“Support our Troops”

So says the ubiquitous magnetic sticker on yet another non-descript vehicle on the road up ahead – but one wonders if the driver/occupant knows of a program that directly, materially supports our troops in a life-changing way? That program would be Valour-IT (Voice Activated Laptops for OUR Injured Troops).

The short story is Valour-IT, an IRS-certified non-profit, non-political, volunteer organization provides laptops with voice activated software to wounded Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen in military and (thanks to coordination with the Military Order of the Purple Heart) VA hospitals. These laptops enable severely injured servicemen and women to remain in contact with family and friends in spite of those injuries. Since the program began in late 2005, over 2700 laptops have been issued to these wounded heroes.

The story of this project’s development is compelling and typically American. Then-CPT (now MAJ) Charles “Chuck” Ziegenfuss, son of the late SFC William Ziegenfuss, a seventeen-year Army and Vietnam Vet who succumbed to Agent Orange-related cancer, was deployed to Iraq in 2005 as commander of a tank company. He also was a “milblogger,” keeping an online commentary of his experiences in combat as part of the military blogging community.

In June 2005 he was severely wounded by an IED, suffering grievous injuries to his hands. Having gained a large and loyal following via his blog, he wanted to return to writing during his recovery in Walter Reed, but found he was significantly hampered by his injuries. Upon learning of these difficulties via the blog (which his wife had kept up for him), one of his readers donated a laptop with voice-activated software to bypass the handicap of his wounded hands. Soon it became apparent to him and his readership that this was a capability that could, and should be made available to the many other similarly or worse injured heroes. Following contact with another milblogger who writes under the pseudonym FbL, and subsequent contact with the Soldiers’ Angels service organization, Project Valour-IT was up and running.

As initially set up, libraries at Walter Reed and Bethesda were established using refurbished computers and Dragon Naturally Speaking software for issue to patients who requested them. It was soon apparent that the demand for these laptops was such that fundraising efforts would have to take place to even begin to put a dent in that demand. (Note: since then, the Department of Defense Computer Assistance Program has taken over the voice software side of things (allowing us to spend all our funds on simply equipping quality laptops with regular software to which various adaptive technologies will be added).

One of the fundraisers created is an online competition between teams of bloggers, aligned by service, using auctions, information and other methods to generate interest and funds for the project. Running  this  year from Veteran’s Day to Thanksgiving to Veteran’s Day, last year’s online event raised over  $192,000  during the  two-week period that ran from Halloween to Veteran’s Day. As noted, this year’s event, with teams Army, Marine, Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force, will run from 11 -  27 November. The direct effect of these efforts — in combination with partnerships from corporate and public donors like Dell, Toshiba, the San Antonio Area foundation and Newman’s Own Foundation; has led to new and more powerful laptops and software being issued to a larger population that now includes Balboa Naval Hospital, Brooke Army Medical Center, Madigan Regional Medical Center, Naval Hospital, Camp Pendleton, and Robert E. Bush Naval Hospital (29 Palms) (as well as the aforementioned VA hospitals and individual locations across the country).  And this year we are looking to expand the technology to possibly include the Wii in rehabilitative efforts.

That said, how can you help? Read the tributes from those who have benefited from this program. In Chuck’s own words:

“I know how humbling it is, how humiliating it feels, and I know how much better I felt, how amazingly more functional I felt, after Soldiers’ Angels provided me with a laptop.” And when he started to use the voice-controlled Laptop? “It was the first time I’d felt whole since I woke up in Landstuhl.”

Contribute during the upcoming 2008 fund drive via your preferred team – every single penny donated goes directly to the purchase and delivery of laptops; all overhead is funded from other sources. Spread the word – survey the websites located at the end of the article for more information about contributing time or funds. (See the contribution button over there to starboard…)

The need is great: tens of thousands of service members have returned wounded from combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Imagine what a boost it would be to that young Marine, an Army officer who is a husband and father, or a Sailor in a burn unit with third degree burns on her hands to be able to reach out from their hospital beds and contact distant friends and families, and how much that can help in the recovery process.

So here is how you can directly, materially support our troops and help those most in need of it in the process – and it won’t scratch your paint like a magnetic sticker can…

Project Valour-IT website

(And for all you Navy milbloggers – Galrahn is team lead with Boston Maggie as his able nag and enforcer in chief ;)  so let’s get on board folks!)