On March 14, Gunnery Sgt. Brian Meyer was on his third combat deployment when the bomb he was attempting to defuse in the deadly Sangin district of Afghanistan’s Helmand province detonated.
The blast sheared off his right leg, his right hand and three fingers of his left hand.
“Some days you do everything right and something still goes wrong,” the explosives technician said.
By Mark Walker | North County Times | NCTimes.com | July 9, 2011
Within days, the 29-year-old Camp Pendleton Marine was recovering at Maryland’s National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda when a representative of the Semper Fi fund appeared.
“They approached me within a week and have done so much since, it’s hard to remember it all,” said Meyer, a native of Mesa, Ariz.
Meyer is just one of roughly 6,000 service members the fund has helped since it was started by Camp Pendleton registered nurse Karen Guenther and a group of other Marine spouses shortly after the war in Iraq began in 2003.
Since its launch, the nonprofit Semper Fi fund has raised more than $50 million and awarded more than 31,000 grants to the troops and families it has assisted.
Surpassing the $50 million mark in donations earlier this month was a bittersweet milestone, Guenther said last week.
“It’s wonderful in one sense, but it also is indicative of the continuation of the wars and that we still have so many injured troops.”
For Meyer, the fund helped keep his parents by his bedside during his initial recovery period, and paid for voice recognition software for his computer, modifications to his truck and training for his Great Dane to become a service dog.
“They’re just always there,” said Meyer, who made it safely through two tours in Iraq before being wounded in Afghanistan. “We’re men, and we just don’t ask for stuff, but they are always saying, ‘Hey, is there anything that you need?’ It’s very personal, and very caring.”
And that’s just the way Guenther envisioned the fund would be when she and a handful of Marine spouses sat around her kitchen table in the spring of 2003 and launched the organization as a way to help the rising numbers of casualties coming home from Iraq.
“We didn’t really intend to grow the way we have, and we never had a long-range plan,” said Guenther, who hung up her stethoscope at Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton in 2006 to work full time for Semper Fi. “What makes us unique is, we are down in the trenches with the troops. We know them, and we know their families.”
Guenther, along with Annette Conway, wife of former Marine Corps Commandant James Conway, Sondria Saylor, Helen Toolan and Karen Kelly, started by organizing welcoming activities at the hospital.
They soon saw that some family members of injured troops couldn’t afford the cost of travel to the West Coast, so they raised money for the airfare.
Next, they raised money for a modified van for a Marine with severe injuries.
When it became clear that the need was beyond what the military and Veterans Administration provides, Guenther and her cohorts expanded their efforts in 2004 to create a nationwide nonprofit with a simple mission: to provide critically injured and ill service members with immediate financial aid and whatever was needed to assist families so they could help care for their loved one.
“Basically, we just try and fill the gaps,” said Guenther, who works out of an office at the Wounded Warrior barracks at Camp Pendleton. “While the government is doing more than ever, there are still needs and we help as quietly as we can with the goal of making the service member’s life as best it can possibly be.
“From the beginning, we made the commitment that we would stay with them and their families as long as they needed us.”
Semper Fi, short for the Marine Corps’ motto Semper Fidelis or “Always Faithful,” doesn’t spend any money on marketing or fundraising, and Guenther said 95 percent of the money it raises goes to the troops and their families.
“We made that commitment very early on,” she said of the fund, which has an A-plus rating from the American Institute of Philanthropy. It also has an “Excellent” or four-star rating from Charity Navigator, which also evaluates nonprofit charities.
Semper Fi relies on a volunteer network of more than 130 people across the country to reach out to injured troops. It employs about 40 people on a part-time basis, nearly all of whom have spouses on active duty.
As the war in Afghanistan continues with 20,000 Marines and sailors assigned there, the Semper Fi fund now averages about 45 grants each day.
“Our volume is high, and it keeps getting higher,” Guenther said.
Fund officials caution that despite President Barack Obama’s plan to start reducing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the fighting goes on and many more service members will need Semper Fi’s help. Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, more than 44,000 troops have been wounded and more than 6,000 killed.
The fund is primarily for Marines and sailors. But soldiers and Air Force personnel injured in operations supporting the Marines are also eligible to apply for help.
According to its latest tax filing for the 2009-10 fiscal year ending on June 30, Semper Fi received $11.5 million in donations and grants and awarded nearly $9.5 million of that money. The rest was used for expenses, a small number of investments and salaries.
For more information, including copies of all the group’s tax and financial statements, visit www.semperfifund.org.