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Holiday means more than just fireworks for wounded warrior

Gary Boggs wasn’t sure what he’d be doing Independence Day.

Maybe go on a boat. Or hang out along Channelside.

“It’s a celebration, a patriotic day,” he said from Tampa. “I just hope people realize it’s not just about fireworks.”

Boggs, 35, is a wounded warrior and volunteer spokesman for the TAMCO Foundation’s Embracing Florida’s Wounded Heroes, a nonprofit program that provides assistance to injured veterans.

According to Brig. Gen. Chip Diehl (Ret.), there are more than 1,800 wounded Florida veterans and 30 percent are severely wounded. Some are being treated at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa for brain and spinal cord injuries.

“They have lived through pain and sacrifice and all them are special to me and should be to all of us,” said Diehl, the EFWH executive director. “A lot of these kids are heroes in their 20s and ... it’s important to remember them, embrace them, tell them how much we appreciate and love them for what they did.”

His message hits home with Don Schroder, a former Marine.

“After World War II everybody was a hero, because the whole country was involved. These other wars?” he said. “It’s time people understand what severely wounded service people go through.”

Like Sgt. Gary Boggs.

On Sept. 26, 2003, a roadside bomb exploded under his Humvee in Tikrit, Iraq, blinding his left eye, rupturing both ear drums and inflicting a traumatic brain injury as well as extensive wounds to his left arm.

The Marion, Ohio, native was leaving his base for some R&R in Qatar.

Instead, after 10 days in the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, Boggs spent 1 1/2 years in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

He lost his left eye, but not his sense of humor.

“My first day of vacation started off with a real bang,” he joked.

It’s his indomitable spirit that helped the former Marion Harding High School football player and wrestler weather tough times, and something he’s tried to instill in fellow wounded warriors.

Boggs, who’s on 100 percent disability, volunteers at Haley and mentors disabled veterans.

“A lot of them are standoffish, have a hard time with it, but I’m a persistent person,” he said. “I’m also a wounded soldier. I want them to be able to do what I did. I was there and now I’m here. I can be the light at the end of their tunnel, motivate them, let them know they can get beyond this.”

Learning to reach out

What’s difficult is convincing wounded soldiers it’s OK to ask for help.

“That’s the last thing a soldier wants to do,” Boggs said. “We’re taught to show no weakness, but at some point you have to ask. I tell them how bad I was financially.”

Medically retired in February 2005 after almost a decade in uniform, he came to Florida with his girlfriend and a job. “I thought I was fine, thought I’d have a smooth transition,” Boggs said. “Things with my girlfriend didn’t work out, I hated my job and things compounded. I didn’t hit bottom, but I knew I was pretty darn close.

“Then I began meeting wounded soldiers getting on with their lives. It was the biggest thing for me. If they can do it, I can.”

The assistance from TAMCO Foundation’s Embracing Florida’s Wounded Heroes comes in various forms — money for car payments, utility bills, necessary home improvements and making arrangements for a wounded soldier’s loved ones to be with them.

There’s also education, financial and job counseling, as well as something as simple as getting wounded warriors to fishing tournaments and baseball games.

Boggs appreciates the difference others can make, recalling his lengthy hospitalization years ago.

“The military didn’t compensate my family because my injuries ‘weren’t severe enough,’” he said. “People in Marion had a fundraiser so my parents could come see me. One man knocked on the door at my parents’ home, handed them an envelope with $2,000 and left. I still don’t know who it was.

“When you come back from hostile territory, you lose combat pay, hostile fire pay and you’re no longer tax exempt. Unfortunately, the bills don’t stop.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055.