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Local nonprofit helps families of fallen soldiers

The 98 Fund expands its facility to assist more families
Published: Jul. 12, 2021 at 6:07 AM AKDT|Updated: Jul. 12, 2021 at 8:51 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Volunteers with a local nonprofit are hard at work in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough this week. The 98 Fund is dedicated to helping families of fallen soldiers.

For The 98 Fund President Mark ‘Rock’ DeRocchi and board member Jason Kostal, it’s a labor of love and a personal mission to help the families of the fallen soldiers that meant so much to them.

“Right now we know 100 percent of the people that we’re taking care of. Every single child, we knew their parents personally,” Kostal said. “Basically, everything that we do is making sure that we allow their memory to live on and continue on long after we’re gone.”

DeRocchi and Kostal both graduated from West Point in 1998. Just a few years later, they said they found themselves in the middle of the global war on terror.

“As a result, at our 10-year reunion, we had many classmates that had been killed in action,” DeRocchi said. “We determined that just having a memorial and a service for them was not enough to recognize them.”

That led DeRocchi to start the nonprofit, a project that launched in 2007 and slowly took off by providing scholarships to children of fallen soldiers. He said the project grew over the years and expanded in Alaska in 2015 with The Alaska Project.

“I was the casualty assistance officer for Major Paul Voelke who was killed in Afghanistan in 2012,” DeRocchi said. “That resulted in a special bond with his two boys — and in 2015 when we as a board decided to start the Alaska project, we decided to bring the oldest son, AJ, out for that trial run which went fabulously, resulted in healing for me, and for AJ and a lifelong mentor for him, and it took off from there.”

He said The 98 Fund now focuses on hosting retreats to help families of fallen soldiers heal.

“Our retreat intentionally pairs someone that knew the fallen with the children and/or the widow to form a bond for life, and that becomes a mentor for all the days forward,” DeRocchi said.

Kostal and DeRocchi both said the work they do also brings healing to them personally.

“We always think we’re giving back to the children, but the reality is they’re giving back to us,” Kostal said. “Having endured what they go through, they have an incredible strength and resiliency that sometimes only a child can have — and it teaches us how to get through our daily life and go through the things that we’re dealing with.”

Last year, DeRocchi said he had to look for a new property for The 98 Fund. He ended up purchasing land near Hatcher Pass and started getting to work.

“What we have so far is we have our initial caretaker cabin which is where we’re sitting right now,” he said. “We have a well house, a bathhouse, and then that’s what’s done.”

This week, four additional cabins for the compound are being built with the help of 72 volunteers who flew in from throughout the country to assist. Among the volunteers are families of the fallen along with disabled veterans.

“Each one of these cabins will be named in memory of one of our fallen classmates,” Kostal said.

Next week, DeRocchi said a fifth additional cabin will be built by gold star members.

“Gold star means someone who’s lost someone in service,” DeRocchi said. “Next year we’ll complete six through 10 cabins, and then we’re waiting for our last big build and that’s our main lodge.”

The compound still has a ways to go before it’s complete. DeRocchi said it could take five to six years depending on the funding and amount of volunteers available.

In the meantime, DeRocchi and Kostal plan to continue helping and reaching more families of fallen soldiers.

“This is for the rest of my life as long as I walk on this planet, these kids will be part of my family,” Kostal said.

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