On Aug. 5, 2010, James “Jay” Raffetto, a young Navy Corpsman from Chester County, experienced the unfathomable while serving in Afghanistan: A blast from an improvised explosive device destroyed both of his legs above the knee, his left arm above the elbow, and three fingers on his right hand.
Today, after countless surgeries and intensive rehabilitation, the 2000 Conestoga High graduate is enjoying a job with the Defense Department in Washington, D.C., and his wife Emily is attending medical school, continuing the education she received as one of her husband’s caretakers.
Credit for the couple’s success must be shared, John Raffetto, Jay’s father, said recently. In addition to the incredible fortitude of both his son and daughter-in-law, John Raffetto praised the care his son received from Walter Reed Army Hospital as well as the outpouring of support from the Chester County Hero Fund.
“I can’t say enough about how great the Hero Fund was for us,” said Raffetto. “We just marvel at what happened. We were truly blessed.”
The fund, a 501(c)3, provides financial assistance to the families of paid and volunteer first responders who suffer injury or death in the line of duty. Established in early 2001, it now sits at a crossroads: John “J.D.” DiBuonaventuro, the Hero Fund’s board president, is about to retire after 17 years as its president.
“It’s time for new leadership,” he said, adding that he is committed to ensuring a smooth transition. He said an audit is being performed, and his successor would inherit a detailed history.
The task of replacing DiBuonaventuro will fall to a search committee that includes Chester County Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh, District Attorney Tom Hogan, and Department of Emergency Services Director Robert Kagel.
Welsh, who is chairing the group, acknowledged the difficulty of the task, noting that DiBuonaventuro is a longtime first-responder as well as a deputized member of the Sheriff’s Office K-9 Unit. “He’s been the heart and soul of the Hero Fund,” said Welsh, citing DiBuonaventuro’s boundless compassion and patriotism. “He leaves big shoes to fill.”
DiBuonaventuro said he had no inkling of what he signed on for when Andy Chambers, the former Tredyffrin Township police chief, approached him about creating the Chester County Hero Fund. Previously, no county venue existed to help the families of first responders who experienced injury or death in the line of duty – beyond what insurance typically covers.
“These people lay their lives on the line daily to make Chester County a better and safer place to live,” said DiBuonaventuro. “Their families shouldn’t have to go into debt when a tragedy occurs. Our goal is to keep responders from experiencing any economic hardship.”
DiBuonaventuro explained that the Chester County Hero Fund’s Board of Trustees, an 11-member group that includes representatives from all of the county’s first-responder and law-enforcement agencies, must approve each recipient. He estimated that the fund has championed approximately 15 first-responders since its inception.
John Raffetto said the fund, which he didn’t even know existed, far exceeded his expectations. Raffetto said his family physician, Dr. Robert Priem, introduced him to DiBuonaventuro, whom he now considers “a member of our family forever.” Raffetto said the Hero Fund provided invaluable support to his son, who had served in the elite Special Amphibious Marine Reconnaissance Corpsman Team. For example, in addition to helping his son obtain housing, it also assisted him with making the residence accessible, Raffetto said.
He said the Chester County Hero Fund demonstrated the power of networking as well as the compassion of the community – both regionally and nationally. “As word got out, we got donations from all over the country,” Raffetto said. “J.D. is a superb facilitator and knows everyone in the area.”
Donors appreciated the fact that the Hero Fund is a totally volunteer organization, operating on a shoestring budget that ensures that the donated funds all go to the intended recipient, Raffetto said. The fund’s primary expenditures – about $400 a year in postage and website costs - enable DiBuonaventuro to write thank-you notes to all of the donors, both large and small.
Unlike Raffetto, Parkesburg Police Officer Ryan Murtagh knew about the Chester County Hero Fund, but he initially rebuffed its overtures. Murtagh said he was chasing a suspect in his role as a part-time officer for Downingtown this past November when his right leg slipped and snapped, necessitating a series of surgeries and rehabilitation.
Murtagh, who was unable to return to work until mid-March, said Dave Weigner, the Fraternal Order of Police president, urged him to contact the Hero Fund since workman’s compensation only covered part of his salary. “I declined,” Murtaghsaid. “I thought it was for people with permanent disabilities.”
He said after he was contacted a second time, he was assured that his situation was exactly the kind of scenario the Hero Fund sought. Murtagh’s injury had placed an undue burden on his ability to support his wife and three daughters.
“I can’t be more thankful,” he said. “J.D. was unbelievable; he kept asking what else I needed and then followed up to make sure I got it.”
Jay Wustner, a captain at the Paoli Fire Company, echoed the praise. He had responded to a building fire in Malvern in December 2010 when he was accidentally knocked off the roof of the three-story structure, a fall that landed him in intensive car at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital for nine days.
“J.D. was at my bedside,” Wustner recalled. “He said: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of whatever you need. You just focus on getting better.’”
Wustner explained that the Hero Fund covered gaps in co-pays and delays in insurance reimbursement. It also provided household support, ranging from snow removal to house-cleaning, during Wustner’s six months of rehabilitation.
“I don’t think there’s a broad appreciation of what the Hero Fund does,” said Wustner, adding that his own level of understanding intensified after being a recipient of its services. “The responsiveness and attention to detail were incredible.”
Asked about the Hero Fund committee’s search for DiBuonaventuro’s replacement, Murtagh didn’t hesitate. “From my perspective, I don’t think you can,” he said.
Raffetto and Murtagh concurred. “How they’ll replace him, I just don’t know,” said Raffetto.
Although DiBuonaventuro insisted that anyone is replaceable, he hopes the next president will understand that the position carries special responsibility. Three first-responders have lost their lives in service to the county so helping first-responders to recover from calamities represents a serious and sacred trust, he said.
Photo Caption: Hero Fund President John ‘J.D.’ DiBuonaventuro stands with Leo, his K-9 partner, and Chester County Sheriff Carolyn ‘Bunny’ Welsh.