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Funds ease some worries for injured soldiers families

The day her Marine corporal son was wounded in Iraq will forever be etched in Dollie Radhay's mind.

"It was a living hell," said the Jersey City woman, whose son, Shaun, sustained brain, stomach and leg injuries from a mortar at tack. "I can't even explain it."


Thursday, November 09, 2006
For the Star-Ledger

But Radhay can easily articulate the aftermath of the November 2004 tragedy, as Shaun struggled through 16 surgeries and months of physical therapy trying to recover.

And she also can explain what a relief it was to receive an $1,800 check from an organization whose mission is to help people just like her, families of wounded Marines.

The Family and Friends for Freedom Fund, based in Pompton Plains, was an outgrowth of the Sturla family's experience coping with chaos after Staff Sgt. James Sturla suffered severe arm and hand injuries in Iraq.

To date, the fund has distributed more than $100,000 to Marine families to alleviate some of the pressures of travel, childcare and lost income these families face during extensive hospital stays.

"They never let us be alone," said Radhay, who used her grant to pay for bus and taxi fare to Shaun's therapy appointments. "They did us great wonders."

The Family and Friends for Freedom Fund was one of 10 groups invited by President George W. Bush to a special White House meeting last month to honor its support of the military at home and abroad. The fund, run by a six- person executive committee and overseen by a five-member board of directors, is a branch of America Supports You, an ongoing nationwide program showcasing troop support.

Paula Sturla, president of the fund and a sister-in-law of James Sturla, attended the White House visit and found Bush's reception "wonderful."

"He was very down-to-earth and made me feel so comfortable," Sturla said. "It was also nice to be recognized that way by the commander-in-chief. He needs to hear what's going on with his troops."

The road to Washington, however, was a painful one for the Sturla family, starting with the call they received in September 2004. They were told that the tank James Sturla was in had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, leaving him with a mangled left arm and a de-gloved right hand.

"We know from our own experience that when something like this happens, you just pick up and go," Paula Sturla said, detailing the family's trek to Bethesda Hospital in Maryland, where James Sturla, now 27, was being treated. Over six weeks, the Sturlas met many other families whose regular lives were on hold indefinitely as they hoped and waited at loved ones' bedsides.

"Bills meant nothing to me when I was with my son," said Kathy Sturla, James Sturla's mother and a 50-year Pompton Plains resident. "You don't care at that point. Lose my house? Who cares?"

The Family and Friends for Freedom Fund was born from that vantage point, with more than 35 military families having received checks ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 to offset their worries. Other beneficiaries include the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, the East Orange VA Hospital and the Marines Helping Marines Program.

A string of large and small fundraisers, from pancake breakfasts to golf outings, replenishes the fund's coffers on a regular basis. The next fundraiser, an annual beefsteak dinner, will be held Wednesday at The Brownstone restaurant in West Paterson and is so popular it typically sells out of tickets before hand, Paula Sturla said.

The Sturla family, once in need of the assistance their fund offers, has gone back to being a waiting military family. James Sturla, again healthy, was re-deployed to Iraq two months ago, and while his mother sees the need for his sacrifice she also knows the fear she'll feel until he's home again.

"I've already been through that," Kathy Sturla said. "It's with you 24 hours a day."

More information on the Family and Friends for Freedom Fund and details on its upcoming fundraisers are available at http:// www.injuredmarinesfund.org/ index.asp