|Riley throws holiday party for returning soldiers|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 26 December 2008 11:39|
He was a specialist in the U.S. Army when he returned home from Operation Iraqi Freedom four years ago. He bounced from job to job after leaving the military, eventually being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. With a wife and two children, very little money coming in and an arduous transition to civilian living, life has not been easy.
``With bills and keeping the family together, it's been very difficult,'' he said. ``I'm doing a little better now, but the last two or three years, it's been really rough.''
Pat Riley cringes when he hears stories like those.
On Friday, the Miami Heat president and Basketball Hall of Famer surprised the Evans clan and five other families of those who have recently returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan with a holiday party. They toured the Heat's Championship Alley, had lunch and a meet-and-greet with players, then received presents and gasoline, restaurant and store gift cards.
id Kenya Evans, Chance's wife. ``When I got the phone call, it was the biggest blessing that we have ever, ever received. It makes you feel so good, and when other soldiers who are over there hear about it, it lets them know there's somebody that really cares about honoring us when we come back.''
A team marketing official said Riley personally spent more than $10,000 on the event, part of the Heat's HomeStrong initiative that he started nearly three years ago. Returning veterans are honored after the playing of ``The Star-Spangled Banner'' at each Miami home game.
``Believe me, it's very minor in comparison to what they deserve,'' Riley said. ``These are very proud people. These are families that are a little bit dire right now, for a lot of different reasons.''
Later, as the families opened presents - basketballs and action figures seemed to draw the highest praise from the kids - Riley pointed to another Army soldier, a mother named Spc. Elizabeth Toledo whose young son has endured more than a dozen operations.
``We've honestly lost count,'' said Toledo, whose son Devin was born with intestinal organs outside his body. ``But this, it's pretty much a very nice ended to a very rough year.''
Toledo and her son couldn't contain their smiles, though, as they sat on a leather couch and tore through wrapping paper.
``That's what this thing is about,'' Riley said.
ed by the Miami VA Healthcare System and the United States Southern Command. So far, more than 200 soldiers have been recognized by the Heat since returning home from serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, and in some cases, both nations.
``It means a lot,'' said Army Sgt. Markelle Tucker, who brought wife LaTeaca and their four children, ranging from age 3 to 8. ``A lot of people don't think that people care about the soldiers, that people aren't thinking about real-world issues or whatever. But something like this reminds you that people do care and are willing to give back and everything.''
Riley's master plan is to do more.
Noting that VA hospitals around the country don't have enough beds for all the returning vets who need help, Riley wants to build a center for families to stay with their returning soldiers while they get back to normal life. The first one, Riley said, would cost $6 million.
``But that's our goal, to build a facility for families to be together during this re-entry process, especially if people have to go through getting healed mentally and physically and also getting trained,'' Riley said.
Evans is one of the lucky ones.
Yes, he's dealing with problems, and needed a long time to start getting back on his feet. Slowly, though, his family is getting there, and aid from Riley and the Heat would move them even closer, Evans said.
``We send a lot of people to different places around the world, and they're up there, walking the wall, while we're home having a wonderful holiday,'' Riley said. ``There's somebody protecting us and I don't take that lightly. Not anymore, not with what's going on in this world. I think we all need to reach out.''