As I sit here and type this blog post, I pause for a moment to consider how important my fingers and hands are to me as a blogger and writer. If I should be injured or lose the use of my hands in some awful accident, what would I do?
That hypothetical situation is very real for some American soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, where body armor helps protect them from getting killed from the blasts of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) — but injuries to extremities are common. In the summer of 2005, when Army Captain Charles “Chuck” Ziegenfuss, a military blogger, was severely injured by such an IED, he asked his blog audience to help him get voice-to-text software, Dragon Naturally Speaking, for his laptop.
The next day, he found a gift certificate at Amazon for $200 so he could buy the software, and slowly started to blog again, which he found to be therapeutic in his recovery time. Ziegenfuss is far from being a touchy-feely person, liberally sprinkling in terms such as “retards” and calling Democrats “Dums” on his blog. But he did soften up a bit when his blog readers helped get him the software:
Turns out it’s a lot slower posting this way [with the software] than it was when I could type, but it is a lot faster than I can type with my gimpy hands. I really do need to thank everyone for their outstanding and overwhelming support. I have gotten more letters and cards than I can possibly read in a lifetime.
But not long after he put a call out for the software, another blogger, a woman who goes by the handle Fuzzybear Lioness (or FbL), approached Ziegenfuss about setting up a charity to give other wounded soldiers laptops with the software so they could communicate with loved ones and other soldiers still in action. By August 2005, they had teamed up with a volunteer group, Soldier’s Angels, that already had non-profit status. That group offered to help run some of the logistics of the project, dubbed Valour-IT for “Voice-Activated Laptops for OUR Injured Troops.”
FbL told me they initially raised $15,000 online thanks to the publicity and support of the strong military blogging community. The next step was a Veteran’s Day contest, where “teams” of bloggers aligned themselves with various armed services — the Navy, Air Force, Marines and Army — in a friendly competition to see who could raise the most money for laptops with the special voice-recognition software.
“We made our goal $24,000 for the 10 days leading up to Veteran’s Day [in 2005],” FbL said. “To my utter shock, we raised $100,000. I thought, ‘Holy cow, what did I get myself involved in?’ The VA [Veterans Affairs] and Military Order of the Purple Heart heard about us and the Undersecretary of the VA invited us to come out to visit one of the trauma units and deliver the laptops there….This year, we raised almost $230,000 in the two weeks leading up to Veteran’s Day. We’ve delivered almost 700 laptops now. I figured this time around, with more media connections, I decided to think big and shoot for $180,000 and we blew right through that to $230,000.”
FbL tells me she expects Valour-IT to have distributed 850 laptops by this Christmas.
Bloggers Making a Difference for Soldiers
Neither FbL or Ziegenfuss make any money themselves from the project, which has zero overhead and is completely volunteer-run — just like Soldier’s Angels, which offers all sorts of services for wounded soldiers. FbL, who prefers to keep her real name out of the spotlight and off her blogs, told me how amazed she was by the power of the blogosphere to organize for a cause and come together virtually.
She said she hadn’t met the other bloggers and collaborators at Soldier’s Angels until months after they had started working together. And when CBS Evening News showed interest in telling the story of Valour-IT, FbL had to tell them there was no charity headquarters or place they could film their story about the project.
Just how important are these laptops with voice-recognition software to the soldiers who get them?
“The psychological benefits of the laptops are just huge,” FbL said. “The medical people who work with the wounded soldiers say it has a big effect on their recovery. It’s motivational and keeps them in touch with the other soldiers who are still deployed, and it keeps them in touch with their families who might not be able to visit them. In Chuck’s case, he could do literally nothing for himself. He was a tank company commander in Iraq in charge of about 100 men. He went from that position to being in a hospital bed. It was just devastating for someone who was the big bad guy [in charge]. Now he could sit in his bed and talk to the laptop and do anything anyone else could do on a computer.”
Ziegenfuss concurs, and told me he was blown away by the capabilities of the software.
“It’s incredible, what [the software] can do,” he said. “The company that makes it gives it to us at a very discounted price. We don’t get a discounted rate on the computers, but we find them on sale or refurbished. As long as it can run the Naturally Speaking software, that’s great.”
Lynette Frascella, the director of the Wounded Team at Soldier’s Angels, told me via email that the milblogs were key in making Valour-IT such a great success.
“With the milbloggers spreading the word about this project, we have reached so many more Americans who have jumped in to help these heroes,” she said. “As for the technology, we work with CAP (Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program) through the Department of Defense. CAP provides the free software and/or hardware needed to adapt the laptops to the [soldiers’] disability. They also provide free training. I think [Valour-IT] is a fantastic program and wish we could provide every wounded soldier with a laptop. I have seen first hand the difference a laptop makes in a wounded soldier’s life. Unfortunately, we are limited to the severely injured — loss of sight, limb, burns, nerve damage, paralysis and TBI [traumatic brain injury].”
One soldier wrote the folks at Soldier’s Angels an email telling them how thankful he was for the special laptop gift:
I am one of the wounded soldiers recovering at Brook Army Medical Center. Tonight me and my wife were honored to attend a dinner where I was presented with this new laptop that I am using right now. So the first thing I wanted to do on this computer is to send you my deepest gratitude. This is one of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever gotten and I know that me and my family will benefit from this gift. I truly thank God for allowing me the opportunity to cross paths with such caring people.
PDA for TBI
After 33 surgeries and various nerve grafts, Ziegenfuss is slowly recovering from his injuries. He is now training military officers-to-be at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, but he’s lost none of the brash attitude at his blog. Though he can use some of his fingers, he still relies on the Naturally Speaking software for longer writing or blog posts.
Meanwhile, FbL is looking for full-time work at a military non-profit in Southern California and is hoping that Valour-IT can become a fully funded endowment, so that online fundraising campaigns won’t be necessary. She says they are close to getting a large donation that could make that happen, and might make a deal with a computer hardware company that would donate refurbished computers or lower the cost below the $600 they usually pay per laptop.
Beyond that, FbL imagines another program that would offer personal digital assistants (PDAs) for soldiers suffering from traumatic brain injuries (TBI). TBI is a common problem for soldiers in Iraq who have suffered brain damage from IED blasts. One of the common problems is short-term memory loss, and the PDAs could help injured soldiers remember their appointments, to-do lists and other minutiae lost in the haze during recovery.
While most of the bloggers who supported Valour-IT have been on the conservative side of the political spectrum, FbL notes that the project cuts across ideology by focusing on helping out wounded veterans.
“Doing a program like this is so beyond politics,” FbL said. “You have someone here who is hurt, and you have the ability to make their lives better, why wouldn’t you do that? That’s part of our success with this. How do you say no to this without looking like a total jerk? [laughs] You can say, ‘It’s all George Bush’s fault.’ Yes, it is, but how are you going to help? It’s beyond politics and it’s so human. It’s a winning concept and I am lucky enough to know brilliant people who have made this project work.”
Valour-IT is another result of average folks banding together online to make a difference, getting beyond petty politics and government bureacracy to get something done and do it right. It’s one of those classic holiday stories of people giving of their time, their money and even the bully-pulpit space of their blogs to help others in need.
What do you think of the work of Valour-IT? Do you know of other great charity drives started in the blogosphere recently? Share your thoughts in the comments below.