Anthony “Doc” Ameen was a hospital corpsman for the Marines, in the fight of his life – not on the fields of Afghanistan, but in hospital rooms in military medical centers located in San Antonio and San Diego.
Enduring an amputation of his left leg as well as dozens of other surgeries and the spiritual and emotional struggle of coming back home physically broken from his service, the Ahwatukee man recalls that he “suffered virtual insult” to his injuries in the form of denial of his military and civil benefits.
Over a three-year period, as his recovery brought back his vitality and desire to serve others, Ameen successfully fought to receive previously-denied Traumatic Servicemen’s Group Life Insurance and his Social Security disability.
Eventually, with the help of his congressman and a congressional hearing, Ameen won his rightfully earned TSGLI and back pay from Social Security.
As his recovering brothers and sisters witnessed his combination of intelligence and tenacity – the same qualities that had seen him rise in the Navy – he became known as the “Benefits Guy.”
“I had guys coming up to me at the hospital, and even tracking me down after I had left and gone home to Phoenix,” he said. “That tells you the scope of these kinds of problems, with people being denied their benefits.”
On top of all of his own suffering, the burden of his injuries and recovery also took a toll on his family. Ameen’s mother and father racked up more than $25,000 in flight expenses as they took turns being at his bedside in Texas and California, far away from their Phoenix home.
With both parents working, they saw the incredible toll that travel expenses could take on a military family, and they knew that their son was not alone, as thousands of veterans returned home with similar injuries and recovery times.
They also knew that family time was critical to a recovery that involved not only physical wounds, but post-traumatic stress disorder and a swirl of emotions each day.
Then, on Christmas night of 2010, his father asked him what was next now that he was feeling better about his prospects in life.
Ameen’s answer to his father was to create an organization to help others going through the same things he did, so that no combat veteran would ever feel alone in the face of injuries and being denied their benefits.
“I was pissed off that this could happen to me,” he remembered, “and the thought that this could happen to other vets made me think that I could do something about it.”
He and his father together crafted a plan that would become his next life mission, Wings for Warriors. The inspiration for the name came from a fundraiser at the Ameen family’s church, Wings for Anthony, that sought to cover the family’s travel expenses.
What began at the dining room table now operates with a volunteer network in 28 cities across America. In the last eight years, Wings for Warriors “has had a tremendous impact on the nation’s most precious treasure, veterans wounded in combat, and their families,” Ameen said.
“The organization has helped thousands of veterans procure the benefits and services that they need – and to which, in most cases, they are entitled by law – but just need a helping hand in working through red tape or even just a place to start,” Ameen added.
“These services can range from disability benefits, insurance awards for loss of limbs, and health care to treatment for PTSD and other symptoms and conditions with long-term implications,” he said.
To date, Wings for Warriors has helped more than 4,104 veterans with guidance and counseling and another 302 with travel assistance to lighten the financial burden of family travel. The organization is now launching new programs with partners in Phoenix and around the country.
With the Wings for Warriors Home Rewards Program, participating veterans receive benefits to help with their moves and home improvement, while the organization receives donations in the veteran’s name from HomeBridge Financial Services and realtors.
Another new partnership, with Phoenix’s renowned OdySea Aquarium, will see four to eight veterans each month selected to helmet dive with the aquarium’s oceanic wildlife.
When asked why the organization has made such a great impact on the lives of veterans in such a short time, Ameen looks to his own struggles and a passionate group of donors.
“While this charity was designed to help others, it’s really helped me,” he said. “My work serving my brothers and sisters has brought me back to my faith, something my wife encouraged me to do. Spirituality helps with those invisible wounds, and my relationship with God has made me stronger.
“The first several years, as a start-up, were fueled by my desire to prove myself. I had done that as a Corpsman, but I found myself starting all over again with a need prove to myself, my family and friends – to anyone, really – that my life had value and that I could build something good.”
“About three years ago, I gave myself a break, realizing that I had indeed proven myself. It was time to bring in others and let them help me take this to the next level. We simply couldn’t have achieved much of what we have without the families who support us financially.
“Many of them have never had family members serve, much less get wounded or killed in battle, but they get it. They get that others are selfless in their service, and these families have become selfless in their support of our veterans. Now, we see folks donating not only money, but their time and talents. It’s been really amazing to see.”
Since July 21, 2008, when Ameen sustained the battlefield injuries that would bring him home for good, along with the death of one he was called to save, his life has become an example of the fact that you can’t keep a good sailor down.
“We do nothing half-ass. We are fighting to become a greater force to be reckoned with in the service of our wounded servicemen and women,” he said. “We are on the verge of hitting the next level, going from a small, hometown operation to a national charity able to do many great things. We want to stay lean, so that we can continue to channel most of the resources to those who deserve them. It’s an exciting time at Wings for Warriors.”