Hope for the Warriors hosted a group of service members at Watkins Glen International last weekend as part of its Drive for Hope program.

Ryan Papaserge/The Evening Tribune

Posted Aug. 18, 2015 at 6:59 PM
Updated Aug 18, 2015 at 7:15 PM

WATKINS GLEN — An organization that supports our nation’s veterans is using the sport of NASCAR to help those who recently returned home discover themselves again.

The Drive for Hope program invites service members, veterans and families to race tracks across the country, including several stops on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series calendar. The program helps guests see how skills used on the battlefield translate to civilian life, especially NASCAR.

Travis Hanson, Hope for the Warriors senior director of sports and recreation, raced in NASCAR’s short-track levels while he was on active duty in the military.

“We started bringing service members and their families that had different injuries to the races with us,” Hanson said, “just to kind of give them an opportunity to get involved and Hope for the Warriors would bring different members of their staff out there, whether it be clinical health and wellness or different VA representatives or DAV representatives to give that service member an idea of all the benefits available to them in that area.”

The Drive for Hope concept gained support when Ryan Newman and Oral-B started a partnership in 2013 that benefitted Hope for the Warriors.

“We were able to meet Ryan, his staff and all that, formulated a friendship through Ryan’s assistants were able to procure hard cards for a couple of the staff members and really just started in and around races bringing service members to different venues,” Hanson said.

According to Hanson, Drive for Hope will host 15 to 20 service members and their families at 20-25 race weekends this season. “The premise behind it isn’t necessarily for the sporting event as it is a tool to help us for family reintegration, kind of having like a weekend getaway for an entire family,” Hanson said.

Drive for Hope guests normally reside in the vicinity of the track in hopes of showing them benefits that are specific to where they live.

“I shake the bushes of the Moose Lodge, the DAV (Disabled American Veterans), the VA, the VFW, the Marine Corps League, everyone,” Hanson said. “(Hope for the Warriors gets) in touch with the track as far as the facilities and let the track facilities folks know these are the service members we’re going to have … there are different things the track needs to be aware of. A lot of folks aren’t familiar with being around service animals and what they’re for if it’s not a seeing eye dog.”

And by not putting their guests on a stage during pre-race ceremonies or drawing attention to them, Hope for the Warriors hopes that the service members or veterans will be able to find shades of miliary life in the civilian world.

Not everybody, if they were in the infantry or the combat arms MOS thinks there’s a job or a skill set for them outside of the military,” Hanson said, “To be able to show them the varying levels of management, the varying levels of supervision, things like that in a different market.”

Hanson noted that NASCAR is similar to military life in that it’s nomadic. The Sprint Cup Series hops from coast to coast, sometimes within a week, meaning drivers and crew members spend plenty of time away from home.

“[Service members] are so used to being in one place for a short amount of time, setting up an entire village, breaking it down, packing it up and leaving the next day,” Hanson said. “That happens 38 times a year here so it seemed like a pretty good fit.”

Hope for the Warriors is a national organization that provides support programs for service members, veterans and their families that focuses on transition, health and wellness, peer engagement and connection to community resources. Compared to other national non-profits, Hope for the Warriors operates on a relatively small budget of $7.5 million and has 47 employees. Ninety-one cents of every dollar donated goes back to program services — no advertising is done in-house. As a result, NASCAR’s support is huge.

“You can’t put a price tag on that,” Hanson said. “The recognition kind of comes along and you notice following different things, the more you’re present the more you’re relevant and the more opportunities come back. The people that are here and want to help genuinely want to help the service member and most of the time they don’t want any notoriety out of it.” The biggest success story to come out of the program thus far came during the March race weekend at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, where Hanson and his organization intervened in a service member’s suicide attempt on pit road.

“He was reaching out, it was his last resort,” Hanson said. “It was the time that he was able to be around service members that had similar experiences so we were able to immediately put him in through our intakes program, immediately get him in touch with the clinical providers that are needed. He’s still here today. I call that a huge success story. I would love to get everybody a job but I’d much rather everybody stays up walking.”

On the job front, C&R Racing Incorporated — a company that makes equipment for cooling systems, chassis and drivetrains for various race cars — started a job referral program though Hope for the Heroes, looking for skilled welders and fabricators.

Brad McNamara served an Airborne Infantry paratrooper and a Sergeant Non-Commissioner Officer. He was one of 15 guests at the Glen last weekend.

“Being deployed we saw a lot, we saw everything that combat has to offer,” McNamara said. “In transitioning out, you just want to take the right steps and move forward. I used the GI Bill to finish up a college degree. Obviously, having a military background and a college degree, we had to make sure my resume was on top and reaching out to Hope for the Warriors for something as simple as resume-building workshops has opened up bigger horizons.”

McNamara works with Hope for the Warriors to assist veterans as needed, speaking to them if they have any issues. But the road’s been difficult for McNamara as well — he’s had to find three different jobs in five years.

“I thought I’d stay in the military for life but being injured, you’re forced to take that career path,” McNamara said. “Use the GI Bill to become a teacher, they’re downsizing teaching. Not having tenure, I was let go. Now I’m forced to find another job and having a skillset where it’s true combat arms isn’t always lucrative in some of the markets.

“I decided to jump in a program with New York City to help support the city financially and it’s worked out so far. I’ve been on board with the city program for just about 15 months. It’s not what I expected but I’m blessed to have a position where I’m gainfully employed.” McNamara has been affected personally by the mental cost of war. As he told The Spectator, he never knew anyone with post-traumatic stress disorder until it was too late. “The young man that was in the bunk below me during basic training,” McNamara said, “even though we wound up in different units, I wound up seeing him in Afghanistan. Come to find out, his last semester of college after doing his full enlistment contract he took his life. We didn’t know his demons, what his problems were but for him to make it all the way though his eight years and to do three and a half years of college and take his life the last semester of college was traumatic.”

“Specifically how we were able to intervene in Martinsville was peer engagement,” Hanson added. “I could have every Freud of the world there but unless they’ve had that similar experience or that shared experience, they will never create a sense of vulnerability amongst the veteran community as people who have had similar experiences. It’s a different vocabulary, it’s a different mindset, it’s a different approach to it.

“Being able to have that peer-to-peer mentorship or peer-to-peer engagement is huge and something that we pride ourselves on. We’re not just taking (McNamara) and saying ‘hey, I need you to go speak to these people.’ I need to him to be complete so he can help that next generation of veterans.”