A Time to Heal

At first glance, the meeting last December at Walt Disney World in Orlando could have been any other high-level business conference. In the Coronado Springs Resort's ballroom, more than a hundred people were listening intently to Larry Ellison of Oracle lead a discussion on finances. But a closer look at the audience revealed they weren't your average suits.

"It wasn't a typical corporate event," agrees Patrick Zubrow of Summit Performance Group, a San Diego-based firm that organized the get-together. That's an understatement: The audience consisted of 150 of the most seriously wounded veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—many with missing legs, ears, or injuries invisible to the eye. Together with their families, they'd been brought to the resort courtesy of the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group dedicated to helping injured soldiers readjust to life back home.

Soldier's Story

As Zubrow describes it, the Road to Recovery Tribute and Conference was a combination information seminar/pep rally/encounter-group session. During the day, ex-warriors hobnobbed with representatives from organizations dedicated to serving vets (the Departments of Labor, Veterans Affairs, and others) for counseling in how to apply for benefits, file claims, find jobs, and generally negotiate their way through the bureaucratic maze to locate the services they needed. In the evenings, they and their families enjoyed free passes to Disney's theme park and special performances from the likes of country-music stars Toby Keith and Lee Ann Womack and Irish tenor Ronan Tynan (himself a double amputee).

More importantly, attendees got to bond. One meeting went from an information session to a support group, with vets heading up to the microphone one by one to tell their stories, accompanied by applause and shouts of "hooah." At a special spouses' seminar, about 50 women—and a lone man—peppered a government representative with questions about benefits, in between sharing their hardships in dealing with everything from learning to use intravenous tubes to becoming the family's primary breadwinner.

War and Peace

Zubrow and his team faced their own obstacles, such as a 14-week lead time and hour-by-hour changes to the entertainment schedule (both Keith and Womack were last-minute add-ons). And besides the obvious difficulty of finding a facility with enough Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant space for such a large group of disabled people, Zubrow had an even greater challenge: "You're dealing with people who are very proud. They don't want to be perceived as looking for a handout, so they might tell you they can walk when they can only manage a few steps at a time." He accommodated this by reserving all ADA-compliant rooms as well as the rooms closest to the conference center, and making sure he had extra wheelchairs on hand.

"This was the most amazing event to be a part of," Zubrow sums up. "Whether or not you agree with what the government is doing over there, these soldiers were doing their jobs, and they and their families have made huge sacrifices. To be able to put a smile on their faces for a couple of days really made you feel special."