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Foundation to mark fourth anniversary of granting veterans' wishes

By EARLE KIMEL | Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. | Published: June 7, 2018

SARASOTA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — U.S. Marine Sgt. Denis V. Cooper died in the summer of 2011 from lung cancer that resulted from his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, too weak to fulfill his final wish, a family fishing trip that would have been paid for by a VA grant-a-wish program.

To ensure other veterans, both terminal or just in need, can see those wishes fulfilled, Cooper's family, including local radio personality Maverick Johnson, created the Denis V. Cooper Foundation — Wishes for Heroes.

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Saturday, the foundation marks its fourth anniversary with the Red White & Brew fundraiser, hosted from 6:30 to 10 p.m. at Gold Coast Eagle Distributing, 7051 Wireless Court, Sarasota, Florida.

Money raised both at the Red White & Brew events and from donors goes toward granting wishes for veterans in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

"He didn't get that last wish, that's where the idea came from," Johnson said. "How many veterans are needing something but it doesn't fit in a box?

"The things that we do are things that other organizations don't really think about."

The most high-profiled of those wishes granted occurred last year, when the foundation, also known as wishesforheroes.org, paid to send the late John Seelie, a Pearl Harbor survivor to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City over Memorial Day weekend.

Heidi Hayden, who then served as chief people officer at the memorial, gave Seelie, who died last August at 94, a tour the memorial and struck up a friendship with him.

Hayden, who served four years as a Marine and has since moved onto private practice as an HR consultant, is traveling to Sarasota to show support for the foundation that sent Seelie to New York.

"Their generosity and passion for doing this impacted my life and it changed me," said Hayden, who bought four tickets and plans to attend the fundraiser along with a childhood friend, as well as Emi Kopke, a local artist who created special artwork for Seelie and Mike Cahill, a close friend of Seelie's.

"If John never came to the memorial, it would have been a piece missing in my life," Hayden added. "It filled in this treasure for me of why I went into the Marines ... and it gave me a gift of Mike Cahill and Emi Kopke and Diane Pirzada."

Pirzada, a California-based historian who was following Seelie can't make it to the event.

Since granting Seelie's wish in May 2017, the Denis V. Cooper Foundation helped two other local veterans, who plan to attend Saturday's fundraiser as well.

The foundation helped retired U.S. Marine Sgt. Bob Bowermaster, a Vietnam veteran, clear extensive debris and downed trees on his one-acre lot on the Braden River.

It also replaced the roof on the house of World War II veteran Clarence Addy, a B-17 ball turret gunner who's living on Social Security.

"The last three (wishes) really show the scope of what we do," Johnson said.

Johnson said LaVonne Bower, founder of the nonprofit Paws and Warriors connected him to Bowermaster, who has one of the nonprofit's companion dogs.

"We met him in February, he was sitting in a chair with a little, small hand-held chainsaw and cutting down trees," Johnson said. "At his rate, he had a couple of years work to do."

Briefly, board members contemplated taking on the task of clearing the property themselves but decided that because of the scope of work, complicated by the fact that his property angles towards the river, it was more practical to raise funds to have a professional crew come in and cut down damaged trees.

"The size of the trees and the lay of his property, there was nothing regular people could do," Johnson said.

"The goal was to get it done before the rainy season," he added. "We literally had it done two weeks before Alberto came through."

Bowermaster — who has a bad back and is facing a fifth laminectomy surgery — and his wife Michele did the best they could for five months.

He would cut up trees with a hand-held Cullen chainsaw and Michele would haul the cut pieces away.

"I could only haul so much weight," Michele Bowermaster said. "We did what we could do but we were just exhausted."

Johnson met Addy's friend Dale Aylward at the 2018 Sarasota County Fair, while he was there with a display for the Historic Aircraft Society.

Aylward kept Johnson's card for the Denis V. Cooper Foundation for more than a year, until he realized it was the perfect organization to help his friend.

Because Addy, 93, pays one-third of his Social Security to the mortgage company to pay off a loan similar to a balloon loan, he didn't qualify for a federal roof replacement program.

After exhausting other channels, Aylward wrote Johnson on Addy's behalf.

"It was truly an answer to a prayer," he said. "Clarence, he had no other way to fix it.

"It's a wonderful, wonderful gift."

Johnson said the foundation is concentrating on veterans in Sarasota and Manatee, and both refer to and take referrals from other nonprofits and military organizations.

"Very small and grassroots, if you will," Johnson said. "For us, it's doing what other organizations aren't able to do.

"We try and fill in, really, who falls through the cracks," he added. "We never know what the next wish is going to be."

Tickets are still available for the event — they're $100 in advance and $125 at the door — and donations are taken on the web site.

In addition to the beverages and entertainment, there will also be auction items — staples of any fundraiser.

Johnson said the goal for the fundraiser isn't just mass attendance. It's about spreading the concept.

"It's about creating a base of people who want to be involved," he added. "We also want them to be one of our ambassadors."

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