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Nonprofit cares for spouses, families of Navy SEALs

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In the spring of 2009 -- soon after reading “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10” by Petty Officer 1st Class Marcus Luttrell -- Craig Irving was coincidentally invited by a friend to take a tour of the North Island Navy SEAL training facility.

While having lunch with the commanding officer after the tour, Irving, a San Diego native, was appalled to learn that the city’s civilian community did nothing to support America’s elite fighting force – even though many are stationed in Coronado.

He wanted to do something to change that.

Irving got the go-ahead to host a fundraising party at his home that May, and figured he would get about 150 people to pay $150 each to attend.

“I ended up with 500 people,” said Irving, president of The Irving Group. “I thought my house was going to sink!”

Following the fundraiser, the Virginia-based Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Foundation asked Irving to assemble a board and join forces.

He agreed that providing San Diego fundraising efforts would support San Diego-based NSW families.

As time went on, Irving’s group wanted to do more than their East Coast counterparts were comfortable with, so in October of 2010 Irving’s group founded the Naval Special Warfare Family Foundation.

Through its annual fundraising party and individual donations, the nonprofit has raised almost a million dollars in less than three years.

Irving estimated they need $1 million this year to fulfill their mission to support individual and family readiness through an array of programs specifically targeted to assist the NSW in maintaining a resilient, sustainable and rested force.

The foundation’s counter deployment program is designed to help ease burdens carried by NSW families during deployment.

“Their entire life changes when the spouse is deployed,” Irving said. “Suddenly, everything that two people did must be done by one person, and usually that’s the wife. Add that to the stress of not knowing where your husband is or when your father is coming home.”

As an organization with no ties to the government, Irving said the foundation supports the local NSW community in ways the U.S. Navy -- which does have its own programs to assist with deployment and re-entry issues -- can’t.

Unlike most military families who live on base, SEAL team families are spread throughout San Diego and Riverside counties, making it more difficult for them to support each other during deployments, according to Irving.

When deployments take place, the foundation initiates a series of special outings, events and activities strategically planned to help families connect, reduce and burn off stress, stay physically and mentally active, and maintain high spirits throughout deployment.

“You can’t put a value on stress,” Irving said. “SEALs and their wives don’t talk about it because they’re tough, but the pressure, financial and otherwise, put on these families with multiple deployments is the elephant in the room that nobody is talking about.”

The foundation partners with institutions such as SeaWorld and the Del Mar Fairgrounds to help subsidize event costs.

NSW families are notified about special events through Navy SEAL ombudsmen.

Last year, the foundation held an NSW day at the Del Mar races attended by more than 1,300 people. Special recognition and VIP tours were given to the wounded.

Through Ernie Hahn, general manager of the Valley View Casino Center, the foundation purchased bulk discounted tickets to “Disney on Ice,” the Harlem Globetrotters and other events, which were then given to NSW families in 2011.

More than 2,000 NSW family members attended those events last year.

The foundation has an ongoing partnership with Bill and Tish Johnson, of Vail Lake Resort, to host recreational activities and overnight camping trips including Temecula Wine Country tours, balloon rides and an overnight Halloween party.

At a Western-style campout, 480 families bunked down in covered wagons and teepees.

Irving said the foundation may be one of San Diego’s best-kept secrets, but “once people find out about us, they don’t say no.”

Through the generosity of local restaurants, one foundation program has sent 320 wives (in groups of 20) out for a nice lunch or dinner and dinner to socialize, exchange stories and support each other.

“It’s a real morale boost for these people. It’s extremely well-received by them, and it has had a significant impact on the quality of their lives,” Irving said.

In addition to hosting outings, events and activities, the foundation supports a spouse physical education program that includes heart monitors.

It also instituted a deployment journal program so spouses and children can keep notes on day-to-day activities. The journals are then shared with returning SEALs.

The foundation provides extensive support for funerals, memorial services and receptions held in San Diego for NSW personnel killed in action. And it assists families in other emergency situations, as well.

For example, the foundation paid to have one family’s broken water heater fixed and bought the airfare for a SEAL’s wife to visit her sick mother.

“We’re there to make sure things get taken care of so it doesn’t become another source of stress,” Irving said.

Irving said military studies have shown that the stress of deployment is mitigated by the knowledge that the civilian community supports, values, and respects the sacrifices they and their families are making.

“Those men who are over there fighting for their lives and ours, knowing that the civilian population has their backs and is watching out for their wives and kids -- that means a lot,” Irving said.

-James is an Encinitas-based freelance writer.

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