Matt Sullivan remembers the fateful day in Afghanistan all too well.
His tour of duty was almost over. His Army platoon had completed its mission, but couldn’t get a ride out due to weather. After waiting several days, they took off walking under cover of darkness, heading for a nearby base. The plan was to catch a ride with a truck convoy going to the air field, where the rest of their company awaited them.
Unfortunately, they encountered two hidden IEDs, and Sullivan was hit. The blast severed his lower right leg.
Upon returning to the U.S., he underwent seven surgeries and now, after 15 months and a long rehab period, the retired Army sergeant has a prosthetic leg — and has embarked on a new chapter of his life.
As part of that venture, he’ll be able to exercise and stay strong in his own swimming pool, thanks to Water for a Warrior. This new nonprofit provides combat-wounded veterans with pools, spas, and related products and services that will promote their recovery — physical and emotional. Sullivan was the first recipient.
WFAW was founded by four pool and spa professionals: Jennifer and Jack Bishop, owners of Cool Pools in Roseville, Calif.; Kirk Johnson, general manager of Erik Johnson Tile in Orangevale, Calif; and Ernie Weigum, branch manager of SCP in Sacramento, Calif.
The organization is based in the Sacramento area and may spread to other parts of the country. They aim to build at least one pool every year and, to that end, raise $17,000 to $20,000 annually.
“We’ll look at each person and their needs,” Jennifer Bishop explained. “Though Matt lost a leg, he’s pretty stable and didn’t need a handrail.”
The first WFAW project involved 13 builders and subcontractors; materials donations by three manufacturers and a distributor; financial contributions from four others, and proceeds from a fund-raising golf tournament.
“People and companies were very generous,” Bishop said, “but we anticipate having to pay a lot more out of pocket this year.”
Several organizations helped spread the word throughout the industry. These included the California Pool and Spa Association, the Foundation for Pool and Spa Industry Education, and the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals.
Sullivan’s pool, completed in February, measures approximately 18-by-30-feet and is 3.5- to 6 feet deep. A designer came out and measured the yard, and Sullivan was able to offer input, such as his desire for a freeform.
Sullivan’s exercise options are limited due to the nature of his injury, but swimming fit the bill: The low-impact exercise not only comes highly recommended by physical therapists, but it’s one Sullivan loves, having been on a swim team as a youth. With his own pool, he can avoid the discomfort experienced at public pools when people stare.
In 2011, even though he was in rehab to build tolerance for the prosthetic leg, Sullivan participated in the Wounded Warrior Games at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado, competing in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle.
“It was really exciting,” he said. “I qualified for the finals and just missed a medal.”
WFAW’s founders are betting that success stories such as this will help build momentum for the organization. Sullivan’s experience resonated with the community, prompting a local TV station to film a segment at his pool.
But finding that first candidate proved challenging. “They won’t raise their hands and say, ‘Help me,’” Bishop said. “They’re proud. It was their spouses and caregivers who would honor them.”
Indeed, it was Sullivan’s wife, Audrey, who applied for a pool.
In support of WFAW, the Sullivans will attend the second annual fund-raising golf tournament on April 23 at the Timber Creek Golf Course in Roseville. The proceeds will help fund the 2016 pool project.