It’s easy to ignore Veterans Day.
Sure, banks and the post office are closed. But many offices — and the stock market — are open. School is on.
Westport is not exactly a military town. The veterans who live here served mostly in long-ago wars. We’re almost entirely untouched by the endless battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. That conflict — and the men and women who fight there — is out of sight, out of mind.
But it sure isn’t for those who were wounded there.
The Catch a Lift Fund is a lifeline for those “other people.” Created by a woman whose brother volunteered after 9/11 and was killed in Afghanistan, it provides gym memberships and home gym equipment to help wounded post-9/11 service members heal physically and mentally, through physical fitness.
Thanks to one Westporter, however — and his dedicated crew of friends and supporters — Catch a Lift has become a prized, and very special, “local” organization.
In just 5 years, Catch a Lift’s Veterans Day event has become one of the year’s most important fundraisers.
I went to my first one 2 years ago. It was among the most moving nights of my life.
Adam Vengrow is the inspiration behind this inspiring evening. The next one is Friday, November 8 (7 p.m.), at Birchwood Country Club.
There’s great food and beverages. There’s a DJ, and a video.
But all that pales in comparison to the guests of honor. More than a dozen veterans will be there, mixing and mingling. One will speak. The room will fall silent. It’s a life-changing experience.
The men and women include double and triple amputees. Some are in wheelchairs; others use canes. But this is no pity party. The spirit, energy, life and joy in the group is astonishing.
These veterans are not your typical Westporters. They enlisted just after — or during — high school. They’ve seen things you and I can’t imagine (and, because the war is so distant, never read about).
They have suffered unfathomably — for their country, and us. Thanks to Catch a Lift, they’ve rebuilt their lives. Next month, they’ll honor us with their presence.
Sgt. Nikki Elder (ret.) was at Birchwood last year. She did not speak. This year she will.
The upstate New York native joined the Navy, and worked as a cryptologic technician with the National Security Agency.
She got out — and then, after 9/11, Elder joined the Army National Guard. In 2004 and ’05, she was deployed to Afghanistan.
She medically retired in 2013. Elder went to grad school, earning a master’s in nutrition. That’s her job now. So is being a single mother to 2 sons.
For years, she battled PTSD. She thought she could conquer it on her own. One day, at a retreat, a fellow veteran told Elder “you have to get your life together.” She mentioned Catch a Lift.
The organization connected Elder with a squad leader, who held her accountable. It took a while — “I fought it,” she admits — but CAL stayed with her.
“I got a lot more out of it than a gym membership,” Elder says. “They believed in me, when I didn’t even believe in myself.”
Last year she went to Birchwood Country Club, for the 4th annual Catch a Lift fundraiser.
That was the turning point.
“I hadn’t realized the support that was out there, until I saw it in Westport,” Elder recalls. “I had been fighting it. I was guilty, ashamed, depressed, angry. Catch a Lift, and the people in Westport, made me realize I wasn’t broken.”
The weekend “blew me away,” Elder says. “I didn’t know what to expect. But people came up and started talking. I had not been comfortable being complimented, or called a hero. But they genuinely appreciated what I did. It was amazing. I started being okay with thank-yous.”
Vengrow, his fellow organizer Andy Berman, and others were “so enthusiastic. They believed in us. They said ‘you can do this.’ There was no doubt in their minds. They sparked something in me that hasn’t stopped. They gave me confidence I hadn’t felt since I was in the service.”
Today, she has lost 140 pounds from her maximum of 264. She is off all her PTDS medications. “I’m myself again,” she marvels.
She looks forward to returning to this year’s gala. “I want to support Westport, because Westport supported me,” Elder says.
For the past year, she has kept in touch with some of the people — veterans and civilians — she met here. They still encourage each other.
“It’s contagious. It’s infectious. I love it!” she says.
Westport loves Sgt. Nikki Elder, and all her Catch a Lift colleagues, too.
(In addition to Sgt. Nikki Elder, the November 8 event features 2-star General Charles W. Whittington and Catch a Lift founder Lynn Coffland, plus food, drinks and music. Click here for tickets. The next day, the veterans pay it forward by helping MyTeamTriumph, a program for people with disabilities who otherwise could not participate in endurance events like triathlons and road races.)