Laptop computers, angel pins with messages bring hope to wounded military
By Carol Bass Sowa
Today’s Catholic Laura Brown of Cody, Wyo., organizer of Laptops for the Wounded, came with four laptop computers with webcams to enable hospitalized military to stay in touch with their families and the world.
SAN ANTONIO • Two “angels” — one from the East Coast, one from the West — flew into San Antonio together in June to boost the morale of hospitalized members of the military (and their families) at Brooke Army Medical Center, Wilford Hall Medical Center and the Audie Murphy Veterans Administration Hospital.
Patricia Gallagher of Royersford, Pa., creator of the Team of Angels project, brought with her a thousand angel pins attached to messages of hope and gratitude. Laura Brown of Cody, Wyo., organizer of Laptops for the Wounded, came with four laptop computers with webcams to enable hospitalized military to stay in touch with their families and the world.
Gallagher’s Team of Angels project, whose outreach extends beyond the military, grew out of a time of deep emotional pain. Facing daunting financial difficulties, with her husband suffering from severe depression, her marriage on the verge of collapse, her father dying from throat cancer and four children to look after (two in the rebellious years), she felt totally overwhelmed.
Describing herself as “a run-of-the-mill” Catholic until then, she found herself making daily visits to a nearby church. A writer (she had previously authored books on child-rearing and starting a home childcare business), Gallagher cried and prayed as she pulled out her pen and began scribbling a poem. It began: “I need a team of angels, Lord — I don’t think one will do. …” Once home, she crafted three tiny angels out of gold safety pins and attached them to her poem.
During the year that followed Gallagher estimates she wrote about 300 different poems that called on angels, while sitting in the church. “I later realized that those poems were my way of praying,” she said. There was “A Team of Angels for Depression,” “A Team of Angels to Protect My Children” and more.
She and her children began making hundreds of the poetry cards with their attached angel pins. “I decided to put them on my front porch,” said Gallagher, “and I let a local newspaper know that if anybody was overwhelmed, they could come and take a pin.” On the back of the cards was a message asking the taker to pass on the pin when they found someone who needed it more and to write her about it.
Accompanied by her children, Gallagher began leaving the cards with angel pins at various locations where they might be found by someone who needed them. She also began filling requests for them, including one from a prisoner on death row. Soon she began to hear of their popping up in other locales, as people followed the instructions on the back of the card and passed them on to others.
“My neighbors lost their child in a fire. Someone gave them your pin,” said one letter writer. “My friend is the victim of domestic abuse. I gave her the pin and it has helped her endure as she plans to leave,” said another.
Along the way, Gallagher learned more about depression through support groups, retreats and books — that it is an illness affecting not only the one afflicted with it, but those close to them as well. And in the process she strengthened her faith. She and her husband separated for five years, then were reunited when one of their children went through a bout of depression.
At this point, she estimates she has given out over 100,000 angel pins in what is basically a one-woman project she has been financing herself.
Her decision to invest a year ago in what will be her last pins came after an earnest prayer on what was to become of the project. “I said, ‘God, you have to give me a sign. It has to be seamless,’” she relates. She was stunned then, to turn on a computer at the library and see the word “seamless” appear at the top of the screen.
Of modest means and a single parent for a while, she then “stepped out in faith,” using money from the sale of her house and van to purchase the last 50,000 pins to give away. (She now special orders the pins — three golden angels linking arms — through a company, affixing them to printed bookmarks of her poems.)
The pins distributed at military hospitals here in June were among her last, as she can no longer afford to support the project alone. She is hoping churches and other organizations or corporations might step forward to finance and distribute the pins. She has the paperwork ready to file for nonprofit status, if she can bring others aboard the Team of Angels project to help. A Rotary Club in her area sponsored her trip here.
“I don’t want it to stop,” she says. “These angels had a purpose — they comforted me at a time that was very dark for me.” She would like to see their message of hope continue to be passed on to others.
Laura Brown met Gallagher via the Internet earlier this year. Both had plans to visit military hospitals in San Antonio, so teamed up to make their trips a joint effort. Having had a son who served in Iraq and a personal disability that hinders her own mobility sparked Brown to establish Laptops for the Wounded.
After her son was discharged from active duty, she says, “I started thinking about injuries, death and things like that, because when they’re in active duty, you can’t let yourself think about the risks.”
“We have, as American citizens, a duty to support and thank them,” she said of those who serve in the armed forces. “These young people, they’re just children when they leave home. And they go in the military and they graduate from basic training and you’re like, ‘Where’s my kid?’”
In 2005 she learned of a young soldier at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., who had been hospitalized there for a year and a half. He had told his mother the one thing he wanted most was a laptop, so he could stay in contact. “My goodness,” said Brown to herself, “if everybody on my address book on my computer sent me five dollars, we could buy this guy a laptop easy.”
The project blossomed from there, with boosts from publicity in the Stars and Stripes, a magazine and postings on various web sites. Along the way Brown picked up the help of Internet technicians and a web master, both located on the East Coast.
By the time she was able to acquire a laptop for the young soldier who inspired her project, one had already been donated to him, so she instead set her goal as acquiring four laptops to donate to military hospitals for use by the patients, seeing that as a reachable goal. She added webcams to them, knowing as the mother of a former soldier that your child can tell you all is well in a letter, “but if I look in his eyes, I can see if he’s doing fine.”
Eventually she donated eight laptops with webcams, offering free repair on them through her IT people and even fixing broken ones that others had given the hospitals. At this point, her funds ran out, but received a boost when her IT director in Connecticut staged a benefit golf tournament for the project. Others across the country staged personal fundraisers as well. To date, she has distributed 39 laptops with webcams to military hospitals for patient use.
Brown, like Gallagher, has reached the point where she needs help to continue running the project and is in the process of filing for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. She and her technicians are in the planning stages of a project that would help train hospitalized soldiers in diagnosing and repairing laptops, which skills they could then pass on to new patients. This would not only help continue the program, but give them a marketable skill when they re-start their lives.
Formerly extremely active (she used to hunt, climb mountains and ride a Harley), Brown noted that her own knee and back problems would have her laid up in bed for several days following her San Antonio trip. “I’ve lost all the things that I loved to do most of my life,” she says. “My laptop is like my window to the world. It keeps me in contact with family and friends.” At least she can still get out and about, she says, “But these guys’ world has been shrunken so far down — a room, a few hallways.”
Both Brown and Gallagher were clearly moved by their experience with the hospitalized military they visited. “I had to step away several times and ‘regroup,’” said Brown. “I would start crying.” They also met with a group of Blue Star Mothers (mothers whose children serve in the military) and with a Gold Star Mother (one whose child has been killed in military service).
They spoke of a young soldier suffering third degree burns, who had lost both arms and legs, his ears and his eyelids. His German-born wife had flown in to be with him, leaving their 19-month-old child with her parents. Another young veteran of Iraq was totally paralyzed below his neck and in an induced coma while recuperating from surgery, and his sister confided her fears of what would happen when he learned of his state.
They described visiting a soldier paralyzed from the chest down, save for being able to slightly move his left hand — and how he promised he would be feeding himself by their next visit.
And they spoke of the Vietnam veterans at the VA hospital, many still suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, who felt they had never been really thanked for all they had given.
“To everybody we saw,” said Gallagher, “we kept saying, ‘We just want to thank you — from our family, from everybody.’”