WASHINGTON — Michael Dorman of Fuquay-Varina, N.C., greeted President Barack Obama with a hearty swing of a handshake Friday at the White House as he received a Presidential Citizens Medal for his volunteer group’s work to renovate houses for disabled veterans.
The medal is one of the highest honors for a civilian, and Dorman, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Military Missions in Action, was one of just 18 people who received it for 2012 from among 6,000 people nominated.
“We host a lot of events at the White House, but I have to admit this is one of my favorites,” Obama said in the ceremony in the White House East Room, “because it’s a moment when, as a people, we get to recognize some extraordinary men and women who have gone above and beyond for their country and for their fellow citizens, often without fanfare, often with not a lot of attention, very rarely for any profit.”
“You do it because it’s the right thing to do, because you want to give back. And today, we honor you.”
As a military aide read their names and citations, the medal recipients stepped one at a time to a podium with the president between the room’s full-length portraits of George and Martha Washington.
Among the others honored were the six educators killed in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.; child health and development expert T. Berry Brazelton; and former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford, who helped start the Peace Corps.
“The United States honors Michael Dorman for his exceptional service to our armed forces and our nation,” the military aide said as Dorman received his medal.
“What an incredible experience,” the 20-year Coast Guard veteran, former contractor and North Carolina native said afterward. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to go meet the president of the United States for something I just feel needs to be done.”
Military Missions in Action rebuilds disabled veterans’ homes across North Carolina, adding wheelchair ramps and roll-in showers or replacing roofs and walls and making other repairs. The volunteer builders include college students, church men’s group members, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and many others – some 500 people throughout the state, Dorman said.
“I like to call it a cross between Habitat for Humanity and ‘Extreme Makeover’ for veterans with disabilities,” he said.
Since he started the group in 2008, it has renovated homes for more than 100 veterans, from those who served in World War II to those returning from Afghanistan.
Military Missions in Action also helps veterans who suffer from traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder as they relearn daily tasks. Its Operation Warrior Golf program teaches disabled veterans how to overcome limitations through golf.
MMIA volunteers also hand out hygiene kits to homeless veterans. And its “Fill the Footlocker” program has sent 10,200 care packages to members of the military in combat zones.
Dorman said the care packages are his favorite part. The first place the Coast Guard shipped him was Guam.
“I’d got used to a few staples in my life – Lance crackers, RC Colas, Cheerwine soft drinks, MoonPies – and they didn’t have any of those on Guam,” he said. “I was always really thankful when I got a care package from home. It was probably the biggest morale booster I experienced when I was overseas.”
Dorman said the inspiration for starting the group came to him one morning as he watched the sun rise and waves role in at Hunting Island, S.C. He’d retired from the Coast Guard and spent several years working in construction by then, and he decided his next role should be to help disabled veterans live independently by improving their homes. When he returned to North Carolina, he got started.
Today the group has 24 houses ready to work on as soon as it can raise the money for supplies.
“Usually the biggest problem with working with volunteers is me getting the money to do the projects as quick as the volunteers can do it,” Dorman said.
A sense of service is something Dorman remembers from his childhood in Lumberton.
“I grew up in North Carolina in an area where when a neighbor’s barn burned, all the neighbors came and rebuilt the barn. When someone was sick, they got the crops in,” he said in an interview.
Today Military Missions in Action could be rebuilding 100 houses a month, the need is so great, Dorman said. North Carolina has an estimated 760,000 veterans, according to the Veterans Administration. Dorman said that some are disabled by age, and others may suffer effects of recent wars years from now.
“What we’re doing now,” he said, “the need will never go away.”