A chance meeting between a New Bern businessman and a leader of the Military Order of the Purple Heart eight years ago blossomed into a major local fundraising project.
Wounded Warriors Leave Fundraiser has raised more than $2 million to give recovering wounded Marines a most special Christmas gift -a trip home for the holidays.
Steve Tyson's business is real estate and his community involvement includes being a Craven County commissioner. With military service of his own, he often attends functions involving veterans.
Jim Casti of Newport is a retired Marine and multiple winner of the Purple Heart. He is a leader in the nonprofit organization for combat-wounded veterans.
The two were seated beside each other at a 2005 military fundraiser in Havelock, an event unrelated to the Purple Heart group. Their conversation set the stage for what has become an annual holiday event in New Bern -the Wounded Warrior Christmas Leave Fundraiser. This year, it is Dec. 11 at the New Bern Riverfront Convention Center.
It buys airline tickets, hotel rooms, rental cars, bus tickets or whatever is necessary to get Eastern North Carolina wounded Marines together with their families for Christmas.
"He (Jim) had gone to the Wounded Warriors barracks at Camp Lejeune and asked the Marines what they wanted for Christmas. A lot of them said they wanted to go home for Christmas," Tyson said of his initial meeting with Casti. "The Marines had all that they needed at the barracks, but they just wanted to go home. Honestly, if you live in California, a ticket during the holidays can be a thousand or more dollars."
So, Casti took on the project and made it happen.
After hearing the story, Tyson called Casti the next day and asked if he could start a small fundraiser in New Bern.
"That is how it began. Jim said he would love to do it and he would bring some of the wounded Marines to the event," Tyson said. About 25 of the wounded Marines came from Lejeune the first year and that has been an ongoing part of the event each year.
"It is a special time," Tyson said. "People get into the Christmas spirit when they know they are helping someone who truly deserves it. The Marines certainly appreciate it. We have so many veterans here that people are certainly more military-friendly here than in your typical community."
There have been as many as 500 people attend previous fundraisers, but Tyson said last year the numbers were down, because of the economy. Tyson hopes for increased attendance this year for the 6 p.m. event.
"The more people who come, the more Marines we can help," he said.
The evening is casual, with appetizers, drinks and Christmas and patriotic music. Those attending can talk to any of the Marines.
"We have a lot of people from different parts of the country here, so if there is a Wounded Warrior from Missouri, there is probably somebody in the audience that is from Missouri," he said.
Tyson recalled another function he attended a few years ago in River Bend, which solidified his belief in the project.
A former Wounded Warrior from another part of the country sought him out and thanked him and the group for a holiday trip home he had been afforded. That Marine, who was wounded in Iraq, later chose this area as his new home.