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The Military Order of the Purple Heart

For Immediate Release

Jacksonville, NC - Christmas 2011

Marines Head Home for the Holidays

Christmas, 2011 Jacksonville, NC

It's 5:00 AM in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and it's still dark and cold outside. But that doesn't deter the Marines and Sailors from Camp Lejeune, NAS Cherry Point, and the surrounding area from lining up outside the "Military Relocator" real estate building, home to MOPH Beirut Memorial Chapter 642. Today would be the culmination of a year-long effort by MOPH Chapter 639 to raise enough money to allow every wounded or injured service member in the USMC Wounded Warrior Battalion East to travel home for the holidays, whether it be Christmas, Hanukkah or just a chance to be with family and friends.

The "Wounded Warrior Leave Fund" (WWLF) was launched in 2005, when then National Commander Tom Poulter and NC Department Commander Jim Casti visited the Wounded Warrior Battalion-East at Camp Lejeune. As Poulter toured the facilities, he asked one of the young Marines if there was anything he could do for him. The Marine replied, "not unless you can get me home for Christmas." Poulter turned to Jim Casti and said, "find a way to make it happen." As they say, "the rest is history."

At 9:00 AM, Jim Casti and his guests pulled into the parking lot. Joining Casti for this year's check presentation ceremony were Bill Hutton and Barb Cherone, who were the first MOPH National Commander and LAMOPH National President in the program's six-year history to come at the same time in their respective positions to represent the Order. Lined up outside the building were about 70 men and women, and Hutton later recalled thinking, "well, this should only take a few minutes." What they didn't know until they stepped inside the building was that another 200 Marines and Sailors were already crammed inside and patiently waiting, along with Commander Verl "Doc" Matthews and 12 of the Patriots from Beirut Memorial Chapter 642, co-host for today's event, for the official party to arrive.

As the Marines and Sailors lined up in front of the registration tables, Chapter members like Sgt. Maj. Grant Beck, George Reiter, John Cooney, and Daniel Stoy checked to be sure they all had proof of eligibility, airplane tickets, leave orders, or other needed documents. At the last station in the process, Barb Cherone, who had immediately jumped in to assist, was busily filling in check stubs as fast as Jim Casti could write the checks. Bill Hutton went up and down the lines, greeting the young Marines and Sailors, asking about their service, how they had been wounded, and where they were going for the holidays. Patriot Cole Daunhauer, an active duty Chapter Member and First Sergeant of the 3/2 Marines Weapons Company, was in perpetual motion, collecting applications and handing out signed checks while Dan McMahon, WWLF Finance Officer, and David Seaton, Treasurer, kept track of how much money was going out.

First through the line was LCpl Tyler Dydo, who was going home to Manchester, New Hampshire to be with his wife Sarah for the holidays. Tyler, who was wounded in Nowzad, Afghanistan on 30 May 2010, had been through extensive surgery, recovery and rehabilitation, but was now able to move about with the help of canes. Next through was Sgt. Nathaniel Harris, accompanied by his wife Ashley, who were traveling home to Yadkinville, NC. Not just any Marine, Sgt. Harris is the subject of a recently released and incredibly poignant documentary by Danfung Dennis, a photojournalist who had been imbedded with Harris' Echo Company in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The film, "Hell and Back Again," tells the story of how Harris was wounded by a Taliban machinegun bullet on 23 October 2009 and returns home to confront the physical and emotional difficulties of readjusting to civilian life; which he does with the love and support of his wife, Ashley.

Hutton & Cherone present check to LCpl Dydo

Beck & Cooney assist Sgt & Mrs. Harris

Among a group of wounded marines who came from Camp Lejeune's 1st Battalion, 10th Marines, was Sgt.Mendio Martz, who said he couldn't wait to get home to Schaumburg, IL for the first time in almost two years, and was looking forward to a piece of his mom's homemade cheesecake. Then there were two female marines, LCpl Elsa Pockets-Yapor from Orlando, FL, and LCpl Danielle Pothoof from Bay City, MI. Each had been wounded by IED explosions earlier this year in Helmand Province, Afghanistan and were finally getting to visit their families.

L-R: LCpl Pockels-Yapor, Gunny Noel, LCpl Pothoof
and National Commander Bill Hutton

LCpl Pockels-Yapor receives a check from Jim Casti

Over the course of the next four hours, some 265 Marines and Sailors would brave the long lines to achieve their objective, a check that would allow them to go home -- among them, four female Purple Heart recipients. For many of these men and women, the ability to travel home while recovering from their wounds is more than just a journey, it's an important part of their healing process. Gunny Rosie Noel, Jr. Vice Commander of Chapter 642, made it a point to welcome the female Marines and encouraged them to become active in the MOPH. For Chapter 642, it was a banner day -- some 74 Purple Heart recipients had joined the MOPH and by the end of the following week, the total had climbed to 101 new members. One young Marine sought out Chapter Commander Matthews and started asking him questions about why he should join the Order. Matthews shared the challenges he himself had faced in leaving the military and trying to readjust to civilian life, while coping with the physical and emotional scars of combat. "You need that support group," he explained to the Marine.

When Commander Hutton thanked the Patriots of Chapter 642 for all they had done to make the event so special, Sgt. Maj. Beck remarked, "It's Jim Casti who is the Santa Clause, the rest of us are just the elves." In an interview with a local reporter, Hutton noted that as a former Marine, the leave program was especially dear to his heart. "I’m absolutely thrilled to be able to be here today, to be part of this, and to see all these wonderful young people out here, who have done so much and served their country so well, get just a little in return," he said.

That evening, the Patriots and Ladies of Chapters 639 and 642 held a joint Holiday Party at the notorious Jacksonville watering-hole, "Scarlet & Gold Traditions." This amazing club is the repository of a 40-year collection of USMC memorabilia by owner SgtMajor Ihor Sywanyk. After a wonderful catered dinner, Unit 639 President Bonnie Johnston thanked National President Barb Cherone for honoring them by her visit and presented Cherone with a special memento, while Chapter 639 Commander Bob Thibeault presented her with a bouquet of flowers. Chapter 642 Commander "Doc" Matthews introduced National Commander Bill Hutton, who thanked the Patriots for their hospitality and then explained what an emotional and rewarding day it had been for him personally. In recognition of his visit, Chapter Adjutant John Cooney presented Hutton with the Chapter's trademark Purple Heart Coin Pendant, engraved with Hutton's name, unit, and the date he was wounded.

L-R: Thibeault, Casti, Johnston, Cherone, Hutton, Matthews

L-R: Cooney and Matthews present medallion to Hutton

But this is not the end of the story -- throughout the next week and right up until Christmas Eve, Casti continued to receive calls from those who had missed the event at the Military Relocator and wanted to know if it was still possible to get some travel assistance. And then there was the return of the 1st Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment from Afghanistan on 21 December, including 31 wounded Marines and 3 wounded Navy Corpsmen. Of course, Casti helped them all. Calls and letters also came in from donors who were unable to attend one of the fundraising events. By Christmas Eve, Santa Casti and his Merry Chapter of Elves had raised about $270,000 which allowed a total of 299 Marines and Sailors to travel home for the holidays.

This story, however, is as much about a selfless and dedicated true Patriot as it is about helping Marines and Sailors to go home for the holidays. The "Wounded Warrior Christmas Leave Fund" is but one of the many, many projects that National Welfare Officer Jim Casti and his devoted and dedicated wife Helen have taken on to help all North Carolina veterans and their families. To highlight just a few, in 2007 Casti spearheaded efforts to raise funds to help build a house for an Army Sergeant, Sgt. Eric Edmundson and his family, in Fairfield Harbor. Edmundson suffered brain injuries as a result of an IED explosion and could no longer walk, talk, eat or drink. With all of the building materials donated, Casti raised enough money to cover the costs of labor and the house was literally built from the ground up. When asked by a reporter why he was doing it, Casti replied, "We're all in it for the same reason. He’s a wounded warrior and he belongs to the band of brothers. The Wounded Warriors take care of each other."

A few years ago, when the USMC decided to tear down some old military housing, Casti convinced the Base Commander to donate three houses for use by family members when visiting their wounded Marines at Camp Lejeune. Casti then went about furnishing the houses at his own expense. Earlier this year, Casti teamed with Carteret County Veterans Services Officer Hank Gotard to raise sufficient funds to allow 108 WWII veterans to take an "Honor Flight" to visit the veteran memorials in Washington, DC. But the Casti's greatest achievement is their six-year effort to raise funds for the Christmas Leave project.

Throughout the year, Casti and Chapter 639 host a number of events, with all of the proceeds going to the Christmas Leave Fund. Unit 639 sets up a table at the entrance to the Base Exchange and sells bags of M&M's under a sign that reads "Send a wounded warrior home for the holidays." Each June, Casti's Chapter hosts a fundraising golf tournament. The final event of the year is a major fundraiser held at the New Bern Country Club, which Casti co-hosts with Steve Tyson, a Craven County Commissioner, which usually raises about $100,000. Emceed by Maj Gen Tom Braaten, retired MCAS Cherry Point Commander, the whole community turns out for an opportunity to meet, talk with, and thank some 50-60 wounded warriors from Camp Lejeune for their service. When asked about his support for the event, Tyson said, "There is nothing that can be said that has not already been voiced when it comes to the debt this country owes its wounded warriors. The men and women who were injured — many severely — in the service of their country, carry with them the gratitude of an entire nation. For the individuals and organizations that donated to the Order of the Purple Heart in order to help wounded warriors get home for the holidays, there is the satisfaction of knowing that they’ve done something wonderful for those who have risked it all for the rest of us."

For information contact:
National Public Relations Director, John Bircher, 352-753-5535
Email: PublicRelations@Purpleheart.org
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