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Quietly Brave

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So used to putting others first, here wounded warrior caregivers learn it’s okay to take care of yourself, too.

Almost anyone can be brave for five minutes or an hour. The bravery no one talks about is the hardest bravery of all. When you get up in the morning, every morning, even though you’d rather shut out the world for a while longer….or maybe forever. That’s the bravery that doesn’t make headlines and no one notices.

I met some women this weekend at Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor retreat who exhibit that kind of bravery. They are young, beautiful, and energetic. Many women their age are pursuing careers and going out with friends. The reality these women live…day in, day out…most of us cannot comprehend.

These women have answered a different call…it’s a call they didn’t choose but couldn’t ignore. That is the calling of a wounded warrior caregiver.

They fell in love and married a service member. Or their son chose the military life. Through no fault of his own, their man was injured…badly. His injuries may be invisible – PTSD or TBI or both. Or they may be excruciatingly obvious…burns or amputations. And now their sole focus is to care for that man.

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Connecting with others who understand their unique journey can have a huge impact on the spirit of a caregiver.

Take the time to read about PTSD and TBI. According to this resource, “home is no longer the safe haven but an unfamiliar front with unpredictable and sometimes frightening currents and events.”

I spoke with one caregiver who said, “I am 28. I am young and I love to have fun and be loud. But I can’t be that way at home because I don’t know how he (her husband) is going to respond. I feel like he doesn’t see the real me anymore.” And many of these women say the man they live with is different from the man they married.

It can be frustrating, confusing and demoralizing when your husband doesn’t know how to show emotions of love and affection anymore…and it’s not his fault. It’s a result of his brain injury. Or maybe it’s the opposite…he’s overly needy, overly dependent and needs his spouse to be by his side to the point of suffocation.

But the real crisis occurs with flashbacks and unpredictable bouts of rage. As one participant said, “we are living with trained weapons…in his dreams, he’s running missions every night in his head.” So they sleep very lightly, very cautiously, just in case they need to get away quickly.

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Operation Homefront treated the caregivers to a special dinner cruise on San Antonio’s River Walk, giving them a much-needed chance to relax, have fun and bond with new friends.

In spite of all that…they stay. Love keeps them from choosing the easy way out. As part of a session on using writing or art to relieve stress, one caregiver wrote a poem that speaks to the inner strength of these women:

The battle is within. Me. Him. Us.
It is never ending. Worthy.

And that, my friends, is bravery.

It was Operation Homefront’s honor to host more than 30 of these amazing caregivers at a special Hearts of Valor retreat this weekend in San Antonio. The retreat provided extensive education about brain injuries, sessions to help women cope with stress, and time for them to just relax, take care of themselves and make connections with other caregivers who understand the life they live. Find out more about our Hearts of Valor program. Thank you to the following organizations that provided services to make the retreat a memorable experience for our caregivers: La Quinta River Walk, Seasons of Care, San Diego Sexual Medicine, San Antonio Military Medical Center, Mia Mariu, Azuca, Huskin Photography, Casa Rio, Sight-Seeing San Antonio, Zenergy Wellness and Rio San Antonio Cruises.

Today, AmeriCorps celebrates 20 years dedicated to making an impact in communities throughout the United States. Through AmeriCorps, more than 900,000 Americans have served more than 1 billion hours over the past 20 years. Thousands of communities and millions of Americans have benefited from their service.

At Operation Homefront, we have welcomed many AmeriCorps members inside our four walls. Each of them have brought their unique talents and insight to make our organization stronger. One such member, Vickie Starr, shares what the AmeriCorps experience has meant to her:

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Vickie Starr, who worked as an AmeriCorps member for Operation Homefront, landed her dream job in our communications department.

At a non-traditional age, I completed my Master’s degree. And like most college graduates, I was eager to join the work force (again). And ready to eat something other than Ramen noodles.

Instead of moving in with my parents until I found a job, I moved in with my son. Resume’ in hand, I filled out many applications.

AmeriCorps called, and I was extremely interested…until I found out that I would be a volunteer and receive a small stipend. I had just scraped through four years as a college student, so I really didn’t want to be a broke AmeriCorps volunteer.

But there was a huge dilemma. The AmeriCorps position with Operation Homefront was my dream job. And I really wanted my dream job.

My son agreed to let me live with him for very little rent (I think he forgot his years of free rent under my roof). My car was paid off, my student loans would be deferred for a year, and my medical would be paid for. Financially, I could make it work.

On July 30, 2013, I joined AmeriCorps and Operation Homefront. Unbelievably quick, my year flew by. I learned so many new things and developed valuable skills. Certain moments and experiences will be forever etched in my memories:

  • One mother, Donella, told me that she cried when her son arrived home, as part of our program to fly service members home. And she cried when he left too.
  • Purple Heart recipients were given toolboxes by the Sons of the American Revolution. They were touched by the gift. I was touched by the sacrifices that many of our veterans have made for their country.
  • Too cute kiddies came to our Back-To-School Brigade in San Antonio for free school supplies, joined by thankful and grateful parents that had one less thing to worry about.
  • One young son, whose family had just received a mortgage-free home, flexed his muscles during a key ceremony. I think he knew that receiving a home would strengthen his family.
  • That first thank you letter I got from a family that received food assistance is something I’ll never forget.
  • I tried not to cry as I attended a Homefront Celebration and listened to Michelle Cuthrell speak about her life as a military spouse. I cried any way.
  • It was cold outside as we pushed buggies loaded with groceries out to the cars of service members during our Holiday Meals for Military program. But my heart felt warm.
Operation Homefront staff in San Antonio helped welcome some of our newest AmeriCorps members to our organization. We're looking forward to a great year of helping military families.

Operation Homefront staff in San Antonio helped welcome some of our newest AmeriCorps members to our organization. We’re looking forward to a great year of helping military families.

 

I could go on and on about my experience working with dedicated Operation Homefront employees who truly love their jobs and helping out military families.

Every story should have a happy ending. This one does too. I am now a full-time employee at Operation Homefront. Thanks to AmeriCorps, my dream job is now my reality.

 

 

 

In 2010, Operation Homefront (OH) began its partnership with AmeriCorps by bringing on board Michael Heymsfield to work in public relations. Since then, 29 AmeriCorps members have augmented Operation Homefront in needed areas. Currently, OH has 16 AmeriCorps positions and two AmeriCorps VISTA positions. We were happy to celebrate with a swearing in ceremony today in San Antonio.

 

As Americans, we can’t help but feel mixed emotions as the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 approaches once again. 13 years have passed, and yet we still feel the pain over the senseless loss of life that occurred that day, the fear of a world that can and does change in the blink of an eye. Yet, at that same time, we remember the unity, the courage and heroism exhibited, and the voice of a people who would not be bowed by the actions of those who exist to break the spirit of a nation.

For some, the pain is still fresh even these many years later. And for some, it is just another day. For others, the events of Sept. 11, 2001 was the catalyst for change, a call to action. For millions, it was a call to serve and protect as a member of the United States military.

At Operation Homefront, we have had the privilege and honor to support these men and women for more than 12 years. Each one is an example of what makes this country deserving of the gifts of liberty and freedom and why it continues to be a beacon of hope for so many around the world. The cost to our military and their families has been high:

  • More than 5,000 have given their lives to the cause of freedom.
  • More than 50,000 have been wounded or injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • More than 1,700 required amputations.
  • Among service members deployed in these conflicts, 103,792 have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) over the period 2002 to December 2012. Over that same period, 253,330 service members have been diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) of some kind.

          (From the February 2013 Congressional Research Service report)

I remember meeting Jane Horton, widow of Army Specialist Chris Horton, who was killed in action. She wore a black bracelet with Chris’ name as a visible reminder to others that Chris’ sacrifice will not be forgotten. I was moved when she took it from her own wrist and gave it to me, and I’m wearing that bracelet as I write this. I will help to insure Chris will be remembered and the freedom secured by his sacrifice will go on.

As we reflect on the sacrifices made and endured on this anniversary, we must never forget that freedom really isn’t free, but requires constant vigilance. On a daily basis, we are bombarded with vivid images of regional conflicts threatening national boundaries; demands from radical extremists who resort to horrific acts of barbarism to intimidate and inspire fear; and international figures who seek to destabilize their neighbors in hopes of advancing their own self interests.

sept-11-blog-operation-homefront-jim-knottsYet on this anniversary, we should reflect as well on the spirit of a united country that still holds fast. Of neighbors helping neighbors, every day. Those that spread the light to banish the darkness. And that young men and women still answer the call to protect and defend in the face of the unknown and unseen, no matter how far from home it may take them.

Please join me today in honoring the service, sacrifice, courage and commitment of an entire nation, with a special thanks to our active duty military, our veterans, our wounded warriors and their families.

Jim Knotts, President and CEO
Operation Homefront

If you would like to know more about our mission, please visit us at www.operationhomefront.net . At Operation Homefront, we support both active duty families as well as those wounded warriors who are in varying stages of their transition and recovery. Programs like our transitional housing, and permanent mortgage-free housing, serve critical needs for this community. Our emergency financial assistance program remains a lifeline for these families in their times of need. And you can help. We maintain a list of these current needs on our website where, thanks to your support, we are able to make a difference for these families every day. Or you could give a general donation to be used for any one of our programs.

While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.” ― Angela Schwindt

September is here, and that means that, by now, an estimated 1.3 million military children[1] are back in school. For the last eight consecutive years, our team at Operation Homefront has been honored to be there to send them off via our Back-To-School Brigade program.

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Ready to take on the world!

For our staff and volunteers, Back-To-School Brigade is not about the more than 100 distribution events held nationwide this summer, or the approximately 44,000 backpacks distributed. It’s about the 5-year-old who can barely contain his excitement about going to Kindergarten. Or the slightly nervous teen headed off to high school. The 3rd grader who can’t decide if their favorite class is math or gym. (you can tell they want to say gym, but feel like they should say math).

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Seeing all of the smiling faces and feeling the excitement makes Back-To-School Brigade a favorite time of year.

Back-To-School Brigade is, for us, also a time to learn. Learning who our military kids are and hearing their stories. For many military children, this may be their first school or their fourth. Mom or Dad may be helping them with Algebra this year via Skype on an iPad far away from home. The brigade lets us share a small part of their journey, and reminds us of the sacrifice made by all members of a military family, and why our mission to support them matters. They teach us about courage, resiliency, the power of gratitude and the impact of a smile.

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This is what it is all about!

Thank you to our amazing volunteers who collected donated school supplies over the summer, as well as those who helped organize and run our distribution events. In addition, none of this would be possible without the support of our community and sponsors, who donated everything from reams of paper, to crayons, to backpacks and much more: Dollar Tree, SAIC, Veterans United Foundation, RetailMeNot, eBags and Eckrich — you’re the superheroes of BTSB!

 

You're all heroes to us.

You’re all heroes to us.

Stay tuned! October 1 is when we open up the nomination period for the Military Child of the Year Award ® . This award recognizes military children who have demonstrated the characteristics of exceptional citizens while facing the challenges of military family life. Help us let our terrific military kids know just how special they are.
[1] http://www.militarychild.org/student-identifier

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Diego and his mom, Jennifer, on the day they handed out “I Served” stickers and encouraged veterans receiving treatment at the VA Hospital in Brooklyn, NY.

“Words of kindness are more healing to a drooping heart than balm or honey.” Sarah Fielding

One very special military boy, Diego, 8 years old, was determined to do something to make life a little brighter for the men and women who received care at the VA Hospital in Brooklyn, NY. And he did. In the words of his mother:

“Since we moved to Ft. Hamilton, Diego has been so curious about the veterans hospital.

It is a very tall building that we see daily when we enter and exit the base. He has asked many questions and made many comments. One really got me.

‘Maybe they are sad because they just have one leg and are looking at the window, wanting to go home.’

He asked me if we could go to the hospital and bring empanadillas for the veterans. (I know. This boy is pure gold!) I explained to him that they are very strict at the VA and that was a very cool idea but maybe we were not going to be allowed to do that.

We had been brainstorming when, driving one day around the neighborhood, we saw a sign that says: “Don’t forget our Veterans at the VA Hospital.” Diego once again reminded me that he wanted to go to the VA.

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Honor. Respect. Remember. Healing words for those who wonder if their sacrifices are forgotten.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me info about a program that gives free Operation Homefront “I Served” stickers to veterans and asked me if I wanted some. Bingo!

I told myself, ‘I’m giving out those stickers at the VA, and putting a smile on those veteran’s faces. Period.’

I told Diego that I was going to contact the Volunteer Coordinator to ask for permission. We got a call a few days later that we were good to go! Diego was happier than a dog with 9 tails!

On our visit, where we passed out about 200 stickers, we saw a little bit of everything. We engaged in meaningful conversations with true heroes, talking to me and my son about world history. What can be better than that?

My heart is full today. We shook hands, handed them their stickers and thanked them for their service.

It was something so simple that made many people smile. I’m talking about people that have sacrificed so much so I can live free and happy in this great nation.

Anyone can do that. We don’t have to do great big huge gigantic things; just do what you can, when you can. Sometimes we might feel that what we do is a small drop in the ocean; but the ocean will be less because of that missing drop.

Thank you, my boy, for pushing “Mami” to do this and thank you Operation Homefront for all you do for our veterans and military families!”

Diego lives with his mom, dad and sister at Fort Hamilton, NY where his dad serves in the U.S. Army. Thank you to this wonderful family who live a life of service every day.

Find out more about our I Served sticker program that offers a variety of free stickers to recognize veterans for their service. View our Pinterest board that features pictures from friends who have received a sticker.

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Making Of A Home

Military families learn early on that home is where the heart is, as they move across the country, or across the sea, and back again.

They learn that their foundation is not made of cement but it is built upon memories with other military families they cross paths with along the way. Most agree that, while it’s a great experience to see other states and cultures, it’s nice when you can finally settle in one place and put down some roots.

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U.S. Army National Guard Sergeant Brian Lynch and his family were recently awarded a mortgage-free from Chase, through our Homes on the Homefront program.

Our Homes on the Homefront program gives military and veteran families a chance to do that. Since 2012, we’ve awarded more than 400 homes to military and veteran families. Whether the key is handed over at a ceremony with VIPs and celebrities in attendance, or whether it’s a quiet event with a few pictures at the front doorstep, the impact is still huge.

These families, who have sacrificed so much in their lives, are now living mortgage-free.

That means that the dollars that were once used for rent can go to earning a degree or can be put away so a child can go to college later. It means they can pay off a car faster…or buy a newer one. It means that they have more freedom, choices and control over their future.

For one family, it means they can pay their medical bills.

U.S. Army National Guard Sergeant Brian Lynch joined the National Guard because he knew it would help him grow as an individual and add discipline to his life. In 2008, he enlisted in his hometown of Rockford, Minnesota and recently reenlisted for another seven years. In 2013, he served a tour in Afghanistan.

Brian married his childhood sweetheart, Michelle, and they have two children. Michelle has needed multiple surgeries due to a medical issue she was born with. Their finances have been stretched under the weight of significant medical expenses and monthly rent.

While they’ve tried to set aside money for a home, it hasn’t been enough. Brian heard about the Homes on Homefront program and applied for a home that was near his family.

Thanks to Operation Homefront and Chase, Brian was awarded a mortgage-free home in Zimmerman, Minnesota.

“It means the world to us,” said Brian, “now we don’t have to move from place to place.” He is looking forward to watching his kids grow up. He and Michelle have relatives living nearby and look forward to spending the holidays together.

“I would like to say thanks and that we are very grateful,” added Brian. “I was gone for a year, but now if I go again, my family is able to do things without me being there.”

They can now settle in and place their heart and their home in one spot.

eckrich-operation-homefront-cmt-hot-20-countdown-randy-houserThe Lynch family were featured on the CMT Hot 20 Countdown episode today. As part of their home giveaway surprise at Country Thunder in late July, they got to meet country music star Randy Houser, enjoy a great cookout with Eckrich and learn that they were also going to receive free groceries for a year from Walmart.

To find out more about our Homes on the Homefront program and see available homes across the U.S., go to www.homesonthehomefront.org. Thanks to our partners Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Meritage Homes for donating homes to this program.

Not Again.

It is hard to find the words to describe what happens when a life is extinguished. Even harder, it seems, when that life was taken.silhouette-wounded

So it was with shock that I learned this week that another talented, gifted, and beautiful soul had convinced himself the world would be better off without him. Because this person was famous, there was a cyber-shockwave that reverberated through the social media world. But as palpable as that shock was, and the depth of the emotions being felt worldwide, nothing comes close to what those who were closest to him were feeling.

I know a little bit about that feeling. Because 30 years ago, a young man, full of life and a bright future, was found in a field, not far from his home, in the early evening hours. With a gunshot wound to his head.

That young man was my brother’s best friend. Athlete, class officer, with a smile that melted all the girls’ hearts. And despite how close they were, my brother still had no idea that his friend had slowly convinced himself that the world would be better off without him.

He was 14.

No matter how many years pass, and how many lives are lost, one never gets past the memory of that pain.

Along with those memories often comes a feeling of defeat, of resignation. “Not again.”

It is a resignation that creeps into the minds of many of us who work in the military and veteran communities every time one of our own loses the battle with their pain. Posts in social media in the wounded veterans’ community spoke of avoiding the news, of trigger alerts and warnings, of fears past and current. And sadness.

It is believed that 22 veterans take their lives every day in this country. Each one extraordinary, one of a kind. They leave behind shattered hearts and, often, more questions than answers.

But as quickly as it comes, that resignation turns to determination. A need to ensure this doesn’t happen again. And while it does, and it will, we can’t stop working towards the goal of preventing suicide among our men and women in uniform and our veterans.

So please, from someone who has experienced the indescribable pain that suicide causes to loved ones and friends, I ask that everyone hammer home that help is available. Sometimes it may seem you are shouting into the wind…but someone may hear you. It could be that 14-year-old teenager. Or 63-year-old. Or a veteran for whom war has taken the spark of the soul, and who feels that the only way to tend the pain is to end their life.

Here are some resources to share:

Veterans Crisis Hotline

Real Warriors

National Suicide Prevention Hotline

IAVA Campaign to Combat Suicide

DCOE Outreach Center

Military Crisis Line

“Survival is your strength not your shame.” – T. S. Eliot

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