Even If You Curse the War, You Can Still Help the Warriors

A few months back I met a remarkable man named Gene Sit. He is a money manager in Minneapolis, with more than $6 billion under management, but that is not what makes him remarkable.

He was born to a wealthy family in late 1930s China and, in the lawless years after World War II, was kidnapped and held for ransom by gangsters, but that is not what makes him remarkable.

After his family lost its fortune, he came to the U.S. in 1948, not knowing a word of English. He proceeded to study accounting and finance and work his way up a few corporate ladders before founding his own firm, but that is not what makes him remarkable.

What makes him remarkable is that he took a look around at the Minnesota soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan and felt they were badly in need of appreciation (and, often, money), and decided to do something about it.

So in addition to his many other philanthropic ventures, Sit founded the Minnesotans’ Military Appreciation Fund. “Our mission is twofold,” he told me the other day. “One, to say thank you, and two, to provide financial assistance, in small amounts, to everybody from Minnesota who has served in combat since 9/11.”

So far the organization has raised $6 million and paid out $3 million to more than 4,500 soldiers or the families of soldiers killed in action. The grants range from $500 to $10,000, depending on the type of duty and need. MMAF is a nonpartisan and apolitical group. No matter how you feel about the war in Iraq, Sit figured, it was terrible to watch soldiers coming home to Minnesota, especially the reservists and Guard members, with so little support, financial and otherwise. “One young widow just wrote to me,” Sit said, “to say that she buried her husband and she used our money to pay for the funeral.”

I asked Sit why he formed MMAF. Here’s what he said: “I just think that any well-informed individual who is patriotic and who’s been given a lot, when they learn about the sacrifices done by these very few on our behalf — I think we have the responsibility to step up and do what I did.”

I agree with Sit: regardless of your position on U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, it certainly seems an honorable and decent thing to make life a little easier for the people who have been pulling the hard duty. Even the fortunate soldiers who aren’t wounded or killed come home to a pile of bills at the very least. An MMAF grant can knock out a few months of mortgage payments, which makes a huge difference.

When he had the idea to start the fund a few years ago, Sit figured he would borrow the organizational template of some other state’s soldier-appreciation fund, but he found that no such thing existed. So he created the template himself. Then he waited for other states to take advantage of his work and set up similar funds. To date, he said, not a single state has followed, even though Sit had the governor of Minnesota write to the other 49 governors to encourage them to do so.

There aren’t many reasons I can think of not to endorse Sit’s idea – except, perhaps, if you are strongly anti-war and think that such a fund might make it more politically palatable to prolong the war, since returning soldiers don’t have it so bad. But even if that unintended consequence were real, I doubt the effect would be very strong. And even if you curse the war, you can still help the warrior.

Sit was “very disappointed,” he told me, that no other states have set up funds similar to the MMAF, and I don’t blame him. Just because a paid-volunteer army is better than a drafted one from an economist’s perspective doesn’t mean that the system is optimal.

While I don’t have the talent or experience to set up such a fund for New York State soldiers, I’ll gladly write a $5,000 check to anyone who’s willing to do so. Levitt will do the same for an Illinois fund.

Gene Sit’s organization is happy to help other states set up similar funds. His group can be contacted at 1-877-668-4269.


Josh

It's nice to hear that citizen's such Gene Sit understand the idea of giving back.

Carol Robinson

What an excellent, generous, and truly useful concept. If I were one of those billionaires NYC is crawling with at the moment, I'd start one of these funds myself. Heck, even if I were only a millionaire. But if someone does start one up, I'll send a contribution. The government certainly doesn't seem to be doing much to help--to this administration, the troops might as well be coffee beans being poured into a grinder--to be used over and over again until there's nothing left. We should be doing something, if we can't get it to stop.

Jen Smith

Doesnt necessarily apply to this post but I found a cool quote today I wanted to share with you guys. Keep up the fascinating work!
jen

An economist is a surgeon with an excellent scalpel and a rough-edged lancet, who operates beautifully on the dead and tortures the living.
Nicholas Chamfort
(1741 - 1794)

Peter Tollefson

I caddied for Gene on occasion at a Minneapolis Golf Club 5-8 years ago and am not surprised to hear that his generosity has caught the attention of you guys.

mickey mouse

If anyone has read Steve Landsburg they should know Gene's methodology is not be the most efficient way of giving charity. Instead, he must put the money in the bank and put it to sleep and grow so that the bank can lend it to needy people and help the purpose of economic growth.

(Caution: the above advice is not to be taken too seriously by non-economists)

Tucker

This is exactly the kind of philanthropy that should be happening, although there has been some evidence that the wrong kind has been happening in the pages of the NYT. Using the theory previously espoused here that exploiting a paid volunteer army, as Bush is doing, is essentially taxing those serving overseas excessively, Sit is transferring some inequitable gains from Bush's tax policy to those hurt by the taxation of the war, balancing the equation slightly in his state.

Tucker

mickey mouse: I hope the war won't go on long enough for that to be more efficient.

Ted

Thank you for using your platform to promote this cause. I usually roll my eyes at other people's "causes" but this one makes me proud to be your reader.

Bryce

I had apparently written the number down wrong originally. The phone number you said is correct.

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

It's sad to me that in such a patriotic country as America, soldiers and their families are left to deal with financial woes that come through their sacrifices. You'd think that we would take better care of our soldiers. What does it say about a country like ours, a country that is extremely pro-military, when the soldiers are forgotten and abandoned like this?

Shan

If you were the governor of any of the 49 mentioned states, would you seriously contemplate the suggestions of a guy in a position that was last filled by a pro wrestler?

Matt Hughes

Am I the only one that has a problem with the government successfully shifting the burden of care for the ill, elderly, and disabled to private philanthropists and charities? Isn't providing for the welfare of returning soldiers the provenance of the government? I understand and appreciate what Mr. Sit is doing, and to the extent that such care isn't be provided to returning soldiers by the government, I think what he's doing is necessary. But I have a fundamental problem with allowing the government to prevail in insisting that they have no role in providing for the indigent or those who've served. They're reducing the size of government in all the wrong places and I think it's awful that we're letting them do so. Thanks, Mr. Sit, but your money might be better spent forcing the government to take some responsibility for it's own soldiers.

James Parenti

I'm part of Illinois-based organization that's been doing the same thing for the past 3 years, albeit not with as a large an amount to work with. That said, with only 2 or 3 guys runnning things, we have raised about 200k to date. Our website is http://www.forthefallen.org

Dave Orr

You might be interested to know about the Fallen Patriot Fund (http://www.fallenpatriotfund.org/), run by Mark Cuban, owner of the Mavericks and interviewee of this blog. It's in a similar vein to the fund you mention here.

I imagine that various areas have various approaches to the problem; just because they're not organized on the state level doesn't mean they don't exist at all.

jacquilynne

This sort of reminds me of Modest Needs (http://www.modestneeds.org) which gives small grants to people who ask for them for specific things. It's a really interesting model of small scale, highly personalized charitableness.

Mary

No disrespect intended, but since when does our gov't. (us) not pay for the funerals of our soldiers?

I'm not saying they're being overcompensated. I just thought it was an odd example of what a recipient chose to do with a grant.

cmon

Nice charity, nice work, but the SIDE-SWIPE at anti-war campaigners was very cheap and unnecessary. Talk about taking on a strawman. First of all, because there is no evidence that anybody has anywhere criticized his foundation ever. Nor is anyone likely to do so.

You could have looked at this from so many truly interesting economic angles (e.g. private charity versus public safety nets or private insurance), so I'm really not sure why you chose to spoil a perfectly good topic by revealing with a completely unprovoked veiled attack on critics of the war.

Suppose the philanthropist had given to a charity that helps poor performing children in public schools. What kind of reaction would you have received if you had then written: "There aren't many reasons I can think of not to endorse Sit's idea – except, perhaps, if you are a strong Bush supporter and against public education and think that such a fund might make it more politically palatable to prolong the public school system in the US, since low-performing students don't have it so bad." Such an argument would be rightly called a stupid provocation. I fail to see the difference here.

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Dan

I'm confused... aren't these soldiers getting paid while they're abroad, while getting most of their living expenses as part of their duty? How can a career military person come home to "a stack of bills" when little about their financial situation has changed other than their location?

-d

Jed

A story like this makes me proud to be a Minnesotan.

John

Dan, it's the reservists and guardsmen that are taking such a big hit. For many, full time military service means making a fraction of what they made in civilian life.