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Shutdown stops military death benefit, Tampa foundation steps in to help

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Published:   |   Updated: October 8, 2013 at 07:45 PM

In his still undecorated office in a nondescript Tampa office park, Joe Maguire talks about the organization he just took over, dedicated to helping the families of fallen special operators and those who have been wounded or injured.

The conversation is interrupted by a telephone call.

On Sunday, 8,000 miles away in Afghanistan, four Army Rangers were killed, and 30 others were wounded by a suicide bomber and improvised explosive devices as a Ranger-led team attempted to thwart a suicide attack on a high value target in Kandahar City. Because of the government shutdown, as of Tuesday afternoon, the miliary couldn’t pay the families of the fallen the customary $100,000 death benefits. Maguire, who five weeks ago became president and CEO of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, stops his conversation to take a call from U.S. Special Operations Command’s Care Coalition. The coalition, which links special operations service members and their families in need to benevolent organizations, was trying to find out if the foundation could pitch in and help the families of the special operators who lost their lives.

“Can we handle $25,000 per family for funerals?” Maguire, a retired Navy vice admiral, asks Steven McLeary, a retired Air Force major now serving as the organization’s executive director.

“Absolutely,” says McLeary.

As military and political leaders work to deal with the fallout from the battle over the funding of the Affordable Care Act, the coalition and the foundation, true to their special operations ethos, act quickly and decisively.

“We will provide a $20,000 grant (not a loan ) to the four families of our Brave Soldiers killed in action,” Maguire, a career SEAL who once led the Naval Special Warfare Command, writes in an email to The Tribune a few hours after the meeting in his office. “This will cover their funeral expenses and hopefully other expenses.”

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Like Socom, the foundation was created in the wake of the disastrous April 1980 attempt to rescue Iranian hostages that left eight U.S. service members dead. It began shortly after the aborted mission as a scholarship fund to provide education for the 17 children of the eight killed, and one incapacitated.

Its previous president, John Carney, was an Air Force major who was on the ground in Iran three weeks before the mission, setting up the airstrip and strobe lights. Since its inception, and the creation of Socom in 1987, the foundation has expanded dramatically. Last year, it took in nearly $11 million in donations, including about $1 million from the Combined Federal Campaign, a fund contributed to mostly by military personnel and Department of Defense employees, according to the foundation. It provided nearly $4 million in scholarship grants, counseling, financial aid, and beneficiary support, according to the foundation, and secured funds for future obligations incurred throughout the year.

Earlier this month, the foundation, which McLeary says last year had a 5.5 percent overhead, earned its eighth consecutive 4-Star rating from Charity Navigator, an independent evaluator of benevolent organizations.

“Receiving four out of a possible four stars indicates that your organization adheres to good governance and other best practices that minimize the chances of unethical activities and consistently executes the mission in a fiscally responsible way,” wrote Charity Navigator President Ken Berger in an Oct. 1 letter to the foundation. “Only 1 percent of the charities we rate have received at least 8 consecutive 4-Star evaluations...”

The scholarships are designed to meet all the students’ needs, including tuition, room and board and books. Aside from monetary support, the foundation has a rare, proactive relationship with the recipients of its funds. After a service member is killed, the foundation stays in contact with the families, sending cards and letters, and provides pre-college counseling to help students get on and stay on track for a secondary education.

Between 80 percent and 90 percent of students receiving aid from the foundation graduate high school, says McLeary. And of those, between 80 percent and 85 percent go to college. Even more impressive is what McLeary says is a 98 percent graduation rate for foundation college students.

“You compare that ratio to the national average and it’s huge,” says McLeary, who served as a combat controller, calling in air support for ground troops while he was on active duty.

About 25 foundation students graduate every year, says McLeary. Right now, there are about 450 children of fallen special operators who have yet to reach college age.

“We have been here for 33 years,” he says. “We will be here 20 years from now when those kids are ready to go to college.”

Melinda Scofield and Dalia Munoz are intimately familiar with the program’s benefits.

Scofield, a foundation benefits counselor, is handing her job over to Munoz.

Both women are children of fallen operators and say the program has helped them, so they have decided to return the favor.

Scofield, 27, grew up in the program. Her father, Michael Rudess, was a 19-year-old Ranger when he was killed training for a hostage rescue mission in Libya.

Being in the program “changes your life,” says Scofield, who was two when her father was killed, It is a relief, she says, ”knowing that you have the opportunity to go to college and not have to worry about how to pay for it.”

Working with others who have lost a parent is highly rewarding, says Scofield.

“I love the mission,” she says. “To be honest, they are my family. It is pretty natural to talk to them and discuss college and life in general and getting through it without that person in their life.”

Munoz, 25, was a week shy of her 17th birthday when her father, Green Beret Sgt. 1st Class Pedro Munoz, 47, was killed in Afghanistan in 2005.

“It’s a kind of masochistic tendency to work in this kind of environment,” says Munoz. “Every time you get the notice and meet the family, you completely identify with them, yet you are drawn to it because of what it is and who you are helping and the legacies you carry.”

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Though the war in Afghanistan is winding down, the last three weeks have been very busy for the foundation.

On Sept. 21, three operators were killed by a member of the Afghan army they were training. Later, there was another five operators wounded and then there was Sunday’s deadly mission.

Aside from assisting with scholarships and college advice, the foundation provides a $3,000 grant for the wounded and injured.

When an operator is wounded, the military services provide funds to get a spouse or parent to the hospital. But there are other family members who want to visit, and other needs to be taken care of. Often, people leave so quickly they forget clothing and other items, or they can’t afford the financial burdens of a long hospital stay, including loss of income.

Once the Care Coalition notifies the foundation that an operator has been wounded, “I sign the check and within 24 hours, it gets to that soldier,” says Maguire.

On Tuesday afternoon, his work is cut out for him.

Aside from providing the grants to the families of 1st Lt. Jennifer M. Moreno, 25, of San Diego, Calif., Sgt. Patrick C. Hawkins, 25, of Carlisle, Pa., Sgt. Joseph M. Peters, 24, of Springfield, Mo. and Pfc. Cody J. Patterson, 24, of Philomath, Ore, Maguire is still waiting for the names and locations of all the wounded, so that he can sign the checks for them.

“For 36 years I was in special operations and I know there but for the grace of God,” says Maguire. “I knew if I didn’t come back, the community and my friends would take care of my family and send my kids to college. The thing about the foundation is that these families don’t have to find us. We find them.”

haltman@tamaptrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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