• by Sarah Teach •
After the ultimate blissful summer day on Nantucket – fishing with family, basking in the sunshine, and then cooling off with a brew and relaxing to the live music at Cisco Brewery – long-time summer resident Tom McCann thought he had one of the best days ever. Later that evening, he watched a televised Washington, D.C. tribute to wounded American war veterans, and realized just how lucky he was to be able to enjoy Nantucket.
“I sat in awe of these brave and very young soldiers who were being honored for [all they have done] to keep our country free. My family and I had just enjoyed the most amazing day thanks to the freedom allowed us by these veterans,” he explained.
McCann began to think of ways to pay back the soldiers who had sacrificed comfort, health, and time with loved ones, and traded their peace for PTSD. Why not aim for a gift that would bring them stress-free time with family and could help restore some of the peace that was lost? An all-expenses-paid vacation to a wonderful place, thought McCann, would be a great place to start. McCann’s career in importing has taken him to all points of the globe, yet he still points to Nantucket as the most beautiful place in the world – one fit to bring much-needed serenity and much-deserved luxury to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Holidays for Heroes was born.
McCann began by gathering a Board of Directors made up of influential year-round and seasonal Nantucket residents, each with their own connection to soldiers and veterans. Deputy Commissioner for the Massachusetts State Department of Public Health and Nantucket resident Cheryl Bartlett jumped on board as co-chair. The team set to work crafting ideas, crunching out logistics, and of course, seeking the heroes themselves. McCann’s team set up a system that allows them to visit the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and meet with an Army liaison to help select candidates. “The liaisons,” explains McCann, “know who needs a break, who’s struggling at the time. We want to step in to fill those voids for people.”
Holidays for Heroes has two goals. “First,” explains McCann, “is what we call ‘the Nantucket Experience.’ That means we want to give soldiers and their families the whole of the fun that can be had on Nantucket, from fishing and sailing to dining in the best restaurants. Our second goal is what we call ‘the American Dream.’ Unfortunately, in my opinion, our government doesn’t do enough to help [soldiers who are returning from deployment] get back on their feet.” Wounded veterans suffer not only from their physical ailments but also from a tremendous amount of mental distress. Upon their return, they are welcomed back to the country for which they have fought with higher unemployment rates than civilians and inadequate mental health care. McCann says, “Holidays for Heroes raises funds to help ease that burden.” Another goal tied into the “American Dream” aspect of the organization’s goals is to help fund the college educations of wounded veterans’ children. According to www.holidaysforheros.com, the disability checks that many wounded veterans receive do not begin to cover the entirety of medical costs, not to mention the stark drop in quality of life. These women and men face a seemingly unending slough of difficulties. The organization asks, “What happens when these demands simply outstrip their resources? The next generation suffers.” Considering the rapidly rising cost of tuition, providing a boost for higher education for wounded veterans’ children certainly makes sense.
Holidays for Heroes launched their inaugural year this Memorial Day Weekend, when several young veterans sailed a 54-foot schooner in the annual Figawi sailboat race from Hyannis to Nantucket. And just in time for July 4, the holiday officially began. Twenty-six veterans and family members enjoyed a week soaking in all the best parts of Nantucket. Some participated in the annual Firecracker 5k race (which has been renamed as the Holidays for Heroes Firecracker 5k race); others enjoyed the Main Street festivities with their children. The next evening, the heroes were treated to a cocktail party at the Dreamland, where several veterans shared their stories with those who had gathered that evening to meet and honor them. In memoriam of the lifesavers and heroes who were lost on September 11, 2001, the VFW sponsored a 9/11 Heroes Parade that took veterans from Nantucket Memorial Airport to Main Street.
The organization has done so much in just one year, and they aim to have an even greater impact in the future. Ultimately, Holidays for Heroes aims to gain national attention and encourage other communities to launch similar organizations. McCann says, “I want people to know that this idea was born, bred and is owned by Nantucket. It didn’t start somewhere off-island; it started right here.” He continues, “Of course, Holidays for Heroes is currently a small organization, but if we can even have an impact on even a few people every year, it’s worth it to us.”
This Friday, September 13, you can thank the veterans yourself when Holidays for Heroes hosts the first Heroes Gala at the newly built VFW at 22 New South Road. From 6 to 11 p.m., participants will savor a delicious dinner made by Seagrille’s chef/owner E.J. Harvey, a live auction with auctioneer Tommy Bressette, and hear a concert by country star Lee Greenwood, writer and performer of the original version of “God Bless the USA.” “He’s kind of the Paul McCartney of country,” says McCann with a chuckle. Tickets are $100 at www.holidaysforheroes.com; all proceeds benefit the 501(c)(3) nonprofit. There are few better ways to spend a Friday night than by gathering with fellow Americans to honor our country’s war veterans who have fought for our freedom.