Westporters stepped up Friday night to show support for the men and women of the American armed forces, with a big turnout at the Spring Fever Concert & Auction benefiting the Stand for the Troops Foundation.
The event, which took place at the Unitarian Church, raised money for the nonprofit foundation, which helps returning troops with post-traumatic syndrome disorder and traumatic brain injuries. The foundation's programs include education, intervention in crisis situations and investigating treatment for those in need. Last year, a local fundraiser for the foundation took place at Mitchells of Westport.
The event Friday night featured a silent auction with items donated by local businesses, a live auction with five gift packages, food and wine donated by area restaurants and vendors, and music performed by James Naughton, Leslie Orofino, Chris Coogan, Robin Batteau and David Buskin.
Denise Torve, the director of community outreach for Stand for the Troops Foundation, said the organization "was established originally some 15 years ago as Soldiers for the Truth. Colonel David Hackworth, America's most valor-decorated soldier, came back from Vietnam carrying unique insights from the battlefield and observations on the shortcomings of protective combat gear. He made it his mission, when he retired to civilian life, to take care of the troops."
Stand for the Troops Foundation employs and consults with a team of physicians for many of its programs. Dr. Paul Epstein, a naturopathic physician, is one of the team members and had a personal connection to the group's mission. "My dad was a soldier in World War II, and stormed the beaches of Normandy," Epstein said Friday. "He survived and came home a hero, but suffered from PTSD, then termed shell shock. Doctors didn't know how to treat it. Now we're learning how to treat it and SFTT is addressing the issues. The Army is also beginning to integrate preventive and post-war treatments to support soldiers."
Eilhys England, the foundation chairwoman and Hackworth's widow, applauded Westport for its embrace of the group's mission.
"We love Westport," she said. "It is a very patriotic, warm-hearted area and has been profoundly supportive. Our foundation has committed supporters, too. Any money that we raise goes directly to our frontline people -- we have very little overhead, which inspires people to give.
"The cause itself is important especially since suicide among veterans has jumped in the last year from 18 deaths a day to 22," England added. "The primary therapy available to treat PTSD is only 50 percent effective and it's difficult to access. Our own medical professionals are trying to fill the void."
Dr. Stephen Eliot, a clinical psychologist and STFF Task Force member, said the well-being of the nation's military veterans should be a priority. "Soldiers are coming back and not getting the proper treatment," he said. "I try to advise the group on different modalities."
Vadim Mejerson, an exercise physiologist and consultant to the foundation, said that as veteran of Special Forces of the Israeli military, "I appreciate the need for combat fitness and post-war reassimilation. It's a huge adjustment, especially considering the length of exposure to combat stress in many situations.
"STFF performs a crucial function," he added. "The very few are putting their lives on the line protecting the very many."