This is an excerpt from Lester & Charlie's new book project that profiles men and women who transitioned from careers in show business to changing the world through progressive social action.
Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Vets, New York City
Genna finished studying musical theater at American University in D.C. and then moved to New York City, where she snagged an apartment in the East Village, one of the city’s most creative hubs. Eleven days after she moved in, she saw the Twin Towers fall. She landed a role in a national tour of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe right around then, but the crisis she witnessed in NYC stayed with her. After that tour, instead of auditioning again for Broadway, Genna auditioned for the United Services Organization.
For the next four years, Genna was shipped around the world, singing and dancing with the USO in more than 800 performances. She was at a base near the Korean DMZ just before war was declared in Iraq. While there, Genna experienced a lot, but what resonated the most with her was the pride and courage of the soldiers. Not just the ones on active duty, but also the wounded vets who held onto that same pride and courage – in spite of having new and seemingly insurmountable challenges.
When Genna got stateside, she volunteered at a veteran-focused non-profit in New York called Achilles International. Dick Traum, an above-the-knee amputee who, in 1976, became the first person to finish the NYC Marathon with a prosthetic leg, founded this organization. Under Achilles, Traum launched the Hope & Possibility Run, an inclusive race for anyone with a disability – a race that attracted a lot of wounded veterans.
Genna’s first race event – as a USO performer – was riddled with downpours. The rain would ordinarily wash out this or any performance, let alone a race populated with people in wheelchairs or wearing prosthetic limbs. But the rain didn’t stop a single runner from showing up, and Genna wasn’t going to let them down. She and one other USO performer stepped out into the downpour and gave it their all.
She's been giving her all to this cause ever since. Genna eventually became Director of the Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Vets. She was instrumental in creating, organizing, and fundraising for the Achilles Marathon Tour, which annually hosts wounded veterans and their families in 14 races nationwide as part of their rehabilitation and recovery. These wounded vets are proof that pride, courage and determination can break down any obstacle.
Jon Stewart, who has been an active supporter since 2011 told us, half-joking, “This is all about Genna. And I come every year because, if I didn’t, I know she would be kicking down my door and dragging my ass over here.”
We asked Genna what’s next. She has a lot of ideas on her list, but began with her new vision of their annual NYC Marathon welcome party for Achilles athletes. This is a party that's currently affordable for the foundation but is held under fluorescent lights in a cramped hotel conference room. She wants to transform the event into a big catered affair with great food, music and dancing. She just needs the funds to pull it off. And we know she'll find it. After all, she learned first-hand that the right dose of pride, courage and determination can knock down any obstacle.
That was your moment of happy. Now let's turn our attention to figuring out why our country allows men and women who followed their orders on behalf of this country to end up homeless and committing suicide at alarming rates.
Text (c) Lester & Charlie, published with permission.