Word, a graduate of Lakeside High School, lost his right leg below the knee, had lots of scars and was in lots of pain.
Walking seemed a distant goal. Living? He could barely comprehend the concept.
But with the help and encouragement of the Augusta Warrior Project, Word is a few months from moving into a new home built for him and his family in Martinez by Habitat for Humanity and fellow soldiers.
“It’s simply miraculous,” Word said of the Augusta Warrior Project, formed in 2001 to connect veterans to rehabilitative resources.
More than 185 veterans in the Augusta-Aiken area have found permanent housing through the organization, 245 have enrolled at local colleges and 120 have become employed in the past year.
The nonprofit, which operates entirely on donations, serves more than 1,800 veterans in the area – only a fraction of the 66,000 known to be living in the region, half of which are not registered with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
The group’s future hinges on whether it can raise $150,000 by September. The funding is essential to get approved for year three of a five-year, $168,000 VA grant to provide services to veterans and their families.
Jim Lorraine, the group’s executive director, has done the math. It needs 625 regular donors to contribute $240 a year – or $20 a month – to stay in operation.
A telethon put on this week by WJBF-TV and WAGT-TV, along with an ongoing commercial campaign featuring success stories of five veterans, including Word, has led to commitments from more than 120 donors.
The group uses more than 10 case managers, licensed social workers and staff advocates to find veterans and help them navigate the system, get their benefits in a timely manner, find a home, get an education and land a job.
The group works closely with the VA and the U.S. departments of Defense, Labor, and Housing and Urban Development. It has representatives at local colleges and has ties with churches, community outreach groups and large employers in the area, such as Club Car.
As a result, veteran homelessness in Richmond and Columbia counties was virtually eliminated in 2012, unemployment decreased by 46 percent and educational enrollment increased 900 percent, according to the program’s annual report.
The Augusta Warrior Project is not the same as the national Wounded Warrior movement. The difference between the two is the word “wounded.”
“We are not there for just the heart-wrenching cases,” Lorraine said. “It’s about all who have served.”
The group’s efforts typically begin on the phone, with advocates scanning Labor Department records to find all veterans who might need assistance. Most times it ends in living rooms, with representatives listening.
“In the wild, veterans are a hard to find,” said advocate Hugh Conlon, an Army combat medic who served in Panama, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. “While they have a lot of questions and not many answers, they are not really forthcoming.”
Virginia Cobert has waited since 2005. After she became ill in 2001, she was forced to live with family and friends until she was referred to the Augusta Warrior Project, which “empowered” her to achieve her dream of finding her own home.
“It was more than I could have ever expected,” Cobert said. “They helped me to restore everything that I lost.”
Asked of how the program has transformed her life, Cobert wiped a tear from her cheek, smiled, laughed a cry of joy and said, “I’m home.”