While debate over the future of the war in Iraq rages among Congress, the White House and the populace, several organizations and individuals in the business aviation industry have been quietly providing support to servicemen wounded in the conflict. One major effort involves Richard Santulli, creator of the fractional ownership business model and the chairman and CEO of industry leader NetJets.
As a member of the board of directors for the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York, Santulli became one of the organizers of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund after learning of the paltry sum that families of soldiers killed in action would receive. “I’d be at dinner and I’d say to someone, ‘What do you think a soldier’s wife gets when he dies [in action], if he has no insurance?’ I guess because of the 9/11 incident and the World Trade Center, they would say, ‘Oh, it’s got to be a million dollars, $500,000.’ Then I would say, ‘No, it’s $9,000,’ and they just couldn’t believe it,” said Santulli.
The initial focus of the Fallen Heroes Fund was to increase the service death payout. Between 2000 and 2005, the Fund provided nearly $20 million to families of U.S. military personnel lost in performance of their duty, mostly in service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Working with the casualty offices of the Armed Forces, the fund presented grants to each spouse ($11,000) and dependent child ($5,000 each).
The Fund members also agitated lawmakers to increase the official government payment, which was finally amended to a minimum of $250,000 in 2005. “A lot of that was due to making it public, and then [former radio host] Don Imus did a spectacular job, speaking to politicians; he used his radio show,” Santulli told AIN. “I kept telling him, ‘Just embarrass some of these people that come on when they talk about the soldiers.’ How do you care about soldiers when the surviving spouse is getting $9,000?”
Once Congress passed legislation increasing the survivor benefit, the Fallen Heroes Fund turned its attention to the construction of a state-of-the-art rehabilitation facility in San Antonio. While the survival rate among wounded personnel is more than 90 percent, the amputation rate has more than doubled over that of the Vietnam War. Add to that toll the horrific burns inflicted by the improvised explosive devices favored by insurgents, and the need for such a center becomes clear.
According to Santulli, “Our goal was to build the most technologically modern facility for people coming back who were severely, catastrophically injured in the war, and we did. We also built a beautiful building as a way to say thank you to the soldiers who go there.”
While the $50 million facility was funded by donations ranging from $1 to $1 million, the Fallen Heroes Fund was careful to keep it clear of any whiff of sponsorship. “If we were going to name the building after a company, I could have raised $50 million in one week, but this is about the soldiers,” said Santulli.
For inspiration, Santulli recalls a speech by an Army general at the January dedication for the center. “He basically said when he addressed some of these 200 severely injured kids, ‘People talk like you’ve lost your arm, you lost your legs, you lost your sight. You know that’s absolutely not true. You gave your arm, you gave your legs, you gave your sight to make our country free,’ and that’s what it is, and you have to do whatever you can to help these families and these young men and women. They’re never going to have the life they thought they were going to have, but to have a reasonable way to live the rest of their life is something that I think is necessary, and if the government won’t do it, then we have to.”