How a Wounded Warrior Project Supporter Reached $1 Million in Fundraising
Tom Cocchiarella isn’t someone who gives up easily – or at all. It’s a mentality that has served him well over the years, whether it’s defending the country, succeeding in the technology business, fighting cancer, or advocating on behalf of U.S. veterans.
When Tom was approached in 2008 to help raise money for wounded warriors, he wasn’t sure how he’d go about it. After all, marketing, selling, and organizing fundraisers weren’t quite his forte as an “IT guy.” But much like everything else, Tom would give it his all to help raise money for Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP).
Fifteen years later, Tom passed the $1 million mark in donations, helping WWP provide lifesaving and life-changing programs and services to thousands of wounded veterans and their families.
Service From the Start
Tom is a Vietnam-era veteran from a family of veterans. He served as a weapons control systems specialist on F4 Phantom Fighter Bombers in the Air Force from 1971-75, his father was in the Navy Reserves and two uncles also served in combat, including one who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. His uncles also served in combat, including one who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, Korea, and three tours in Vietnam. His older brother served in the Navy on a nuclear submarine during the Cold War and a younger brother in the National Guard. Patriotism runs deep in the Cocchiarella family.
Tom has four brothers and four sisters, so his experiences when he left for the military were shaped by being from such a large, loving family.
“When I went to basic training, I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty nice,’ because I got my own footlocker,” Tom said. He also recalled receiving cards and letters from loved ones but also saw fellow unit members from more difficult backgrounds who didn’t have those family connections. That stuck with him.
“I was blessed with a support system when I served,” Tom said. “When I got out, my family was there, and my friends were there. Family is really important. What we forget sometimes is some of these men and women who serve in the military don't have any of that support system. I believe these men and women all deserve to have advocates that will help guide and care for them.”
Tom also remembers what it was like to be a service member during the Vietnam War, regardless of family or background. Vietnam-era veterans often kept their service – and their memories of service – to themselves. Tom said it was also harder, and almost unheard of to find help when it came to mental health resources and VA benefits assistance.
“There was nobody to advocate for me,” Tom said. “I didn't know you could ask anybody for help. So, to have veterans service organizations like Wounded Warrior Project surface, especially since 9/11, to help serve veterans, is really important. When you're 18 and sign up for the military, you don't think about long-term damages or health care.”
Relaying a Passion for Warriors
After Tom left the Air Force, he attended the University of Minnesota on the GI Bill, and later St. Paul Technical College. He then worked in electronics, computers, project management, and management in information technology. Tom rose to VP level at Minnesota based Deluxe Corp where he started as a computer technician and worked his way up the ladder.
Although Tom transitioned into a civilian lifestyle, the military was still a big part of his world. His son David graduated from the Army ROTC program at the University of Minnesota and fought in Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne in 2010-2011. Tom also became pen pals with Army officer Matt Cavanaugh, a high school classmate of his daughter, Lisa, who went to West Point. A few years later, it was Cavanaugh who approached Tom about helping raise $25,000 for WWP.
“I told him, ‘I'm not a marketing or sales guy, I'm an IT guy. I don't know how to do it, but I’ll figure something out,’” Tom said. It took a little over a year to get that first $25,000.
“As we started working with Wounded Warrior Project and meeting some wounded warriors, we realized $25,000 pays for a lot, but we need to do more than that.”
Secrets to Fundraising Success
Tom continued to show his support for WWP over the next fifteen years and helped raise over $975,000 more. He did it by leading a variety of fundraising activities, but what was the secret to his success?
“Countless and countless hours of making people feel guilty,” Tom joked.
Truth is, Tom just had a way of relaying his passion for helping warriors, which paid off over the years. He was also persistent – refusing to give up; refusing to quit.
“I always told people in my work career that you can hit a barrier and stop, or you can go around the side or go over it or under it or through it,” Tom said. “Figure out how to get past that barrier and move on to the next challenge. Persistence is really important. Figure out how to get things done, never quit!”
Throughout his fundraising journey, Tom has convinced entertainers, hotels, and restaurants to donate goods, services, and event spaces to help wounded veterans. He said the convincing part actually isn’t that difficult when people get to see who they’re helping. It’s the same reason he wanted to help.
He recalls meeting the warriors and their family members at events and the 11 galas he hosted and seeing them flourish. He’s been able to talk to them and see their joy about getting dressed up and spending a night out. There have been extravagant displays, silent auctions, and live performances. It’s by no means an easy task, but there’s something about seeing the impact of helping someone else, especially those who have given so much.
“I would spend all day Saturdays and Sundays working on this, and I spend my evenings working on this. It's a ton of work, but it's so rewarding,” Tom said. “And when you meet the people who are beneficiaries, you know it’s all worth it.”
Paying it Forward
While Tom recalls how his generation of veterans was treated and the lack of resources available to them, he wants to make sure that doesn’t happen to the current or future generations of veterans – like his own son.
In 2010, Tom’s son and U.S. Army veteran David Cocchiarella was sent to Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division. Although he wasn’t physically injured in combat, some of his fellow service members were. It’s veterans like them that motivate Tom to keep doing what he does to support WWP. There needs to always be someone there for these service members and veterans, regardless of where they are in their life or what their needs are.
“Back in 2010 when my son David deployed to Afghanistan, I wanted to know that Wounded Warrior Project would be there to help him and his soldiers if they needed it,” Tom said.
Contact: — Paris Moulden, Public Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org, 904.570.7910
About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.