While sometimes a tragedy itself can't be turned into something good, it still may be possible to make use of it for good purposes.
So it is with a tragedy suffered in late July by former U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston and his wife Bonnie and their family, when the Livingstons' second oldest of four children, Richard, 37 years old, was electrocuted in an utterly freakish accident while working to remove a friend's Katrina-ravaged tree in New Orleans.
Within 12 hours, the Livingstons -- easily among the most decent, kind and generous people you'll ever meet -- were making for memorial donations arrangements (through executive board member Beverly Young, wife of former U.S. House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young), in lieu of flowers, to be sent to the Armed Forces Foundation. The foundation is a fairly new organization dedicated to serving the needs of injured military personnel and their families.
The family's selection of a charity was fitting: Richard Livingston, an artist and musician with a winning personality, was a veteran, having served in military intelligence in South Korea; and Bob Livingston had served in the Navy on one of the ships patrolling the Caribbean during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In a broader way, though, the charity is a fitting one for any American to support. The Armed Forces Foundation, founded just in 2001, already is establishing a reputation among military families as a wonderful boon in times of need. It provides direct financial support to the families of injured and deceased servicemen and women, along with housing assistance in some cases and numerous morale-boosting efforts. The foundation has a particular relationship with the Navy Lodge at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., paying for the rooms of family members visiting wounded troops in the hospital.
"The American Forces Foundation has been absolutely spectacular for us in their support of the families' needs out here," said Lt. Col. John Worman, the officer in charge of the Marine Corps Liaison Office at the medical center in Bethesda. "There's not a lot of bureaucracy with them; it just happens.... Last year I believe it was about $80,000 that they supported the families' lodging requirements with, that were not otherwise provided by the government. Their commitment has probably touched the lives of every patient and family member out here."
Added Master Sergeant Terrell Jones, the senior enlisted advisor at the facility: "They also come out once a month and do a dinner. They basically create a setting where the patients' Moms or wives or Dads can get out of the room and mingle."
THE FOUNDATION'S REACH EXTENDS well beyond the D.C. area, though. Michelle Roche's husband, Army Private First Class Brian, suffered a traumatic brain injury when shifting winds created havoc with a parachute jump in training in Alaska. Brian was sent half a continent away to the VA hospital in Minneapolis, and Michelle had to leave three children in others' care back home, along with having to leave her job behind, to be at her husband's side. What's worse, Army rules didn't cover her plane ticket to Minnesota. That's where the Armed Forces Foundation stepped in, paying Michelle's plane fare plus other cash assistance totaling $800.
"With me having to leave work, me having to fly to be with him, it was a godsend to us to have an organization help us with this," she said. "And they have kept in contact with us to see how he is doing and to see if we need anything else. We are back at home now and he is getting appointments back at home.... Please let them know I thank them again."
In 2005, according to foundation President Patricia Driscoll, the organization helped some 2,600 families of wounded service people; just through mid-August of 2006, she said, it already has helped another 2,500 this year.
"When somebody gets injured on duty, one or more family members often have to miss work," Driscoll said. "By law they are allowed 12 weeks of leave [without losing their jobs], but that doesn't mean they get paid for it. A lot of people live paycheck to paycheck; when they get to stick around and stay with the person who is wounded, because we help them, they don't lose their house or their car or anything. The mission of our foundation is, we were created to plug the holes that the government could not."
The foundation also organizes "morale events" such as "Mom's Day Off," "Kid's Days Out" for up to six hours of supervised events at a time, outdoor programs, concerts, fishing derbies, elementary school letter-writing campaigns between children and service people, and numerous others. All told, the foundation prides itself that, as its web site puts it, "the foundation continues to contribute 93% of all outside donations directly to military families through foundation programming."
ONE OF THE MOST MOVING stories about the foundation comes from one of its most enthusiastic regular volunteers at Bethesda, former Marine corporal Jason Dominguez, now on leave from a legislative aide position on Capitol Hill to work as political director for the re-election campaign of U.S. Rep. Pat Tiberi of Ohio. Corporal Dominguez was part of a unit featured in an A&E documentary and that, separately, CNN reported (as related by Dominguez) "was part of more major combat operations than any major unit since the Korean War." Of his company of 325 in a six-month period, 23 lost their lives and 59 others earned Purple Hearts while engaged in firefights 84 times -- nearly every other day.
Once back home, Dominguez began volunteering for the Armed Forces Foundation and found his interaction with the wounded troops "was also comforting to me. Just talking to them, they also helped me as much as I was able to help them."
Dominguez spoke fondly of the time he was part of a foundation effort to bring some of the wounded to a Washington Wizards game. Also, he said, "We would have dinners once a month; sometimes we would take them something as simple as tacos from Taco Bell or Baha Fresh and just hang out. Because I worked in Congress, I would make sure they knew whoever their congressman was and if they needed anything I would do my best to put them in touch with their own congressman's office."
But the best thing he saw, Dominguez said, was "a gentleman who was a veteran, in a wheelchair, and the special wheelchair he needed was wider than the doorways of his house, which were all very narrow. When the Armed Forces Foundation came to him, he said all he wanted was for them to put a window in the side of his house so he could watch his kids play in the yard. Well, they did better than that: They arranged to re-do his whole house so it was more handicapped accessible so he could go outside where the kids were."
In a profound way, the Armed Forces Foundation is pro-troops and pro-family, and it supports those troops and families at times of greatest challenges and tragedy. And it's a great choice, it would certainly seem, for somebody who refuses to let a tragedy be the final word.
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In the first month after Richard Livingston's death, the foundation reports having received more than 140 donations in his memory, totaling more than $25,000.
The Foundation accepts donations at 16 North Carolina Avenue, SE, Washington, D.C., 20003, or at its website.