Warrior Foundation Origin Story: Sandy Lehmkuhler
By Danny O’Neil


The Warrior Foundation Freedom Station didn’t start with an idea so much as a belief.


We can do better.


That’s what Sandy Lehmkuhler thought when she was visiting an active-duty Naval Hospital in November 2004, but more importantly it’s what she felt as she met a four Marines, each of whom had lost an arm, leg or had a neck halo on because of an IED explosion. She asked them what they needed with Christmas coming up, and after those the four Marines stood up as straight as their injuries allowed and insisted, they were just fine, ma’am. Only the second time, she asked after she had stepped between them, pushed the “Stop” button on the elevator so those Warriors would know she was serious. She was a Navy wife, a Navy mom and she really wanted to know what the one thing was they needed.


Turned out there was something: a Norelco Cool-Skin electric razor with built-in lotion dispenser. The four Marines were amputees, and while they were able to help each other with the buttons and tie their shoes, shaving was impossible, hence the razors.


This is where the Warrior Foundation started, not in terms of paperwork or formal designation as a 501 (c) (3), but something more important: its mission. Back before the Warrior Foundation raised a single cent, or opened either of its Freedom Stations, Sandy Lehmkuhler believed we could do better for our critically injured and ill Warriors. She believed that we should do better and that the country could do better was to get these razors for these Warriors who’d already given so much. Except it was 300 razors, and they were $68 a piece so she needed a little help.


That’s why she wound up writing to KFMB 760 AM the next morning to see if they’d be willing to help spread the word about what these warriors needed. The radio station, which is now 760AM (iHeart Media), was more than just interested, it chipped in. The campaign raised more than $68,000, and Norelco provided the razors at cost.


Turned out that Sandy was just getting started. The Warrior Foundation Freedom Station has raised more than $20 million in donations and services. It moved from those electric shavers to buying airline tickets so injured warriors could travel home for the holidays. It arranged for custom-made combat boots that zipped up from the heel, which meant they could be worn on prosthetic limbs, allowing Warriors who’d lost a portion of his/her leg to appear in complete uniform with matching combat boots.


In 2011 the Warrior Foundation opened the first Freedom Station, an eight-cottage development in the South Park area of San Diego. The objective was to provide a transitional housing option for Warriors preparing to leave the military. In 2020, the Warrior Foundation opened Freedom Station II in the same neighborhood.


Two things have remained constant through all of this:

(1) The belief that we can do better as a country for those members of our military who suffer critical injuries while serving their country.


(2) Sandy Lehmkuhler

She may not have planned to start a multi-million dollar non-profit when she visited that active-duty hospital in 2004, but she turned out to be uniquely suited for it. She had worked as a union stage manager, which gave her a background in managing a lot of moving parts. She was also working full-time at the corporate headquarters for Jack in the Box, and maybe as important as anything, her life as a Navy wife had taught her not just to pinch pennies but to make them scream.


She brought that focus to a specific group of Warriors: those who’ve been injured or become ill during service. Everything from injuries on the battlefield to a cancer diagnosis to the scourge of post-traumatic stress. These active-duty warriors have both immediate and long-term needs that the Warrior Foundation Freedom Station seeks to address with quality-of-life items like razors, combat boots and specially designed ultralight wheelchairs for competitive basketball and more long-term assistance such as transitional housing.


The Warrior Foundation has seen a specific need among those warriors who have suffered injuries that meant the end of their military service. The day a Warrior is told he or she won’t be able to continue in the military is harder than most of us can imagine. That Warrior, who has already given so much, has been told they’ll no longer have this position that they’ve sacrificed so much to hold. Over the next nine months, which is how long it usually takes to finalize the discharge, the warriors find themselves caught between two worlds. On the one side there is the military life to which they’re accustomed, but where they’ll no longer serve. On the other side is the civilian world, which is going to take some getting used to, and on top of all that these warriors are dealing with the physical and emotional trauma that comes from the injuries.


It’s this reality the Freedom Stations were designed to address. Sandy Lehmkuhler had been looking for a suitable site for something like this for years, and she believed that when she found it the property would talk to her. Turns out it was a palm tree that spoke loudest as she came across eight little cottages with a palm tree right in the middle.


That palm tree is gone now, replaced by a flagpole with a big eagle on top. The cottages are still there, painted a light yellow so that it’s reminiscent of the military buildings. Like military housing, but not military housing. Their own place where they’ll live next to Warriors facing the same challenges, sharing step in the journey back toward civilian life.


As for Freedom Station III and Freedom Station IV? Stay tuned. This foundation that started with Sandy Lehmkuhler’s conviction that we can do better is committed to doing just that for our ill and injured Warriors.