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Lead the Way Fund Keeps Growing

An Organization Raising Funds for Wounded U.S. Army Rangers and

Their Families Grows Well Beyond Its Local Roots

Manhasset-area residents have grown increasingly aware of the Lead the Way Fund – a fundraising effort meant to provide many forms of aid to wounded U.S. Army Rangers and their families. Lead the Way (www.leadthewayfund.org) works to fill the gap where federal government aid to soldiers ends and where humanitarian needs begin.

Anyone who’s been around Manhasset much over the past two years or so knows something about the loss of native son Jim Regan. The Lead The Way Fund, Inc. was created in his honor—Sgt. James J. Regan was killed in Iraq in February of 2007 while serving with Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.

The Rangers are an elite, highly trained group within the Army’s Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and are among the toughest fighting men we have on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Therefore, some Rangers return home in the toughest shape. Citizens’ donations to Lead the Way provide spouses and children of deceased, disabled or active-duty Rangers with assistance for health and wellness programs and other financial aid programs.

Wounded U.S. military men and women returning to the States receive excellent care – including highly sophisticated new procedures when needed. Lead the Way steps in where there are needs among Rangers’ families that the government cannot fill. Often, close family members (other than the spouse) may need airfare, expenses and lodging in order to travel to the city where a wounded Ranger is receiving care. There are occasions when a family may need to relocate in order to be near a Ranger husband or father who is undergoing long-term rehabilitation.

Lead the Way has raised some serious funds locally and now donors are starting to get involved well outside the Manhasset area. At the organization’s annual golf outing, held at Plandome Country Club on Sept. 17, Lead the Way brought in $300,000 in donations. The New York City Marathon on Nov. 1 saw a group of Lead the Way supporters run up a total over $105,000.

Lead the Way was founded by young Jim’s father, James P. Regan, Robert Hotarek and their families. The two families have been very close for nearly 20 years and their two sons, young Jim Regan and Rob Hotarek, Jr., considered themselves like brothers.

Bedside

“The Rangers are among the most highly trained direct-action forces our Army has,” James Regan says. “They’re very special people.” There are only 4,000 Rangers distributed among three battalions nationwide. The 75th Ranger Regiment has had 13 consecutive deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq since 9/11. The Lead the Way Fund works directly with the Army’s Care Coalition (see sidebar) to help deal with issues affecting a wounded Ranger’s family.

Given the difficulty of the job they do in battle, wounded Rangers benefit from military advocates who work to line up the best possible specialized medical care to treat the seriously wounded.

“Essentially, we pick up what falls between the cracks that the government does not handle,” Regan says. “For instance, let’s say a young Ranger gets wounded and is brought back to the States for care. His wife gets a stipend and housing, but the wife may have a job and kids in school.” Family issues and lack of funds can stand in the way of getting together during a crisis such as a stay in a distant hospital. The Army pays for some family travel, but not for other close family members, such as parents, if they are not dependents. Rangers themselves earn only around $28,000 annually.

“The Care Coalition will arrange for the Lead the Way Fund to organize the expenses. We figure it all out and we will then pick up those costs. It could be $5,000,” says Regan. Capt. Reinaldo Gonzalez II, who is in charge of communications for the Care Coalition, attended the Lead the Way fundraiser at Plandome Country Club in September. Cpt. Gonzalez says, “The Lead the Way Fund is part of a small group of civilian nonprofits that support Special Operations wounded. We are fortunate that there are a number of organizations who wish to support our service members and their families.  They pick up where the government cannot and, in many cases, allow for the family to grieve or assist their loved one in their time of need.” 

Family Readiness Groups

Less dramatic family situations are still very important. There are Ranger families who spend months worried about a Ranger’s day-to-day welfare in battle and desperately need a simple morale boost. Lead the Way makes funds available to wives of deployed Rangers for use in family-oriented on-base activities.

Family Readiness Groups (FRG) are established as fraternal organizations within the military to support the men with “health and wellness.” These small, on-base organizations are meant to bolster morale among the men and their families. And if a Ranger is wounded or dies, the family has a support group. “Family Readiness Groups are set up and run by the wives of the men,” Regan says. “But they are a normal military operation and so they are restricted—they can only raise money from among themselves. We support our Ranger FRGs. That’s part of our health-and-wellness program—if the Ranger knows that his wife and kids are happy, and there’s less anxiety; he performs better in the field.”

Lead the Way also organizes and ships very large “morale boxes” of goodies and necessities to Rangers serving in harm’s way. “We’ll figure out what is needed by these guys and, with our tax-free status, go to a Costco or a Wal-Mart and our volunteers will come in and pack them up,” Regan says. How large? Morale boxes are “like a file-cabinet-size box.”

NYC Marathon

For this year’s ING New York City Marathon, Sgt. Regan’s former fiancee, Dr. Mary McHugh, arranged with New York Road Runner, the organization that manages the event, to get official spots in the race—the coveted “numbers” runners obtain by lottery—for 25 Lead the Way fundraisers. Those runners set about collecting pledges in support of their marathon efforts and the donations continued to grow, surpassing $100,000 by Nov. 1. In fact, donors can still visit www.leadthewayfund.org and contribute to a marathoner’s effort.

Hotarek, a Manhasset resident (as is James Regan, Lead the Way’s president), serves as a vice president of the fund and is on its board of directors. “The atmosphere in New York City was incredible that day,” Hotarek says of the recent marathon. He moved around NYC that Sunday (via subway) to different locations – the Queensboro Bridge, 125th Street, the Central Park finish line — to help encourage Lead the Way runners.

Hotarek’s daughters, Carol and Meredith, were among the runners who raised pledge dollars, as were Sgt. Regan’s sisters, Colleen and Maribeth. Dr. McHugh herself ran in the marathon. The 25 runners included committed friends as well as some Rangers and the group was augmented by seven additional entrants—friends-of-friends and other Army personnel—who had obtained their own credentials and wanted to contribute.

One marathoner, Army Ranger Captain Chad Fleming, lost his leg in combat and wears a prosthesis. Cpt. Fleming was seen finishing the marathon – he split running duties relay-style with fellow Ranger, Sgt. Joe Kapp, who also had a leg amputated. Fleming ran the route’s last 10 miles after Kapp met him at the Queensboro Bridge.

Cpt. Fleming also participated in the recent Lead the Way golf outing at Plandome Country Club. There he finished 18 holes of golf before participating in the subsequent dinner program.

A Hand for Sgt. Petry

At the Sept. 17 Lead the Way Fund annual golf outing, about 300 supporters of the Rangers’ cause had opportunities to meet Rangers such as Cpt. Fleming. One Ranger who attracted attention was Sgt. Leroy Petry. When you shake his hand, you know it. Sgt. Petry lost his right hand in battle when he grabbed a live grenade that landed near his men and threw it back. That one action saved the lives of eight men. For his bravery under fire, Sgt. Petry is up for the Congressional Medal of Honor. This is our nation’s highest honor and, it’s important to note, it is most often awarded posthumously.

At the dinner following the golf outing Sgt. Petry, like his fellow Rangers, appeared in full-dress uniform including polished boots and his many decorations. Unlike his fellows, Sgt. Petry sported a new prosthetic right hand. Petry’s innovative prosthetic is called the i-LIMB Hand, with five individually powered digits that react to signals from a patient’s living muscle tissue. The award-winning i-LIMB design was developed by a Scotland-based company called Touch Bionics and there are now 1,000 of then in use in 40 countries.

Petry and about 10 of his fellow Rangers attended the golf outing and dinner to help give a human face to the sacrifice our military makes for our country’s security and to show their appreciation for the generous efforts of the Lead the Way Fund and its growing number of supporters.

The day after the fundraiser the same 75th Regiment Rangers, accompanied by James P. Regan and the local American Legion Post 304 and other dignitaries, attended the dedication of the Gold Star Memorial at Patriots Park on Shelter Rock Road in Manhasset.

Hero Highway,  November 15

James Regan, Bob Hotarek and their families are not letting up. After the September golf outing and the NYC Marathon, Lead the Way is next sponsoring its own mini-marathon in Lower Manhattan on Sunday morning, Nov. 15. Billed as a “Run Down Hero Highway” – the 4.5-mile run (or walk) down Hudson River Park, also known as “Hero Highway,” takes participants down past Ground Zero and includes a salute to the Statue of Liberty. Now in its third year, the event was originated by some of Young Jim’s closest teammates from the Duke Lacrosse team and last year attracted over 700 participants.

Donations — $50 for adults, $25 for students and $20 for children under 12 – cover the entrance fee as well as an event T-shirt and admission to the post-run brunch. The agenda commences with registration and T-shirt distribution at Pier 46 – Charles Street on the Hudson River Park. Following introductory remarks and patriotic anthems at 10 a.m., the run/walk itself starts at 10:15 a.m.

After completing the circuit all participants are invited back to P.J. Clarke’s on the Hudson for free food and soft drinks. Hotarek says P.J. Clarke’s “is donating a lot of food. People show up with their kids from all over.”

Looking Ahead

Sgt. James J. Regan’s wake, back in February of 2007, was held at the St. Ignatius Jesuit Retreat House in Manhasset. The large venue was necessary to accommodate the young man’s large number of family members and friends – over 5,000 people attended. It was there that Hotarek and the elder Regan and their family members began to talk about “trying to make something positive out of a tragedy.” Hotarek says they were extremely affected by the dignity displayed by the many Rangers whose duty it was to accompany Sgt. Regan’s body home to Manhasset. As they spent time with these Rangers, it was also apparent that these young men were largely from small town America – hometowns that would not have the population to support financially the family of a stricken warrior. The Regan and Hotarek families decided to found an aid organization in young Jim Regan’s name that could serve as a safety net.

They never suspected their cause would grow as big as it already has. Today Hotarek says there’s a lot more work to be done to raise awareness on a national level.  Although this is a tough economic climate for fundraising, he and Regan are approaching potential corporate donors and considering instituting an annual awards dinner in Manhattan.  

Set for April 24, 2010, Lead the Way is organizing its “Lacrosse Day of Champions.” The fund is currently upgrading its website to further spread the word about all the events and donation opportunities. There’s video too – you can see Ranger veterans and their wives discuss frankly their needs and the benefits they’ve received.

The plan is to grow and sustain the fund. “Our initial goal would be $5 million,” Hotarek says, “at which point we can preserve and possibly grow the principal. Then we keep going!”