Third annual fundraiser benefits military in need
Retired Marine Sgt. Matthew Sonderman was leading a convoy on a routine resupply mission when his world turned upside down in June 2008.
Driving a Humvee, he struck a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. The explosion tore the vehicle apart, severely injuring him and three others. Sonderman suffered third-degree burns and fractured numerous bones.
“We were fortunate; we all survived,” Sonderman told a crowd at the Ocean City Music Pier gathered to launch the upcoming Walk for the Wounded sponsored by Ocean City Home Bank. The third annual event, a three-mile walk on the Boardwalk, helps Operation First Response provide financial assistance to wounded soldiers and their families. It will be held on Saturday, Oct. 1.
OFR was able to fly Sonderman’s mother, father and sister to the Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, to greet him when he arrived and stay with him through the long six-month recovery.
“It was more than I could have ever asked for,” said Sonderman. “It meant so much to have my family with me. Operation First Response made that possible. I will be eternally grateful.”
Sonderman, a veteran of two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, was headed to California Friday to compete in a Marine Corps triathlon. Just three years ago, he thought he might lose his leg, possibly his life. Sonderman said he wants to motivate others to persevere.
Since its inception, Operation First Response has raised more than $2 million. Peggy Baker, a soldier’s mother from Virginia, started OFR in 2004 after a friend’s son lost his leg in combat. The national non-profit organization assists wounded soldiers and their families during times of crisis. OFR volunteers perform a variety of much-needed services, from visiting the wounded to offering financial assistance with rent, mortgage and vehicle payments and other expenses.
OFR serves as a “bridge” to help wounded soldier get past the gap in coverage.
When a soldier leaves the military with a medical and joins the VA, they have no income. Their spouse can’t work because they have to take care of the soldier, and life dissolves pretty quickly.
The everyday struggles soldiers endure put a whole new perspective on a bad day.
“Operation First Response offered more than I could ever ask for,” said Sonderman, now a fulltime student at Drexel University, where he is studying environmental engineering.
“I have a passion for the environment and wildlife,” he said.
His girlfriend, Jessica O’Donnell, who accompanied him to Ocean City, figures prominently in his future plans.
“I want to settle down and start a family,” he said, which is possible only because of the help he received from OFR.
“My injuries were severe,” he said. “They rebuilt my hip, upper and lower leg, and my elbow.”
Motivated to serve after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sonderman joined the Marines at 19. He said he has “no regrets” about his service.
Sonderman still suffers a great deal of pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD sufferers often experience debilitating depression and nightmares.
Nick Constantino, a senior advisor for OFR, says, “It’s our duty to support” soldiers psychologically traumatized by combat.
“This is about helping a soldier who has made a huge sacrifice,” he said. “The issues don’t end just because they come home. Our soldiers put their lives on the line. They did what they are trained to do, now it’s our turn to help. We provide more than financial support. We call, we visit and we provide support. These soldiers and their families are not just a case number.”
Constantino says OFR helps get a soldier back in society.
“We provide a comfort zone, they learn to trust us,” he said. “It’s overwhelming. Being able to help them is great. That Ocean City’s event has grown like this is wonderful.”
As wounded soldiers recover, sometimes in hospitals far from home, bills go unpaid and spouses are left to cope on their own. OFR steps in and pays bills while offering a helping hand to both the ailing soldiers and their families.
“When you see what we have been able to accomplish, with a guy like Matt, who had extensive injuries, it makes everything so worthwhile,” said Constantino. “Matt never complains. He’s everything a Marine should be.”
Steve Brady, president of Ocean City Home Bank, organized the OFR fundraiser after learning about a similar event from his college roommate, St. Joseph University basketball Coach Phil Martelli.
“Soldiers put their lives on hold so we can live our lives,” he said. “These are ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”
Martelli said he and Brady have “tears in their eyes and lumps in their throats” when pondering the sacrifices made by those serving our nation.
“This is an attempt to say thank you,” he said. “We have not done enough.”
In light of recent casualties in Afghanistan, 22 Navy SEALs among others, Brady said we owe these brave men and women “a lot.”
“We want to get people involved. It’s very easy to forget about service members once they return home from duty, but for wounded soldiers, the trauma of war does not end with the trip home.”
Operation First Response’s Walk for the Wounded is being presented by Ocean City Home Bank on Saturday, Oct. 1, starting at the Music Pier in Ocean City. Registration starts at 10 a.m. and the walk will begin at 11:30 a.m. There will be a live performance by the Tidal Wave Band. Those who raise $50 for Operation First Response will receive a free long-sleeved T-shirt. To learn more, visitwww.ochome.com.