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In 2010, Adam Keys was riding in a U.S. Army vehicle in Afghanistan when the truck was hit by an IED. The four soldiers traveling with him, including his best friend, were killed. Adam survived – but he ultimately lost both legs and one of his arms.
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I first met Adam in 2016, when he applied for a grant from the PenFed Foundation, where I serve as CEO and which provides financial assistance to the military community, including disabled American veterans and their caregivers. By that time, he had endured a staggering 130 surgeries. Adam impressed me with his grit, optimism and incredible mental and emotional strength.
He didn’t let his disability define him. Instead, he had his heart set on running marathons and climbing mountains. He ended up transforming my life far more than I impacted his.
As Sam Pressler, founder of Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP), describes Adam: “The psychologist Esther Perel says that there are two groups of people who experience trauma: those who don't die and those who come back to life. Adam has certainly come back to life – and he lives with strength, purpose, and jokes.”
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I started meeting with Adam every few months. It’s inspiring to see all the ways organizations have helped him.
The Gary Sinise Foundation and Tunnel to Towers Foundation built him a specially adapted smart house, where he could live independently.
I serve on the board of Quality of Life Plus, which builds innovations like prosthetics and smart devices to improve the quality of life of injured veterans. They recently built Adam a new electric wheelchair tire cleaner for his garage that helps keep dirt and debris from being brought into his home.
Perhaps most inspiring of all, Adam was able to fulfill his dream of becoming a comedian. Through ASAP, which helps veterans work through trauma with creative outlets, Adam performed to a standing ovation at Gotham Comedy Club in New York City, headlined by John Oliver.
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Adam has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, completed marathons, jumped out of planes and founded his own campaign called One Step Forward to help other wounded veterans. He also serves as an adviser for Quality of Life Plus.
I know firsthand that when military service members struggle, the power of community saves them.
Isolation is one of the greatest challenges disabled veterans face today. When service members are injured, they are often separated from their units during recovery. Their sense of community disappears overnight, and they have to navigate a new world seemingly alone.
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That’s where business leaders come in. We have to show these veterans – and others in our communities who are facing obstacles – that they are not alone. This isn’t just corporate social responsibility. It’s human responsibility. And it should be a collective mission among businesses. Here are six ways to do just that.
Fund the organizations doing good work. We may not have the same number of wounded soldiers that we did 10 years ago, but remember that many of those who were wounded 10 years ago will be wounded the rest of their lives.
In fact, veterans like Adam who have lost limbs need ongoing surgeries and physical therapy to function with prosthetics. And the organizations that serve veterans still need funding.
Similarly, as we deal with COVID-19 challenges, we can’t forget about the other issues that people in our communities are facing, from mental health to addiction to educational challenges.
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Don’t just show up at a gala. Money is important, but it’s not all you can do. Stay involved. I urge CEOs and other business leaders to reach out to organizations personally to make connections with people like Adam and to see if they can provide mentorship or services at a deeper level.
Recognize the caregivers. Everyone looks at the soldiers, but few people look at the caregivers. In Adam’s case, his caregiver was his mother who quit her job to stay beside Adam in the hospital for five years.
Adam has shared how much it meant to his mother that the PenFed Foundation recognized her with a Caregiver Award. Caregivers sacrifice their quality of life, too, and they deserve our support.
Be prepared to help out on a rainy day, too. Real support is more than a photo-op. To show that your care is genuine, you need to build supportive relationships that keep going even when no one is looking.
It can be as simple as regular phone calls or occasional lunches together to check in and offer support. But the important thing is to be there through thick and thin for the people you’ve decided to help.
Cooperate. It’s the nature of leaders in all industries to be driven by competition. But when it comes to philanthropy, lead with cooperation.
Can you partner with other businesses in your industry to accomplish a greater good? Many hands make the load light.
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It starts with the CEO. The CEO sets the tone for any business. If you make it the mission of your business to serve your community, everyone else in the company will follow suit. Reach out to the executive directors of nonprofits and ask how you can help.
As business leaders, we have opportunities to use our connections, resources, and experiences to make real change. Anything is possible. If people like Adam Keys can climb mountains when they were once told they wouldn’t walk, then surely we can create an uplifting vision for our own companies’ philanthropic mission and make it come true.
James R. Schenck is president and CEO of PenFed Credit Union and CEO of the PenFed Foundation.
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