Phillip Green does not come from a military family. He pulled a high draft number for the Vietnam War and had a medical exemption, too.
For this he feels a debt, certain that the success he enjoys today is in large part a direct result of the way of life that US troops have been fighting to defend, often through multiple tours of duty, year after year.
Green, president of PDG Consulting, a health-care consultancy, decided it was not enough to buy a soldier in uniform dinner at the airport or put a yellow ribbon sticker on his car.
Since he was not forced to send his children to war, he believes it is his responsibility to donate part of his wealth to the rehabilitation and care of veterans. “I think all of us are blessed by the fact that we have wonderful children who are doing very good and socially active things and we’re very proud of them, but the fact is that none of them have served in the military, nor have their fathers.”
He spoke to his close circle of friends – who had the same feelings of unease about the sacrifice of US troops compared to their own – about what to do. “I think we all felt that it’s not enough to make token contributions in support of those who have served. We really felt like we had a special obligation to do more.”
And so Green, his wife, and two other couples got together to pledge $1.1 million to veterans’ causes. They hope, ultimately, to raise $30 million and convince some moneyed families like themselves to pledge 1 percent of their net worth to the cause.
The urge to give was driven in no small part to the feelings that Green knew he would have if his children were at war. “I get anxious very easily – if my children were overseas fighting I would have had three or six years of sleepless nights,” he says. “I know what it would have done to me. I was spared that kind of anxiety and pain and discomfort, and I am desperately appreciative of those people who did not have the luxury that my family did.”
Through the work of his wife, Dr. Elizabeth Cobbs, head of geriatrics at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington, Green had seen the immense need within the veterans community – a need that with research he realized that tax dollars would not cover. “I pay taxes like everybody else – but that feels like a relatively small contribution.”
Green and Dr. Cobbs were repeatedly struck by veterans and their families “who bear an unbelievable burden when they return from war – physically, mentally, and socioeconomically.”
While the Department of Veterans Affairs “does fantastic work, the gaps in the ability to take care of people is enormous and increasing –and that gap is going to get bigger and bigger, no matter how great the VA is," Green says. "The fact is that the tax revenue will not be enough to support the need among today’s veterans generated by the wars of the past decade.”
Jim Stimmel, executive vice president of CLEAResult, a Texas-based energy consulting group, recalls his first response upon hearing Green’s plan. “We thought what Phil came up with us was brilliant,” he says. “We thought it might help transform the way wealthy Americans think about the war – fundamentally, a small percentage of the US population has made a sacrifice – they’ve done all the heavy lifting.”
Mr. Stimmel and his wife, Patty, didn’t feel as if they were part of that part of the US population changing their lifestyle at all in a time of war. And so they contributed . “We’ve benefited immensely from what soldiers have sacrificed, and frankly we don’t think we’ve sacrificed enough.” Also contributing were Glen Garland and his wife, Patty. Mr. Garland is executive vice president of CLEAResult.
They liked the idea of doing their giving voluntarily, the way the troops have. If not through military service, they figured, they could give financially.
Many Americans feel removed from the war and from the needs of the veterans returning, in large part because there is not a draft, Green and Stimmel posit. “I’m not a political animal,” Green says. “But if today there was selective service, we would have an entirely different dialogue about whether we should be in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Stimmel and his wife are hoping to find 1,000 wealthier Americans “who are willing to say, ‘I can sacrifice 1 percent of my net worth – feel an obligation to do that’ – not just a few hundred or a thousand [dollars] to feel good.”
That said, Stimmel stresses that “a lot of people do what they can – write small checks when they can and are contributing a lot for them, and I don’t want to take anything away from that – but there are a few of us out there that can do a lot more than we’re doing.”
He recalls seeing some friends and neighbors putting a yellow ribbon sticker on their car. “I don’t want this to sound negative, but they are successful in life and enjoying the American way.” Stimmel asked them what they were doing in a practical sense to support the troops. “They were a little bit embarrassed – it’s clear they saw it as more of a spiritual connection,” he recalls. “But in practical terms it’s clear that they don’t know what else to do, what to put money towards, how much is enough.”
His hope, he adds, ‘is that we’re providing a mechanism that didn’t exist. There are plenty of people out there who have the greatest of intentions and would like to do something, but don’t know how.”
The gift of the Stimmels, Greens, and others is a reflection of a national conversation about the responsibility of society as veterans return from a decade of war, says Paul Reikoff, a former infantryman who served in Iraq and is the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which is administering the families’ donations. “How do we as Americans hold up our end of the bargain? Finally we’re beginning to have this conversation. I wish we’d had it 10 years ago.”
In the month since the families’ initiative has launched, “The response has been really positive,” Mr. Reikoff says. “There is so much goodwill that’s out there, but I don’t think it’s ever been tapped.