Naperville business executive Jim Hughes has driven motorcycles for most of his life and ridden for many charitable causes. But the first Wounded Heroes Ride he took in 2007 left a lasting impression.
At Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, he met a veteran who had been wounded by a roadside bomb, had a plate in his head, and needed a GPS to find his way home 2 miles away from the base.
"You go the first time, you just want to go back out there and celebrate the guys and the sacrifices they made," he said. "It feels like the least you can do for what they've done for their country."
The son of a U.S. Army veteran, Hughes works with the Chicago-based Wounded Heroes Foundation to raise money to ease disabled veterans' transition back to civilian life, helps out at a military sports camp held for them, and goes on the annual Wounded Heroes Ride whenever he can.
The married father of two has been on three rides so far, including one in May to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and the VA Hospital in Tomah, Wisconsin.
Hughes said he was one of 35 men and women motorcyclists who left home for several days to visit the injured veterans, bring them care packages that include toiletries and a leather jacket, and invite them to a cookout.
"I think it's more rewarding for us than it is for them," he said.
The motorcyclists are asked, but not required, to get sponsors to donate to the foundation. Since the Wounded Heroes Foundation was started in 2005, it has organized nine Wounded Heroes rides and distributed about $2.4 million to help disabled veterans transition back to civilian life, said Anthony Nasharr, one of the founders and five board members of the volunteer-run organization.
"We're a small organization," Nasharr said. "We do what we can."
Nasharr said Wounded Veterans started by delivering care packages to military hospitals. It also provided short-term grants to veterans who faced a gap in time from when they returned to home to when they received disability payments from the government.
The foundation still gives financial grants, but has turned its attention to other needs as the waiting period for veterans to receive government payments has shortened.
"The needs have changed over time," Nasharr said.
Wounded Heroes works with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago to sponsor a paralympic military sports camp to introduce disabled veterans to a variety of adaptive sports. This year, 50 veterans will come to Chicago for a sports camp Thursday to Sunday, July 24 to 27. Hughes plans to be among 60 or so volunteers.
Wounded Heroes partners with other organizations as well to provide services and recreational opportunities to disabled veterans. It donates to Easter Seals' Community OneSource military services program that provides information, resources and support to veterans and their families.
Wounded Heroes also works with soon-to-be-discharged soldiers in warrior transition units to help prepare them for finding a job and returning to civilian life. In addition, the foundation has members who take small groups of disabled veterans on recreational outings and host dinners in their honor.
The Wounded Heroes Ride is one of most popular events among supporters. Most of the men and women riders are from the Chicago area, but some travel from places such as Tennessee, Minnesota and Wisconsin to participate, Hughes said.
On a Memorial Sept. 11 ride from Chicago to New York City, many of his fellow riders were Chicago firefighters and police officers.
"You get to meet a bunch of different guys and from all walks of life," Hughes said. "It's so much fun."
Hughes, a former banker who recently started his own building maintenance management company in Willowbrook, said his years in the Chicago banking industry have given him plenty of contacts to ask for donations. He's ridden motorcycles since his dad bought him a Yamaha dirt bike at the age of 8, and he and his dad sometimes participate together on shorter Patriot Rides to welcome veterans home.
"To go on a ride and raise money seems like a simple thing to do," he said.