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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.