A fundraiser to help troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq - and eventually all veterans in Arizona - will be launched by three East Valley businessmen and Vietnam-era vets who know firsthand the trauma of coming home after serving their country abroad.
Boots for OUR Troops is aimed initially at more than 900 Arizona National Guard troops who are returning to the state during the next three months. Many of them have served extended tours of duty of between 18 and 22 months.
"Our goal is to let Arizonans show their appreciation and support for our troops," said Rich Bank, former owner of Casey Moore's Oyster House in Tempe and community activist who started the effort.
"We want to make the biggest fundraiser for returning troops and veterans in Arizona - and maybe throughout the United States."
Organizers hope to convince large chain stores, retail establishments such as restaurants and other places where people gather, to distribute and display Boots for OUR Troops drawings.
The fundraiser involves contributors buying - and signing - a drawing of a pair of combat boots for $1, $3 or $5. Buyers can contribute more if they wish.
The drawing is then hung on the seller's wall similar to the Muscular Dystrophy Association's shamrock fundraiser.
"The drawing is of a pair of dusty boots that have been worn in the desert and is symbolic of our support for the troops," Bank said.
Arizona National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Karen Craig applauded the effort.
"Our troops need help not only when they return, but also while they're deployed," Craig said. "About half of those who are deployed make less in military pay than what they earned in their civilian jobs."
Craig said Boots for OUR Troops is similar to several fundraisers to help Arizona National Guard troops that are already under way, including an annual golf tournament sponsored by former Vice President Dan Quayle.
"This is the kind of support effort that we welcome," she said. "We're grateful."
Eventually, Boots for OUR Troops will provide financial aid as well as other forms of support for all returning troops and their families from all military branches, as well as all veterans seeking help.
Bank said the Arizona National Guard's Emergency Relief Fund, a tax-exempt fund used to channel contributions, totals a mere $50,000, barely enough to provide support for returning National Guard troops.
He said ultimately the fund will be increased by contributions, and other funds will be established that will be used to provide financial help for members of all military branches.
Boots for OUR Troops will start officially May 22 with a golf tournament and silent auction.
Bank, who served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam era, is coordinating the fundraiser with two other veterans. Roman Ruiz of Mesa, owner of Ruiz Insurance Group, and David Lucier of Tempe, a security consultant who recently worked in Iraq for the United States Department of Defense.