It was September 11th, 2001 and right then, Michael Verardo knew what he wanted to do with his life. “[W]e were there during the events of September 11th, and Mike knew right then and there he wanted to enlist,” said his wife Sarah during our interview.
He always wanted to be part of the best of the best”, said Sarah, “so he went to jump school at Fort Benning and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division,” the storied All-Americans. “He loved every single minute of it, he just thought it was a dream come true,” Sarah said. Soon after being assigned to the 82nd, Mike was deployed to southern Afghanistan, a bad place to be in 2009.
“It was a difficult deployment for many reasons. One, they had such a high casualty rate fairly immediately and two, they were fighting against an enemy that was virtually invisible.” Mike’s unit, 2-508th PIR, 4 BCT of the 82nd, lost nearly 40 soldiers during their yearlong deployment from August 2009 to August 2010. Every day Sarah hoped that call would never come to her phone. That hope was shattered on April 14th.
Mike was wounded in an IED attack while on patrol and evaced to Kandahar. The doctors gave him the choice, either recover in the U.S. or return to his unit. The choice seemed simple to his family, come home. However, Mike’s loyalty remained strong with his unit.
“During his recovery, one of his friends had been killed and once Joey died, they processed his coffin where Mike was recovering in Kandahar. Mike knew then that he wanted to take the fight back over with his unit.” It was a fateful decision as two weeks later, on his first mission back, Mike was hit again and this time he was grievously wounded.
“The IED went off and blew off his left arm and left leg and was burned over 35% of his body”, Sarah said. “He beat the odds at every step. He wasn’t expected to survive his medical flight, he was considered very seriously injured, most likely dead on arrival.” The odds were stacked against him.
Over the next several years and 100+ surgeries Mike overcame those odds, beating them at every step with his wife Sarah by his side. Mike ultimately did most of his recovery in Texas at BAMC (Brooke Army Medical Center). “The army was great, it was wonderful, you had a built in network”, said Sarah. But, once Mike was medically retired from the Army, the next battle for was just beginning.
“There was no transition succession, the VA really failed us, and I found the same to be true with other families that were getting out as well.” So, Sarah worked to find a solution and it was during Mike’s recovery that Sarah discovered the Independence Fund.
“We connected with the founder and it just went from there,” said Sarah.
A nationally recognized non-profit, the Independence Fund provides resources and tools which help wounded veterans and their caregivers work through not just the physical wounds but the mental and emotional wounds as well. Through their work, the Fund helps the veteran achieve the freedom of independence that their catastrophic battle wounds took away. In addition, they provide support for “the heroes behind the heroes” caring for these courageous men and women through caregiver retreats, peer-to-peer support groups and “pampering services.”
Through their involvement with the Independence Fund, Mike and Sarah saw a real path to making a difference in the lives of those who have served this country and their families. Susan considers herself one of the lucky ones as many of her friends have a folded American flag in place of their husbands who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
“It’s really our job to make sure that as we are sending our warfighters to protect our freedom that they are coming home and we are taking care of them. I think that every American can get behind that and that’s my hope.”
George Washington once said, a “nation will be judged by how well it treats its veterans.” Our track record through history is marred by ineffectual treatment, indifference and, at times, outright neglect. However, through the continued work by those such as Mike and Sarah, perhaps the change this nation desperately needs will finally come to pass for the next generation of wounded warfighters.
For more information on the Independence Fund go to www.independencefund.org.
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