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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Donating Hero Miles to help wounded troops

By Joe Sharkey

The New York Times

Posted January 1 2006

Pam Lea-Maida spoke to me by cell phone after pulling off the road in icy Vermont the other day while driving to a rendezvous with her son, Casey, 27, a National Guard medic who was due to arrive in Burlington by military aircraft from Iraq, where he had spent the last 13 months. Lea-Maida took a couple of vacation days to make the trip.

"There was absolutely no way my son was going to get off that aircraft and not have someone there to meet him," she said firmly.

Her son came home unhurt. But that isn't the case for many thousands of men and women who have served in Iraq and in Afghanistan and whose injuries require recovery times that can last up to a year or longer in military hospitals far from home.

Lea-Maida's job is to help ensure that loved ones and friends can visit service people while they are recuperating. She is the administrator of an airline ticket-award program called Hero Miles, run by a charitable foundation, Fisher House (fisherhouse.org).

The concept is simple. Many of us have amassed frequent-flier miles. Donate some to Hero Miles, and Lea-Maida will make use of them.

The program got rolling last year, she said, and "as of last week, we had issued over 4,600 tickets." Because last-minute travel is usually required, the average value of each ticket is about $1,500.

"I am absolutely adamant that we take care of these families," she said. "You don't have to agree with whether we should be in Iraq or not, or about how long we should stay, or whether there should have been weapons of mass destruction found or not."

Official figures about the mounting toll of Americans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan are hard to come by, but Globalsecurity.org, an intelligence research company, puts the number at 16,000.

It isn't known how many of them have suffered injuries serious enough, like severe burns and amputations, to require lengthy hospitalization.

But about 4,000 American troops had been medically evacuated from Iraq as combat casualties by the end of September, John E. Pike, Globalsecurity.org's director, estimated.

Many more have been hospitalized for injuries and diseases not directly related to combat, he said.

Lea-Maida says she uses 2.5 million to 3 million donated miles each week arranging free travel. She has developed a network of airline helpers, among them a Delta Air Lines agent who once came to the office at night to arrange a difficult trip.

Not all are happy reunions. Recently, she said, "I had a call at night from a case worker at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio who said, `I need you to do this and I need it quick: I've got to get five people out of Orlando to San Antonio. If we're lucky, he'll make it through the day tomorrow.'" The loved ones were at the young man's bedside when he died.

The Hero Miles program has been very successful. Last summer, for example, frequent fliers at American Airlines donated more than 125 million miles, matched by American for a total of 250 million. America West frequent fliers donated 1.6 million miles, which the airline matched.

Most of the tickets go to families, said James D. Weiskopf, a vice president at Fisher House. "The kids are hospitalized for a long time, and they're usually in their late teens or early 20s, meaning the parents are in their 40s and they're working," he said. "They want to be there during critical times, like when their son or daughter is going to have a major surgery, so we fly them back and forth."

Some tickets go to wounded service people for home visits. "Some of these kids might have 20 or 30 surgeries and are just waiting for their bodies to heal between surgeries, so they don't necessarily have to be occupying a hospital bed," said Weiskopf, a Vietnam veteran.

Airlines accepting donations for Hero Miles are Delta, Northwest, America West, Alaska Air and Midwest.

Other airlines come and go in the program as the perception for need changes. No one, as Weiskopf pointed out, can say how long the need will be there.

Leisure travelers have been the most active in donating miles. Business travelers seem to have lagged behind.

"The word hasn't gotten out to them," Lea-Maida said.

Now it has.

Happy New Year.