Photo courtesy of Linda Jacobs | Commander Roger Jacobs of American Legion Post 537 Morgantown, Alexander Hummel, Rep. Mark Gillen and George Svencer of the post's Legion Riders stand following the ceremony honoring Alexander's work done on behalf of combat-injured veterans.
Alexander Hummel, an 11-year-old boy, received a U.S. Congressional Citation for the work he has done for the nation's combat wounded through non-profit Keystone Iron Warriors. He was also honored with a ceremony on Oct. 7 at Post 537 in Morgantown, Pa.
Rep. Patrick Meehan honored him in Congress and sent an aide to deliver the citation and a surprise - a hand-written thank you note from Speaker of the House John Boehner.
"I applaud this young man's strength and thank him for the invaluable work he continues to do for our veterans," Meehan said in the citation.
The accolades honored Alexander for the two years of work he'd done so far to care for veterans.
Which is considerable.
While the Hummel family has a military history - three of Alexander's grandparents served, the Marines fixated Alexander for other reasons.
"Because they're tough. They're structured. They're disciplined. They're everything that my son is," Kyle Hummel, Alexander's father, said.
(Plus, Alexander liked the "froggy voice" - tired presumably from years of yelling - of a drill sergeant he'd heard.)
Because Alexander has autism, he doesn't show much emotion through body language, Kyle said. But two years ago, he was watching a commercial about wounded soldiers and tears streamed down his face. He told Kyle they had to do something.
"And I said, 'Bubba, what do you want to do?'... He wants to give like $5,000 a day. I said, 'Listen bro.' I said, 'Son, you don't understand, Daddy's a police officer. We don't make that much money, so let's scale it down.'"
Kyle offered to write a check for $50 and go from there. But Alexander insisted. It wasn't enough. If they were unable to donate lots of money, they needed to raise the money. Alexander suggested they do a motorcycle run.
That would be a start, but Alexander insisted they do more.
For the first event, more than 1,200 people showed up. Kyle and his wife, Vicki Hummel, began looking into how to start a non-profit.
To date, Kyle estimates Iron Warriors has raised in the ballpark of $25,000. As they've expanded, requests began to trickle in from across the country. They made an additional fund, Operation Braveheart, to help those veterans. For every challenge coin donated to the Iron Warriors, $10 is moved into the Braveheart fund. Board members take turns matching those donations from their own pockets.
The organization has donated service dogs to veterans with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. They've paid medical bills and helped keep lights and air conditioning on.
They've responded in as little as two hours with funding for veterans in emergency situations. They require copies of military and medical paperwork for verification, but once approved, the money and aide is sent quickly, Kyle said.
"We honor our heroes, without the red tape," Kyle said.
To fundraise, the Iron Warriors do motorcycle and poker runs, chicken bakes, raffles. Next year, Kyle said, they will expand to do a large outdoor concert and a race. Alexander continues to volunteer his time at events.
"We did a 5k race last year and he came in first in his class. It was his first 5k run, and he was pushing a veteran in a wheelchair who had no legs," Kyle said. After finishing, Alexander turned back and helped more participants finish the race.
But Kyle said its Alexander's "brutal honesty" that maybe serves Iron Warriors most. He's unafraid to ask blunt questions to learn how to best help.
"He walked up to an amputee and asked him, 'Where'd your legs go?'" Kyle said. The vet explained he'd stepped on a bomb in Afghanistan. Alexander immediately asked if he needed help and what kind, Kyle said. "Everyone's worried about ... hurting someone's feelings, but sometimes being direct or to the point helps a veteran more and gains the respect of a veteran more than doing a little dance and being politically correct."
Alexander has gained the respect of many military servicemembers and officials, not to mention government leaders. Kyle said he just received a challenge coin from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey.
To Alexander, "a face in a uniform," yields a salute and a hug.
"My son suffers from a sensory disorder where he's constantly touching and constantly feeling, so when he gives somebody a hug that means he trusts them, he welcomes them, that means they're family. He doesn't hug anybody. He only hugs those who are family. And when he hugged every single soldier, retired, active," Kyle said. "He goes, 'Daddy, they're family.'"
That attitude matters to veterans who feel like "a number" when faced with Veterans Affairs, Kyle said.
Linda Jacobs, auxiliary member, said she can see the ripples Iron Warriors and Alexander are making.
"It just means the world to us seeing that the younger people are also concerned about our soldiers," Jacobs said. "For so long, the vets were ostracized. They weren't welcomed home. Some of them have PTSD issues and to see them now be able to talk about everything, and being so proud to talk about having gone to Desert Storm, to Vietnam. It makes them feel good to serve our country."
Post 537 has rallied around the organization. Kyle said they publicize and are present for every event, which made him decide to join the Legion Riders.
"They volunteer their time as much as we can volunteer our time as the board members," he said. "They are amazing.... They are a great group of men and women that served our country and continue to serve our country."
For the Hummels, this dedication means a lot, Kyle said. Iron Warriors is all volunteer. Balancing it between careers and Alexander's therapy and school makes for meaningful but long hours. They use personal vehicles and kick in their own money when necessary.
"The point is we're an average family with an above average child. Our Operation Braveheart is so small but yet so big," Kyle said.
The project hasn't just changed veterans' lives, but Alexander's, too. Over the past two years, Kyle said, Alexander has shifted to being an honor roll student and "putting everyone else first." After years of trying different sports and after-school activities, the family has found Alexander's "niche in life: helping people, helping our military, helping our veterans."
"We're very proud parents," Kyle said. "He's done more by the age of 11 than most adults have done by the end of their lives. All he wants to do is help."
For more about, or to donate to, the Keystone Iron Warriors, click here: http://keystoneironwarriors.com/
To read the full congressional citation, click here: https://www.congress.gov/crec/2014/09/19/CREC-2014-09-19-pt1-PgE1485.pdf