Group Flies Help to Wounded Soldier, Wife

By Paul X. Rutz

America Supports You member Peggy Baker, founder and president of Operation First Response, stands by her organization’s booth to answer questions at the Washington Capitals’ "Salute to the Military Night" Jan. 19. The organization provides aid to wounded servicemembers and their families.

Photo by Paul X. Rutz / DoD Photo

When Nova Radke’s husband came back from Iraq with pieces of shrapnel embedded in his skin from head to toe, she needed help supporting him. Military funds allowed her to fly to her husband’s bedside, but once there, she found she needed additional moral support.

Lucky for Radke, "Operation First Response," an all-volunteer nonprofit organization, specializes in just this kind of situation. The group provides frequent flier miles and other aid to families of wounded troops, supporting them as they help their loved ones recuperate.

"Anybody that contacts us and asks for assistance, if we can do a flight, we’ll do it," said Elizabeth Fuentes, the group’s secretary and co-founder. "If we can’t do it, then we’ll find somebody who can."

Spc. Brian Radke, a member of the Arizona National Guard, was wounded in October when his Humvee hit an improvised explosive device. Brian has suffered three strokes so far due to his injuries, and doctors have pulled over 100 pieces of shrapnel from his body, Fuentes said.

"He has shrapnel in his eye," she said. "He’s covered from one end of him to the other. It looks like he has a really bad case of chicken pox."

Corina Miller, a mental health professional at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here, contacted the group soon after the Radkes arrived and explained the issues the couple was facing, including financial trouble. The group went into action, offering financial support and flying Nova’s mother and grandmother from Arizona for a visit Dec. 13-17, Fuentes said.

The family has faced many obstacles in the last few months, she said. After Brian was wounded, Nova’s grandmother had a heart attack, and the rest of her family went to Texas to respond to that situation. "(Nova) was at the point of breaking," Fuentes said, "and we had heard that she would like to have a friend brought in for moral support."

Fuentes said she contacted a donor in Missouri, and he provided the needed frequent flier miles. Within an hour and a half, the group secured a ticket for Nova’s friend to travel from Mesa, Ariz. to be with her in this time of need. The friend arrived here Feb. 28.

The Radkes represent a large population in need, Fuentes said. Many more soldiers and their families have similar concerns, and they need to know they have a place to turn.

"We were just fortunate (this case) caught the eye of someone," Fuentes said. "I think people need to know that these needs exist constantly, and that if you can help — if it’s not Operation First Response, then another nonprofit that helps the wounded — they absolutely need us."

Peggy Baker, Operation First Response’s president and co-founder, said the group works with other organizations to give wounded troops and their families the best care possible, even after servicemembers leave the hospital. Such coordination is easier thanks to the group’s membership in America Supports You, a Defense Department initiative fostering grassroots and corporate support for troops and their families. "I send our soldiers (to the America Supports You Web site) all the time," Baker said. "They can go in, they can go to the Web sites of these other organizations, too, so it’s a huge benefit."

Baker says her group is staying in close contact with the Radkes, as they do with many people they help. "I talk a lot to Nova on the telephone," she said. "You can’t be involved with people during such a traumatic time and not be bonded. And that’s part of our services. If you need somebody to talk to in the middle of the night, call us."