For this community, giving thanks means helping wounded soldiers

Giving thanks is common on the fourth Thursday of November in cities all across the United States.

But in Fairfield, Conn., the thank-yous don't stop.

In this town on the Connecticut coast, the days after Thanksgiving don't just include cold turkey sandwiches topped with cranberry sauce. In fact, the people there have more thanks to give on the Saturday after the annual holiday.

Cue the cleats.

Raise the nets.

For the sixth consecutive year, Fairfield Ludlowe High School will host a lacrosse tournament charity event called Sticks for Soldiers to raise money for wounded troops.

"This is a Thanksgiving tradition, an event the whole city knows about," Fairfield Ludlowe junior Jack Palmer said. "It's huge here and really special to be a part of. Giving thanks is what it is all about."

Receiving support from this year's proceeds are severely injured servicemen USMC Sgt. Liam Dwyer of Litchfield, Conn.; Army Pfc. Josh Budd of Cheshire, Conn.; and Air Force Tech Sgt. Joe Wilkinson of Troy, N.Y. The trio all suffered injuries while on the battlefields in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

"This charity event was created for young men like them," the event's chairman Jim Tommins said. "It's a way for our younger generation to learn about character and give thanks."

Bigger than the prom

Fairfield Ludlowe senior goalie Mac Koss has thought about this year's event since he was a young laxer in middle school.

Sticks for Soldiers is bigger than prom and bigger than opening day of the lacrosse season for Fairfield Ludlowe, the host high school of the event.

"This year is more special for me because when you are a senior you have a standard to do well and run Sticks for Soldiers," he said. "It's been a big hit every year I have been to it. It's THE event of the year for Fairfield Ludlowe. It keeps growing and growing. This is our tournament to run."

It's been running full speed since 2006, when creator Mike Voucas, a longtime area lacrosse player and coach, sprouted the idea to have a one-day tournament made up of Tri-State Area high school teams to support wounded soldiers.

After five years the tournament has raised more than $105,000.

"We have a lot of volunteers who help," Tommins said. "It's basically a big-school bake sale with bigger donations."

During the first three years the event helped raise dollars for noted organizations like Strikeouts for Troops and the Wounded Warrior Project. Last year tournament organizers decided to go to more of a personal route and honor a single beneficiary.

Enter Brendan Marrocco, an Army Specialist who lost both of his arms and both of his legs when his vehicle was hit by an explosive in Iraq.

"I was definitely moved and very flattered when they supported me so much," Marrocco said. "Kids these days are amazing. When I was in high school, our age group didn't care about fundraising and helping. This generation of kids is heartwarming."

Last year's tournament brought in $60,000 that all went to Marrocco, who used the money to help purchase a handicap-accessible house in Staten Island. He moved into his new home this past summer.

"I love it," he said. "Sticks for Soldiers contributed in a big way. I think about it all the time. It's so great that they can help people like me."

Paying it forward

When the planning stages for this year's event hit the drawing table, there was no question that they would continue to benefit single beneficiaries instead of larger charities.

"The personal connection was a big success," Tommins said. "There was a huge outpouring with Brendan, and we felt like the kids enjoyed it because they got to put a face to the cause."

This year they get three faces with Dwyer, Budd and Wilkinson, who were chosen after careful research and input with the help of Marrocco.
"We like the idea of past recipients joining in the selection process," Tommins said. "It's paying it forward."

Wilkinson, who is a father of three, has progressive leg paralysis and is mostly confined to a wheelchair. The 32-year-old served the Air Force for 12 years.

"He is getting some help from the government," Tommins said. "But it's not enough. It's tough for him right now to raise a family, and we want to help."

Budd lost his left leg in an IED explosion four months ago in Afghanistan. He has also suffered many internal injuries and has been in grueling rehab since being admitted. He is only 19 years old. Two years ago he was a high school baseball star.

"He is pretty much my age," Palmer said. "So it really hits close to home. It really makes you have to be thankful for what you have because things can change so quickly."

It changed quickly for Dwyer, 30, also.

The U.S. Marine lost his left leg and suffered major damage to his right leg and right arm in an IED explosion in May 2011. He was leading a patrol unit in Afghanistan when he stepped on a pressure plate.

"As soon as I walked in that building I had a bad feeling," he said. "(After the explosion) I remember waking up sitting down on my butt. My legs were sprayed out in front of me, my right arm was dangling at the elbow and at that point I remember being (mad) because I knew I had lost a limb."

His fellow soldiers helped him get to the helicopter and off the battlefield.

"I remember taking off the ground and the guys in the helicopter didn't think I was going to make it," he said. "They were quite surprised to hear that I was still alive when I got back to the States."

Dwyer is the type of soldier who doesn't want pity from anyone. Yes, he is upset he lost his left leg. But now he has what he calls "a robot leg," a prosthetic that he just recently started walking on.

"I am perfectly content with what has happened," he said. "Everyone likes to come up to me and say, 'I am soooo sorry.' I say, 'Sorry for what? You didn't do anything wrong.' This is something I chose to do. I knew the risks going in. I do not regret a day of this. This is the daily life for us."

Many thank-yous

Giving Thanks

High schoolers nationwide celebrate the holiday by paying it forward in their communities. Check out two stories that capture the Thanksgiving spirit:

Gonzaga students go the extra mile

Miller Grove players collect donations for Thanksgiving

All three recipients plan on attending the event on Saturday that will feature 33 boys' lacrosse teams and four girls' lacrosse teams. The tournament will take on a 7-on-7 format and each team will play at least three games beginning at 9 a.m. and ending at 3:30 p.m. A midday ceremony will highlight the trio of soldiers.

"There will be no bracket or champion of the tournament," Tommins said. "If there is a winner to be named, it will be the team who raises the most money."

Team entry fees, T-shirt sales, silent auctions, sponsors, raffles and private donations make up the funds to be donated. Donations also come in after Thanksgiving.

"It's such a great charity and to have it on Thanksgiving weekend is really special," Dwyer said. "A lot of families like to go away for the holidays and these families are staying home to support us. It's a huge deal for me and I can't thank them enough."

Palmer said he looks forward to meeting Budd, Dwyer and Wilkinson.

"I want to shake their hands," he said. "I was to see them smile with their families. I want to tell them how honored I am to meet them because without them we wouldn't be able to do what we do every day. It's going to be a great event."

With many thank-yous.

For more information on the event, visit www.stickforsoldiers.org.