Combining their love of off-roading with a desire to help others, four active duty service members are hoping to make a difference in the lives of injured and disabled Veterans. It was their common bond of off-roading that brought John Purser, John Griffin, Nathan Ramos and Mark Schultz together when they were stationed together in Washington D.C., but it was a visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) that gave them their purpose.
The four men formed 4 Wheel To Heal in July of 2011 to provide morale to disabled Vets by taking them out to enjoy wheeling, camping and other outdoor activities. They believe that the camaraderie found in the off-road community is similar to that experienced in the military and hope that the experience will help the Vets take their mind off what they are going through while in recovery. They forged a relationship with Operation Ward 57 out of Walter Reed and began taking wounded soldiers for some outdoor fun.
Photo courtesy of Keith Gillan/4 Wheel To Heal
They were determined to achieve non-profit status and their dedication paid off; late 2012 they were officially recognized as a 501( c)(3) organization. This meant that all donations are fully tax deductible and was a huge boost in their ability to gain sponsors. The men are proud to let people know that no one in the organization takes a salary and all marketing efforts are done through word of mouth and social media. They make a 10% donation to Operation Ward 57 and all of the rest goes directly to taking Vets and their caregivers out wheeling. All costs are covered, including transportation to and from an event, food, the use of any equipment that might be needed such as tents, and any entry fees required.
Through active duty, deployments and reassignments the four continued to grow the organization, which now hosts events in many states across the U.S. When Schultz was transferred to the naval base in San Diego they found an opportunity to get involved with the prolific Southern California off-road community. But it wasn’t an easy road; first he was deployed overseas, then his Jeep was stolen shortly after he returned home. Shultz and his wife Jennifer, a Certified Pediatric Nurse working at the Children’s Hospital in San Diego didn’t let anything slow them down. They purchased a TJ, made it trail-worthy and started reaching out to forge partnerships to get the West Coast Operations up and running.
I joined up with 4W2H at Operation Desert Fun in Ocotillo Wells in October. ODF is an event hosted by the California 4WD Association to benefit the CalDiego Paralyzed Veterans Association. We brought five disabled vets, their caregivers and one service dog out for a weekend of wheeling, camping and camaraderie. Most of the volunteer drivers were also military. In addition to driving, volunteers help with camp set up, meal prep, clean up, and provide any needed help for the Vets.
After a night of camping under the full moon we hit the trails early. Cal4Wheel played trail boss on the moderate but scenic trail we chose due to the various capabilities of the rigs in our group.
We wheeled our way through the badlands, making a stop along the way at the Pumpkin Patch, spherical sandstone concretions off Tule Wash.
Then we headed to the steep sand hill for some play time and lunch before working our way back toward camp.
At the mud hill play area the group splits up, with some returning to camp and those who want more of a challenge sticking around to test out their skills.
After dinner we joined the main group to enjoy the benefit raffle and an opportunity to socialize with members of the CalDiego Paralyzed Vets Association. As we were packing up to leave one of the Vets walked over to me and said “I can’t believe you did all of this for me, for us. I can’t tell you how much this means, I had such a great time and I can’t thank you enough.” Seeing the smiles on their faces is what it is all about.
Later that month Schultz led the trail run through the scenic San Jacinto Mountains at the OMC Offroad 3rd Annual Food and Toy Drive in Banning, California. Although they weren’t able to get any disabled Vets out, many who participated to show their support were Vets including an 83 year old Korean War Veteran with three Purple Hearts who wheeled just as hard as the young guys.
In between hosting trail runs, 4W2H sets up information booths at events such as the Lucas Oil Offroad Expo and the Freedom Festival in San Diego to help get the word out to Vets and potential sponsors, they visit local V.A. hospitals to deliver donated T-shirts and survival bracelets and they continue their work with other Veterans’ outreach organizations such as Operation Ward 57 and Vets 360. Earlier this year they were able to partner with Customer Engineering Services (http://cesservice.com/) to donate an Action TrackChair to a triple-amputee Iraqi war Vet. They hope to do be able to donate more as well as obtain one for 4W2H to have on hand for use by any disabled vets who come out on runs. A regular wheelchair isn’t able to navigate off pavement and Action Trackchairs give these men the ability to enjoy the outdoors.
I haven’t had the opportunity to meet the founders stationed on the East Coast yet but I know they are working just as hard as the Schultz’s are here on the West Coast.
Back at home there’s more to be done. Schultz was recently deployed to the Philippines to provide disaster aid and his wife Jen is doing double duty with the help of volunteers to keep the momentum going. Their next big goal is to bring ten disabled Vets from across the county to King of the Hammers in February and the logistics are challenging. With the help of a few extra…I’m sure it can happen!
For more information about 4 Wheel To Heal please visit their website, www.4w2h.org.