Michael Dorman was doing what he does most evenings, helping a North Carolina veteran obtain safe and secure housing, when his cell phone wouldn’t stop ringing. He tried to ignore the “unknown” number but finally gave in on the sixth try.
“It was the White House. They said over 6,000 people had been nominated for a Citizen’s Medal, and I was one of 13 chosen by the President to receive it,” recalls Dorman, who in 2008 founded Military Missions in Action in Fuquay-Varina, N.C. “From now on, I guess I need to answer all the time.”
The Citizen’s Medal is the nation’s second-highest civilian honor. Dorman got the word on Jan. 31 but had to keep it under his hat until the White House issued the announcement on Feb. 8, just one week before the emotional ceremony that was held in the East Room.
“That was a pretty tough challenge. There are so many people I wanted to share it with,” Dorman says. “I didn’t get here by myself. There were a lot of volunteers who made it possible to get to this point, a lot of donors. I wanted to shout it off the rooftop.”
Military Missions in Action (MMIA), which provides services to veterans with disabilities and active duty service members, will celebrate the honor at a reception set for March 3. Dorman says he will use the occasion as a call to action to expand the reach of the organization, which in five years has dedicated $2 million in services to more than 15,000 veterans and active duty troops.
“As I told the President, we’re just getting started,” Dorman says. “I want to use this event to change our service from reactive to proactive. I want to have the funds on hand to help people when they come to us, instead of having to fundraise for each individual need.
“The needs will never go away. In North Carolina alone we have more than 880,000 veterans. Not all of them are disabled, but at some time in their lives, those men and women will need assistance like we provide.”
MMIA provides a range of services, including building wheelchair ramps and retrofitting bathrooms and doorways to accommodate assistive devices that allow veterans to remain in their homes with privacy and dignity. It also provides similar services to veterans who have special needs children, repairs leaky roofs for aging vets, and ships care packages overseas every month to cheer service members in conflict zones. They even send treats for military service dogs.
Dorman, a retired Coast Guardsman, did not have a master plan for creating MMIA. The idea came to him while watching the sun rise and stretch its shimmering light over the North Carolina coastline.
“I honestly had never thought about it before. I was sitting on the porch that morning, and I thought to myself, ‘I need to do more with my life,'” he says. “Being a veteran, I knew it had to be for veterans. Not just the ones coming home now, but older veterans who also need services.”
Dorman found particular motivation in the story of his grandfather, who served in World War II and was held as a prisoner of war for 17 months in Austria. He did not suffer debilitating injuries at the time but became unable to care for himself as he aged. He had to leave his home and move into an assisted care facility.
“He told me he felt like he was back in a POW camp,” Dorman says, his voice still carrying the heartbreak of the conversation. “I decided that if I could do anything to help these men and women live out their lives at home, that’s what I wanted to do.”
Dorman says there are 24 service projects on MMIA’s waiting list at present, but he expects the number to grow as awareness of the program increases.
“We get a lot of donated supplies and volunteer labor, but there are still things that we need money for,” he says, adding MMIA can show a solid return on investment with just 2 percent spent on overhead. “In my 2011 audit, we reported $140,000 in real cash money. With donations of time and materials and support, we completed $980,000 worth of services. It just shows how the community giveback aspect of the program works. It shows how much we can do when we don’t have a lot.”
The White House remarks made when President Obama presented the Citizen’s Medal define Dorman’s commitment to service:
“When Michael Dorman saw disabled veterans struggling to secure the opportunities they had given so much to preserve, he knew he had to act. A 20-year veteran of the Coast Guard, he founded Military Missions in Action to help veterans with disabilities live independently and support those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. His organization has completed more than 100 home improvement projects across the state of North Carolina and shipped thousands of care packages to service members in the line of duty. The United States honors Michael Dorman for his exceptional service to our Armed Forces and our Nation.”
Dorman, who exchanged ceremonial challenge coins with the President before the presentation, says he expected to be nervous but felt calm during the event. “He’s a very personable man and did a great job making everyone feel comfortable,” he says. “Everyone there was so deserving. It was a great honor to be among them.”
Now that he’s back home in Fuquay-Varina, Dorman is focused on serving more veterans. “As long as we have men and women wearing a uniform, we’ll have a need for the services we provide,” he says. “With the continued support of our community, we’ll be here for those who need us.”