Double only part of Kurt Busch's military drive
May 20, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Photos courtesy of the Armed Forces Foundation
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WASHINGTON -- Even in the nation's capital, it would be hard to find a more impressive group. Members of Congress enter with tiny American flags pinned to their lapels, generals and admirals with great clusters of campaign ribbons pinned to their chests. All told there will be more than 60 federal lawmakers and 150 flag officers assembled in the atrium of the Ronald Reagan Building, and amid that kind of political power and military muscle, it's easy for anyone else to get overshadowed.
Even the 2004 champion of NASCAR's top series. "You put on a suit like this, and you look like a freshman congressman or something," Kurt Busch joked. "Or I look like an aide."
Make no mistake, though -- on this night, Busch's influence is as strong as anyone's. When it comes time for someone to stand before the cameras and talk about why so many celebrities and power brokers have gathered at a gala to support the Armed Forces Foundation, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver is high on the list of targets. After all, he has the ear of the foundation's director, Patricia Driscoll, who is also his girlfriend. He's been to Capitol Hill lobbying for the causes of men and women in uniform. He's tried to improve the spirits of those dealing with the darkness of post-combat conditions.
And Memorial Day weekend, Busch will become just the fourth driver to attempt NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 and the Indianapolis 500 on the same day -- both to challenge himself as a racer, as well as raise awareness for the hundreds of thousands of veterans and active military members now battling post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. "I'm driving for the military this Memorial Day weekend," he said when his Indy 500 entry was unveiled.
This is more than Busch's hobby. As a recent day in Washington demonstrated, it's become his cause -- one that led Busch to shut down his own foundation and fold it within the AFF, and has helped to change not only just how others might perceive him, but how he sees himself.
"Working with the Armed Forces Foundation and talking to veterans like myself, I think he's getting a better understanding of him," said Samuel Deeds, a retired Marine gunnery sergeant who underwent more than 30 surgeries after taking the brunt of an IED explosion in Iraq. Although the condition varies from one person to another, if there's anyone who personifies PTSD, it's Deeds -- who is engaging and funny and such a race fan, he wore a No. 3 cap to his senior prom. So it's jarring to see him choke back tears as he tells the story of being awakened unexpectedly by his oldest son, and instinctively grabbing a knife before his 108-pound German Shepherd intervened.
"Those are the toughest battles," Busch said. "Everyone can relate when they see someone with a missing limb, or someone who is a double amputee. You can see a visual wound, even on burn victims. … But it's the invisible wounds, that’s what I've seen my attention gravitate to. And so that’s where I've tried to help."
If there's ever a time when those wounds are most apparent, it's on the day of the congressional gala which serves as the AFF's biggest fundraiser, bringing in around $1 million. Busch isn't the only celebrity on hand -- also in attendance are country music singer Justin Moore, comedian Ron White, former NBA great Buck Williams, Washington Redskins linebacker Rob Jackson, four-time Olympic luger Cammy Myler, and several chefs including Food Network personality Anne Burrell. As far as members on Congress, the gala is the largest gathering of elected officials outside of Republican or Democratic party dinners.
As much as anyone, though, Busch has become the foundation's celebrity spokesman, each week racing with the AFF logo on his firesuit and the name of a service member on his car. Although NASCAR partners with the foundation through its "Troops to the Track" program and several series executives are in attendance at the gala, it seems clear that having a champion driver spearheading the effort -- not to mentioning espousing it through his much-publicized 500/600 double attempt -- helps galvanize attention.
"In NASCAR, you can have a good cause, but if you don’t really have a driver behind your cause, it doesn’t matter," Driscoll said. "The sport is behind our cause, but having him as a big advocate the way he has been -- it's so meaningful to so many people. Because everybody's been touched by the military -- a brother, themselves, their grandfather. So it's really awesome to have him as part of our team."
'A game-changer' Earlier in his career, Busch was not particularly known as a driver active in military affairs. When he started his foundation in 2006, the main beneficiary was the Victory Junction Gang Camp for chronically ill children, founded by the Petty family in Randleman, N.C. Busch's focus was promoting athletics and programs for kids in sports, and toward that end his foundation donated $1 million toward the construction of an indoor multi-sports facility at the camp.
His first exposure to military issues came during his days at Team Penske, and in conjunction with an Operation Homefront program that provides assistance to military families or those wounded in action. In 2009, he won a race at Texas with Operation Homefront on the hood. From there came an association with the Paralyzed Veterans of America, which "gave me a glimpse of what our military was up against," he said. So when NASCAR was looking for drivers to take on a 2011 visit to the Walter Reed military hospital, Busch volunteered.
"It was a game-changer," Busch called it. Not only did he get his most personal look yet at the physical and mental aftereffects of combat, but he was first exposed to the AFF -- and Driscoll, the organization's president and executive director, whom he eventually began dating. Busch has since become such a fixture with the AFF that the refrigerator at the foundation's Washington headquarters is stocked front to back with cans of Monster Energy, which is one of the driver's sponsors.
"Patricia has made over 20 trips to the Middle East. She's involved," Busch said. "She's done her time, and she's been in different capacities with the military, and she knows all the ins and outs. The times that she's taken me on tours of Capitol Hill to meet with different congressmen about what we can do legislatively to create better avenues for our military guys to receive their benefits -- that’s when it started to become a passion of mine, and meeting some of these top people who could make a difference."
Originally founded to promote outdoor activity for military children, the AFF's mission changed after 9/11 to providing assistance -- from travel costs to mortgages to counseling services -- to those returning from battle. Toward that end, Driscoll isn't shy about using her famous boyfriend -- when she went to Capitol Hill to lobby lawmakers for an extension of mental health benefits for military members transitioning out of the service, Busch was right there with her. Hyperaware of the high suicide rate among PTSD sufferers, Driscoll will also ask Busch to use his celebrity by calling military members in trouble -- a tactic spurred by one instance where she hesitated to do so, and later regretted it.
"There was a Marine -- and we'll never let this happen again -- there was a Marine who we thought, 'We'll have Kurt call him in a couple of days. We just want to keep him inspired so he'll go to drug rehab.' And I didn’t do my job by dialing up the number and handing the phone to Kurt, and he ended up shooting himself the day his mom was supposed to take him to rehab," she said. "I think that day had such a big impact on him, of, 'I can just make a phone call and say, hey, buddy. This is Kurt Busch, the NASCAR driver. I care about you, I want you to get through rehab, I want you to come to a race when you're done, let's get your life back together.'
"That’s something that a lot of people don’t know," she added. "It's not about just coming out and advocating and making commercials. I absolutely have him pick up the phone and speak to some people we know are in crisis."
Driscoll speaks on the subject with an almost evangelical fervor, and it's easy to understand why. According to the AFF, more than 600,000 veterans suffer from PTSD. The number of active duty military members who committed suicide in 2012 was 349, outnumbering those killed in battle that same year. She tells stories of service members losing their houses or sleeping in their cars, overwhelmed by aftercare expenses upon returning from overseas. "I had one serviceman tell me it was better to die on the battlefield than come home, because of all the money it was going to cost (him)," she said.
No wonder, then, Busch has zero patience for the idea that his involvement in military issues is to help reshape a public image that's taken its share of knocks over the course of his racing career. People with the AFF say Busch does more with the foundation than the public sees, as Driscoll's example of him calling service members in crisis would indicate. For roughly a third of the year now he effectively lives in the Washington area, splitting the rest of the calendar between metro Charlotte -- where the Stewart-Haas shop is located -- and his motorhome on the road.
"I think that the big part is, he genuinely wants to get the word out there," said Deeds, who started as a fan of the driver's, and became a friend after Busch dedicated last season's Kentucky race in his honor. "He genuinely wants to help."
Hundred meter stare It’s the one visible eye that demands your attention, which was likely the artist's intent. Jon Blauvelt's pencil drawing features a soldier in full combat gear, staring through the scope of a rifle pointed at a faraway and unseen enemy. Peering from just beneath the brim of his helmet, the soldier's right eye glares. A retired Army captain, Blauvelt entitled the work "Three Hundred Meter Stare" -- a reference to both the distance fired over, and the look some veterans have when they return from deployment.
Blauvelt would know -- he did two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, and has been diagnosed with PTSD. Wryly funny and a good conversationalist, he's another one of those guys who on the surface seems just fine. But PTSD, in another age more cavalierly referred to as shell shock, is insidious. A sound, a smell, a startle -- any of those could trigger it, depending on the person involved. Those afflicted may be hesitant to come forward, fearing damage to their careers or reputation. Blauvelt's art helps him deal with the stress.
"There's a stigma that people with PTSD carry around," he says in a Sprinter van rolling toward Arlington National Cemetery, where a group of AFF board members and guests will visit the Tomb of the Unknowns. "There are people you'll tell, and they'll have assumptions at first. But if somebody can't judge me for who I am, I really don't care about the stigma. It took me a while to be able to say that, because even in the Army, once you get that diagnosis, you're a pariah."
Deeds certainly can relate. He and a friend made a pact to attend a race at every track on the Sprint Cup Series schedule, and on the way to one the former V-22 Osprey mechanic turned down the radio and told his traveling companion: "Brother, I have to tell you something." He began to relate the tale about that morning, and his son and the dog and the knife, and the fear that followed. Recognizing the need for help was the first step.
"Every single person's triggers are different," said Deeds, also the namesake of last year's Brickyard race at Indianapolis. "Even for me, sometimes it can be a noise, another time it's a smell, a taste. It's different for everybody. So you can't do a broad treatment for everybody who has PTSD. You can't do a broad treatment for everybody who has (traumatic brain injury). Everybody heals different. For me, I want to get it out of me. Hopefully, somebody heard my message and … says, 'I need some help.' That’s the big part for me."
And that's the part which clearly resonates with Busch, to the point where he's converted his former foundation into the Kurt Busch Project, an arm of the AFF which will focus primarily on PTSD and TBI and be based at Walter Reed.
Busch also appeared in a public service announcement filmed at the SHR shop that encourages older veterans to sign up for benefits electronically. And then there's the double, for which Busch and the AFF have devised a fundraising plan under which people can commit a certain amount for every lap he completes on his 1,100-mile odyssey from Indianapolis to Charlotte.
"I really hope you're not a one-lap wonder," Driscoll playfully chided him during her speech at the gala.
Regardless of how many laps Busch completes over Memorial Day weekend, his ties to the AFF will remain. Six months before his most recent Arlington visit, he had been there with Driscoll for the private burial of a special forces trooper. At the Tomb of the Unknowns on the day of the AFF gala, he's more aware of tourists talking or texting on their cellphones during a changing of the guard ceremony that -- according to signs posted nearby -- requests silence and respect. Watching the tomb guards march in their spotless uniforms to their silent cadence, he's reminded of the ideal so many wounded service members yearn to return to.
"It runs deep," he said. And, it's provided a perspective. In his own career, Busch has been through a lot in the past three years -- the acrimonious split with Penske, the climb back to respectability with two smaller teams, the return to Victory Lane and title contention this season with SHR. While it hasn’t been easy -- and still has its rocky times, as Busch's on-track struggles entering Charlotte would suggest -- it pales in comparison to the struggles of those returning from combat. "I've learned my bad days aren’t so bad," he added.
Those close to him can certainly see it. "The more that he gets to talk to veterans and hears our life events -- I think for him, it makes some of his stuff look kind of minute," Deeds said. And no one is closer to Busch than Driscoll, who said her boyfriend has changed "immensely" since he began working up close with the foundation.
"I think that with the struggles that he's had and is having, this group of people has really helped him put his life in perspective," she said. "When he hit the hard times, he went to these guys honestly for inspiration. He's always working with them, and he realized -- 'You know what, what I thought was a bad day is truly not a bad day.' They’ll tell you about a bad day. It's funny to see so many of them encouraging him, and I think that also makes him feel a little bad. 'Hey, you're missing two legs, and you're telling me, "Don't worry about your race, man, it's OK?" I don’t even know what to say.' It's humbled him."