West Allegheny Featured Stories

Heroes Supporting Heroes

   When Air Force Master Sergeant John Lee was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 with the 911th Civil Engineering Corps based in Moon, his wife, Sheri, had plenty of people offering to help with whatever they could during John’s seven-month deployment.

   Sheri knew, however, that there was only so much others could do, and that there was only so much she would think to ask of them. A certain pride that goes with being a member of a military family, and an unsaid agreement that keeps families from sharing their day-to-day struggles with deployed loved ones, often means that they end up going it alone.

   “There’s an understanding that families don’t want to heap all their troubles on you and add any more stress to a stressful situation,” says John, who, before joining the Air Force, served with the Marine Corps for six years.

   As a Marine, John served in Operation Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom, and in four tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. After John returned home from his most recent deployment, it took about another full year before he,

Heroes Supporting Heroes

Sheri, and their two young children, Caleb and Lily, felt as though they were really back to life as normal, says Sheri. The experience got them wondering what other families must go through, and what, if anything, they could do for them.

   With that in mind, last August John and some of the 26 Civil Engineering Corps members he’d been deployed with formed a volunteer organization they dubbed Heroes Supporting Heroes. In Afghanistan, the Corps had been tasked with rebuilding Afghani infrastructure while the U.S. worked to prop up the government against extremist Taliban forces. Their work ranged from repairing airstrips and building temporary army bases to constructing schools and police stations, some while under fire amidst a war with nebulous front lines. John and his fellow airmen didn’t see why they couldn’t apply those same civil engineering skills to help military families with loved ones on active duty.

   In September, HSH started by sending letters to the households of 911th military personnel who were about to be deployed, with offers to help with services ranging from snow removal and cleaning out gutters to car and appliance maintenance. A month later, they got their first phone call, from the spouse of a deployed airman whose water heater had broken. HSH passed around a hat and raised a couple hundred dollars. Knowing it was hardly enough to buy a new water heater, they approached Lowes store manager Allen Lerch at The Pointe in North Fayette. When they told Allen about their organization, he sold them a water heater for what they had at a 70% discount, and expressed a willingness to help HSH in the future.

That same month, amidst a slow recovering economy, HSH was contacted with another request. A fellow airman had returned from a tour of duty and couldn’t find work. Because HSH had already contacted the national Veterans of Foreign Wars organization, they were able to petition help from Commander Bill Miller at VFW Post 7714 in Imperial. The post donated $1,300 to help the airman pay rent and bills, while HSH sought out a job lead.

   Since then, HSH has cleaned out gutters and cut grass. They recently built a wheelchair-accessible ramp for a World War II veteran with about $700 worth of lumber donated, once again, by Lowes at The Pointe. HSH has also contacted Sears, which offered to discount appliances. Plans are to have Sunrise Accounting in Imperial do taxes. John is currently completing paperwork needed to apply for nonprofit 501c(3) status.

   Among those who have expressed interest in the organization are State Representative Mark Mustio and Findlay Township Supervisor Tom Gallant. Earlier this year, Tom suggested that HSH reach out to senior citizens, and in May, the organization started doing just that.

   John says he’d like to see HSH eventually develop into a hub and spoke arrangement that mirrors the military’s own system of a central base with outposts. He’d like to have people identify needs in their own communities, report those back to HSH, which would assign volunteers to each task. As HSH continues to work on projects with trained carpenters and electricians, he envisions mentoring opportunities for Boy Scouts and youth groups. In exchange, he’d like to see people pay whatever they can, even if it’s just a couple dollars to cover gas.

   John says they have about 40 volunteers from the 911th, many of whom have been donating time after having their hours cut as a result of the recent sequestration. Now a program analyst for the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management, John was also once the owner of a tree removal service.

   To learn more, contact John Lee, (412) 952-7098, or e-mail: HDJJLEE@gmail.com.


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