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'American Sniper' widow speaks at Troops First fundraiser in Hydes

Acts of kindness toward veterans often have a "ripple effect," Taya Kyle, widow of U.S. Navy SEAL and "American Sniper" Chris Kyle, told a crowd in Hydes Sunday.

"When you reach out your hand and try to pull someone out of a ditch, the natural response is for them to grab your hand with both of theirs so you can help pull them out," Kyle said. "What I've noticed is not only in the military, but in the first responders community, that when you reach out your hand to help one of them, they almost always grab your hand with only one of theirs, because they're using their other hand to reach behind them and pull up somebody else with them."

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She spoke at a sold-out, $100-a-ticket fundraiser at DeJon Vineyards for the Troops First Foundation, which provides assistance to veterans wounded in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The event was hosted by the Republican Women of Baltimore County.

The Laurel-based foundation plans to build a 2-acre village of seven transitional houses in Riverdale Park for wounded veterans being treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to live in with their families, organizers said.

"The biggest heartburn, the biggest problem they encounter, is that they are separated from their families" during their treatment, said Bill Ensor, the foundation's chaplain. "It slows up the healing process."

Dennis Danner, 68, a Highland developer who served in the National Guard, donated the land and is helping to solicit materials, donations and pro-bono work from contractors, electricians, plumbers, lawyers and others to make the village a reality. The permit to build the first house was approved last week, and builders will break ground in the next week, he said.

"You've got to help these guys," Danner said. "We've got to let them know there's somebody out there to help them."

Rick Kell, executive director of Troops First, said he and former professional golfer David Feherty created the foundation in 2008 after visiting Iraq and talking to veterans about the challenges they face after returning from war.

The $1.4 million foundation provides many services, including Operation Proper Exit, in which they take wounded veterans back to the battlefields where they were injured to help achieve psychological closure.

"We had seen — like any other business I suppose — good, bad, ugly, and we felt there were some things that could be done a little bit better," Kell said. "But we also saw that there were some things we could bring to the table that weren't yet on the table."

In Kyle's speech, delivered over a cellphone because of a last-minute travel snag, she called the work done by Troops First "life-changing."

"I've seen firsthand the difference they've made in so many wounded veterans' lives," she said. "It's not just a trip somewhere, it's not just a special experience ... but they truly are life-changing when they set up networks for people to heal not just a little bit but all the way."

She drew laughs as she retold the story of meeting her late husband, who was played by Bradley Cooper in the 2014 film.

"When I met Chris, he wasn't 'Chris Kyle, American Sniper: Most lethal sniper in United States history,'" she said. "He was just Chris, hot guy in a bar. Right? I loved his heart, that's what I loved the most."

Families like hers benefit from Troops First's work, she said, and she thanked the fundraiser attendees for helping build a village that will be "so much more than mortar and brick."

"It won't stop there, because that's not how warriors are built," she said. "They're built to go back and reach their hand backward and find somebody else that they can help."

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