Imagine protecting America as a Special Operations Forces soldier. You’re highly trained, intelligent; best of the best. Imagine foot travel in Afghanistan or riding in an armored truck through Iraq; every moment is precious and every moment is dangerous. Lack of sleep. Lack of water. Lack of contact with your family back in the United States. Then imagine a bomb going off and the next thing you know you’re at the hospital, in a plane going home, called away from duty because you lost an arm, a leg, sometimes both. Where do you go for support? Who will help your family? And so begins the story of Operation One Voice supported by a 1973 UMD alumnus who saw the need and picked up the phone.
“It started with lending a bus to Bill Stevens, founder of Operation One Voice, to support an annual run he had put together for fallen and wounded Special Operations Forces soldiers centered around Veteran’s Day,” said John Economos (’73). “My company, Eagle Rock Distributing Company, partnered with Bill’s nonprofit to lessen the costs, increase awareness around the country, and through the years, help raise needed dollars to complete their mission.”
Although the 600+ mile run begins in Lawrenceville, Georgia and commences at Special Operations Command at MacDill AFB in Tampa, Florida, the nationwide effect is tangible. “Many of the small towns or cities that we drive through during the run have become involved,” said Economos. “Mayors read proclamations from their cities; citizens line the streets and cheer on the runners, and even elementary children wave American flags outside their school. It’s incredible and inspiring.”
When Economos learned that Operation One Voice donated over 97 percent of all of the proceeds to families who would struggle because their husband or father had died while in service or had been severely injured, he realized the significance and wanted to help. “All the Operation One Voice board members are volunteers in the true sense; no salaries, no offices, no expense accounts…so all the money is given to the families. We can react immediately. With the help of the Care Coalition that tracks each wounded special Ops soldier, we ask them ‘what do you need?’ and then we deliver. Whether it’s organizing hotel accommodations, providing rental vehicles for family members while visiting their wounded in hospitals, providing rehabilitation bikes for wounded who cannot run, or helping with college costs for them and their family, we make it happen. We are there for them because the soldier who protected our country shouldn’t have to worry about these details while recovering from their wounds, nor a grieving widow worry about how she will make ends meet for her children.”
Inspired by Bill Stevens’ work and organization, Economos called him one day with an idea. “These guys are marksmen by trade. They are trained hunters in so many ways. I thought it might help to take them on an elk-hunting trip to incorporate their skills and psychologically, acclimating them to life back home.”
From that idea to the current year, Economos, along with best friend and teammate, Scott Hanna (’73), is planning the 6th annual gathering at Economos’ ranch in Colorado. Soldiers from every branch of the military who had undergone surgery or amputations or found themselves struggling with civilian life are invited to the ranch. “It’s strictly voluntary that Special Operations Soldiers go,” said Economos. “But those who do? They find themselves with new friends and a support network that is life-long and beyond–for them and for their families.”
While on the week-long hunting trip, soldiers are encouraged to climb rough terrain and stalk elk regardless of their injury. They are supported by fellow soldiers who have faced similar journeys and struggled with traumatic healing. “But the best part,” said Economos, “is when the guys tell me that while on the trip, they felt human again; felt like men again. They forget, for a little bit, what they’ve gone through. It’s very humbling. They want to thank us for this trip, but they have it all wrong. It’s us who want to thank them.”
Operation One Voice is supported by alumni and many others who are also actively involved. The campus ties go even deeper with Division II athletics. According to UMD Assistant Athletic Director Karen Stromme, “Community engagement and service to the community are core values in our Athletics program. Partnering with Operation One Voice is the next step. It’s taking action and honoring our mission as athletes.”
By honoring their mission, UMD Athletics has focused on collaborating with Division II Athletic leaders and military service men and women. “There are military bases,” said Stromme, “with universities who have Division II athletic programs in the same city. By combining our efforts, we are joining in the great work already started with the Operation One Voice program. It just keeps blossoming into more ways where our alumni are engaged.”
In fact, two UMD alumni caught wind of Operation One Voice and Economos’ hunting trip; they were inspired to take action. Dale Gessell (’91), Regional Vice President of Nortrax, and Lance Sage (’94) organized a north woods fishing trip. They contacted Operation One Voice and chose three soldiers… an Air Force Special Ops, an Army Ranger, and a Marine Special Ops. All three men were wounded by IED blasts while serving in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
The soldiers were flown to Minneapolis and then flew approximately 375 miles north aboard a private flight to Warroad, Minn. Upon arrival, they visited the Warroad Veteran’s Memorial and then traveled to Sage’s Angle West Resort, owned by Sage’s parents, Brian and Jane. During the two days, the soldiers enjoyed a fishing expedition that included home cooked meals and camaraderie much needed after their overseas experience.
“Nortrax sponsored the trip by providing all travel and food expenses,” said Gessell. “The Sage family provided the cabin accommodations, boats, and bait. It was an honor to put this special fishing trip together for these guys. It’s just our small way of saying thank you to these soldiers who gave so much. Their positive outlook on life is absolutely remarkable. I am fortunate to have spent time with them.”
With plans to organize the second annual fishing expedition, both Sage and Gessell exemplify the work that Economos and Stromme are striving for by partnering with Operation One Voice.
“There are many ways to become involved; to say thank you,” said Stromme. “It’s all about paying it forward. My hope is that the more alumni who hear about this extraordinary program with all of its layers, the more people will become involved. In the end, it’s about the soldiers and their families. How can we help? How can we serve our community and continue to model our core values? When we succeed at that, we succeed at being Bulldogs.”
If you’re interested in learning more about Operation One Voice and would like to find ways where you can help, visit http://www.operationonevoice.org/ for more information.