If you thought Roy and Georgette Frank found their volunteer spirit only after their son Lance Cpl. Phillip E. Frank was killed in action on April 8, 2004, you would be wrong.
"We've volunteered our whole married life," says Roy Frank from their Elk Grove Village home, which is the headquarters for the Heart of a Marine Foundation.
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Still, after Phil Frank was killed in Iraq, "we literally had no idea what we were going to do," Frank said. "We wanted to improve the lives of military personnel, but we had no experience. We thought, hopefully, situations would arise that would help us focus."
Those situations came -- and kept coming.
"It's very unusual," Frank says. "Every time we run out of things to do, (new ideas) miraculously appear."
He's become convinced that God has blessed the foundation and helped it be more productive.
"It's truly a joyous experience," he says.
Helping vets walk tall
The Heart of a Marine Foundation's first project? Canes. Orthopedic canes.
One day, the Franks, who are from New Jersey, heard a story from the Marine Corps League of New Jersey. League personnel were visiting the wounded at Bethesda and Walter Reed when one vet, a guy with a serious leg injury, winced as he pushed himself up from a chair.
The vet showed them the palm of his hand, which was blistered and bleeding.
"All the guys have this," he shrugged. It was caused by hook canes the wounded were given to help them walk, which put undue pressure on their palms.
A League rep ran to his car and came back with an orthopedic cane his doctor had prescribed. The cane had an ergonomically structured handle for a right-handed person with an adjustable staff.
"Use this for a month," the rep offered, "and we'll talk."
When they returned four weeks later, the vet triumphantly held up his hand. His palm had healed.
"I only have one question," the vet said. "Do I have to give it back?"
Roy and Georgette Frank thought, this sounds like a great project for us. Frank, who used to be in purchasing, found the manufacturer and worked a deal to buy the orthopedic canes in volume. The foundation sends them to Walter Reed, Bethesda, the Brooke Army Medical Center, the Balboa Naval Medical Center and Hines VA Hospital in Maywood.
Today, the foundation just passed the 6,000 cane mark.
5 words to 44
A 23-year-old Army Ranger, suffering from traumatic brain injury, came to the Minneapolis VA Hospital. The Ranger had survived a horrific bomb blast, but his resultant aphasia left him with a mere five-word vocabulary.
His parents, says Frank, were hysterical.
The VA medical personnel agreed the Ranger should start with the aphasia exercises on their computers. After the first tutorial, the Ranger's vocabulary had increased to 44 words.
A VA rep called the Heart Of A Marine Foundation, which supplied the computer software he used.
"And you don't think you sent us a miracle?" she told the Franks.
Traumatic Brain Injury is an epidemic among wounded troops, and the foundation's Aphasia Program "is very close to my heart," Frank said. Once each vet with TBI has a speech pathology analysis on his or her condition, the computer program actually teaches them to relearn to speak.
But for many years the computer programs were hard to come by. Vets would have to travel, often great distances, to use the program, and not all of them had ready access to transportation.
Today, the foundation supplies computers and the aphasia software to Level 1 and 2 polytrauma centers all over the country, including Hines and North Chicago.
'He got the job'
Heart Of A Marine buys gas cards and CTA passes for vets who can't afford the gas to get to job interviews or don't have cars to drive. It works with Salute Inc. to help military personnel and their families fill specific needs. They package up goods for active duty personnel and provide individual assistance to families that need it.
Someday, Frank says, he and Georgette would like to step back, secure in the knowledge that Heart Of A Marine will roll along just fine without them.
"We do this seven days a week, and it's exhausting," Frank admits. It's Georgette, he says, who is the phenomenal organizer, the one with the magic touch.
"She instills in others the drive, the sense of mission," he says.
In New Jersey, she organized a food-buying club through a local supermarket. Members, many of them single moms, bought $40 worth of food each month for $12 and, in exchange, volunteered for two hours each month -- many of them baby-sitting for each other's children while that mom was on a job interview or errand.
At its peak, the program had 250 orders a month, with volunteers organized to pick up the food, truck it to a local church where other volunteers unloaded it. Boy Scouts carried the orders to the cars, while another crew of volunteers cleaned up the church space.
"It was such a joy," said Frank, who usually got drafted to pick up the food in the wee hours of the morning. "It filled you with this incredible feeling that, for a couple of hours a month, you can change lives."
Now, he said, they are dealing with people who have sacrificed so much, but who now are wounded -- mentally and physically.
Other Gold Star parents have come, and some gone, from Roy and Georgette's lives.
"Everybody is different," he says. "People who have gone through what we have gone through, sometimes these (projects) become too much of a bitter reminder, they rekindle the melancholy, and they have to step back."
The Franks accept what others do -- and can't do. But, for them, the rewards just keep on coming.
"One of my all time great days came three days ago," Roy Frank says. He had given gas cards to a veteran outreach coordinator with the Illinois Department of Employment Securities to hand out as the IDES saw fit, mostly to help veterans get to job interviews.
"He just called me up," Frank said. "The guy got the job."