Defenders of Freedom supports veterans on home soil

September 27, 2018 | GET MORE : Community

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Military mom Donna Cranston founded Defenders of Freedom to help veterans returning to Dallas.  

U.S. Army veterans and next-door neighbors Curtis Zachary and Steve Blackman got a hand, complete with a hammer and nails, from a nonprofit with a mission to help post-9/11 veterans in their civilian lives.

The homes of the two Dallas veterans, both of whom are medically retired, had received shoddy workmanship from their builder several years ago – resulting in dangerous and expensive structural issues.

Nonprofit Defenders of Freedom, which had assisted Zachary and Blackman (pictured third from right and fifth from right above, respecitely) transitioning back home several years ago, stepped in to help, renovating the homes with a $40,000 donation from U.S. Bank.

“[Due to drainage issues], our lawn had been washing away since day one,” said Zachary, who is married with a 14-year-old daughter and four dogs. “Now, without puddles in our backyard, we can go out back and enjoy a night together. There’s no TV – it’s just us and the outdoors. This renovation has brought our family together.”

Defenders of Freedom was founded in 2004 by Donna Cranston (pictured in center above), who had been visiting DFW Airport every day to greet returning service members while her son was deployed in Iraq. 

“In a way, it was therapy for me to greet and help those troops,” said Cranston. “It kept my mind off the enormity of what I was going through [as a mother].”

In its early days, Cranston and others would also send care packages overseas. Over time, the organization has evolved to now primarily focus on helping veterans with employment searches, facilitating peer mentoring, and fundraising to distribute emergency financial assistance to those in need. 

“I’ve found that most people want to support our troops, they just don’t know how,” Cranston said. “What we aim to do is connect the troops to our community.”

At U.S. Bank, supporting veterans – such as through its Proud to Serve program – is part of Community Possible, the company’s approach to corporate social responsibility. 

“We cannot do enough for these men and women,” said Doug Whittemore (pictured second from left above), senior vice president in mortgage operations at U.S. Bank. “Those who do the most for our country yet who often have such a difficult time transitioning to civilian life.”

For the past several years, U.S. Bank has been partnering with community organizations to donate homes to wounded veterans. Under Whittemore’s leadership, this year the program expanded to include car donations and home renovations like this one. 

Blackman and Zachary served five and seven years in the U.S. Army, respectively. Both men were exposed to numerous combat situations during deployments to Iraq, and continue to deal with the after effects of injuries suffered during their service. 

For Zachary, having to medically retire turned his life upside down. Three years after leaving the service, his wife encouraged him to meet with Cranston. He said it was one of the first times he had left the house in a while.

Although Zachary approached it with hesitation, Cranston’s “no quit, no excuses” attitude soon won him over. Today, he views her as a maternal figure and credits her with much more than getting him out of his comfort zone. 

“There are 22 veterans a day who take their lives,” he said. “She kept me from that.”

These days, Cranston taps Zachary to help other veterans by hosting golfing and hunting trips for the organization. (Zachary, who had never picked up a golf club in his life before Defenders of Freedom, now has a handicap of 5.)

“Donna got me and family back on our feet,” he said. “Now, it’s my turn.”

Story by Pat Swanson of U.S. Bank. Photo by U.S. Marine Corps veteran Robert Emminger. Those pictured, from left to right, are Patrick Law (Senior Vice President, U.S. Bank), Whittemore, Blackman, Cranston, Jodi Sorenson (Executive Director, Defenders of Freedom), Jaime Hernandex (Ratliff Group).