Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Americans seek ways to contribute to war efforts

Dave Cummings gets help from Lee Cohen, near left, Mike Oristano, front left, and Cummings' son, Noah, 10. Cummings is trying to reach his fundraising goal by Veterans Day 2011.

EPSOM, N.H. — An hour before dawn, in a drizzle, with five hours sleep, Dave Cummings steps out onto his driveway. He turns on his video camera, picks up a basketball, steps to the foul line in front of the family hoop and shoots. Swish.

It's the first of 1,500 free throws he will make this morning, his 43rd birthday. It's the 443,008th he has made over the past 11 months, heading toward his goal of 1 million.

By making a million free throws, Cummings hopes to raise $1 million in donations to help military servicemembers with traumatic brain injuries. And he hopes for something else: to connect with, and contribute to, a war so remote from this home front it seems like a rumor.

"I could go along and not feel a thing about the war, I have so little exposure to it," he says. "The sacrifice of military families blows me away, but I've been shielded. Around here, I don't see it."

As the nation begins a 10th year of fighting in Afghanistan, Cummings and other Americans are trying to express their patriotism in offbeat and idiosyncratic ways.

"These people want to do something, and short of any national strategy, they find their own niche," says Morten Ender, a sociologist who teaches at the U.S. Military Academy. "It bubbles up locally."

Many Americans have personal or inherited memories of wartime sacrifice — victory gardens and scrap drives, rationing and conscription. Yet the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have asked little of them. Since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, they've been told to carry on as usual, to keep spending, or the terrorists will have won.

But Ender says some people want to be involved in the war effort, either because they support the wars' goals or — far more often — because they support those who fight them.

So they have school auctions, motorcycle rides and golf outings to raise money for military medical care or homeless veterans or families of deployed troops. They send e-mails to the troops and knit them wool helmet liners. They send them boxes of everything from Bibles to cookies to nasal wash.

•For years, H. George Jackson Jr. has traveled the Delmarva Peninsula, soliciting greetings for the troops on scrolls of paper that, unrolled, stretch several hundred feet. He has visited Little League games, county fairs, shopping malls and wherever people gather. At Christmas time he puts on a Santa suit and delivers the scrolls to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

•Robbie and Brittany Bergquist, siblings from Norwell, Mass., didn't even own cellphones six years ago when they started Cell Phones for Soldiers. Over the past six years, their program has collected more than 7.5 million old cellphones and raised money for more than 90 million minutes of free phone talk for servicemembers around the world.

•Angel Geronimo, a crafts artist in Modesto, Calif., makes laminated military-style dog tags with Bible verses ("Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear ...") that a local church group sends to troops.

•Carmen Busby, a 79-year-old widow who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, collects recyclable items each week from neighbors in her seniors' mobile home park in San Marcos, Calif. She donates the proceeds to a National Military Family Association-sponsored summer camp for children of deployed servicemembers.

"It's a lot of work, but it's something to get behind, besides potluck suppers," she says. Since September 2007 she has collected $2,497.56.

Then there is Cummings, founder of Hoops for Heroes, who has made as many as 8,000 foul shots in a day, and 151 straight without a miss. Including online communications — blog, Twitter, Facebook — he devotes more than two hours a day to his campaign.

Why? "Because I feel incredibly grateful and I need to say thank you to the people who are serving our country."

Why foul shots? "I don't have a lot of skills. I make a mean chocolate chip cookie, but I didn't think a bake sale was going to raise a million dollars. But I figured a million free throws could draw some attention."

Why a million? "It sounded cool."

'To do something meaningful'

Cummings is an unlikely candidate to shoot a million free throws for the troops.

He has never been in the military and has no close friends or relatives who've served in Iraq or Afghanistan, much less been wounded or killed.

He shot only about 50 free throws in his high school varsity career. His father, a former high school coach, says young Dave didn't practice free throws more than anyone else. He certainly didn't shoot as much as Ted St. Martin, a Florida basketball instructor who in 1996 made 5,221 consecutive free throws, according to Guinness World Records. He has plenty else to do, including a job as communications director for the state Realtors' association; a wife, three young kids and a dog; and a seat on the local school board.

But he has been restless. Five years ago, he says, he told his wife, Heather, " 'I need to do something meaningful, something that I'm passionate about.' It was just a feeling that I wanted to wake up and feel a broader purpose in life. Some way I could add something to the world."

About the same time, he heard about the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, which raises money for treatment of and research in traumatic brain injury, which the Pentagon says may afflict as many as 360,000 Americans who've fought in Iraq or Afghanistan.

He got an idea for a stunt. He had made about 80% of his free throws in high school and had good genes. His father, a 1,000-point scorer at Bates College in Maine, shot 84% from the line and once made 107 straight free throws in practice.

Cummings registered the Internet domain name hoopsforheroes.com but did nothing more until January 2009, when he was struck by a line in President Obama's inauguration speech: "As much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies."

Three nights later, Cummings addressed his video camera: "Tonight, I'm gonna start making some foul shots. I hope I can make a million of them and raise some money for the people overseas fighting for us. ... I'm sorry I haven't been able to do more in my life, but I think it's time to do something. So I'm going to start."

He went out to the driveway, toed a free throw line he had shoveled in the snow and put up a shot that caromed off the right side of the rim and plopped flat in the snow. Over the next 20 minutes he missed every other shot and spent most of his time retrieving the ball and getting back to the line. After 200 attempts, his hands were frozen.

He persisted for several weeks before concluding that, at that rate, he would make 1 million free throws by 2040, when he would be 73.

There things stood until later in the year, when Cummings was elected to the school board and given a key to the Epsom Central School — and its gym. "I thought, hey, maybe this is the sign I need, because I can't do it all outside" — not on a windy hillside in winter in New Hampshire. Now, he could shoot at night year round and enlist volunteers to rebound.

His original goal was 1,000 shots a day, but he soon realized he could do more, especially after draping his home hoop with a SKLZ Rapid Fire net, which snares the ball after a make or a miss and steers it back to the foul line.

By averaging 1,370 a day, he could finish on a symbolically fitting occasion: Veterans Day 2011.

Even on Christmas Day

On Sept. 23, the night before his birthday, Cummings walked into the Epsom Central gym with four volunteer rebounders — three family friends and his 10-year-old son, Noah. His T-shirt said, "One million shots/Endless gratitude."

On the baseline directly behind the basket he placed a pair of red, white and blue high-top Converse All-Stars and a pair of Army boots. They were reminders, he says, of those overseas who might otherwise be on the court.

Cummings started the video camera and walked, without warming up or stretching, to the line. He missed the first, then made 18 straight, counting each aloud. He made the first 100 in five minutes, including 10 misses. On average Cummings shoots about 90% indoors, a little less outdoors.

He used two balls to quicken the pace. Rebounders on either side of the basket passed to a third volunteer who stood on the line next to Cummings, handing him the ball and allowing him to flick shot after shot with the same form: elbow in, rotation on the release, follow through high. He said little, seemingly focused on the rim and the count.

He stopped only to take a drink, rotate the volunteers and make sure the camera was working. He posts video of every shot on line and has had to repeat thousands of shots because the camera battery failed.

As always, he paused after making his 911th shot to lower his head and pray for the victims of the 2001 terror attacks.

He ended with 13 straight baskets, having made 2,000 shots in 92 minutes.

Cummings shoots daily, usually before work or after dinner. He even shoots while traveling; he has used Google Earth satellite maps to find a public court near his hotel.

On Christmas morning, Heather looked out to see her husband in the driveway shooting. "She wasn't too excited about that," Cummings recalls, even though "we'd already opened the presents."

Although he has been able to raise only about $15,000 for the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund — he solicits donations on his website and Facebook and through word of mouth Cummings says he's not discouraged. He's scheduled to make his 500,000th shot in New York on Veterans Day aboard the USS Intrepid, the World War II aircraft carrier that's now a floating museum on the Hudson River in Manhattan. After that, he figures, more people — especially corporate donors — will take him seriously.

Not everyone is an admirer. After the New HampshireUnion Leader of Manchester published a story about Cummings, one reader wrote online: "The empty gesture of shooting free throws messes well with the hollow war that we are in that needlessly robs Americans of their lives. Support our troops by demanding that they are brought home."

Another wrote: "I will be starting my 'beers for troops' campaign as soon as (Cummings) hits his million. I will be drinking beers every weekend until each and every one of our boys is back home safe."

Cummings says he was surprised. He didn't think anyone could object to his project. He has received mostly encouragement, some neighbors mowed a "Hoops for Heroes" pattern on their lawn.

Like many home front do-it-yourselfers, he's ambivalent about the war's merits or justice, issues he says "will be sorted out by the history books. There are many people far smarter and more knowledgeable than me on both sides of the debate."

For the past year he hasn't had time to work out, sleep late or take Heather out to dinner. She says it's an adjustment for the whole family, "like having a new baby at home. But that's nothing compared to what families with moms and dads fighting for us face. How can we complain?"

What's more, she says, "It's important for the kids to see Dave's working for something bigger than ourselves. He's a role model right here in our own house."

You have to wonder: If and when he makes it to a million, will Dave Cummings ever attempt another free throw? "Part of me will really appreciate that extra two hours a day," he says. "Part of me will miss it."

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