Bass Pro Shops founder surprises wounded NC veteran with home

In this photo made Thursday, April 14, 2016, Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops, speaks during an interview in Ridgedale, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

RALEIGH — Johnny Morris, the founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops, recently announced he was donating heavily to the building of homes for veterans, through the organization Helping a Hero, including a home for Marine Sgt. Joseph Bartel of Aberdeen.

Meredith Iler, founder of the Helping a Hero home program, told NSJ that the announcement was made in front of the Bass Pro Shops National Headquarters Store in Springfield, Missouri on Thursday. After inviting a number of veterans to spend a few days with him at a property in the Ozarks which Morris has set aside for conservation, Morris surprised them with the announcement that he will fund 25% of the next 100 homes that Helping a Hero builds. This is also when he surprised Bartel by announcing that his home would be the first of the 10 fully funded homes to be built.

Earlier this year, Morris announced at a May 19 event at racing legend Richard Childress’ vineyard in Lexington that he would be fully funding 10 homes. With this subsequent announcement, Morris greatly increases his commitment.

The earlier event was called the Lee Greenwood Patriot Awards Dinner, because Greenwood, the national ambassador for Helping a Hero, is giving out 40 Patriot Awards as he celebrates the 40th anniversary of his hit song, ‘God Bless the USA.” Morris was one of the six recipients at the Lexington event. The list included North Carolinians like former-Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and Penny and Bob Barnhill of Rocky Mount, but also big non-North Carolina names like Ainsley Earhardt of FOX News, celebrity chef Paula Deen and Christian recording artist Michael W. Smith.

The host committee included former Gov. Pat McCrory, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, Congressman Madison Cawthorn and other major state names in politics and business.

“We have been around since 2006, and we did our first North Carolina home, I think, in 2011,” Iler said of Helping a Hero, which is based in Houston. “I actually founded the Wounded Hero program kind of by accident through my Rotary Club.”

She said her Rotary Club was helping build two homes for wounded veterans for an episode of the television show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” and they decided to continue the work, merging with an existing group named Helping a Hero.

The original Helping a Hero organization, Iler said, was founded by four men, “mainly to take veterans fishing,” but her organization was larger and they liked their name, so she requested a merger.

“So I kind of went to them and said, y’all have a great name, and we have a lot of money in the bank and a great mission; let’s work together and start building homes together.”

They were thrilled, she said, and they continued to do the recreation program, taking veterans fishing and other outdoor activities.

“But our principal activity, and the one we really invest our money in, is the Wounded Hero program, and helping these guys basically have the daily independence they need to function and adjust to their new normal with the injuries they sustained in combat.”

Iler said those who don’t interact with severely injured veterans aren’t aware of how difficult it is for many of them in live their day-to-day lives.

“For example, on the burn victims, they inhale the fire and it burns the cilia of the lung,” she said. “So their skin gets burned, and even though they get skin grafts, and it looks maybe even good on the outside, they don’t have sweat glands, so they really have a tough time regulating their temperature. So inside their home, they have to keep their interior temperature at 68 degrees. So we go the extra mile in building those homes.”

They build two-story homes that face away from the sun for this reason. This allows a veteran like Cpt. Dan Moran to play catch with his son at 4 p.m. rather than having to wait for the sun to set.

Bob and Penny Barnhill of Rocky Mount, who run a charitable foundation and own the large development firm Barnhill Contracting Company, have also dedicated major funding to Helping a Hero for homes to be built in North Carolina.

Because of the Barnhills’ donation, Helping a Hero had already begun the “Nominate a Hero” process in North Carolina, which they do to find good candidates for homes. But with the announcement by Morris of 10 more homes to be built, and a commitment for at least two more of them to be built in North Carolina, Helping a Hero is actively seeking wounded veterans who need homes.

The first of the three homes, the one for the Bartel family in Aberdeen, will have a groundbreaking in August or September, Iler said. She is meeting with builders in the Aberdeen area this week.

“In an ideal world, it would be awesome if we could get them home by Christmas, but with a lot of the shortage of materials, it might be closer to Valentine’s Day.”

“We plan to select the next two North Carolina wounded warriors as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9-11,” Iler said. “With patriots like Johnny Morris and North Carolina philanthropists Penny and Bob Barnhill, it is clear that patriotism is alive and well, and the support for our wounded warriors and our military is strong.”

To nominate a wounded veteran, visit and fill out the nomination form.