RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Nearly 35,000 US soldiers have been injured in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and Robert Sprenger is one of them. After he was badly burned, he spent months in a hospital bed, and then he and his family made a troubling discovery. The military paid him compensation, yes, but it wasn't nearly enough to cover his family's expenses. So, Robert Sprenger and his family swallowed their pride and did what a growing number of veterans' families have done: They asked strangers for money on the Web. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Robert Sprenger's mother lives in a tiny little Victorian across the street from the church. She's in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. It's a farm town. She's not the activist type, but Vicky Sprenger is mad.
Ms. VICKY SPRENGER: It's really kind of sad what the Army does. And I shouldn't - I would never cut the Army down for any reason whatsoever, but no, I just think it's really - it kind of stinks, you know, that we do have to struggle the way we do.
ZWERDLING: And here's what Vicky and her son say they've had to do to get by: Go to your computer and get on the Web and type usatogether.org. This is one of a new breed of Web sites that's helping troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ms. SPRENGER: Right down there, if you go to the home page...
ZWERDLING: There are all kinds of organizations that help vets. The American Legion has been helping them since the end of World War I. But groups like usatogether.org are different. It's not even really a group; it's basically just a Web site. It lets individual troops like Sprenger tell their story, and then it allows you to send help directly to that vet.
Ms. SPRENGER: He's probably the eighth person in the...
ZWERDLING: And there's a photo of Vicky's son lying in his hospital bed. He's wrapped in gauze, like a mummy, and he's pleading for somebody out there to help. Vicky reads the caption.
Ms. SPRENGER: OK.
(Reading) I'm Specialist Robert Sprenger, and I was wounded in Iraq. I was a gunner in a Humvee that was hit by an IED. I was burnt on 40 percent of my body. One week before my injuries, my sister was diagnosed with bipolar/borderline personality disorder and put in placement. Since then, my mom has lost her job; she had taken too much time off from her previous job taking care of me and my sister.
ZWERDLING: What do think Robert Sprenger is asking for? $10,000? $5,000? No. He's asking for a washing machine. He says, ours doesn't work anymore. Vicky keeps reading.
Ms. SPRENGER: (Reading) Due to her job situation, we have fallen behind on our monthly bills. I'm still in...
(Laughing) I'm going to start crying.
(Reading) I'm still on med hold, waiting for a discharge from the Army. When I am better I will be able to help our family.
ZWERDLING: Did you ever imagine that you would have to go begging on the Internet to raise enough money to help your injured son?
Ms. SPRENGER: And that's the most horrible-est thing.
Mr. DAVE MAHLER (Founder and President, USA Together): Well, it's - I think it's important for this population of injured service members not to be a hidden population.
ZWERDLING: That's the man who created this Web site, USA Together. His name is Dave Mahler, and he says he doesn't know anything about the military. He's a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. He sold a software company, he made a ton of money, and about a year ago, he was looking for a new project.
Mr. MAHLER: I drive past a VA hospital, and have driven past it, you know, almost every day for the last 25 years, and I've never been on the property. I was in between some projects, and wanted to do something to help this group.
ZWERDLING: So, one day, he looked up the VA spokesperson. He asked her out for coffee. It was very Silicon Valley. They got together at a Starbucks, and Mahler said, how can I help?
Mr. MAHLER: This public affairs officer told me that occasionally she's able to get a story in the local newspaper and community people would reach out to help that individual. But it doesn't help the next ones in line behind them. And so, I thought it was interesting that people seem to want to help, but they didn't know who or how.
ZWERDLING: Actually, the government offers a huge range of benefits to disabled vets, like disability payments and job training, like subsidies to buy cars and houses. But studies show that a lot of vets don't know about those benefits, so they don't apply for them, and the average vet who does apply has to wait months or sometimes years to get them. So, hundreds of private groups try to fill the gap, like Soldiers' Angels or Community of Veterans or the American Legion. And Mahler says they do a great job, but he wanted his Web site to help people in a slightly different way.
Most groups raise money from people like you, and then the group decides how to spend it. Instead, Mahler set up USA Together so you can choose the individual vet you want to support. Look at his Web site. You want to help a soldier named Tara? She's standing on a prosthetic leg, and she writes, I could use any help with one month's mortgage. Mahler reads some of the other postings.
(Soundbite of typing)
Mr. MAHLER: The next one from Michael T. is: food for our family. Our refrigerator unexpectedly died and we lost all of our food. The next one is Michael H. from Army that says, you know, I need a sleeper sofa. We live in a small, two-bedroom apartment, as it's all we can afford in the area. Currently the boys and our daughters are all in the same room.
ZWERDLING: And of course, Vicky Sprenger and her son sent their story to the Web site. Mahler's colleague checked out their information. They asked for military and medical records, that kind of thing. And the posting had barely gone up when somebody sent the Sprengers a brand new washer and dryer from Sears.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SPRENGER: I was so tickled because they actually came to my house. I was kind of embarrassed that they had to put these brand new washer and dryer down in my basement, but you know, I even took all my kids down there and said, oh, look at this, you guys, brand new.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SPRENGER: I've never had a brand new washer and dryer, and so that was really nice of them.
ZWERDLING: Here's what puzzles me. BJ was in Iraq; he got seriously injured. I think most people would assume, didn't the government pay him all kinds of money?
Ms. SPRENGER: No, not at all, uh-huh. They gave him $25,000. But if you think about all he went through in the last two years, $25,000 isn't anything.
ZWERDLING: And that raises a question.
Mr. PETER GAYTAN (Director, Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division, American Legion): The question has to be asked, if VA is meeting their obligations to America's veterans, why is there a need for any other nongovernmental organizations or veterans' service organizations to provide any level of assistance?
ZWERDLING: That's Peter Gaytan. He's one of the directors of the American Legion. They're the granddaddy of veterans' groups. Gaytan says he has mixed feelings about the explosion of Web sites like USA Together.
Mr. GAYTAN: If our system were ideally able to meet all the needs, then we wouldn't have the need for these organizations springing up. But it's heartening to see that the citizens of this country, they care enough to go to a Web site, to take the time to help a returning veteran and their family. I think that's heartening as a country.
ZWERDLING: Just before they left office, the Bush administration announced a new program at the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The VA is going to appoint a federal employee to work with private, nonprofit groups across the country. The VA won't give them money, but the VA's press release says it will help them identify the unmet needs of veterans and their families. Nonprofit groups say they've already been doing that for years. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And if you'd like to find out about the different groups that help veterans, we've got a list at our Web site, npr.org.
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