Those who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan bring home their own particular memories - some funny, some not so much. Some bring home their own particular wounds. Some never come home at all.
This Veteran's Day, one company started by a "serial entrepreneur" provides a uniquely modern way to say "thank you".
Products for Goodsells "liberated Iraqi coins" which people buy for veterans in their lives.
"They use them to say thank you, many times, to someone they never thanked," says CEO Lane Ostrow. He says active duty soldiers on the front lines are also buying the coins to send to families back home.
The coins have an interesting story.
Ostrow says they were discovered by British troops in Basra in 2003, but they had no monetary value. "Saddam had decommissioned them because they didn't have his picture on it." The Brits auctioned off the coins to raise money to build a local orphanage. Ostrow says there were originally 100 million coins, but 94 million were melted down. Over the years, the remaining six million coins moved to China, then to a collector in Tennessee. Ostrow heard about them and believed he could make a business out of it. He bought them in 2005. "I have several million dollars invested in the business," he says, money he raised from locals in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. He began selling the coins as commemorative gifts in 2006. Lee Greenwood is now his national spokesman, and 20 percent of all sales are given to veteran-related charities.
So far they've sold about 200,000 coins, and donated $420,000 to charity.
Make no mistake, this is a for-profit company. "People ask me, why aren't you a charity?" Ostrow tells me. "If I was a charity, I would not have been able to get people to put up millions of dollars to buy the coins." He expects to be profitable from a cash flow perspective after the next 100,000 coins are sold. "If Rush Limbaugh would mention us, we'd sell out immediately."
Products for Good recently launched "Honor One in a Million" where you can buy a coin $20, fill out a card, and it will be hand delivered to a wounded vet at a VA facility. Ostrow says they've sold a few thousand so far, but he hopes to sell a million of them.
Ostrow says the Defense Department knows about the coins, and, since they have no value, there's no problem selling them. Sales this year are "a little bit better than last year." During the recession, Ostrow winnowed down his entrepreneurial pursuits and focused on Products for Good. "It means the most to me," he says.
This week he attended an event put on by Vietnam veterans in Huntsville, Alabama. The gathering honored 29 wounded veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, vets "who were never welcomed back home" from the war. These 29 didn't return stateside with their units to fanfare, family and friends. Instead, they were medivaced out from the battlefield, injured. "The Vietnam vets told me they decided 'We are not going to let anyone come home without a welcome.'" So the Huntsville Vietnam vets flew in the 29 modern-day vets, where they were met at the airport by a group of cheering supporters. Ostrow presented each one with an "Honor One in a Million" commemorative coin. He watched as the young veterans took it all in. "We really make a difference."
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