All heroes on deck
Figawi teams up with Nantucket nonprofit to give veterans a trip to remember
The charity regatta known as Figawi invites intrepid sailors to race from Hyannis to Nantucket on the traditional kickoff weekend to the Cape and Islands’ summer season.
Among those on board this year will be five sailors who have met greater challenges in their lives: as combat veterans wounded in service to their country.
For the past seven years, Holidays for Heroes has invited a select number of wounded warriors onboard one of the Figawi racing vessels to have the opportunity to take the helm and participate as crew. The veterans and their loved ones stay on the island for a few more days, as guests of Nantucket businesses and restaurants for various events.
This year five “Heroes” will be sailing aboard Bob Solomon’s boat, Perfect Summer. Solomon is a longtime Figawi entrant: He has competed in Figawi for the past 26 years. For the last four years, he has hosted Holidays for Heroes veterans aboard his boat for the regatta, which is recognized not only on the East Coast but also in international circles as a top sailing event.
The mission of Holidays for Heroes is to give back to the nation’s wounded heroes and their families through all-expense-paid vacations to Nantucket. Additionally, the organization’s American Dream Grants provide veterans funding and mentoring to start or improve a business that supports their independence. And through partner Sierra Delta, veterans have the opportunity to be paired with service dogs.
The Memorial Day weekend sailing regatta, now in its 47th year, was created by a couple of friends challenging each other to a sailboat race across Nantucket Sound. It’s grown into one of the largest attended and longest running regattas on the East Coast, attracting more than 200 boats each year. Funds, raised from entries and other events on Nantucket and Hyannis, and managed by Figawi Charities Inc., benefit countless local charities.
Tom McCann, a Nantucket summer resident, created Holidays for Heroes seven years ago, after being moved by tributes he’d witnessed to wounded warriors.
“He pulled together some friends and business owners on Nantucket and approached Figawi to host wounded veterans and their families,” explains Shelley Crawford, executive director of Figawi Charities Inc., and director of operations for Holidays for Heroes Inc. and Sierra Delta Inc. “His mission was to not only provide the heroes with an opportunity to come to Nantucket expense free and enjoy the long weekend, but to bring their families also. He wanted to provide a respite for them from their pain, worries and stress.”
McCann’s idea was to focus the veterans’ visits to Nantucket on the holidays of Memorial Day weekend, July Fourth and 9/11 commemorations. Over the years, there have been additional events such as the Women in War event, held last March on Nantucket; the Coma Club Reunion, which will be held in June; and the Westmoor Club event, which benefits the Sierra Delta program.
Sgt. Jason Johns of Madison, Wisconsin was among three veterans who sailed in Figawi last year. Johns, an attorney and member of the Wisconsin Army National Guard, signed up for active duty and was deployed to Iraq in May 2003. He was wounded in combat that fall and awarded a Purple Heart. After recuperating for two weeks in a field hospital, he returned to duty for another year. He is now the owner and president of NMLB Veterans Advocacy Group, Inc., where he and his team work on key veteran legislative issues in Congress as well as representing fellow veterans with appeals claims in the VA and in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals.
The 2017 Holidays for Heroes on Nantucket was a truly memorable experience, he says.
“It was our first time on Nantucket and Cape Cod, and the first time either of us had sailed,” Johns recalls of the trip he and his wife Carin took. “Everyone was so welcoming and quick to take us in, as if we had lived on the island for years. Bob Solomon and his crew could not have gone more out of their way to take care of us on the Perfect Summer. The entire weekend was one great time. We were treated like VIPs everywhere we went. My wife and I still talk about how quickly the island felt like another home, and we will most definitely return someday and bring our three children to meet everyone.”
Another participant last year was John Morley, a former naval search and rescue swimmer and explosive ordnance device specialist. During his fourth combat deployment in 2006, Morley was severely injured while disarming an improvised explosive device in Iraq. He lost his right hand and suffered serious burns over 40 percent of his body, enduring 11 surgeries over time and long hospitalizations. He received a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his actions and injuries in Iraq.
Morley, who grew up north of Boston, had visited Nantucket as a child, but his experience 40 years later was “fantastic.”
“I was injured 10 years ago, and to have a group like Holidays for Heroes not forget about me and reach out with an invitation to sail in Figawi was very special,” Morley says. “I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure what to expect once on the island, but what will stick in my mind forever about the trip was how incredibly friendly and prideful everyone was. The Figawi organizers were incredible, but what really caught me off guard was how patriotic, hospitable and involved the entire island was—thinking about it now still puts a huge smile on my face. This is definitely an event that all wounded veterans should experience.”
Holidays for Heroes’ main fundraiser is the annual American Dream Gala, held each September at the Nantucket Boys and Girls Club. The evening includes a full-course dinner by Chef E.J. Harvey, owner of The SeaGrille Restaurant on Nantucket, guest speakers, inspirational presentations, and silent and live auctions.
The program is also supported through donations, but Crawford would like to take Holidays for Heroes to the next level.
“Our mission is to help veterans,” says Crawford, “and the inquiries for participation are growing every year.” Veterans can visit holidaysforheroes.com to find out more about what is offered. “We are building a corporate sponsorship program and hope to bring in a larger support base so we can help more of our nation’s heroes.”
Carol K. Dumas is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Harwich.
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