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If It Wasn’t For Them: An Interview With Mark Van Trees

Support the Troops Logo, a veteran charity

Introduction to Mark Van Trees:

Seemingly everybody in the veteran charity or philanthropy space knows Mark Van Trees. If your work connects to military, veterans, or Gold Star families, chances are you’ve crossed paths.

Despite knowing him for 11 years, I endeavored to learn more about Mark, his work with Support The Troops, and other nonprofits. I wanted to know what makes him tick. Getting him to sit still for an hour is nearly impossible but well worth the interruptions and pauses.

Mark’s Background and Early Life:

I asked him to tell me a little about his life journey. He proceeds in his usual concise manner.

“I was born in D.C., grew up in Virginia, and went to Indiana on a soccer scholarship. I met my lovely wife there,” he adds with a twinkle in his eye.

Mark says his military connection derives from his father, a West Point graduate with the unique distinction of being awarded the highest number of academic awards in the school’s history and who later became a professor at MIT.

Mark proudly points to three textbooks on his shelf, “I watched him sit at the kitchen table and write those on a legal pad with a No. 2 pencil.”

His pride is evident.

From Starbucks to Support The Troops, Inc.:

Mark was in the restaurant business for 25 years and had a company that serviced all the Starbucks in Florida. Mark says this eventually led to his connection with Support The Troops, Inc. Recycling commercial coffee equipment, which he shipped to Afghanistan and Iraq while coordinating Starbucks’ coffee donations for care packages.

“That’s how I met Bob,” he says.

Bob Williams was the founder of Support The Troops, Inc. He served in the U.S. Navy, but after suffering severe injuries to both knees in his sixth year, he received a medical discharge.

After founding the American Fabric Filter company 35 years ago, Bob retired and handed the business to his sons to pack boxes for troops, continuing his service.

Bob packed boxes for troops six days a week (except Thanksgiving and Christmas), starting every day at 4:00 a.m. from 2008 until January 19, 2012.

I met Bob at the behest of my brother, a USMC reservist, who had received care packages from Support The Troops while he was in the Middle East. Bob and I began an annual care package drive with my students bagging and making cards and letters to ship overseas.

In August of 2012, I called Bob to set up for the September campaign, but Mark answered instead.

I learned that on January 19, 2012, there was an unfortunate accident, and a pole fell and struck Bob in the head. Bob suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). He has been at the Baldomero Lopez Memorial Veterans Nursing Home for 11 years.

Having just sold his company, Mark was able to take on the challenge of keeping the care packages moving. Having aided Bob in securing donations, it was a seamless transition for Mark to lead Support The Troops, Inc.

I asked about Mark’s other hats because I know there are many.

Mark’s Diverse Philanthropic Engagements:

Mark is the Florida representative for the New York-based Tunnels2Towers organization, a nonprofit in honor of Stephen Siller, a New York City Firefighter who was killed on Sept. 11, 2001, and whose remains have never been recovered.

Tunnels2Towers pays off mortgages for first responders and Gold Star families who lost loved ones on duty.

“We paid off 200 mortgages last year,” Mark says.

He also says the nonprofit broke ground in December 2022 on Let’s Do Good Village in Land O’Lakes, Florida. “We’re going to build 97 homes for Gold Star families and first responder families, and 20 of those will be smart homes for those with catastrophic injuries.”

Support The Troops, Inc. partnership with the Tampa Bay Lighting

Ten years ago, Support The Troops, Inc. started a partnership with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s father, Donald, is a WWII veteran, and he wanted to do something to give back in his honor,” Mark explained.

Mark’s team works with the Lightening for every home game to provide a veteran guest of honor next to the national anthem singer, usually Retired Air Force LTC Sonia Bryson. He also coordinates Seats for Service, an organization seeking season ticket holders to give tickets to service members if they do not attend an event.

Mark’s latest partnership is with Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto, Florida. The goal is to get service animals to James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital as “facility dogs.” These pups will be, for the lack of a better way to say it, the litter mates who might not cut it as seeing-eye dogs, diabetic support animals, or PTSD support, but who can learn not to bark, pee, or poop at the wrong time.

A hospital employee is vetted to care for the animal. When the employee goes to work, so will the pup. The animal will be handed over to a volunteer who takes it for pre-approved patient visitation.

Supporting 16 Charities Locally and Nationally:

Under the mantle of leadership at Support The Troops, Mark supports 16 other local charities and even a few national organizations. They include Thomas’s Promises, a group collecting 2700 backpacks filled with food delivered every Friday to seven Pasco County schools. Another is Hands Across The Bay, Julie Weintraub’s charity that works to stabilize families in crisis due to no fault of their own and advocates for domestic violence awareness and prevention. Others include Miracles Outreach, a local foster home, and The Perfect 10, a local charity that honors the life of a young lifeguard killed at Adventure Island in 2011.

Mark hosting the Medal of Honor Foundation Gala

At the national level, Mark has close ties to the Woody Williams Foundation and the Medal of Honor Foundation.

In 2019, Mark chaired the Tampa committee that hosted the Medal of Honor Foundation Gala, an event forever in my memory as I was seated next to Hershel “Woody” Williams and Mark’s delightful mother and father.

Mark orchestrated Medal of Honor recipients, Gary Sinise, George Strait, and various dignitaries without ever sitting down that night.

Mark was recently named an Honorary Marine, so I asked what that meant to him.

“It was pretty overwhelming,” Mark said.

The process started two years earlier when Mark’s USMC supporters submitted a packet. He shared the black spiral-bound, laminated book with me. On July 17, 2023, Major General Paul Rock presented him with an honor so rare it has only happened 72 times in the 248-year history of the United States Marine Corps.

Mark shares this honor with Bob Hope, Gary Sinise, Chuck Norris, and Jim “Gomer Pyle” Nabors, to name a few. He is in good company.

Mark has met many military heroes, so I asked which one had most impacted him.

Inspiring Military Hero: Ty Edwards:

“Far and away, Ty Edwards,” Mark says with enthusiasm.

USMC Lieutenant Colonel Ty Edwards was shot in the head during an ambush in Afghanistan’s Kunar province on October 18, 2008. His interpreter, Hakimi Quadratullah, just 20 years old at the time, was the first to reach him. He and other Marines withstood enemy fire as Edwards was treated in the field for his profoundly grave wounds.

Edwards wasn’t expected to live, much less ever stand again. Mark met the retired Lieutenant Colonel when he and his family started attending his church.

During the 2021 Stanley Cup finals, Ty Edwards defied all odds and stood up for the National Anthem. Mark was right by his side.

“I’ve never heard him complain. I have never heard him say, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ He is just an amazing, amazing man,” says Mark. “If you think you’re having a crappy day, look at what this man has gone through.”

Engaging Youth in Service:

As an educator, I asked Mark to generate ideas to involve youth in serving the groups he supports.

“We are seeing a generation that has gone too far away from service,” says Mark.

He was raised, like me, always to put someone else first. “At the end of the day, if you’ve helped one person, it’s been a good day.”

He wants to see us get kids back to where it’s not about “me”; it’s not about cell phones or air pods. It’s about helping someone that needs help.

“Merely one percent of this country serves so the other 99 percent can step up and get behind them.” He says. “Youth can do service projects and volunteer, especially at places like the VA hospital and nursing homes. There are a lot of folks that we take for granted. If it wasn’t for them, I mean, they’re the ones that raised their hands, took an oath, and are willing to die for this country, so I think we important for us to support them.”

Learn more about Support the Troops, Inc.

Written By Kristy Verdi, Learn and Serve Tampa Inc.


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