The calendar reminds today is Veterans Day, but Graham Rahal lives his life as if each day is an opportunity to honor America’s men and women in the military.
These endeavors aren’t just patriotic pitches for worthy causes. As much as the 27-year-old Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver is established in the Verizon IndyCar Series, his lengthy track record of promoting programs that give back to the military has been equally impressive.
But Rahal cares more than that. Beyond those contributions as well as his own foundation that benefits children’s charities, his patriotism and pride are most evident when he makes a new military friend, which has been often.
He considered it an honor to meet paralyzed U.S. Army Sgt. Dan Rose at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sept. 18. Rahal finished second in that race and was ecstatic to be joined by Rose, standing on exoskeleton legs, to celebrate in victory lane (photo at left).
“There’s no greater joy than to see the smile on Dan’s face, going through an experience like that,” he said.
Rahal also had the chance to meet brothers Morgan and Marcus Luttrell, both of whom were injured in duty. The latter inspired 2013’s “Lone Survivor” movie, in which Luttrell was played by Mark Wahlberg.
When asked this week about some of his most memorable moments in interacting with those who serve, Rahal mentioned a 2011 TV appearance on Service Central-sponsored “Beyond the Battlefield,” in which he met two wounded soldiers and their families at a cabin in Dublin, Ga. They took Rahal quail hunting, something the driver had never done. And one of them gave Rahal a look at another entirely different world.
“He showed me some videos when he was in Iraq and Afghanistan, the things that he saw, and it blew my mind that these men and women were going over there and experiencing these sorts of things,” Rahal said.
One of the soldiers was injured in an explosion while riding in a convoy. He suffered hearing loss and from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I can tell you those videos have never left my mind, the things I saw, let alone actually living it and experiencing it,” Rahal said. “I don’t know if we perhaps understand that here. We see what’s on the news, but we don’t know what’s going on day in and day out, and what’s gone on in the past. It just really woke me up.”
Rahal was recently moved by the movie “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” a depiction of when American soldiers fought to defend a diplomatic compound in Libya from a wave of terrorist attacks in 2012.
“They were talking about being in Benghazi, you go out to lunch and you don’t know if you’re safe,” he said. “Is a bomb going to go off? Are you going to get attacked by the bad guys? What could happen? These are things we just don’t face in this country. I think people should recognize the basic freedoms that we get. All of these things come from the men and women who keep us safe and away from that sort of stuff and do a darn good job of it. I just feel like we owe it to them to give back and do every little bit that we can.”
Rahal’s most recent promotional pitch is for “Turns for Troops,” which entails sponsor United Rentals donating $50 for each race lap he completes on track to SoldierStrong (http://turnsfortroops.com). The initiative, announced in June at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit, amounted to a $102,035 donation. He's excited about that program’s return for 2017.
“I really hope INDYCAR fans grasp onto this program going forward,” he said. “Any donation works. Go online, buy a rally towel for 10 bucks. That money goes directly to the cause. There is no filtering this through a COO who is taking a cut. It’s going to help these troops.
“With INDYCAR fans, United Rentals and us, together we can all really, really make a difference in these people’s lives. We owe it to them. That’s how I feel. We owe it to these veterans, who are out there fighting for us. Our daily lives that we get to enjoy here in this country, these things don’t come free, they don’t come easy, they don’t come without risk and harm to some of our own, unfortunately. It’s just a big passion of mine, to try to do what little I can to give back and to help them.”
He’s also had K9s for Warriors (http://k9sforwarriors.org) stickers on his cars to publicize a non-profit organization that provides service canines to military personnel suffering from PTSD and other injuries as a result of service since 9/11.
If there’s another moment etched in Rahal’s mind that defines his respect and admiration for the military, it’s when the national anthem was played before a race at St. Petersburg. He was sponsored then by the U.S. Army National Guard. He will always remember standing alongside soldiers during that song and how much it meant.
“I picture it all the time, and standing there with (team co-owner) David Letterman and with the soldiers at St. Pete,” Rahal said. “And being in a car that was red, white and blue, honestly it doesn’t get much better than that. It was a great experience. That was more than a sponsor. That was a true partner and a passion we all shared.”
And it’s a passion Rahal will continue to fervently share in striving to make a difference.
(Below, Lady Gaga is shown at the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil thanking survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941 for their service to country.)