CLAREMONT — It's been two years since 9-year-old Dakota Bonner has seen his dad, wounded Army veteran Robert Martin of San Antonio, Texas, but with help from the American Legion Post 29 and New Hampshire Rolling Thunder Chapter 2, Dakota is being treated to a pre-holiday vacation to reconnect with his dad.
"I truly believe Dakota's got a ton of angels working for him right now to make this all happen," said his maternal-grandmother, Missy-Lynn Bonner, who is accompanying Dakota to Texas today.
Members of the American Legion were moved by a Veteran's Day speech given by Dakota at the Legion observance this year, said Post 29 commander Sam Zannini, and so enlisted Rolling Thunder to share travel expenses to make the family reunion possible, he said.
"For Veteran's Day, Dakota did his speech and one of the things that he said in the speech was that he wanted to see his father and between the American Legion and Rolling Thunder, they totally ran with this thing," Bonner said.
His speech will bring tears to your eyes, Zannini said.
Martin and Dakota's mother are originally from the Spokane, Wash., area. When Martin was in high school he learned he was going to be a father so he dropped out of school and joined the Job Corps and pursued his G.E.D. When he was old enough, he joined the Army.
"It was the only way he knew that he could positively support his son," said Bonner, who is raising Dakota.
Martin was deployed to Iraq in 2006. Eight months later in 2007 he was severely burned when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his convoy.
"The truck in front was carrying fuel that landed on (Martin)" Zannini said.
"The door of his vehicle jammed so he had to climb out," Bonner said. "He was in a drug-induced coma for a long time."
Eventually, Martin, who received burns to 70 percent of his body, was transferred to an Army burn unit in San Antonio, Texas, where he now lives with his mother.
"It's amazing for a 9-year-old, for what he's gone through and how proud he is of his dad, and when we talked to him he said the only thing he wanted was to hold his dad, to hug his dad. It's just heartwarming and amazing," Zannini said. "We're doing it because we respect what (Martin) sacrificed, what he's done for our country. We recognize his sacrifice and we recognize it not only affects the veteran, but the family as well."
Robin Lescord, an American Legion and Rolling Thunder member, volunteered to make the travel arraignments, she said.
"He is such a great boy, brave boy," Lescord said. "It's a very touching story."
The local veterans first offered to fly Martin to New Hampshire, but he didn't want to travel because of his condition and asked for no media coverage in Texas, Lescord said.
Aside from $10 "travel pack" fees, the plane tickets for Dakota and his grandmother were free courtesy of Southwest Airlines, Lescord said.
And the San Antonio Marriott River where they are staying gave them rooms at a discounted rate, she said.
When employees of the Marriott learned of the trip they volunteered to organize and pay for activities for father and son.
"They are just spoiling him because it's never something Dakota gets. He never gets that time with his father so they are going to make it the most memorable trip they've ever had," Lescord said.
Here in Claremont owner of Upper Valley Ride, Randy Heller is driving Dakota and his grandmother to and from Manchester Airport via limousine. The pair is leaving today from the American Legion Post building at 8 a.m.
The veterans plan to gather there around 7 a.m. to send off Dakota with gifts and a pre-paid Visa card for Bonner to cover meals and other travel expenses.