GOWANDA - In 2007 Spc. Donald Woodard Jr. was on his second deployment to Iraq. While driving a truck into the combat zone to repair a broken-down vehicle their group hit an improvised explosive device. In the moment of the blast the gunner was thrown off the truck. Lt. Tracy Alger, the third man on the truck, was killed. Woodard sustained third-degree burns across most of his body and is in recovery at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.
"There's a lot of tension in the air every time you get up in the morning at 4:30 a.m., but by the end of the day it gets quiet," Woodard said. "It's calmed down in Iraq a lot over the years."
Woodard speaks regularly to the people he served with in Iraq and many of them visit him in the hospital. He and his wife, Crystal, have three daughters and want to relocate back to Gowanda to rebuild their life; something that takes time, community and capital so Woodard reached out to family, friends and community asking them to help him get resituated in Gowanda.
OBSERVER Photo by Thomas Schwartz
Spc. Donald Woodard Jr. and his friend Amanda Olsen are shown at the benefit in his honor Sunday in Gowanda.
The benefit was held Sunday at American Legion Post 409, up the street from the high school Woodard graduated from in 2002.
The planning stage started back in February and thanks to an outpouring of donations from individuals and local businesses, Sunday afternoon's benefit was a great success. Stephanie Diblasi helped on staff. "They had a ceremony in the morning where all the VFWs and ALs in the region gave donations," she said.
From auctions and 50-50 raffles to private donations, there was a lot of capital raised. The benefit brought groups and veterans councils from Buffalo, to Pennsylvania. All in all there were about 1,500 people in attendance.
Woodard wants to thank everyone for the amount of support they showed on Sunday afternoon.
"Auctions inside, a beer tent out back, and there's a lot of people giving out personal donations to help us pay for when we get our home out here," Woodard said. "The Patriot Riders volunteered to pick me up from my mothers house and bring me here."
Friends of Woodard talked about his affinity for motorcycles. Cynthia Dishman said, "He showed up in the sidecar of a motorcycle with a smile on his face."
Pam Mescall was on the committee and helped plan this event. "A good benefit takes six months of planning," said Mescall. "The people who were on this committee and the family members did what they could and they all came together to make it work."
Stephan Spicola was at the benefit. He mentioned that he flipped his truck in Dunkirk at the beginning of the weekend. The camera being used to photograph the benefit was the same camera used to photograph the auto accident on Route 5 in Dunkirk, covered in the May 1 OBSERVER. After viewing the photograph Spicola recalled the event, "I had driven to Amherst to pick up my sister's car. After towing it all the way back to Gowanda I realized my buddy was late for work so I drove him to the Wal-Mart in Dunkirk and from there I left to go to work. I work second shift and I had been at my sister's house in Amherst since 7 a.m. so I was sleepy and I all I remember was waking up and the air bag had gone off in my face."
Spicola's brother went to school with Woodard and they used to live with him.
"It's hard being away from your friends and family over there but certainly it was worth it. If being over there makes one person's life better then ultimately it's worth it."
Marty Mescall was at the benefit. When asked if the Army takes care of their veterans he said, "It's never enough. You know who takes care of the G.I.s? Their family. That's why we're here. We're not family, we're friends but we're having a real riot."