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The first emergency trip home for Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Barta and his family of five came with a heavy cost: $10,000.

It was a last-minute trip from Germany to Dallas to visit Barta’s nephew, Brandon, who was battling a terminal form of brain cancer.

After maxing out his family’s credit cards for the flights and car rentals, Barta had little money left once he arrived.

That’s when he learned about a new organization — Operation Once in A Lifetime — that helps in such situations. During that visit in October, the nonprofit group, launched eight months ago by former soldier Patrick Sowers, pitched in to help with box seats to a Dallas Stars game.

But that was just the start.

On Christmas Eve, Barta, a soldier with the 1-214th Aviation Regiment at Coleman Barracks, was back in Germany. He learned his 12-year-old nephew was back in the hospital and time was running out.

“Again, Patrick stepped up. After I left, he was doing fundraisers for Brandon,” said Barta. “He flew me back. Picked up the whole tab.”

Since its start last year, Operation Once in a Lifetime has helped about 700 soldiers and family members in a variety of ways, Sowers said. More than 500 soldiers have been given tickets to professional sporting events, a dozen flights have been provided and 80 soldiers have attended dinners at five-star restaurants. Numerous other people have received furniture or assistance with miscellaneous things such as car repairs.

“With Operation Once in a Lifetime, you don’t have the hoops you have to jump through with some other organizations,” Barta said.

Sowers, a former Army sergeant who lives in the Fort Hood, Texas, area, said he was inspired to start the nonprofit while attending sporting events in Dallas.

“It’s sad that I worked harder and put more on the line when I was in military, but could never afford something like this,” said Sowers, whose job with the car manufacturer Lexus pays $80,000 a year. “A soldier puts his life on the line and can’t afford a nose-bleed seat.”

Initially, Sowers set out to help soldiers with things they couldn’t otherwise afford — box seats for hockey games, dinners at fancy restaurants.

Then he started branching out, soliciting donations of frequent flyer miles to help with family emergencies. The group also provides furniture to young soldiers starting families, helping out with everything from car seats to couches.

Instead of cash, most donations come in the form of air miles, hotel rooms and other tangible things.

So far, most of the work is done in the Fort Hood area, but Sowers said he’s hoping to expand the outreach into other major cities. As for soldiers stationed abroad, the main need is helping with transportation, he said.

As he pushes ahead with the donations, Sowers said he’s not concerned about being taken advantage of. “A soldier’s situation is easy to verify with his chain of command,” he said.

Sometimes there’s skepticism on the other side, though.

“A lot of solders are like, ‘What’s the catch?’ But I hold no hidden agenda,” Sowers said. “My ultimate goal is to put Operation Once in a Lifetime in every major city and hire former soldiers.”

As for Barta, the free plane tickets came just in time to say goodbye.

Brandon Barta died on Jan. 2.

“I had 28 hours with my nephew,” Barta said. “I got some time with him.”

For more information on the program, visit its Web site at: www.operationonceinalifetime.com

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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