Fishing tournament to fund veterans support group

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Funds for veterans: Ralph Kokot (left), founder of Warriors First Foundation, spent time with his son, also named Ralph, at the 2012 Poker Run to raise funds for the foundation that helps veterans. The Big Bass Bash fishing tournament on Lake Michigan June 29 will also raise funds for Warriors First Foundation. | Supplied photo

Ralph Kokot is a CEO, an outdoorsman and a father of a United States soldier.

It’s with that pride he feels for his son and all the American servicemen and women that prompted him four years ago to start the Warriors First Foundation. The foundation is a 501C3 (nonprofit) company that blends industry and nonprofits to support local veterans in need.

Kokot is the owner and CEO of Vanair Manufacturing, a Michigan City-based company that makes vehicle-mounted compressors, welders and generatiors for industries, including the Department of Defense.

He said he started WFF because he wanted to be part of an organization “that gives back to the men and women who gave so much of themselves. And I wanted to make sure that nearly every penny we raised went to help our veterans in need.”

As a proud father of two sons, Kokot’s oldest son, Ralph III, works with him as vice president of Viper Division at Vanair, while his younger son, Jonathan, is an active soldier.

“I’m extremely proud of my sons and all the other military personnel who continue to serve our great country,” he said. “I’m also extremely fortunate to work with so many great employees here who volunteer their time and efforts to help raise money for our veterans.”

In addition to his son being in the military, Kokot said he also has a very good friend who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Treatment of veterans

Kokot said one of the more troubling issues he has seen is the number of veterans returning home with either Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

He said 2.6 million Americans have served Iraq and Afghanistan since 9-11 and over 760,000 suffer from PTSD. “It takes forever for them to get in to see medical professionals at a VA hospital, and that’s just not acceptable.”

He said another troubling fact is the number of servicemen with symptoms of PTSD or TBI who commit suicide.

“One active duty personnel commits suicide per day as a result of PTSD/TBI symptoms and one military veteran every 65 minutes,” Kokot said. “That’s 22 deaths per day or more than 8,000 per year. These are American soldiers and they are returning from war with PTSD or TBI,” he said. “They should be getting proper medical care in a timely manner. When you hear those kinds of statistics, you have to ask yourself, ‘What country is this?’”

Kokot said the WFF has benefitted since its inception by "being recognized in our close-knit community in Northern Indiana."

Now we are beeing recognized all over," he said.

“We are lucky to have a number or organizations that lend support. We are involved with the American Legion, VFW and other military organizations.”

Kokot said most of the veterans WFF helps are referred by word-of-mouth.

“There is no shortage of veterans who need help,” he said. “And we want to do as much as we can to help as many as we can. As a group, they are a proud lot and don’t ask for help.”

Reeling in funds

They WFF has also teamed up recently with Bass Pro Shops in Portage, Ind., to host a fishing tournament to raise money.

“It was fate,” he said. “They were looking for a 501C3 to hook up with and one of our members knows Jim (Osborne, Bass Pro Shops manager in Portage).

“They have been awesome in working with us on this upcoming fishing tournament,” said Kokot, who added that he enjoys hunting, fishing and riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. “We’re looking forward to having a long relationship with Bass Pro Shops.”

More information about the Warriors First Foundation, or to make a donation, go to: www.warriorsfirstfoundation.org.