Marine Lt. Col. Bill Conner was stationed in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2008 when he got an email telling him he had won a spot in the prestigious Hawaii Ironman triathlon, a berth he had sought for 13 years.
Even with limited training opportunities, he accepted the space — and also took it a step further, raising money for scholarships in the names of three fallen Naval Academy classmates.
If Conner thought his field training regimen was difficult — an hour on a stationary bike, running under real rocket fire and using an elaborate swim-training contraption made from exercise bands and an office desk — he crossed into new territory raising money for a cause.
“There really is not any easy part of raising money for charity,” says Conner, now 39 and assigned to Marine Corps Forces Pacific in Hawaii. “Fundraising is hard work, and it takes a lot of time, perseverance and dedication.”
Five years later, he’s working toward his seventh charity effort, closing in on nearly $100,000 raised for the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, which provides financial support to injured and critically ill service members and families.
At least 70 military and veterans nonprofits are listed on the charity ratings site Charity Navigator, and hundreds more solicit donations nationwide to help this segment of the population. With charitable giving down as a result of the sluggish economy, troops like Conner have stepped in to fill a need, parlaying feats of fitness into awareness and big bucks for charitable causes.
Along the way, these service members have learned to avoid legal pitfalls and the stress of asking friends, family and strangers for cash.
“Once I teamed up with an organization and got the Web page going, it was easy to get the word out. But at first, it was just me and donations trickling in,” said Marine Sgt. Enrique Trevino, who raised $52,717 for the Wounded Warrior Project by doing a million pushups last year.
Army Capt. Matt Doellman runs ultramarathons to stay fit. A couple of years ago, he signed up for a race to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; this year, the emergency room nurse at San Antonio Military Medical Center has raised $3,000 for Fisher House.
“The first year was pretty easy. You just say ‘St. Jude’s,’ and boom, people want to give money,” Doellman said. The donations went through the hospital’s fundraising program as they do with Fisher House, he explained.
Doing something creative also helps bring in donations. Trevino caught imaginations with his million pushups — 2,700 a day — and Marine Sgt. Tyler Chittick raised $10,000 to help an injured colleague by creating the Pendleton to The Palms charity relay.
The 160-mile run from Camp Pendleton, Calif., to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, Calif., a route that changes in elevation from sea level to 3,300 feet, was done by Marines carrying an American flag on July 4 in 110-degree heat.
“People like backing something cool or crazy,” Chittick said. “You tell them you’re going to carry a tree up a mountain, and it’s going to have the names of fallen warriors on it, they go crazy. They love that stuff.”
Service members should be methodical and careful when conducting fundraisers. The Defense Department has strict guidelines, from restrictions on uniforms to soliciting in the workplace.
Chittick got his command’s OK and sought the public affairs office’s help to get the word out, although, he said, “they ignored me at first.”
“I was just this sergeant, and they didn’t really take me seriously. But once I got some local coverage, they became interested.”
When donations lag or the bureaucracy threatens to quash enthusiasm, take a cue from Nike and “Just do it,” according to Conner.
“My dream is if every Marine, soldier, sailor and airman just did one fundraiser for a veterans charity, then those charities would not have to worry about money,” he said.