Wounded veterans, caregivers find strength, one another at Beaufort Shrimp Festival

Actor Gary Sinise walks among the crowd gathered Friday night at the start of the 2010  Shrimp Festival and Lt. Dan Weekend at the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park in downtown Beaufort Friday evening.
Actor Gary Sinise walks among the crowd gathered Friday night at the start of the 2010 Shrimp Festival and Lt. Dan Weekend at the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park in downtown Beaufort Friday evening.

They come from disparate hometowns, but they come to Beaufort because of a bond forged in blood, pain and sacrifice.

More than 50 severely wounded veterans of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan arrived from across the country Wednesday to take part in four days of events associated with the 16th annual Beaufort Shrimp Festival.

The festival officially began Friday night with a performance by actor Gary Sinise and his 13-piece Lt. Dan Band. It continues today at Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park until 5 p.m.

Dubbed the "Lt. Dan Weekend," this week's all-expenses-paid trip and events that include a veterans art exhibit Thursday night and an 11-mile bike ride today around Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort were the result of a yearlong fundraising effort by the Independence Fund, a Beaufort nonprofit organization.

By selling $20 T-shirts and $5 rubber wristbands, the fund raised nearly $100,000 to cover travel and lodging expenses for the veterans and their caretakers to attend this year's festival.

For veterans like Army Capt. Ivan Castro of Fort Bragg, N.C., the trip helped unite injured service members, who he said often return home from war to relatives and communities ill-equipped to deal with their traumatic injuries.

Castro, 43, was blinded and nearly killed in 2006 when an enemy mortar round landed five feet away as he fought in Yusufiyah, Iraq. Shrapnel blew out Castro's right eye and badly damaged his left eye, sliced open his neck and shoulder, and broke several bones in his face.

"As injured service members, we have a cross to carry, and sometimes we think our cross is too heavy," Castro said. "It's not until we come out here and we see other guys that we say, 'Damn, I've got it easy because this guy's got it much worse.' "

The trip wasn't only therapeutic for the veterans.

Rosie and Alan Babin of Round Rock, Texas, accompanied their son, Alan Babin Jr., to Beaufort and said this week's gathering and similar events help caretakers form lasting bonds.

"When we attend events like this, we're surrounded by others who are going through the same thing," Rosie Babin said. "There's no explanation needed; everyone gets it. Everyone kind of looks out for each other while we're here. It's like a big family."

A former combat medic with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, Alan Babin Jr. was shot in the stomach in 2003 while trying to aid an injured paratrooper during a fire fight near As Samawah, Iraq.

The bullet tore a hole in his abdomen and cost him his spleen, most of his intestines and 90 percent of his stomach. He also contracted meningitis and suffered a stroke while trying to recover from his injuries and requires around-the-clock care.

Though traveling with her son is taxing, Rosie Babin said attending events like the Lt. Dan Weekend are "imperative" for her son and her family.

"It takes days of preparation to travel with someone in a wheelchair ... and someone who is paraplegic," she said. "It's like having a 170-pound newborn, but it's so important that Alan have these relationships and have these goals."

Steve Danyluk, a Marine Corps reservist and founder of the Independence Fund, said government programs for wounded troops underestimate the value of simply bringing veterans together.

"Events like these are part of the solution," Danyluk said. "The Army, the Marine Corps, the Navy and the Air Force all have wounded programs, but they're ineffective. This is what the government should be doing. They should be bringing these guys together and integrating them with the community. What we're doing by selling rubber wristbands and bringing these guys down here for $100,000 ... a lot of these guys wouldn't be here if it wasn't for this type of thing."