Andy Ladner is a paratrooper and veteran who helped rebuild Iraqi communities after the Desert Storm invasion.
But last week he put his logistical acumen to use for a different kind of project – collecting more than 50,000 pounds of toys Tuesday to be distributed to low-income military families for Christmas.
It’s a feat that broke the Guinness World Record for a one-day toy drive, but it’s just one of the many ways that Ladner, president and founder of U.S. Veterans Corps, has brought military know-how to community service projects.
His group distributes food to needy families and aids in disaster relief efforts, most recently after Hurricane Matthew. The veteran volunteers helped break another Guinness record in 2011, assisting the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics in staging the largest 24-hour food drive.
A related effort, Operation Coming Home, has worked with local homebuilders and other groups to build 14 houses for soldiers injured in combat.
A video of their work has been accepted into the Library of Congress, and they have won multiple state and national awards. Ladner served as the state commissioner of military volunteerism after being appointed by Gov. Beverly Perdue.
Made up mainly of veteran and active military volunteers, the Veterans Corps also has a lighter side, with a team that rappels off of tall buildings and parachutes to raise awareness of their group and funds for their missions.
Karen Ondrick, a Lenovo community relations representative who has worked with Ladner on several projects, says the group’s motto, “What a Few Can Do,” accurately captures their impressive efficiency.
“They’re so low key, you wouldn’t know that they’ve accomplished so much in a short period of time,” she says. “They come up with a mission, the team buys into the mission, and they make it happen regardless of the environment or circumstances.”
Ladner’s family has always been deeply committed to serving in the military. Both of his parents served, as did his sister. He grew up with the constant movement of a military family. He considers Louisiana his home state, though he spent only a few years there.
When his time came, he wanted an airborne infantry position, but his parents convinced him to enter the Army as an engineer, an area in which he says he had limited aptitude and even less interest.
He excelled, however, in related areas, such as working with people, handling multiple tasks, and planning and executing complex projects – skills he said he learned from his father.
“My father was like the Sgt. Bilko in the Air Force – he was great at beg, barter, trade,” Ladner says, referring to the iconic television and movie character. “I learned that at a young age, and it was easy for me to maneuver in that world.”
One of his jobs was to coordinate placing soldiers into colleges and universities, managing their expectations with limited resources and logistical issues. He also was an effective teacher at a time when computer technology was transforming his field.
He gravitated easily to leadership roles, and many of his projects focused more on humanitarian ends than combat. In Iraq, he was helping to rebuild infrastructure damaged during the invasion and distributing food.
“After the battle ends, the U.S. military goes into humanitarian mode,” he says. “Some of the combat forces will go home, but the engineers stay longer to rebuild.”
He earned more than 20 medals and commendations in his 11 years of service. He worked in Central and South America, as well as Haiti. It was a mission to help in the wake of massive damage caused by Hurricane Andrew in this country, however, that he says planted the seed of a service organization.
Ladner said he, and a small group of colleagues in various branches of the military who had also been involved in humanitarian projects over the years, were awakened to domestic needs they might tackle outside their official roles.
“Feeding people in other countries is one thing,” he says, “but when you see devastation in your own backyard, your mind changes about it.”
Finding his mission
Once his service ended, Ladner held a number of jobs. He worked in law enforcement in Texas and in marketing at a Raleigh real estate firm. He earned a degree in film at Full Sail University in Florida.
But it was his job with the Homebuilders Association of Raleigh-Wake County that got him involved in service projects to build houses.
He was the group’s vice president for membership and military services when they worked with the TV series Project Makeover in 2006.
Soon after, he and veterans were entertaining the idea of doing a similar project. They had a meeting to chart out plans in 2007 and soon created the nonprofit Operation Coming Home.
The group built its first house in 2008; next year members will build Nos. 15 and 16. The group works closely with the homebuilders association and other partners, who donate supplies and labor.
“It’s the community that really builds the house,” Ladner says.
The umbrella group U.S. Veterans Corps works on the home building as well as food donations. The Cary offices are full of awards for service work and memorabilia from the many films and video games the rappelling team has been involved with.
Mannequins wearing military uniforms are placed in corners. One room is devoted entirely to the team’s gear, and a back garage holds three motorcycles – two painted in desert tan and a third with the stars and stripes.
Outside, a donated limousine and some quasi-military vehicles have been outfitted for various occasions. Volunteers work on all the vehicles for free, and the group uses them at events and during service missions to promote their cause.
“We can’t cure your PTSD,” he says of the veterans who volunteer. “But we will put you to work and give you a purpose.”
Their shows have included rappelling off the PNC Center and performing at football games and other sporting events. They also parachute in with the keys to new homes at ceremonies for Operation Coming Home.
But much of their work takes place behind the scenes. The toy drive Tuesday, hosted by Lenovo, was the culmination of a yearlong effort to round up enough donations to reach the record.
As donors drove the toys in that morning, Ladner and his volunteers loaded the them onto huge pallets weighing nearly 3,000 pounds each and ferried them on forklifts to Guinness judges on the scene.
By afternoon, representatives of Toys for “Lil” Troops were picking up the toys, which will go to families throughout the state and as far afield as Cape Cod and Fort Stewart, Ga.
Ladner is gregarious, quick with a story about his career and service projects. But Ondrick says that the whole day he was full focused on the mission.
“He did all this work, but when we took a picture he was hiding in the back,” she said. “He’s really quite humble.”
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Born: June 1968, Louisiana
Career: Director, U.S. Veterans Corps
Education: Bachelor of science, film, Full Sail University, Florida; studied nonprofit management at Duke University
Fun Fact: Ladner’s film studies have come in handy, he says, with the U.S. Veterans Corps. Some of the awards the group has won for its work involve video submissions that he shoots and edits.