‘All I saw was sky’

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Army veteran recounts the day his ‘dream life’ was uprooted and how DAV helped him find relief

When Ray Coffey emerged from the safety of his basement the night of Dec. 10, he couldn’t believe what he saw.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I expect to come out of that basement and see nothing but destruction,” the Army veteran said.

An EF4 tornado had just ripped through his Cambridge Shores neighborhood, a small community about 30 miles away from Mayfield in Western Kentucky. The only thing left of the place Coffey and his wife, Darlene, had called home for 20 years was a wall of kitchen cabinets. The rest had been wiped off the foundation.

“All I saw was sky,” Coffey recalled.

The Coffeys were one of countless families to lose their homes to a system of tornadoes that ravaged Western Kentucky and parts of Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri that night. More than 75 people died.

For veterans like Coffey who were grateful to survive but suddenly without the most basic needs, DAV was there to provide assistance. In addition to distributing hundreds of hygiene kits with toiletries and blankets, the DAV Disaster Relief Program provided over 449 grants totaling more than $334,000 to veterans in need.

Coffey visited the site that DAV set up in Mayfield in the days and weeks after the tornadoes. When he talked about the $1,000 check a DAV benefits advocate handed him, his voice cracked.

“That was a good experience,” Coffey said. “You know that there’s good people in the world, and it restores your faith in humanity.”

In 2021, the DAV Disaster Relief Program issued 2,135 grants totaling nearly $1.4 million to recipients in 22 states. DAV benefits advocates administer the program.

Within days after the tornadoes devastated Western Kentucky, DAV sites in Mayfield and Bowling Green had benefits advocates ready to help those who had lost so much. The grants they provided, which ranged from $500 to $1,000, were intended for food, clothing or temporary lodging.

“It just helps with the day-to-day getting your life started back and headed in, hopefully, the right direction,” Coffey said.

“I think it has a tremendous impact due to the fact that they have nothing other than the clothes on their back. Every little bit is helping,” said Nashville-based National Service Office Assistant Supervisor Al Hughes, who was stationed at the Mayfield site.

In addition to disaster relief, benefits counseling and outreach about other services, DAV advocates were there to lend an ear or shoulder to cry on. “There were quite a few hugs and cries shared,” said National Service Office Supervisor Gerry Propst, who helped in Bowling Green.

Propst said he remembers one veteran, who had been found unconscious after he was thrown 50 feet from his mobile home by the tornado. Propst was able to give the veteran $1,000 on the spot.

“He came in with a good spirit,” Propst said. “He felt very lucky.”

Coffey feels similarly fortunate. He walked away with the most important thing: his wife.

“We’re not replaceable,” he said. “She’s not replaceable.”

Still, the couple has a long way to go to reconstruct what they considered “the dream life.” In the weeks after the tornado, they spent their days fielding calls from insurance adjusters and figuring out if and how they could rebuild their home. Friends opened up their homes and offered the couple vehicles, warm meals, gift cards and clothing.

“There is a tremendous sense of community in the wake of a disaster, and everyone wants to offer up help,” said National Service Director Jim Marszalek. “We are proud DAV can be part of those efforts in ways that help meet the most immediate needs of the veterans.”

When a man over 200 miles away in Eastern Kentucky found an old weather-worn photo of a couple later identified as Ray and Darlene, he mailed the couple their photo along with a $100 check.

“We’ve had a lot of good people come forward. People that we don’t know, people we know, family,” Coffey said. “And without them all, I don’t think we could have survived this.”

Hughes, the benefits advocate, said he’s honored to be that person for others.

“To be able to provide assistance to a fellow comrade, that just drives me, period,” Hughes said.

Now Coffey is determined to show the same generosity when others are in need. More than just empathizing with someone, he wants to be the kind of person who jumps into action.

“I wasn’t the guy that got in my truck and drove” to wherever disaster struck, he said. “But I will become that guy.”

 

How to get help:

If you are a veteran, or know of a veteran, in need of emergency assistance, visit dav.org/veterans/outreach-programs/disaster-relief. If you’d like to support the DAV Disaster Relief Program, visit the same link and click “Help Now.”