Army Special Forces teams are tight. When one person goes down, the entire team reels.
When Green Beret Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Lowery was shot in the head fighting in Afghanistan on July 7, even the battalion surgeon was unsure of Lowery’s prognosis when the team loaded him onto a C-17 at 3 a.m. The last thing the group did was present his Purple Heart to him in a hasty, bedside ceremony Lowery would never remember.
Then the Green Berets went back at work, doing their mission, completely unaware of the GoFund Me page Lowery’s mother had posted.
“Joseph used his eyes to communicate to me and others this week. One blink means yes!” Darlene Lowery, wrote on the page last summer.
Six months after Lowery was shot in the head outside a village West of Kandahar, Afghanistan, he had progressed to near-full cognitive recovery. When his fellow Green Berets got word that he was conscious and communicating, they asked for leave to go visit.
Unfortunately, battalion surgeon Maj. Kenneth Johnson could only get tickets for himself, the medic who rendered care to Lowery and the two junior engineers on the team who worked closest to him. The whole team wanted to go, but the Army had its limits.
Frustrated, the battalion surgeon called Priya Butler, USO Director of Operations in Southwest Asia, for help getting his nine team members from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, to Palo Alto, California, where they could present their friend with the Purple Heart in a ceremony he’d remember.
Butler reached out to USO Bay Area Director Jeff Herndon who contacted Piper Hardin, a USO major gifts director. Hardin called David Haddad, USO Arizona advisor and founder of the Friends of Freedom nonprofit. Haddad not only flew the entire team to San Francisco, but also used his connections to put all 10 men up at the Four Seasons.
“Within an hour my board approved everything and within 24 hours we were making arrangements to get the entire team there,” Haddad said.
Less than one day and 27 emails later, the mission was set. The team was booked to San Francisco where Haddad and Mike Conklin of Sentinels of Freedom hosted 150 people at a Purple Heart ceremony and barbecue.
Most of the Green Berets on the team had only talked to Lowery over Skype after the injury, and they were excited to see he’d regained many of his motor functions.
“He gets frustrated that he’s not recovering fast enough, and we have to explain that most people don’t recover from a gunshot wound to the head at all,” said Capt. Sean Barrett, Lowery’s team leader. “But that’s still not good enough for him. He’s a tough dude. The best part for us is that he didn’t lose any memory except for the memory of that day. His personality is exactly the same. As soon as we showed up he was cracking jokes about guys on the team without skipping a beat. It was awesome.”
Haddad, who claims to be nothing more than “your average American,” says the story of the connections from Conklin to Butler, Herndon and Hardin demonstrates how powerful a network the USO can be for helping troops.
“I felt more satisfaction in that encapsulated moment than just about any other moment in my career,” Haddad said, “because in this little moment everything worked, and that’s all in the mission of the USO. That’s why it works. It’s a great network of average Americans.”