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MY HEROES: Vietnam Service of Her 4 Brothers Inspired Blissful Retreat

Operation Second Chance was founded during the Iraq War, but its roots go back to Vietnam


spinner image Brothers Kenneth, Bruce and Ted with their mother.
Cindy McGraw's brothers Kenneth, Bruce and Ted with their mother.
Courtesy: Cindy McGrew

Cindy McGrew learned early in life what wars can do to those who fight them. By the time she was a teenager, three of her brothers had served in Vietnam. “I saw how they were treated when they came home,” she told AARP Experience Counts.

“I could hear the stories they were telling each other. I heard their night tremors. I vowed to do anything I could to support future veterans."

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McGrew’s vow would grow into Operation Second Chance, a national nonprofit that serves wounded, injured and ill veterans, active duty Purple Heart service members and families.

Since McGrew, now 65, founded Operation Second Chance in 2004, it has given more than $15 million to thousands of veterans and family members for emergency financial assistance – mortgage and rent, emergency travel and lodging, caregiver help – and providing morale-related retreats.

In 2019, Operation Second Chance opened Heroes Ridgeat Raven Rock, a retreat center for veterans and families. Perched on a rural mountaintop on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, Heroes Ridge is a place where veterans, serving military and their families can come for rest, recreation, bonding and help.

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Covering 275 acres, Heroes Ridge has comfortable cabins, a horse stable, swimming pool, chow hall, trails for hiking and ATV riding. Counselors and volunteers help with programs aimed at different groups, including battle buddies, Gold Star families, couples, spouses and female veterans.  Operation Second Chance pays all expenses, including air travel, for participants from around the county.

McGrew had no idea what the project would become when she started out. She was a Client Services representative at Legg Mason (now Morgan Stanley) near Washington, D.C., and raising her daughter and three sons.

Then, a friend attached to the Stryker Brigade went to Iraq. It was 2004, when the war there was intensifying. “I started reading about guys from his unit that were injured and coming to Walter Reed,” she said. Sonn, she was making the 30-mile drive from her job to Walter Reed several times a week to visit injured soldiers and their families.

“The huge numbers that were coming in, I mean, Ward 57 and 58 were just full,” she recalled. 

McGrew saw there were lots of things veterans and families needed that the hospital couldn’t give them, things as simple as a change of clothes, something for a baby to sleep in, a night away from the hospital, help paying rent. She recruited friends to help, and they found clothes, Porta Cribs, and ways to help families get some free time. 

“Then, my boss said, ‘You know, if you were a nonprofit, I could give you a donation, and you could write it off,” McGrew said. “To this day, I remember putting my hands on my hips, and I said, ‘Tom, I give because I want to give, not because I'm looking for a write-off.’ But then I guess my light bulb came on, and I realized, well, you can help on a much larger scale if you are a nonprofit.”

As CEO of Operation Second Chance, McGrew now mostly lives at Heroes Ridge.Her family, including her 10 grandchildren, and volunteers help out at retreats and special events.

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The feedback she gets confirms the impact of the path she has taken to honor her brothers.

“When you go in the cabins and you read some of the reviews and the stories that the families write, it's just, you know, you can't have a bad day.” She said. “And they feel loved, they say, from the time they get here.

“One veteran who recently attended a veteran-only retreat wrote an email when he got home and said, ‘This entire year I've been suicidal, and I was trying to think of every reason not to come on your retreat. But I'm so glad that I did. I can face anxiety, and I can step back and review my life.’”

McGrew’s brothers were alive to see Operation Second Chance grow. Paul, first to serve in Vietnam as a Marine, died in 2017 at age 74. “He had been mostly in and out of VAs,” McGrew said.

Bruce, an Army sergeant who served two tours, died in 2011. Kenneth, a Marine in Vietnam, died in 2015. Both were 64 and had been construction contractors. A fourth brother, Ted, who enlisted in the Army but served stateside, died two years ago at age 73.

 “My brothers inspired me from the beginning,” McGrew said. “They were so proud of me for founding Operation Second Chance. They would always say, ‘Tell those boys, Welcome Home.’” 

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