Hidden Heroes….

Hidden Heroes….

by senior contributor Brendan Kownacki

“If there is a best way in order to combat [that] trauma and that ongoing desperation, it is community,” said actor and advocate Tom Hanks about the challenges felt by military caregivers and family members as they help their loved ones with both big tasks and small tasks alike, facing the new reality of being service disabled. “It is being a part of something bigger than one’s self. And Hidden Heroes started doing it 10 years ago, and it is the key operative motor.”

Tom Hanks

Hanks is best known as an actor and director, creating feel-good masterpieces like Big, Toy Story, and That Thing You Do, but also for creating historical epics that chart the stories of our men and women at war, like Saving Private Ryan or the HBO series “Band of Brothers.” Maybe this fascination with the Greatest Generation is what led to his work with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and supporting military caregivers as the chair of the Hidden Heroes Campaign. Hanks has been candid in saying that it’s way more simple, when Elizabeth Dole asks for your help, you don’t say no.

Senator Elizabeth Dole

“You can never fail when you follow the example of Elizabeth Dole” said Steve Schwab, CEO of the foundation, summing up the resolve of the former Senator, Executive, and Cabinet Secretary who has left such an indelible mark on the United States. “Senator Dole is one of our nation’s great examples of compassion, determination, and servant leadership.”

Steve Schwab

Now in its 10th year, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation is the only national non-profit that focuses exclusively on military and veteran caregivers, dubbed the Hidden Heroes for the way that their spouses, parents, children and friends have helped to support our service members at their moment of greatest need, suffering from wounds visible and unseen.

Tom Hanks is not only the chair of the Hidden Heroes program, but also is the namesake for its yearly Caregiver Champion Award. This year the award was presented to longtime supporter Savannah Guthrie, co-anchor of TODAY, and thus, everyone’s role in the evening shifted around.

Savannah Guthrie

If Guthrie was going to receive the highest honor of the night at the Heroes and History Makers gala on October 19, then who would host the event? Look no further, then the Hollywood megastar who recently starred in a film about Elvis Presley. Hanks used the opportunity to engage the crowd at every corner of the room, casually mentioning his movies and even hopping off the stage to mimic the famous “Dole Stroll” that Sen. Elizabeth Dole made famous at the RNC when speaking the praises of her husband.

The evening had its bittersweet moments though – it has been 10 months since the death of Senator Bob Dole, whose presence in the front row smiling for his wife’s accomplishments was missed. But the story of Bob and Elizabeth Dole has created positive action for so many like them. The foundation was born out of a wife looking for care for her veteran husband, and now that legacy lives on in all of the families who have bonded over shared needs and experiences, and found resources through the foundation to help with their struggles.

Tom Hanks, Savannah Guthrie, Elizabeth Dole, Steve Schwab, Jocko Sims

Actor Jocko Sims took to the stage to help introduce some of those families and their stories, allowing them to share moments of triumph and tragedy when it came to supporting their loved one. “We cannot care for our caregivers without also supporting their children, they are the hidden helpers and they serve too,” said Hanks, introducing a young man named Kris Rottenberry. Rottenberry shared his own struggles with mental health as he helped to care for his injured veteran father. The teen described the challenges as “overwhelming” at times which lead to his attempts to take his own life to find a way out, but luckily through treatment he found his way ‘out’ was embracing the community around him through organizations like the Dole Foundation.

“Just having someone who understands and who they can connect with makes all the difference” said Savannah Guthrie, who shared that her own brother is an Air Force veteran, so she has known the highs and lows of connection to the military for years. Since then, she has made it part of her mission as an anchor and a journalist to highlight the important stories of people around the country so that others can better understand the issues that the foundation has worked to tackle.

“What I really see is love. Every person here tonight, every caregiver at home, every veteran, you are showing the world what love looks like, what love acts like, what love gives and what love sacrifices,” said Savannah at the culmination of the evening as she received her award. “It is love of country that calls our service members to duty. And it is love that propels mothers and fathers, spouses, siblings, and children to hold them and care for them when they return with wounds seen and unseen.”

Chris Young

The evening ended with rousing music from country star Chris Young who dazzled on the guitar with some uplifting anthems, but not before a quick word from Senator Dole herself. “I see the greatness of our nation,” she said about the response her foundation has gotten through a decade of work. “Our foundation intentionally chose to awaken the entire nation to the crisis facing caregivers. And I’m proud to say that the entire nation is responding. This type of unity seems hard to come by these days, doesn’t it?”

Hard to come by, indeed.

Hanks and Guthrie stopped backstage at the event to chat with reporters about the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and why this work can have bigger impacts across society and in our communities, serving as an example to others if we band together.

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