The great 19th-century French observer of our country, Alexis de Tocqueville, was amazed at how "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations . . . proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and . . . inducing them voluntarily to pursue it." Once combined, "they are no longer isolated men, but a power seen from afar, whose actions serve for an example and whose language is listened to."
This remains true today. Since 9/11, the American habit of voluntary associations has been particularly pronounced as groups have sprung into existence to support the military, especially combat wounded and families of the fallen. Many of these groups, including the Semper Fi Fund and Hope For The Warriors, were founded and are now led by military wives.
Karen Guenther is a nurse and the wife of a Marine. In 2003, she was working at Camp Pendleton Naval Hospital in California when the first wave of wounded arrived from Iraq. She was standing next to a young military wife, when the woman saw her horribly injured husband for the first time. Shaken, she nearly collapsed.
As Karen quietly steadied the woman, she realized something more was needed to help families cope with the combat injuries and deaths of their loved ones. Karen and seven other determined women met around her kitchen table to talk about what to do. They were drawn together by the recognition that while government does an incredible job of binding up wounds and putting warriors on the road to recovery, it is a large, often impersonal, bureaucracy. Their response was to launch the Semper Fi Fund.
Taking its name from the Marine Corps motto, "Semper Fidelis" or "always faithful," the Fund provides a wide variety of services to wounded and critically ill military personnel from any branch who served in support of Marines, as well as their families.
More than 8,000 members of our armed forces and their families have benefited from the compassion of what Karen calls the Fund's "Mighty Mouse Team" of mostly military wives and family members. Over $63 million in Semper Fi Fund grants have made possible everything from travel assistance to adaptive equipment, housing and transportation, and from programs for those dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder to children's camps and transition assistance.
On the other side of the country in North Carolina in 2006, Robin Kelleher, also the wife of a Marine, recognized the need to assist wounded soldiers, their families, and families of the fallen. This realization came when her husband's best friend Lt. Col. Timothy Maxwell returned home with a traumatic brain injury.
Out of Robin's compassion came Hope For The Warriors, which she co-founded with Shannon Maxwell, the wife of Lt. Col. Maxwell (USMC, Ret.) It supplies immediate help—with transportation, groceries and other such needs—for service members and families dealing with combat wounds and injuries. It also provides long-term assistance as they cope with challenges of rehabilitation and recovery, helping integrate warriors back into civilian life by (among other things) matching military skills and training with private sector opportunities. And why? "It seemed like the right thing to do," Robin replies simply.
Both national organizations are led and mostly staffed by military wives and draw on the extended community of active-duty military and veterans for support and leadership. They spend nearly 95 cents of every dollar on programs and because of their sharp focus, the respected watchdog organization Charity Navigators gives both high ratings. Both groups understand that their work will not be completed in days or months or even years. They are about the work of lifetimes.
Benjamin Rush, the physician and educator who signed the Declaration of Independence 236 years ago Wednesday, wrote, "Patriotism is as much a virtue as justice and is as necessary for the support of societies as natural affection is for the support of families." The men and women who fight for America on battlefields across the world understand this. So do those who tend to them and their families. Love of country is what animates women of resolve like Karen Guenther and Robin Kelleher and the many others like them across this great land. God bless them and their work.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, July 4, 2012.