Sesame Street Live creator’s widow donates $3.9M estate to Magnus Veterans Foundation
by Jim Boyle
When Sue Rawlings’ nephew Shawn Alderman joined the Army in 1988 as a young man, she hugged him especially hard.
She was married to a veteran, and she had lost friends in the Vietnam War, so she knew all too well of their sacrifices and those of their families.
Her care and concern for veterans and their families didn’t stop with friends and family then and certainly does not now that the Lt. Col. Alderman has retired from a 31-year career in the military with his stories of bravery, sacrifice, pain and healing.
“She has always been passionate about veterans and veterans’ families and their well-being,” said Dr. Alderman, whose long career included a four-year run as a group surgeon for the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) from 2015-2019.
“She has always been a patriot,” Alderman said at an Oct. 2 program at her and her widow’s farmstead. “She has supported military men and women her entire life.”
After donating her and Vincent E. Egan’s estate on what would have been his 78th birthday, she has sealed a deal to ensure that her support for veterans carries on long after she has left Earth.
Egan became known for bringing smiles to kids’ faces through his founding of Sesame Street Live. Rawlings will become known for giving veterans and their families a chance to find more meaning and purpose to live up to their full potential.
She gifted the 37-acre, $3.9 million estate to the Magnus Veterans Foundation, which has been established to create the Magnus Veterans Wellness Center, a first-of-its-kind facility that will provide social, spiritual, physical, medical and psychological experts who are devoted to optimizing the health and performance of veterans and their families. (See page 8 for more on the services it will provide.)
This is a smooth, albeit lofty transition from life in the military for Alderman and life as a civilian. During his rise to Lt. Col. Alderman, he also became a medical doctor and eventually became the leader of 5th Special Forces Group Preservation of the Force and Family (POTFF) efforts, a Special Operations Command initiative.
The Magnus Veterans Foundation and its grand plan for a wellness center are modeled after this comprehensive approach.
Alderman joined the service with dreams of being an infantryman in an airborne division. When this 20-year-old thought he was a weapons guy, his test scores pointed him toward being a medic.
His disappointment fell away when fell in love with medicine. Plus, being a medic still left you with a weapon. He just had to add a medical bag to his back. He was initially stationed in Alaska as a paratrooper.
While in Alaska he completed training as an airborne ranger and attended Special Forces Assessment and Selection in 1991 and was chosen to be a Special Forces medical sergeant.
He was assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group in 1993 and deployments to Mogadishu, Somalia, 1993-1994 and Haiti in 1995.
After completing an eight-year enlistment with the Army, he enlisted in the Minnesota Army National Guard.
His interest and aptitude for medicine, plus the fact that the Army was willing to pay for schooling, took him to St. John’s University in Minnesota from 1995-1999. He completed medical school at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in 2003 and did a family medicine residency from 2003-2006.
He spent the rest of his career taking care of special forces members and their families.
He served as a battalion surgeon for 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) 2006-2010 with combat deployments to the Philippines 2007, 2008, Afghanistan in 2010.
He completed a teaching fellowship and taught medical residents as well as international special operations medics from 2010-2015.
All that prepared him to become a group surgeon for the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), which became responsible for counter-ISIS operations in Syria, deployed in 2015 and 2017 in support of Combined Joint Special Operations Forces-Syria.
It also prepared him to be the leader of something that he has now funneled all of his passion for helping veterans of all branches of the military and their families.
“Some of my guys were on their 10th or 11th deployment with teenage kids,” Alderman said. “You can do the math. Those teenage kids have grown up primarily without their father nearby.
“As you can imagine after 20 years of war it has taken a toll on our troops, especially so for special operations who have been at the tip of the spear the entire time. We had families that were on the verge of imploding. Guys with PTSD and not performing at the level they could.”
So Special Operations Command started an initiative, the Preservation of the Force and Family effort, designed around boosting the health and performance of their operator and their family. Alderman led the successful effort throughout all of Special Forces.
After retiring, he became passionate about bringing that to veterans, but he didn’t know how that would happen. It was at this point he was back in his hometown, caring for Rawlings after she had been diagnosed with cancer and was very ill.
Rawlings had been a mentor to Alderman from the time he was a young lad. He watched with admiration her care for her family’s farmstead.
“She created all of this,” Alderman said from the kitchen table of her his aunt’s home in Dayton. “Every building, every architectural detail. Every flower that’s out there.
“Ninety times out of 100, it was her out there on her hands and knees in grubby cutoff sweatpants and a tank top planting these flowers and tending to them from dawn to dusk.”
Her husband had died, she was battling cancer and she knew she needed to downsize, but she was heartbroken about the potential sale of the farmstead to a developer.
“They would likely bulldoze the house and make a gazillion dollars building condos on Diamond Lake,” Alderman said.
Alderman was staying at the farmstead when his wife told him to pray about it and meditate. That’s what he did. He walked much of the 37-acre farmstead, going back and forth when he had an epiphany. It came after he bent at the knees and threw up. He got sick a couple of times, and when he looked up and saw his surroundings it dawned on him.
“I looked up to see the house, and bam, it hit me,” he said. “This is the most serene healing space I have ever seen in my life. I know what this place could be.”
He called his wife, talking 1,000 miles per hour, and it wasn’t long before she was crying. Then he told Rawlings the idea, and she started crying.
“That was exactly the kind of thing she wanted this place to be,” Alderman said. “From there the Magnus Veterans Foundation was formed.”
The plan is to create a one-stop-shop for all things health and performance not only for veterans but also for their family members.
The pandemic has slowed the effort, which was headed for a launch ceremony in April. Instead, the gifting took place on Oct. 2, and efforts to raise funds and set up and coordinate volunteers continue.
The hope is to roll out in phases, starting with 1,000 veterans and family members. Phase 2 would reach 5,000 veterans and their families.
The Magnus Veterans Foundation has some great partners, including Timco Construction, of Plymouth, which built the Ramsey V.A. Clinic.
Dayton has plans for installing a walking trail around the lake, Alderman said.
One of the first orders of business is getting $1 million in pledges, which will be needed to sustain the place for doing good for veterans in the two years it will take to build the facility up to full capacity.
More on services to be provided when open
Retired Lt. Col. Shawn Alderman told the Star News in an interview what the Magnus Veterans Wellness Center hopes to partner with a medical organization like Fairview, Allina, CentraCare or another to provide medical services. MVWC will then pair these services with physical, spiritual, psychological and social services to optimize the health and performance of veterans and their families. Here’s a look at each component.
Getting that person to the optimal physical version of themselves that they want to be. Examples could include a World War II veteran who wants to climb the stairs to be able to sleep in the same bed as his wife, or a young woman who wants to run her first marathon, and everything in between. Subject matter experts will assist, including strength coaches, nutritionists, physical therapists and sports psychologists.
The spiritual component of the wellness center will rely on volunteers from Elk River, Dayton and Rogers, including some from the faith communities, to provide spiritual mentorship. The Magnus Wellness Center will not be a faith-based organization, but there is a recognition of the importance of spirituality and the benefit of it in the healing of the whole person to help connect veterans and their family members to a higher purpose.
“We know that when someone no longer has that higher purpose, they become more and more isolated, and whatever injury they have is exacerbated, and that’s when things like suicide happen,” Alderman said.
A sound mind.
This is about getting folks to the optimal version of themselves with the help of psychologists, social workers and neuro-psychologists who are all trained to help men and women in the military with PTSD, sexual trauma and other issues that can be unique to veterans and their families.
On the active-duty side, this is about making sure operators are connected to their family and families connected to their unit.
“The most common reason guys left was that their wives told them to leave,” Alderman said. “They had had enough of it. By making sure they’re connected we can keep them engaged and in the fight.”
On the veteran’s side, this is how veterans and their families are connected to their community and how that leads to healing.
Alderman’s mission is to close the gap between veterans — those who go to war — and our community — those who send them to war.
“That’s the most important thing to me about social performance,” Alderman said. “It will be bringing people into the same space.”
Alderman said he is concerned about a widening gap between the less than 1% of the population that serves and those that send them into war.
“I think if I went out across America and polled 1,000 random people away from military bases and asked them about what we’re doing for the current war effort, the most common response would be ‘I didn’t realize we were at war,’ ” Alderman said. “We still have men and women dying overseas and we’re more disconnected than we have ever been.”
Alderman hopes by bringing the community and veterans in the same space, that gap can be narrowed.
Community engagement venues at the facility will range from a trunk-or-treat event to farmers’ markets with veterans’ goods for sale.
There will also be various modalities of art therapy, ranging from painting, pottery, metalworking and farming.
Dr. Edward Tick, a psychotherapist who has been taking care of veterans since Vietnam, said, “True healing happens when the veteran shares his or her story with the community they serve, and everybody shoulders that story.”
That doesn’t mean there are plans for open mic night. That would never work, Alderman said.
Magnus will work with a group like the Guthrie Theater and do plays.
“Greek tragedies were created by veterans for that reason,” Alderman said. “One of the big events we’re super excited about will be a theater on the lawn. We will have music on the lawn, too.”
For the theater events, vets will write screenplays and put them on in a very safe way.
The community will be invited, Alderman said.
Raku pottery will be another art form used for healing. Veterans will write down what’s ailing them or weighing heavy on their heart on a special piece of paper, which will be placed in the kiln.
“The paper makes this beautiful glaze,” Alderman said. “You can no longer read what it says, but that smoke rises up and the idea is that it’s lifted from you and given to the spirits above.”
Those pieces will be sold at farmers’ markets with a card indicating what the veteran wrote.
“It’s very impactful,” Alderman said.