McMillen's second dragster symbolizes hope for veterans

Top Fuel racer Terry McMillen has felt the heartbreak of missing the NHRA's Countdown to the Championship field by insanely thin margins the past two years. Redoubling his effort for the chance to be one of 10 to compete for the supreme satisfaction, that series title, has become his sole mission -- until now.

His heart has been touched in other ways recently, and that has had a profound effect on him. McMillen learned first-hand on the eve of the season-opener at Pomona, Calif., just how destitute and undeservingly removed from the assistance loop too many of our U.S. military veterans have found themselves.

And he's doing something about it -- not simply with a second dragster entry in NHRA competition that will carry the red, white, and blue of Armed Forces Racing. He's giving unemployed and homeless veterans a hand up, hosting job fairs in his hospitality area at each Full Throttle Drag Racing Series to link our military heroes with corporations large and small that are ready to hire them.

McMillen will debut the Armed Forces Racing Dragster, with a driver to be named soon, likely at the Las Vegas or Charlotte race this spring. The dragster will run in honor of veterans all across the country and be used to draw attention to veteran issues.

"Partial funding is in place right now to do selected races. Our ultimate goal is to fund the program for the entire year," McMillen said. "I'm blessed to be doing what I'm doing, and in life, you've got to pay it forward."

He is joining Rick Ecker, the president / CEO of Armed Forces Racing and a 22-year U.S. Marine Corps veteran, in bringing help to needy veterans. Ecker will use McMillen's Hoosier Thunder Motorsports program in the NHRA as a platform to dispense help to veterans though his non-profit organization called Veterans' Hope.

"It's an umbrella organization that reaches out to hundreds of thousands of non-profit organizations and veteran-owned businesses and pulls them together into one voice," Ecker said. These private-sector groups and agencies give hard-core, real-world assistance to U.S. military service members and their families. Right now, about 45 organizations are under this umbrella, but more organizations are joining the partnership every day.

Jesse Medina of the Association of the U.S. Army -- a private, non-profit educational organization that supports America's Army and its families -- will spearhead the job fair program.

McMillen also will be working with Joe Leal, a U.S. Army combat veteran who founded the Vet Hunters Project. Leal and his volunteers hike the canyons and urban jungles, crawl through drainage tunnels and washes, venture under bridges. Their aim is to keep finding homeless veterans riddled with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, physical ailments, and a disconnection with the society they fought to preserve -- then help them ease back into mainstream society.

Leal's Vet Hunters Project is among the organizations under the Veterans’ Hope umbrella.

Actor Kevyn Major Howard, with his Fueled By The Fallen "9/11 Angel Cruiser Series" memorial honor tour, is another Veterans’ Hope affiliate. On display at the Winternationals at Pomona was the police-car fleet, Angel 1 through Angel 5, which bears the names of every U.S. victim from the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. ("Angel 1" salutes the first responders, Angel 2 and Angel 3 the World Trade Center victims, Angel 4 those who perished at the Pentagon, and Angel 5 those aboard the airplanes used in the attacks.)

Howard -- best known for his role in the film "Full Metal Jacket" but who also starred with Clint Eastwood in "Sudden Impact" and with James Caan in "Alien Nation" and has appeared in many prime-time television programs and even a few soap operas -- launched this project with the help of the Patricia J. Simpson Foundation. And he's passionate about recognizing these 9/11 patriots and other American heroes. "Teach A Child To Thank A Hero Today" is his motto.

"Heroes matter," Howard, now a commercial photographer, said, noting that Fueled By The Fallen helps with scholarships, mortgage relief, and other daily needs of the families left behind. "We're not a red-tape organization."

That suits McMillen's roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done style. And, Ecker said, "Terry will have a team with a mission."

He had visited with McMillen, appropriately enough, last Veterans Day weekend at the NHRA Finals at Pomona and shared that Armed Forces Racing is about meeting the needs of all veteran service members. McMillen immediately adopted the objective.

Ecker said, "For the last couple of years, I've been looking for the right team to associate the Armed Forces Racing brand with. Terry completely -- completely -- embraced what we were doing and our cause."

However, it wasn't until the racer and his key personnel asked to accompany Leal and dogged "vet hunter" volunteer Mellanie Villarreal, of Whittier, Calif., on a typical day's outing that he got the full impact of this nation's shameful neglect.

Jim Walczak, McMillen's public relations representative, is a bear of a man at 6-foot-4, and he seldom has cause to slog through drainage ditches and washes. McMillen might have fresh knees, thanks to a November 2010 surgery and some tweaking last year, but usually he doesn't risk ruining them by crawling into uncharted territory. And operations manager Cori Wickler, who recently traveled to Southeast Asia's Myanmar (Burma) with a humanitarian group, thought she might have seen the worst poverty and repression.

They weren't prepared for what they discovered in suburban Los Angeles, not far from the romance of baseball at Dodger Stadium, the glamour of Hollywood, and the pageantry of the Tournament of Roses.

They saw veterans huddling from the elements, men and women who should have had ticker-tape parades and a reward for their efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. With conditions shoddier than those in the war-torn Middle East, these veterans lived with a crude fire-pit to cook their scraps of food and maybe warm their hands, no soft bed or pillow, hardly a change of clothes, not even a simple bathroom, nothing we take for granted every day.

Their most precious possessions were American flags for comfort as they wondered if in our society freedom really does come free, after all . . . wondering if anyone will make room for them now that they're back from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"This is not where veterans should be," Villarreal said. "The words 'homeless' and 'veterans' should not go together."

But, she made a promise to men such as "Harley" and "Kickstand" and Johnny Leyba, the so-called "Mayor of the Wash," who watches over his brothers and sisters: "We're going to leave you better than we found you."

So early that Friday morning in mid-February, mere hours before McMillen would hear cheering fans and drive a race car at more than 314 mph in qualifying for the Winternationals just down the freeway at Pomona, he and his team reached out to the homeless veterans in "The Wash." They brought blankets, clothes, water, and compassion.

They also brought four of them to at Auto Club Raceway and gave them the VIP treatment as they ate heartily with the crew and watched the season-opening races that day. A couple of days before, McMillen's group had visited a modest house in Whittier where four previously homeless veterans had found a roof over their heads and received help to enroll in school. Two of them, James and Oscar, attended the race on Saturday and Sunday.

Walczak called the experience "touching."

So in this sad-yet-inspiring subculture, McMillen and his folks recognized instantly they had partnered with the right people. And McMillen knew he had to do more than pay lip service to our veterans -- he's eager to lend real, quantifiable help to veterans of all wars, including the one in Viet Nam. While McMillen and Co. had jobs to do and places to go after their time with Leal and Villarreal, they clearly had that burden to make sure our veterans had someplace to go and someplace to be needed.

The connection between McMillen and Armed Forces Racing and Veterans' Hope was obvious to Villarreal, just 28 but intuitive beyond her years. She said of McMillen, "You can see it in his eyes that he's genuine. I said to myself, 'Wow, this guy has a kind soul.' And out here at the racetrack, he is so busy, but he always takes time to ask, 'Are you having a good time?' "

This new outreach for McMillen stretches far beyond his Elkhart, Ind., headquarters, branches out past the gates to any racetrack, makes elapsed times seem inconsequential, and goes straight from his heart to the heart of America.

"Armed Forces Racing is about more than just racing. It's about community outreach. It's about educating the American people about our veterans and the issues that they face," Ecker said.

Villarreal gets it. "Our society puts these veterans in a crack and seals the crack. How is it their fault they're in there?" she asked.

With the Veterans Administration on overload and bound by qualifications that weed out veterans who need help because they aren't employed or, in Villarreal's words, "not bad enough," this fusion of efforts and these job fairs will make a major impact, one veteran at a time.

"I believe in America. I believe good will win over evil. We're not done yet. Our collection of good continues to grow," Villarreal said.

"People pay attention to motorsports. People are intrigued by motorsports. And motorsports carries a pretty important and powerful message," Ecker said.

To clarify, he said, "Armed Forces Racing is a private venture and is not affiliated with the Department of Defense and does not receive federal funding." AFR, he indicated, continually works with additional marketing partners to join in supporting the race team.

Ecker also said that AFR "is working on a line of apparel and merchandise, as well as a membership element to the race team, which in time will provide funding for the team. It is the goal to have AFR become one of (if not the first) self-funded programs on the racing circuit and provide a team that is truly dedicated to the men and women in uniform, past and present.

His gung-ho team includes California investment management specialist Chris Johnson, who will become the Vice-President of Armed Forces Racing; Steve Escher, vice-president of business development; Brendan Brandt, vice-president of marketing; and Medina.

The best and most welcome news for our veterans is that it will be hard to stop a 315-mph laser-focused operation once it launches.

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