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Helping Wounded Vets Cross the Finish Line

By Angela Modany

Genna Griffith

(Photo courtesy of Genna Griffith)

For Genna Griffith, patriotism isn’t something that pops into her mind around the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, or Veterans Day—it’s her way of life. As director of the Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans, Griffith’s day-to-day activities revolve around rehabilitating wounded veterans through long-distance races.

“I do what I do because I believe it is important to give back to your country and show love and compassion for our nation’s heroes,” Griffith, an AU alumna, said. “These brave men and women made a choice to put themselves in harm’s way to protect our freedoms, and I can’t think of anything more noble or humbling. There is not enough we can do to show our support for our veterans.”

Achilles International, a nonprofit organization, sponsors Freedom Teams of wounded veterans to participate in 13 races throughout the year. Griffith said since 2004, the organization has sponsored more than 1,500 wounded veterans to participate in mainstream long-distance races.

“The mission of the program is to set achievable goals early on in the veterans’ recovery so they can continue to lead healthy, productive, and fulfilling lives post-injury,” she said.

As director of the small charity, Griffith said she does it all. She raises the funds for the program, registers teams for the races and books their flights and hotels, and talks with the directors of the races to make sure there are special disability accommodations for the veterans.

“The idea of people with disabilities competing in mainstream marathons is a fairly new concept. So we are constantly breaking barriers and helping expand this race division so it is more inclusive,” she said.

Griffith also spends a lot of time with the severely wounded servicemen and women who are currently patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. She visits this hospital to recruit for upcoming races, and holds workouts that introduce patients to handcycling so they can begin to train for races immediately.

She is also there at the end of the race to see the veterans cross the finish line.

“It is such a powerful moment to be in the stands with their sons, daughters, husbands, wives, parents, all holding back the tears as they watch their loved ones cross the finish line after running or rolling this 26.2-mile course,” she said. “This moment gives them such hope and confidence that they will have a bright future and live a wonderful life, despite incurring severe combat wounds in the line of duty.”

Griffith can trace her interest in helping veterans back to 2001. After graduating from AU with a degree in musical theatre, she joined the USO after seeing an ad for singers in the newspaper.

“This was soon after 9/11, and I couldn’t think of a better way to show my patriotism and love for my country,” she said.

Thanks to the audition skills Griffith learned at AU, she made the troupe and was sent to military bases in Korea and Japan three weeks later.

“From performing at VA hospitals, to going from hospital bed to hospital bed at Walter Reed Medical Center meeting our recently wounded, to deployment ceremonies and endless Memorial and Veteran’s Day parades, I became immersed in the veterans’ community and it changed my life forever,” she said. “The USO helped me find my passion of serving our nation’s heroes.”

The USO also helped her find Achilles International. In 2004, Griffith’s USO troupe performed at the Achilles Annual Hope and Possibility 5 Miler in Central Park.

“I was truly inspired to see young men and women, who just months prior lost their limbs in combat, now running and handcycling in a mainstream athletic event.”

Griffith became an active volunteer with Achilles, and was soon hired as part-time staff. Now, as director of the Freedom Team, she has goals to keep the organization moving forward. Griffith said she wants to help as many wounded veterans as possible by introducing them to the Freedom Team’s rehabilitation program, and raising more funds so they can participate in even more races around the country. Her other goals revolve around advocacy.

“Many races still do not allow a handcycle division, which limits which races we are able to participate in,” she said. “Many races also limit the number of slots allotted for the team. I would like to continue working with the race staff to open the division so more people with disabilities are eligible to compete.”

Throughout her work, Griffith said she has come in contact with many other American University alumni, also working to help wounded veterans.

“I have met some incredible individuals that all graduated from this university,” said the winner of AU’s 2012 AU Alumni Recognition Award. “Once an eagle, always an eagle.”

Those interested in getting involved or making a tax deductible donation to the Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans can go to the organization’s website.