’t busy building or fund-raising or celebrating military families, they are honoring the fallen — and supporting the current — troops.
“We built and maintain a Fallen Soldier Memorial in Wilmington, which was and continues to be a wonderful thing to be involved with,” says Russell.
“We also run a Packages From Home program where we send personal hygiene items, snacks, letters from local grammar schools and other necessities to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan for them to take along when they go on one to two day missions. So far, we’ve sent more than 290 packages.”
Russell clearly puts others first. Not only have the soldiers and military families taken notice, but also local dignitaries. In April Russell was named Volunteer of the Year in New Hanover County and also presented the Governor’s award for Outstanding Volunteerism.
“Step Up For Soldiers has made me a better person,” says Russell. “It’s made me realize how many good people are out there making a difference. It’s made me want to go beyond what I do. That’s what we’re supposed to do: go out and give. We’re all in this together, you know.”
Connecting with SUFS
How does one in need get connected with SUFS? To date, all projects have originated from referrals. Recipients of SUFS services typically know of other military members in need, several times through mutual time in physical therapy or rehab experiences. But for those that have a need and no connection to Russell, he encourages them to contact him directly at (910) 297-4981 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you want to support this worthy cause, visit the organization’s website at www.stepupforsoldiers.org to make a secure donation online.