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'Cowboy' Gifford goes solo to organize Wounded Warrior Project benefit [Commentary]

"Cowboy" Jim Gifford isn't really a cowboy. He's a native New Yorker who doesn't try to hide his accent. Yet probe the brain of the man inside the 10-gallon hat and you'll find a born promoter, at home on the range lassoing folks to support a cause near and dear to his heart: a concert to benefit the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project. The event, which features local country and rock and roll artists, is set for the evening of May 11 at the American Legion Post 60 on lower Main Street.

"Somebody's gotta step up to the plate," said the North Laurel resident over coffee at Denny's that, judging by the zesty way he slurped it, might have been brewed over a campfire in the High Sierra, a chorus of howling wolves at nearby Jiffy Lube for effect. 

He recalled the 1970s, when Vietnam vets came home.

"People spit on them, called them 'baby killers.' They felt forgotten," he said. "The government's not doing enough for them. They're losing their houses, their vehicles." 

The Wounded Warrior Project was founded in 2003 in Roanoke, Va., by a group of vets and their friends with a passion to help injured military personnel. Today, the menu of services includes combat stress recovery, physical health and wellness and programs for family members. There are 12 field offices across the country, including one in Washington.

Gifford, 53, who works in maintenance and construction, has been a lone voice in the organizational wilderness, and he's been doing it all on foot since letting his driver's license lapse.

For the past nine months, he's solicited donations from merchants, treading the length and width of Main Street countless times, dropping off fliers and rustling up awareness. Gifford reports that Bob Mignon, owner of Minuteman Press, happily printed 500 tickets that Gifford's been selling at $15 a pop.

"I got a zero budget, and I don't take 'no' for an answer," he crowed, his luminescent blue eyes a window to the soul.  

Alone, he met a radio ad sales rep in a bar who agreed to air free spots on her cluster of stations that target a mostly conservative audience. Alone, he took on the role of talent scout, going from venue to venue before "handpicking" his musical lineup.

"I've never been afraid of going up to people and talking," he said.

Gifford is not a veteran himself, nor a member of the American Legion. He is simply an outgoing soul who delights in companionship over a beer and is a familiar karaoke crooner at Post 60.

"I love entertaining and I love getting behind a cause," Gifford said.

He regaled me with story after story, which was proof enough that he is the right man for the job. Over the winter, he noticed a blue tent that was pitched along the Patuxent River, off Route 216. So he gathered a blanket roll, toothpaste and some canned veggies and took the personal care package into the backwoods to deliver.

"I said, 'Hey, you there in the tent. I'm here to help you. Don't shoot me.' He wasn't there, so I left everything on a lawn chair and went over to (the former) Oliver's on Main Street for a beer." 

Before galloping off into the sunrise, Gifford, who has overcome two bouts with cancer and a heart attack that nearly killed him, fished for something in his pocket. He pulled out a crumpled plastic sandwich bag and held it up. It brimmed with $2.37 worth of coins, a donation from a homeless man in Elkridge. And in a voice that went from gruff to whisper soft, Gifford declared, "This one's the most important donation out of the thousands we've gotten. This man, who goes Dumpster-diving for food, humbled me." 

Reaching at least $10,000 in ticket sales, he believes, will lay the groundwork for the future.

"I'll take a month off and begin planning for next year" in a larger venue, Gifford said. "It's important to never forget the people who gave us our freedom. Open your heart and give back." 

Tickets for the concert are still available. Contact Gifford at 443-791-3254 or cbjimgifford@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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