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Love. Pain. Retreat.

When they met, he was young, energetic and ready to defend his country. She was drawn to his courage and his sense of purpose and honor. They fell in love. They got married. And together, they brought beautiful children into the family.

But then, the unexpected happened…

retreatblog1This is the way the story begins for most women who are caregivers of wounded warriors. Each one understands the risks of loving someone who may deploy to a combat zone. But no one is prepared for what can happen as a result of injury.

“Being in the military gives a service member a strong sense of purpose,” said Sara Boz, Director of our Hearts of Valor program. “If they are injured and ultimately transition out of the military, they can be deeply impacted, by the loss of identity, as well as the injuries.” Some effects of PTSD and TBI take time to surface and even longer for the service member to acknowledge they need help.

The wounded warrior may display anger, depression, or isolation which affects the entire family. The caregiver, usually the wife, often bears the burden. They feel the pressure of having to hold the family together through painful procedures, flashbacks, paperwork, therapy, and the normal tasks of taking care of kids, homework, dinner, household chores, etc.

retreatblog2So what do these women need? Support and encouragement, and time to focus on themselves.  Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor retreats are designed to provide much-needed respite. This week, 27 caregivers attended one such retreat in San Antonio, Texas.

The retreat connects caregivers with each other, provides education on complex topics, and offers time to relax and regroup.

The stories are difficult to comprehend. “These women are young – in their late 20s and early 30s – and they have absolutely no time for themselves,” said Sara. “I had a couple women, who have young children, tell me that they don’t do Christmas because they are so exhausted they don’t have the energy to put up a tree.”

After one small group discussion, a caregiver walked back to the meeting room with tears in her eyes. “I’m so glad I came. No one else understands what I go through every day.”

retreatblog3The lives they live are illustrated in the sessions provided to help them: trauma and relationships, compassion fatigue, PTSD, TBI, caregiving and financial readiness. “The staff and presenters were phenomenal and so kind,” said Tania, one of the attendees. Small group discussions, led by topic experts, were spaced throughout each day so caregivers could fully discuss each topic, share their concerns and learn ways to apply the knowledge to their daily lives.

As the retreat wrapped up, each caregiver got to “chart” their emotions before and after a few days of time on their own. When they arrived at the retreat, the caregivers said they felt “worried,” “tired” and “overwhelmed.” By the time they headed home, their words changed to “relaxed,” “motivated,” “refreshed” and “excited.”

retreatblog4While their journeys are far from over, the news is hopeful. With therapy and time, many service members see significant improvement in the ways they deal with their visible and invisible wounds. So the pain of the past, can become the lesson of the present and the hope for a remarkable future with their families.

View more pictures of the retreat.

Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor program helps caregivers navigate their journey of caring for their injured service member. The program offers support groups around the country and a network for those who are struggling. Generous donors make programs like this possible – give a gift today and help us make a difference for families like those represented at our retreat.

For the retreat, special thanks goes to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, who sponsored five caregivers to attend the retreat, and Fisher House who provided Hero Miles to fly several caregivers to the retreat. In addition, the following businesses offered donations or discounted services: Menger Hotel, Ava’s Flowers, Hard Rock Café, Mobile Om yoga, and Geronimo Trevino III and the Geronimo Band.

The presentations were led by staff from the University of Texas Health Science Center’s Strong Star program, Operation Family Caregiver (a program of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving), the Military Child Education Coalition, the Child Mind Institute and classes from Shelly McCulloch Whitehair, CPA, CIA, CGMA, a financial coach for Operation Homefront.

 

 

Taylor and The Kid

Taylor Bass took her love for goats and found a way to support military families and thank Operation Homefront for helping her family through a tough time.

Taylor Bass took her love for goats and found a way to support military families and thank Operation Homefront for helping her family through a tough time.

You could hear the bubbling enthusiasm as she spoke. “Mom! Cookie had babies!” That excited report came from Taylor Bass, the 9-year-old daughter of Army veteran and wounded warrior Benjamin Bass.

“Cookie” is a goat. And Taylor loves goats … and pretty much all animals. But what sets Taylor apart is that she is using her love for the farm and talent for raising animals to give back to people in need.

At Operation Homefront, we are continually touched by the generous nature of those who raise money for us with different kinds of fundraisers, but we have a special place for the kids who give back. And they find unique ways to be generous. Like the young girl who took donations on a back country road during the popular RAGBRAI bike ride across Iowa and raised $1000 for military families.

When we learned of Taylor’s unique story, word spread quickly among our staff.

 

 

Like most military kids, Taylor has experienced the pain of separation from a parent who serves.

Like most military kids, Taylor has experienced the pain of separation from a parent who serves.

Taylor’s dad, who served one tour in Iraq, was hit by a car while on active duty. As a result of complications from combat PTSD and those injuries, he was medically retired. In the midst of transitioning from military service to civilian life in Texas, the family struggled as they waited for their benefits to be sorted out. As their options began to run out, Operation Homefront stepped in to help. “Operation Homefront saved us because we didn’t get paid for three months and I didn’t have the money to pay (the car payment) and utilities … and (you) gave us money for food to feed our kids and diapers for my baby boy. (You) also helped us find other assistance in our area to cover our phone and school supplies for Taylor,” said Taylor’s mom, Krista.

Taylor sums it up neatly. “You guys helped us,” she said. And so, when family life became more stable, she wanted to say thanks by giving back. And she found a unique way to do that.

Taylor joined 4-H and started raising two goats – Elsa and Olaf. She did so well taking care of them that when she went to show them at the local county fair, one of her goats was selected for the premium auction at the livestock sale that followed the event.

Erica Howe, Community Liaison for Operation Homefront, met Taylor at the Texas A & M AgriLife Extension Service Office to receive Taylor’s gift to Operation Homefront.

Erica Howe, Community Liaison for Operation Homefront, met Taylor at the Texas A & M AgriLife Extension Service Office to receive Taylor’s gift to Operation Homefront.

At the auction, the bidding reached $1700 for her goat. Then, the word got out that she was giving the proceeds of the sale to support military families. People began to contribute money to the auction and to Taylor, to help her continue in 4-H.

The next day, her second goat was to be sold at another nearby auction and the news of Taylor’s intentions followed her there. The goat was sold, returned to Taylor, and resold several times, raising $1800.

 

When it was all over, Taylor had raised more than $3000 for Operation Homefront and she also made a donation to Wounded Warrior Project. “I’m super proud of her,” said Taylor’s mom.

Not one to sit back and be idle, Taylor is raising goats for 4-H again. This year, she wants the proceeds to go to children who are battling cancer. In fact, her goat Elsa was sold to a local farmer and Taylor may end up getting one of Elsa’s babies to continue her ongoing tradition of “kids” giving back.

Thank you for your service! Army veteran and wounded warrior Benjamin Bass and his family, Jaiden, Taylor and Krista have weathered a difficult transition from military to civilian life and are enjoying life on their acreage in Texas.

Thank you for your service! Army veteran and wounded warrior Benjamin Bass and his family, Jaiden, Taylor and Krista have weathered a difficult transition from military to civilian life and are enjoying life on their acreage in Texas.

 

Taylor gives us the perfect example to follow. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re up to…you can make a difference. Thanks Taylor!

 

 

 

The Fun.

Is there anything better than a warm Fourth of July? A dip in a pool or lake. Finding the perfect spot on the beach or in the local park. A spontaneous game of horseshoes or corn hole. Concerts and fireworks in small towns from coast to coast. The anticipation as dusk falls and the sparklers come out. The magic of summer in the air.

Tip: Cool Whip stands up well in the heat.

Tip: Cool Whip stands up well in the heat.

The Food.

Fourth of July cookouts and potlucks are, hands down, the best of the best. The deviled eggs, corn on the cob, fresh strawberries and watermelon, and always something special from the family Cool Whip dessert maestro. The burgers, the dogs, the smoked ribs. Messy and delicious and glorious.

 

The Moments.

Everyone seems to come out of their homes (and their shells) a bit more on the Fourth. Time slows down as the lawn chairs and blankets and coolers are laid out. We look at our phones a bit less and people a bit more.

The Promise.

There is something about the promise of our Declaration of Independence, and new beginnings that resonates with us, even today. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

One Nation.

The Unity.

It is inspiring that we get to see in others what drives so many of us to serve, the belief in that promise. All of America is decked out in red, white and blue, and we are reminded that there is more that unites us than divides us. With every salute, parade, and patriotic song, we are reminded that this gift of freedom, this experiment of democracy, is so dear to us that even to this day, young men and women dedicate their lives to protect it.

The Hope.

Even though it seems this time of year brings a new round of potential threats and calls to be aware of the dangers in the world, we pause to think about what would have happened had 56 men let their fear override their belief in the future of a free and independent state. We have been through worse as a nation, and have endured. We will continue to do so. Are we perfect? No. But the promise and the unity give us the hope. Hope will defeat fear every time.

The Renewal.

As the day ends, darkness falls and the first starburst explodes in the sky, we can reflect on the time together, away from work and troubles, and remember that America is still a strong nation. And, thanks to the legacy of those who declared our independence, those who died for it, and those who continue to protect it today…we are free.

The Team at Operation Homefront wish everyone a safe and happy Fourth of July!

“This didn’t just change his life, but the whole family.” Cheryl Gansner, Dole Fellow and Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor Program Coordinator. Gansner joins us as a guest blogger for PTSD Awareness Month.

cherylblog1

In July of 2006, Cheryl’s husband, Bryan, was severely injured by an IED in Iraq six weeks before coming home

 In July of 2006, my husband, Bryan, was severely injured by an IED in Iraq six weeks before coming home. As a social worker I knew that he might experience some form of PTSD. Once he arrived at Walter Reed, I kept my eyes open for any signs. Initially, he didn’t seem to have nightmares or jump at loud noises and he seemed in good spirits (the morphine may have helped).

 

A few weeks later, with daily surgeries, I was providing non-stop care and he was receiving a constant stream of meds. I noticed that he wasn’t sleeping in spite of heavy doses of narcotics. He said he was re-living the trauma every time he closed his eyes. Apparently his brain was trying to process what his body had experienced.

He finally fell asleep one night for a few hours and the nurse came in to take vitals. It was dark in the room. He started screaming at the nurse saying she was an Iraqi that had come to kill him. She quickly left the room. He looked absolutely traumatized when I turned on the light. His skin was gray and his pupils were hugely dilated.

That night started a long process of counseling and recovery. We spent years trying to adjust his medication combination. He spent his nights down in the basement in the recliner trying to sleep and I was alone in our bedroom. He shut out family, friends…everyone. This went on for about three years.

I was at the end of my rope. I was burnt out from my job as a social worker and caregiver. I finally got some direction when Bryan became sick with a terrible double ear infection that threw off his balance. When I took him to the doctor, he was asked what medications he was taking. Bryan said “none.” My jaw nearly hit the floor. I knew things had taken a turn for the worse, but I didn’t know he had taken himself off his meds.

When we talked more, he said he was having the urge to jump out of the car or drive off bridges and overpasses. I got him to see his psychiatrist at the VA right away and he started on a different combination of meds.

Unfortunately, things got worse. He wanted to divorce, quit his job and live in his parents’ basement. I was a complete wreck and felt like I was watching him slip away. I decided to talk to a friend/mentor about what was going on. She told me about a clinical trial using Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) for TBI and PTSD. Bryan felt it was worth a shot since it wasn’t another medication and was minimally invasive.

cherylblog2

The treatment helped and he was on half the medication. I noticed that he was laughing again, engaging in conversation and doing well in his job. Since then, he has had two more rounds of HBOT which have also helped.

 

 

 

Does he still struggle? Yes, PTSD hasn’t gone away and he isn’t cured. But we have learned to work together as a team. It has taken years, more than nine years to be exact, and lots of patience but now he tells me when he needs to leave the room, or leave a location altogether. And I don’t get upset about it anymore. I connect with friends to vent and get ideas on what I can do to help him. Having a support system is vital in a post-injury life.

Cheryl, Bryan and Emory at their recent vow renewal ceremony in Hawaii.

Cheryl, Bryan and Emory at their recent vow renewal ceremony in Hawaii.

 

We’ve been through a lot together. Today WE are stronger. I say ‘we’ because this didn’t just change his life, but the whole family. Recently, we renewed our vows on the exact beach we got married on. I am so thankful that we didn’t give up and that my hero chose to carry on instead of letting it defeat him!

 

If you are struggling with the challenges from PTSD, reach out for help. Don’t try to face this alone. If you are a caregiver, join Hearts of Valor and reach out to friends. Together, you can educate yourself on PTSD.

Will She Remember Him?

The author's husband and daughter, shortly after he returned from deployment.

The author’s husband and daughter, shortly after he returned from deployment.

As my husband prepared to leave for the first time since our oldest was born, I remember confessing to a seasoned military spouse that I feared she wouldn’t remember her Dad. She had been a wonderful mentor to me, and herself was a mother of four, and a military spouse for over 20 years. I figured if she didn’t know, no one would.

After I asked, she sort of cocked her head to one side, and with a knowing smile, told me, “They don’t forget.”

I have to admit that I wasn’t entirely sold on that. “But she’s so young and he will be gone for so long.” This was way before the marvels of Skype and social platforms, and as a submariner, we were limited to radio messages and the occasional letter or call, if we were lucky. How on earth was I going to keep their connection all of those months that he would be gone?

But she was right. Just as he was never “gone” for me, he was never “gone” for her. He may not have been physically present, but he was there. At the table, at the park, while reading her a bedtime story.

When he first returned, and we met on the pier, there was a moment when my heart sank a bit when our daughter greeted him with a curious look. But then he took off his cap and the biggest smile of recognition spread across her face.

They don’t forget. Because in many ways, Dad is never “gone,” he’s just not here. It’s a distinction that may not make sense to some, but does to military children.

The baby in this blog is now about to turn 18, and if you ask her about those many years her Dad was deployed, don’t ask “what it was like to have Dad ‘gone?’” She won’t know how to answer. My mother, the daughter of a World War II veteran, won’t know either. Because, for them, Dad was never gone, and certainly never forgotten.

Surely, there are times when the days seem to go on forever, and you miss them terribly. It hurts, and there are tears and even anger. But those are the things that are forgotten. That’s why reunions are so emotional. All of the negative, if any, flees and love floods in.

This goes out to our deployed Dads today, but we also know there are many Dads whose sons or daughters are in harm’s way. We want you to know, too, that they never forget that you are with them, guiding them and giving them strength as you have done all of their lives.

Happy Father’s Day from all of us at Operation Homefront.

 

 

 

 

 

O’er the Land of the Free…

Sunrise on Omaha Beach at Normandy, France on the 70th Anniversary. June 6, 2014 (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Sunrise on Omaha Beach at Normandy, France on the 70th Anniversary. June 6, 2014 (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

 

 

Flag at Eielson Visitor Center, Denali National Park. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Flag at Eielson Visitor Center, Denali National Park. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

flag-fireworks

 

And the Home of the Brave…

 

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Marine Sgt. Maj. Samuel Heyward Jr., recruiting command New York sergeant major, salutes as a large American Flag is presented across the field at the New York Giants military appreciation game vs the Dallas Cowboys, here, Nov. 14

Photo By: Sgt. Randall A. Clinton

arlingtonnationalmemorialdaysections60

Standing watch at Section 60. This is the section of Arlington National Cemetery for veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

 

“And when we view a flag, which to the eye is beautiful, and to contemplate its rise and origin inspires a sensation of sublime delight, our national honor must unite with our interests to prevent injury to the one, or insult to the other.” Thomas Paine, Dec. 9, 1783

Flag Day reminds us that we all live and breathe under the same beautiful symbol of American freedom. Long may she wave!

 

As Military Appreciation Month comes to a close, we’d like to show you just how much of an impact your support has on our military and wounded warrior families. The simple words, “thank you,” are expressed here in moments where you have helped us make a difference.

 

may 2015 operation homefront military appreciation 1“THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT! …I would like to thank you for all your support when my family and I struggled for a way to re-unite our family for the birth of our precious little girl. I was … deployed for 12 months … but thanks to (Operation Homefront), I was able to make it back home … and witness our beautiful (daughter’s) birth day. Your kindness, service and support for all service members and their families make me record another milestone memory for me and my family to share in the future. Again, thank you, thank you, thank you for all you do.”-From a grateful emergency assistance client

 

“On behalf of my family, I cannot say thank you enough for what your organization has done my family. Your organization has been a wonderful blessing. It is hard to describe the feeling I have now that we finally have place of our own, it is a dream come true….My family and I will continue to represent the military and the Operation Homefront family in many years to come.” – recipient of a mortgage-free home through our Homes on the Homefront program

 

“I would not be where I am today without the help of Operation Homefront… Now I feel like I am in a good position to be there for my family. It helps to know that there are people out there who are there for me.” – family served by Operation Homefront

 

may 2015 operation homefront military appreciation 2“My wife is very happy. From the second we got here, it’s reduced my symptoms, and it’s a safer environment. I don’t see shadows at night as often. And when I was in the hospital, I didn’t have to worry about my wife being safe because we have Felicia (Operation Homefront transitional housing director in San Antonio).” Wounded warrior family being provided a rent-free apartment through our transitional housing program

 

“I really appreciate all your assistance… This is bringing tears to my eyes. My wife will be extremely excited about this. Again, thanks a million and one. I wish I could give you a big hug…May God Bless you and your family.”-military family served by Operation Homefront

 

may 2015 operation homefront military appreciation 3“Thank you Operation Homefront for blessing our girl with a new car seat and many other goodies!! We are incredibly thankful and appreciate all that you do for military families!!!” – new mom who attended one of our Star-Spangled baby showers

 

“I just wanted to thank you for the incredible help you and your organization provided my family. I am positive we would have suffered so much distress without the compassion and aid extended to us. I really can’t put to words just how grateful we all are… Please pass on my thanks and my wish to help out …and know that you have made a real difference in our lives and we will never forget how generous Operation Homefront has been to our family.” –family provided emergency financial assistance

 

“I really appreciate all your assistance… This is bringing tears to my eyes. My wife will be extremely excited about this. Again, thanks a million and one. I wish I could give you a big hug…May God Bless you and your family.”-military family served by Operation Homefront

 

“Thank you again. A huge stress has been lifted off of my shoulders. I cried when we got off the phone. It is so amazing to talk to caring people who want to help. You were super nice and helpful and you kept me informed throughout the entire process. What you did for me and my son means more than you know. ” –military family served by Operation Homefront

 

Thank you! Those kind words are directed to all of you, our supporters and volunteers. We couldn’t serve and honor our military families without all of you who give so much. Operation Homefront welcomes the talents and gifts from our community in a myriad of ways. You can volunteer with your local Field Office, provide support or goods for our events like Back to School Brigade and Star Spangled Baby Showers, or help a military family through a crisis by donating to our Current Needs.

 

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