The Ryan A. Balmer American Legion Post 161 will host an upcoming benefit to support Army Spc. Lucas Oppelt, a 2000 Mishawaka High School graduate critically injured in Afghanistan over Memorial Day weekend.
Oppelt stepped on an improvised explosive device May 26 while serving as a medic with the 82nd Airborne during his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. His leg had to be amputated below the knee because of the severity of his injuries, but he is currently in stable and improving condition at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he was flown the evening of June 5.
Oppelt and his wife, Amy, live in North Carolina with their 5-year-old son, Peyton. Amy is pregnant with their second child.
"He improves every single day," said Oppelt's sister, Hannah Mapa. "The first day we saw him, he was in the ICU. And (then) he was in and out, still doing OK. Then, the day we left, he was getting ready to go in his chair and go outside, so if you can believe that, he's doing awesome."
The benefit, taking place from 4 to 9 p.m. June 30, will feature a hog roast, raffle drawings and live bands among other activities to raise money for Oppelt. The benefit is simply one example of the American Legion's continuous daily commitment to aid veterans, officials said.
"We throw benefits, like we're doing for Lucas," said Henry Eberlein, vice commander at the American Legion Post 161 in Mishawaka. "And we try to help veterans get jobs and a place to come and hang out, that kind of thing."
Mapa said that Oppelt and their entire family have received an abundance of generous support since his injury.
"This benefit that's going to happen is going to be the biggest support that we've seen or even heard about," she said. "I've never heard about something so big getting put on. Of course, this is the first wounded soldier that I've ever known.
"We've had a lot of prayers, a lot of calls, saying, 'We're there for you. What can we do for you?' The prayers that we've received have been awesome so far. And obviously the Operation First Response that has contacted me, that's another big help that we didn't even know about."
Operation First Response, a national organization dedicated to supporting wounded soldiers and their families with personal and financial needs, flew Mapa; her daughter, Veira; and Oppelt's son, Peyton, to South Bend from Washington, D.C., after they traveled to visit Oppelt at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"That happened overnight," said Mapa. "We called and said, 'We need to get home,' and they got us home."
Ilene Sullivan, coordinator for Operation First Response, is helping Eberlein coordinate the benefit at the American Legion Post 161.
"She's been a big help in kind of coordinating," said Mapa, "because this benefit's gotten a lot bigger than I thought it was going to get. And so, she's been getting some sponsors, talking to people that I would have never thought to talk to."
In addition to the financial and personal aid, Barry Soos, husband of Oppelt's mother, Cheryl Soos, said that Oppelt received spiritual support as well.
"Just the support and care that goes on at Walter Reed, I can't say enough about it," said Soos. "One of the highlights for me was walking into his room one morning and there was a lady in hospital garb talking with him and his eyes were riveted to her, and it was a deep heartfelt conversation and she was just encouraging him (with) words of hope.
"I was so impressed and I thought, 'This must be the Army chaplain perhaps.' After the conversation, she turned to me and introduced herself (as) the colonel who had been operating on Lucas since he came back. And I was so impressed with the fact that she knows that healing is more than just the body. So she was reaching into his soul and his mind to put him at ease and to help him through that process as well. So that was impressive to me."
Oppelt's sense of humor and positive outlook on life have also helped both him and his family endure through his injuries, according to Mapa.
"He's very caring," she said. "He's very outgoing. He has a great sense of humor. And he's a very loving person. I mean, when we found out about all this, his No. 1 worry was Peyton and Amy, you know, trying to get them taken care of, which, of course, that's what we went and did."
Mapa also maintains that their brother, Seth Oppelt, played a large role in inspiring Lucas to join the military in the first place.
"His younger brother Seth, my older brother, was in the military before him and had also served in Iraq," said Mapa, "and I think he kind of saw that as an inspiration and thought it was something he would be good at and so he went and did it."
Also, July 7 the family will hold a blood drive on Lucas Oppelt's behalf through the South Bend Medical Foundation.
"For every blood donor we get, they'll donate $5 to Lucas' benefit, the bank account we have set up for him, so that's going to be really good," said Mapa, "and then, obviously, this isn't just a friends and family benefit. We kind of want the whole community to come out."