Last week I got a call from a woman in Wisconsin, inviting me to an event she was organizing to raise money for Specialist Raymond Hubbard, who was wounded in Iraq. I had met Hubbard while he was being treated at Walter Reed and, much to my surprise, he made a special request that I be invited to his homecoming. I shopped the story around a bit, but finally decided to go out there myself, on my own nickel, just to see small town America welcoming home one of their own.
Delevan, Wisconsin is a town of 8,000 about 50 miles south of Milwaukee. It's a beautiful place – the town sits on a lake – and so friendly the clerk at the EconoLodge on Route 50 gave an enthusiastic "Hi Mary!" when I checked in. There was a lot of activity outside and so we talked about the huge crowd that was gathering next door at Super Z's Starlight Banquet Hall. People from all over the county were driving in to attend a fundraiser for Army Specialist Raymond Hubbard.
Ray lost his leg on July 4th. He was standing in a compound just north of Baghdad when a mortar shell landed next to him. Besides taking his leg, the explosion sent shrapnel deep into his neck, cutting the carotid artery. Blood was everywhere but the medic had the presence of mind to reach into the wound to grab the severed artery – sort of a human tourniquet. For 15 minutes that soldier held Ray's life in his hands.
On this day, Ray's neighbors were gathering, not just to celebrate that he's home from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, but to lay down some cash to help him get his life back together. Helping out seems to be what you just do around here.
Ray and his wife Sarah had bought a fixer-upper before he went to Iraq with the Wisconsin National Guard. After he was wounded, word got out that the roof leaked. So local builders formed a "help committee" and re-shingled it. Then they launched their own version of extreme make-over: new, wider doors to accommodate a wheelchair, a bathroom re-do with handicapped fixtures, new electric, new plumbing, new furnace, new windows, new carpeting "and we'll be painting shortly," committee co-chair Kent Kruzan told the wildly cheering crowd. He didn't mention that nearly $50,000 worth of materials and labor were being put into the house. "This is the most rewarding experience for us at the builders association," he said. "This has been a blessing for each and every one of us that has worked on the house."
Nearly 1,000 people showed up for this fundraiser. They paid $5 to get in and they bought raffle tickets for stuff that's been donated – everything from an American flag flown over a base in Iraq to a football autographed by Green Bay Packers.
It's a love-your-country crowd: quiet when the head of the American Legion speaks and loud when it's time to sing the National Anthem or recite the Pledge of Allegiance. They ate bratwurst and BBQ, and with every raffle ticket -- $ 1 for the smaller items, $5 for everything else – they helped their soldier who was hurt in Iraq.
By the end of the night they had raised nearly $35,000.