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Willie Geist Hosts IAVA's Heroes Gala In NYC

Lee Fryd

Paul Rieckhoff, Lauren Rieckhoff, and JR Martinez. (Photo: Paul Bruinooge/PatrickMcMullan.com)

If you think the young Americans vets who served in Irag and Afghanistan shouldn't wait months for healthcare, or reach the point where 22 of them commit suicide daily, then you can understand why the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) has mushroomed into a national force. It started in returning vet Paul Rieckhoff's East Village living room ten years ago. Today, IAVA is the largest organization of post 9/11 veterans and their families. Their Heroes Gala, hosted by Willie Geist, attracted 700 people to Cipriani 42nd Street, including Henry Kissinger, Bob Woodruff, J.R. Martinez, Ronan Farrow, Michelle Monaghan, and NY Times journalist David Brooks.

It honored CEO and Co-Founder of Uber Inc., Travis Kalanick and Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. Nashville singer-songwriter Kandace Springs performed.

Among the brass: Brigadier General Loree Sutton (Ret) (NYC Commissioner of Veterans Affairs), Derek Coy (Former Marine Sergeant), New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and The Honorable Robert A. McDonald (Secretary, US Department of Veteran Affairs).

At the center of it all, is the charismatic Paul Rieckhoff, who came back from Iraq and realized existing veterans programs were not geared towards this new generation of American heroes. With .05% of our population involved in the fighting, he recognized we are not a nation at war, just a small subset, and these veterans face unique problems.

"We work a lot with the Hill in DC, with the VA itself on statuary and regulatory reform," Legislative Director Alexander Nicholson explained. Their outreach includes a Rapid Response Referral Program, a hub "for best in class services for vets going through issues." They were instrumental in repealing the Don't Ask Don't Tell and getting the VA Reform Bill passed this summer.

No wonder, J.R. Martinez, the burn victim vet, actor, author and motivational speaker, who won season 13 of "Dancing With The Stars," has been on board since the beginning. "I met Paul ten years ago, when IAVA was just a little seed in the ground that he was planting," Martinez told us. "I believe in what he's done. I believe in what he does. He's one of the few non profits that exist in this country that actually do what they set out to do. So, I always try to lend whatever service I can. Whether it's speaking, hosting, or tweeting, I'm always trying to push the word out about them."

But is he dancing? "For fun, with my friends, I go out all the time. But it's not ballroom. What people don't understand: when you're on 'Dancing With The Stars,' you learn a routine. You don't necessarily learn the full fundamentals of the style of dance. So, you can't just pick up with anyone and start dancing. I know how to do a routine in Cha Cha. I can't just bust out into ballroom wherever I could."

We bet you could.

"I probably couldn't, to be honest with you. Trust me I know."

Willie Geist and Robert A. McDonald. (Photo: Paul Bruinooge/PatrickMcMullan.com)


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