For nearly twenty-five years they have returned home to a grateful nation–hundreds of thousands of men and women, soldiers and heroes, physically damaged, emotionally scarred and steeled for the personal, healing battles to come.
This Memorial Day as we commemorate those who gave their lives in defense of the nation throughout its history, it is equally as important for the nation to reflect on the challenges of those who served and gave everything just shy of “that last full measure of devotion.” America’s wounded warriors are inimitable in their experiences and incomparable in the courage they continue to manifest in the wake of their injuries; and yet united in confidence that through their recovery and readjustment to civilian life, they should never walk alone.
One of the ways Americans are working to assure these heroes never walk alone is by demonstrating broad support for the Wounded Warriors Project, a nonprofit veterans service organization that offers a variety of programs, service and events for wounded veterans of the military actions that followed the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Those wounded in previous conflicts are welcomed as well.
According to the organization, the Wounded Warriors Project (WWP) takes a holistic approach when serving warriors and their families. Its goal is to nurture the mind and body, and encourage economic empowerment and engagement.
Every movement, every major effort to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals needs a champion to help rally support; to demonstrate through personal commitment the importance of the effort at hand. Former NFL Superstar turned actor Fred Williamson is such a champion. For years he has leveraged his star power to raise awareness and money in support of the Wounded Warriors Project.This week in an exclusive interview with The Voice, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson talked openly about his involvement, support and commitment to the wounded warriors.
Despite a fairly demanding schedule that includes making an average of three movies per year, Williamson has made advocacy for WWP a priority. “I served six years in the Marines,” he explained. “I started with the reserves as a sophomore in high school and continued through college.”
Williamson eventually earned an honorable discharge from service but the devotion, pride and honor of that experience became a large part of his persona and fuels his commitment to the Project. He summed up the reason for his involvement in a few French words, “Esprit de corps”, he replied with passion and reverence when asked why he became involved.
Williamson’s use of this small phrase, “Esprit de corps” to explain his involvement and commitment to the Wounded Warriors Project spoke volumes. It conveyed a sense of fellowship and common loyalty. It is indicative of a devotion and strong regard for all service members.
The advocacy Williamson provides in support of the effort is as elemental to the organization’s viability as the need for its support is to the veterans it serves. Those who have spent time in the military since September 2001, are referred to as Gulf War-era II veterans.
According to the Congressional Research Service, 52,000 U.S. Servicemembers have been wounded in Action in Iraq and Afghanistan since October 2001. Also, according to the Surgeon General, 153,000 service men and women have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) since 2000; however, Wounded Warrior Project research reported that more than 600,000 live with these invisible wounds of war. In addition, 288,000 servicemembers have suffered Traumatic Brain Injuries since 2000. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics about 33 percent of Gulf War-era II veterans reported having a service-connected disability in August 2015, compared with 20 percent of all veterans.
One of the most alarming statistics however was revealed in a January 2015 report published by the National Institute of Mental Health—the suicide rate among recent veterans was 50 percent higher than non-military civilians.
This overwhelming data is part of what fuels Williamson’s commitment. “Some are so disfigured and so scarred and they find a way to still hold on to reality,” he shared. “Wounded Warriors puts them together on a social level so they can talk to each other in ways that we can’t,” he explained.
Williamson spends time each year travelling around the country talking to groups of wounded warriors. “I think they identify with me more as an athlete,” he said. “They know I can talk to them in way others can’t; being an athlete gives me an advantage of understanding and enduring pain based on my experience.”
During those talks Williamson frequently encourages veterans to reach out and talk to each other. “We can’t say to them ‘we know how you feel’ because we really don’t.” This is the driving force behind his belief that it is best for them to talk to each other, to share their experiences because there is a deep and discrete mutuality of understanding that exists between them and binds them together.
Williamson spoke with humility about his role in the WWP, his advocacy for the veterans and the importance of community involvement in support of them. “They do not want sympathy or pity,” he stated resolutely. “They want to be accepted.”
The WWP was established in 2003 by John Melia who was severely wounded in a helicopter crash while serving in Somalia in 1992. Over the years, the Project has expanded and evolved in its ongoing effort to meet the needs of wounded veterans. Most recently, according to Williamson, the organization implemented a new program offering that provides full-time-in-home care to wounded warriors designed to take some pressure off the wife and family of the veteran. “The wife’s life changes as well,” Williamson reminded readers. “She becomes a care-giver.” The new program relieves some of their pressure. “It gives them their life back,” he added.
The full-time-in-home support program provides bathing, clothing and feeding care. It helps family care-takers to be more tolerant of the change, relieves some of the pressure that comes with being a primary care-taker and to some extent, gives them their life back. As Williamson so aptly summed it up, “They need support.”
In addition to traveling the nation in support of WWP, this past January Williamson hosted his Seventh Annual Wounded Warriors pairings party and celebrity golf tournament at the Fantasy Springs Resort and Eagle Falls Golf Course. This year the field was sold out with over 180 celebrities and other golfers participating in support of WWP veterans.
“They do not want sympathy or pity,” he stated resolutely. “They want to be accepted.”
According to reports, each year the fundraiser continues to grow. As a matter of fact, by the time the event completed in January, one third of the slots for next year’s tournament were already filled.
Williamson is probably best known for his All-Pro defensive cornerback success with the Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs. He holds the distinction of having played in Super Bowl I in addition to four Pro-Bowls. What is less known about the star is that subsequent to his football career and before gaining additional fame as a distinguished actor he leveraged his degree in Architectural Engineering that he earned from Northwestern University in 1960, and worked for ten years as an architect for Bectel Steel in San Francisco. According to Williamson, however, after years of living the football life he eventually grew weary of the 9 to 5 corporate routine. “It did not fit my personality,” he shared. And so he set his sights on Hollywood and the rest as they say, is history.
Moving to Hollywood, Williamson starred with Diahann Carroll in the “Julia” television series. He starred in Robert Altman’s “M*A*S*H”, and then Otto Preminger’s “Tell Me You Love Me, Junie Moon”. After learning from the best, he formed his own production company, producing and directing more than 30 films worldwide.
Williamson has been an enduring action star in more than 60 films thru four decades, ranging from the ‘70’s classics “Black Caesar” and “Hell Up in Harlem” to the 80’s “Three the Hard Way” and “One Down, Two to Go”, to the ‘90’s “From Dusk till Dawn” and “Original Gangstas”; and then into the new millennium co-starring with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in the smash hit “Starsky and Hutch”, and the 2012 patriotic feature “Last Ounce of Courage”.
Fred “The Hammer” Williamson lives in Palm Springs with his wife Linda who supports his commitment to the Wounded Warriors Project especially in regards to the annual golf tournament—their involvement in this worthy endeavor continues to make a difference.
For more information regarding the Wounded Warriors Project and/or to make a donation visit woundedwarriorproject.org/.