A giant bald eagle inflatable stood in the parking lot of Zion Harley-Davidson on Saturday as the smell of grilled burgers drifted across the parking lot. For a donation of $5 a plate, guests could satisfy their hunger as well as their desire to help military families.
Operation Bald Eagle’s fundraiser drew about 75 people, said Jeffrey Mitchell, president of the Salt Lake City-based nonprofit. All of the proceeds from the barbecue will go toward the group’s mission of supporting active and retired members of the military and their families, he said.
Roger Neuman was sitting at a table with his family. “We wanted to come and support the troops, and … it’s something to take the kids to,” he said.
Jaime Branam said she had family members who served: Her father was in the Coast Guard, her brother was Army and several uncles were in various branches.
Military service also runs in Ron Gunderson’s family. He served six years in the Army Artillery division, his son served a decade in the Marines and his father served in World War II.
Gunderson brought his 1967 “Spirit of America” Corvette to the fundraiser. An intricately detailed American flag paint job covers the Stingray, making it a draw wherever it goes. So much so, he said later by phone, that every time he went inside the Harley store to cool down Saturday, he had to go right back out because someone had a question about the car. But that’s OK, he said, because it gives him a chance to talk to people and help them appreciate what we have in this country.
“We all have the opportunity to live the American dream because of the dedication and sacrifices of our military,” he said.
How Operation Bald Eagle helps
Throughout the event, Operation Bald Eagle mascot Baldy — aka Nathan Stevenson — greeted guests and posed for pictures. Some people spoke to members of the nonprofit and got a sticker or pin.
The group fulfills its mission a few ways. It sponsors families between one month and five years, depending on need, and also does “morale programs,” Mitchell said. The latter involves sending families out to ballgames, barbecues or other events for free.
Operation Bald Eagle also stores new clothes and toys across the state, Mitchell said. “If we get a family that has a need, we can give it to them immediately, and they can be active, veteran, fallen family, as long as it’s in need and justified.”
Explaining the sponsorship, Mitchell said, “A lot of military organizations are based on condition. It’s usually what branch you served in, what injury may have occurred or what war you fought in. Those are great things, but it usually doesn’t include the whole family and it doesn’t include long-term care. So, we say if you’re not taking care of the family, you’re not taking care of the veteran.”
He related a situation about the family of a young Marine who died of brain cancer, a result of exposure to sarin gas while he was serving in Iraq. The Marine’s family received $1,000 from a national organization but was told it was one-time help.
“We said, ‘No. We’re not slamming the door on the face of this family.”
Mitchell said the group helps pay their bills and just sent the family on a trip to Disneyland. Operation Bald Eagle believes in “taking care of the family like they are family,” he said.