This story appeared Sunday in some of the Observer’s regional publications.
Shannon Rusch knows what it’s like to have been in combat, having served with the U.S. Navy’s Sea-Air-Land, or SEAL, Teams during the early 2000s.
Even though he’s been out of the service for eight years, Rusch still feels an affinity for other soldiers, sailors and airmen, especially those serving in the combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq.
That’s why Rusch is involved with a unique fundraising project, one that only a SEAL would appreciate.
Rusch, who now lives in Sherrills Ford, will team up with another former SEAL, Rich Graham, for a 12.2-mile swim without breaks in Lake Norman on Aug. 2.
They will begin on the northern end of the lake at Queen’s Landing, just off N.C. 150 outside of Mooresville, around 10 a.m., and head south, then swing east around the Meck Neck peninsula before wrapping up roughly eight hours later at the Rusty Rudder lakeside restaurant in Cornelius.
The goal – to raise funds and awareness for Operation Restored Warrior, a program in Colorado that helps returning service personnel deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological issues related to the stresses of combat.
“I didn’t realize it was going to be this much fun doing this,” Rusch said. “I don’t know how much fun it’s going to be swimming that far, but I’ve really enjoyed this experience. Helping people in the community and helping veterans is something I’m very passionate about. It’s been a really eye-opening and humbling experience, everything that’s happened so far.”
Rusch, who served with SEAL Team 4 until he left the service in 2005, came up with the idea for the unique fundraiser while doing his daily 1-mile swim in Lake Norman.
Rusch enlisted the help of another veteran – former U.S. Air Force pilot Randy Millwood, who lives in Mooresville – to help pull things together, then called up Graham, who was his classmate in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEALS (BUD/S) Class 236 in Coronado, Calif.
Graham, who spent nearly seven years in SEAL Team 10 before he left the service in 2006, didn’t hesitate. The Orlando, Fla., resident had done several fundraising events and has a 250-mile bicycle ride from Orlando to the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Ft. Pierce, Fla., planned for September. Those proceeds will go to Operation Restored Warrior.
“They seemed to be the only ones who were addressing the actual problem and working with the guys,” Graham said. “They work with them on an emotional, spiritual and foundational level and are getting really good results with it.”
That led to the final piece of the puzzle – picking the charity, according to Millwood.
“We found out about Operation Restored Warrior and got a little more information about what they were doing and why,” Millwood said. “They were struggling somewhat to get rolling with their charitable donations ... so we decided to make them our charity of choice. That’s how it all came together.”
Even though planning for the swim has only been under way since early July, word has quickly spread – and so have the donations, especially for an auction to be held at the Rusty Rudder after Rusch and Graham complete their swim.
Among the items up for auction is a 50-person private party at the Whiskey River Beer and Wings nightclub in Charlotte, co-owned by NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.; luxury suite tickets for the Bank of America 500 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October; tickets for the 2014 Daytona 500 and NASCAR events at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway; and other NASCAR and Carolina Panthers memorabilia.
Now it’s down to Rusch and Graham. Even for a pair of former SEALs, a 12-plus-mile swim will pose a challenge.
“I’m prepared to do it mentally, but it’s going to be tough physically, no matter how you cut the cake,” Rusch said. “It’s just going to be a mental game towards the end of it – dealing with fatigue and sun exposure. It’s going to come down to just having the will to do it, committing to something and completing it.”
“But we’re doing this for the right reasons. One hundred percent of everything we get is going to the guys, so it’s worth it if we can save or influence just one guy’s life. But if we can save 100 guys’ lives, that’d be awesome.”
Kiser: 704-895-3662; Twitter: @BKiser_CLTObs
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