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“A life-saving idea”

Jim Hake, Spirit of America’s CEO, speaks about charity as a trademark of the US
07 June, 12:16
Photo from the website UACRISIS.ORG

Jim Hake is the CEO of a charitable organization Spirit of America and the chief sponsor of the military Army Radio FM, which began broadcasting on March 1 this year. He has recently visited Ukraine. During a press briefing in the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center he announced, apart from other things, the campaign to raise 200,000 dollars in order to purchase additional transmitters that would allow the Army FM’s signal to be available for every soldier in the ATO zone and in the west, where the soldiers are trained. In an exclusive interview with The Day, Hake, who is a former Los Angeles businessman, spoke about how he became involved in military charity, and why did he decide to support the Army FM project.

“I was an internet and technology entrepreneur, I had started one of the first internet media companies in the mid-1990s. At the time of the attacks of 9/11, I wanted to do something to help with respect to these attacks. I have always felt very strongly about the ideals and freedoms that America stands for, but I had no idea what would actually be useful to do. I don’t have any government or military background at all; I had no international assistance or NGO experience.

“So, I was channel-surfing, watching TV, and I stumbled upon this National Geographic show, it was telling the story of a US Army Special Forces team in Afghanistan, and its job was to find members of Al-Qaeda and also to begin helping the local population get back with their lives as normal. And the scene that caught my eye was a scene of US soldiers playing baseball in this village with Afghan boys and girls.

“Sergeant Jay Smith, who was being interviewed on this show, explained that he and one of his fellow soldiers had taken the baseball mitts to Afghanistan to play catch during their free time. And Afghan boys who worked for the soldiers in the kitchen started playing with their mitts. So, Sergeant Smith called his wife on a satellite phone and said ‘honey, can you send over enough baseball bats and mitts so the kids can play game?’ She raised money from family, friends, people in their church, people she worked with, and bought the equipment and sent it over to her husband.

“It was clear to me by watching this that something very special was going on in terms of the relationship between our soldiers and these children. And that was the ‘light bulb’ moment when I realized that soldiers like Sergeant Smith were the real ambassadors of America, and they had more to do with how people perceive America and Americans than our official ambassadors.

“So, I tracked down Sergeant Smith through the producer of this TV show, and I flew to meet him. I learned from entrepreneurship if I have an idea – maybe it’s a good idea, maybe not – that it is better to talk to people who really know, talk to your customer. So, I went to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, talked with Sergeant Smith and some of these other soldiers, and as I described my idea, they were very enthusiastic. He [Smith] kept saying that this idea was going to save lives. The first time he said it, I had him to why he said it. And he explained that because of the relationship that he and other soldiers built with those villagers – they did lots of things to build relationships, small-scale humanitarian assistance that was specifically needed in that community – the villagers formed a night watch patrol to protect the soldiers from the Al-Qaeda that was crossing the border at night and firing rockets on the camp.

“So, when he explained this to me, I thought I had to do this now, and I named the organization Spirit of America to reflect what we think of some of the best characteristics of the American people: initiative, generosity, and optimism. We have a trademark for charity, it’s also on our license plate for the state of Massachusetts. We didn’t invent the expression, but our idea is to bring the genuine spirit of America to try to help in these very difficult places where it is hard to make any progress.”

And how did you start to implement this idea?

“I was working at my house at that time, so the Spirit of America was me. I still did not know anyone in the military, so I started E-mailing people who wrote blogs about military affairs and I said to them: ‘If you know anyone in Iraq and Afghanistan, please tell them to contact me if they need this kind of help, things that can help the local population.’

“In the summer of 2003, I heard from two different Marines in two different parts of Iraq. One said that dental supplies were needed. And the other was looking for red-white-blue soccer jerseys and shorts. With some of my own money and money from my family and friends, we supported these two projects. And the third one was with an army captain near Sulaymaniyah in Iraq, which was recently liberated from the Islamist control, and we provided musical instruments to the Kurds living in that area.

“It started to grow, and we were getting E-mails from soldiers and marines who needed something, and we would find a way to get it to them.”

What did you want to achieve with this activity, what were your goals?

“The central idea behind what we do is to listen to the people who are there, and we complement them, supplement them by having our personnel also go to these places to understand things from a different perspective, really to listen. The most important question for US personnel that works on this is ‘what we are trying to accomplish by doing this thing?’ To be quite simple, it is to build stronger relationships, not just to give somebody something. Actually helping someone is a lubricant in building trusting relationships. So, we try to understand US personnel’s perspective as well as local population’s perspective when it’s possible; what the impact of the work is. And that was exactly how we approached things here in Ukraine.”

How did you know exactly which help Ukraine needed?

“It was back to Marine Corps Commandant General Joseph Dunford. In his confirmation hearing to become the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he identified Russia as his principal source of concern, as the greatest national security challenge to the United States. So, when he said that, we started to reach out to the people we knew in the Department of Defense asking the simple question ‘how we can be helpful in Ukraine?’

“And we very quickly were talking to General Ben Hodges, Commander US Army Europe, and Ambassador Pyatt here in Kyiv. So, that process is to get down to the lowest level of the people who work on specific ideas and projects to help making impact.

“Firstly, we supplied first aid kits for Ukrainian soldiers who were trained by the Americans at the Yavoriv Training Area. One of the issues there initially was the survivability of Ukrainian soldiers once they were injured, and the individual first aid kit is important, because the first hour makes an enormous difference in whether one lives or dies. Many Ukrainian soldiers were dying because they did not have the right supplies in their first aid kits.”

How had you came across the idea to create the Army FM radio station, who offered it?

“We were speaking to an official in the US Office of Defense Cooperation, to identify Oleksii Makukhin and Ruslan Kavatsiuk as two reformers and advisers in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, one is adviser to Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak and the other – to [the Chief of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces] General Muzhenko [respectively. – Ed.]. So, this official said these two men were the right guys to work with and had some high-impact ideas that needed just a little bit of help to make these ideas happen. The Army FM was an idea of Oleksii and Ruslan.

“So, we started talking to Ruslan and Oleksii in November [2015], and about three or four weeks later in December we made a commitment to support the Army FM. It was in total 130,000 dollars. At first, we had to work out some logistics, in terms of who the vendors would be who would provide equipment at the best price, because we provided the funds directly to the vendors, not to the Ministry of Defense. Say, in the first week of January funds were being wired to vendors, they were readying transmitters and studio equipment. We have provided for Army FM and the first aid kits more than 200,000 dollars of direct assistance already.

“It was announced in December that the Army FM would be launched by March 1. I was quite aggressive about it, it was the date we set, and we hit that goal. So, we will be raising additional funds to take Army FM further.

“The thing we are trying to do is to do the things that have the greatest impact, and also help what the United States is already trying to accomplish. So as to create more of some would call a unity of effort, a whole nation approach. It just means the things we are doing are more focused and have greater impact.

“It is that way also in the case of Ukraine, what the United States is trying to accomplish is to stop Russian aggression and do things which counter the very insidious Russian propaganda that is influencing so many people.

“It is really hard to fight propaganda with media alone. The saying is, your actions speak louder than words.

“And this Army FM is both an action and it is words. The action is having something that meets the needs of the soldier. It’s not just about putting information on it, it’s about actually meeting their needs, and allowing people to interact with higher levels – it is a groundbreaking thing in the Ukrainian military, and for most militaries. So, Army FM meets their needs and allows them a way to better communicate. And mobile groups, which are part of this whole effort, they are routing through frontline positions not just delivering information, but in some cases, entertaining soldiers, in other cases, listening to their psychological problems and questions, or their questions about policy – meeting the needs of the soldier. And so, when you are doing that, that is more effective than investing in TV, in my opinion. So, I would rather invest in the action than in more words.

“So, in the case of Army FM, we spent for the first phase 70,000 or 80,000 dollars on transmitters, radio equipment, etc. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense is finding the facility, the operating budget, the personnel. So, it’s not just our money that’s having an impact, it’s all the other things which our money helps to make the most of. One effect is on the soldiers on the frontlines, they have higher morale, they are better informed, they are happier, more satisfied, they don’t give up.

“I think most civilians, like me, not me now, but earlier, can forget that without the soldiers at the lowest level, if they don’t succeed, nothing else works. Some people see soldiers almost like robots, but they are human beings.”

It is the fourth time you visit our country. What are your impressions of Ukrainians, and of Ukraine in general?

“Well, the thing I have been so encouraged by since I have come to Ukraine, it has almost been a year now, 10 months, is the initiative and capabilities of Ukrainians I have come to know. Those working for the Army FM, that schoolteacher in Krasnohorivka’s music school, who against all odds, I would say, is still finding a way to keep students, even though the building was bombed out, and as a result, was not supported by the local government. These are small encouraging examples of optimism and initiative in this country, but you also see it reflected in the volunteer movement. I don’t know what the amount is, but what Ukrainian citizens have done to support their men and women who serve with almost everything imaginable – uniforms, you name it. Without that kind of initiative, commitment of people in a country, not much can happen. And what I see is the huge amount of it in so many parts of Ukraine, that gives me real optimism for the country’s future, makes it really fun to help, and that makes our help much more effective.”

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