By Sonia Duggan
A brigade of bearded men make their way through the hallways of the Dallas VA hospital the first Sunday of each month on a mission. It’s a simple one and a noble one. They want to meet veterans and let them know how much they appreciate their sacrifice and their service.
Looking a bit like a cross between the band ZZ Top and the men of Duck Dynasty, this group, known as Whiskers for Wounded Warriors, have been stepping inside hospital rooms for three years now visiting veterans and their families. These bearded men with big hearts simply greet each patient with dignity and respect telling them “thank you for your service.”
“It blows them away because nobody ever tells them that,” said Mike Wilburn, founder of Whiskers for Wounded Warriors.
Though it took a while to build a rapport with the VA staff and veterans, the group of men who look like “woolly mammoths” or Repo men, as Wilburn says, eventually earn the trust of those they encounter with their big hearts and sincere gratitude.
“They don’t trust us when we walk into a hospital room looking like we do,” Wilburn said.
Though members of the group have never served in the military, they know the value of a veteran and the sacrifice they made for our country. Most veterans at the VA have served in the Korean, Vietnam or Gulf wars though every once in a while they meet a WWII vet, or what Wilburn fondly refers to as the ‘Golden Nugget.’
“If they want to talk we’ll sit with them for a hour and listen to their stories,” Wilburn said. At the end of each visit, Whisker members give them a card signed by all of them that says “thank you for your service.” The back of the card has Wilburn’s personal cell number.
“If we can get the opportunity to do one thing for that veteran that calls, usually we’ll have them for life,” he said.
During the hospital visits Wilburn asks them two things, “ What can we do for you right now” and “What can we do for you once you get out of the hospital?”
If a family member is sitting with the veteran they are more likely to get a request. Often they’ll get a call later asking if they were serious about helping.
They’ve fulfilled a variety of needs over three years including mowing yards, buying wheelchair batteries, building wheelchair ramps, wrapping water heaters and much more. Some veterans just need help with benefits; some just need a few groceries picked up at the store occasionally.
Wilburn recalled a couple they met at the hospital last year. The husband was very sick so when they asked the wife what help was needed, she responded the yard needed mowing. Without asking where they lived, he quickly volunteered them for the project which turned out was going to take place on 5 acres in Kingston, Oklahoma.
The bearded bunch didn’t have any lawn equipment except their own so they had a quick meeting at the hospital to plan how they were going to accomplish the task. They was no chance of them backing out as Wilburn said as they were in too deep. The following week the men traveled to Oklahoma with borrowed riding lawnmowers and 2 or 3 push mowers in tow.
Their dedication to serving this couple forged a bond among all of them – so much so that when the husband was put on life support at a hospital in Durant, Okla., the wife called Wilburn and asked for the men to be present when she took her husband off life support.
“We never signed up for this,” Wilburn said. “We just wanted to help a vet, mow a yard.
I asked my guys if they’d ever been through something such as this. Most of them hadn’t, but they were committed to going.”
The Whiskers team supported the soon-to-be widow and remained in the hospital room until officials came to get the body. Thinking ahead about the widow’s potential needs, the guys brought packets of paperwork for her to fill out for benefits plus all the necessary documents should she plan a military funeral. The men returned to Texas that day, only to return a few days later to drive her to the national cemetery at Fort Sill.
“We still feel strongly about taking care of that spouse even after the veteran passes,” Wilburn added.
The men continue to wrap their arms around people like Bill and Rhonda Sykes of Rockwall whom they met at the VA last year. Due to ongoing health problems the last two years, Bill has not been able to care for their 3.4 acre property in Rockwall County.
“They are GOD sent,” Rhonda said. “We met July 3, 2016 at the VA when my husband was there with health problems. I was shocked to see these guys come in with all these whiskers. They asked if it was ok if they talked to him (Bill)”
When Mike said they were there to help veterans, Rhonda asked, “Do you mow yards? “
Today, this group not only mows the Sykes yard bi-monthly, they got Bill a lift recliner last fall, and brought the couple Christmas dinner with one member known as Five Dollar Seeley dressed as Santa. Mike said he often gets texts from Rhonda asking for help picking up the occasional groceries. He’s even gone to their home to help Rhonda when Bill fell one time and she couldn’t pick him up off the floor.
“When Mike and the guys come here it puts a big smile on Bill’s face,” Rhonda said.
At times, people confuse the group with the Wounded Warriors project but they are vastly different. “We do not have the payroll or the bankroll. We do fundraisers. Not endorsements,” Wilburn said. One hundred percent of monies raised by the group goes toward the cause.
Freedom comes with a price
When Wilburn dropped his son off at the Marine Corps recruiting station for basic training 13 years ago, something was triggered inside this devoted father.
“I took my freedom for granted for 46 years. Memorial Day, Veterans Day – they meant nothing to me but a barbecue,” he said. “That was the hardest four years for my wife and me,” he said. “He (son Phillip) was in infantry in urban warfare in Fallujah and he did one tour in Hadith, Iraq. It just ate me up because this kid’s training, then going to go fight and I never served my country. I’ve never done anything but suck up my freedom.”
Looking for a way to get involved, Wilburn started serving at the USO (United Service Organization) every week at DFW Airport. He got the opportunity to serve on what they call the “Fallen Soldier team.” When a U.S. soldier is killed in combat, they are transferred from the morgue at Dover AFB (in Delaware) through Dallas.
“If they came through Dallas we would assist with what they called a dignified transfer,” he said. They would offload the casket with the flag, then go to a holding area with the family where they waited with the families until they re-boarded for their final flight. If it was the final destination, they’d often escort the family to the funeral home and cemetery.
Through his service with the USO, Wilburn had the opportunity to work with some wounded warriors.
“One day I had this crazy novelty idea to see if I could grow a beard for a year to raise a little money for the WW program through the USO,” Wilburn said. He called his fundraising campaign “Whiskers for Wounded Warriors” and he successfully raised $7,500.
Although he liked the novelty of having a beard, when the time came for his daughter’s wedding, he was ordered to shave. It was about a year after the wedding, July 4, 2014 to be exact, when Wilburn started growing his beard again after a couple of friends suggested starting up again.
“The ones who suggested it would not grow one but they thought it was a cool idea,” he said.
After seven years of serving, Wilburn’s work schedule would not allow him to continue volunteering at the USO and he really missed it so the Whiskers for Wounded Warriors idea resurfaced.
“So between the desire to serve and my friends suggesting to start back up – here we are. “We started with just a couple of guys. One was a man who served with me at the USO. We had sons on deployment together and helped each other through the hard times while they were fighting in Iraq,” Wilburn said.
As they got their name out they gained support. People liked what they were doing and wanted to be a part of the cause. Some were family members. Some were friends. Some were men they had never met before.
Whatever the reason they choose to participate, they all share the goal to unselfishly give of themselves to meet the needs of veterans who might need a little, or a lot, of help.
The group now has 10 guys in the Dallas area chapter of Whiskers; Mike Wilburn and his son Phillip, Wilburn’s son-in-law Justin Shields, Rick Usrey, Five Dollar Seeley, Ricky Guevara, David Moody, Bill Connel, Eric DeFeo and Brandon Fitzgerald.
They are in the process of forming a West Coast chapter (Washington State) near the naval base with two guys– one a retired Navy veteran.
“We’re just ground floor on it. Checking rules and regulations. We don’t want to jump in too fast and regret something. You put your name out there – you better be able to fulfill their needs,” Wilburn said.
The men all have regular jobs and families and Wilburn is adamant that they prioritize their life with God first, family second and Whiskers third.
“If you don’t have the first two they can’t serve or be effective,” he said. “Our biggest supporters are our wives and families because we spend so much time away. We could not do it without their support and backing.”
The group earned its official nonprofit status last year and on June 10 they hosted their annual motorcycle ride fundraiser, raising $1,800 to help fund more projects for veterans.
Their signature truck and trailer, wrapped with their logo, says it all and often people want to take pictures with them. “We remind them what it’s all about,” Wilburn said. “We’re trying – we really are. We’re just a bunch of guys. It’s a novelty. It just gives us the opportunity to talk to veterans.”
Over the last three years, the group has funded and coordinated countless projects, participated in parades and toy drives, collaborated on fundraisers, spoken to church groups and much more.
They recently stood guard for four nights at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Moving Wall in Sachse and participated in the city’s Memorial Day Ceremony. Officials asked the guys to bring their truck and trailer out to the Wall when it was on display but Wilburn was hesitant, not wanting the truck and trailer to take away from the Wall.
“We don’t want any glory. We want the glory to go to those guys (veterans),” he said. “It is an experience Whiskers will not soon forget. Most of all thanks to all who came out to honor our fallen heroes.”
“We tell people you don’t have to grow a beard to be a part of this organization,” Wilburn said. “You just have to have the heart and passion for our military and our veterans. That is why Whiskers has been successful.”
How you can help:
Cash donations are always needed
Walmart or gas gift cards
Manpower – join Whiskers or volunteer on a project
Website -Whiskersforwoundedwarriors.org or look for them on Facebook
To contact Mike Wilburn call 972-743-0257