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Archive for the ‘Holidays’ Category

by Cathy McCarthy

All of us here at Operation Homefront hope that you get to enjoy family time together on Thanksgiving this year. But, we also know that many military families will not be with their loved ones. That is just part of military life, and one of the prices paid in service to country.  You are not alone. Many military spouses and families have been there, done that, and can completely understand how you are feeling.

With my husband who was away for long periods of time on a submarine, I celebrated many different kinds of Thanksgivings. You might see yourself in one of these “styles.”

 

  • Style 1: Family Is What You Make It: In all our years as a Navy family, we were never closer than 5 or 6 hour’s drive from family, and most of the time, no closer than 1,000 miles. I have hosted families who could not make it home and gathered spouses and children of my husband’s shipmates when the submarine was deployed. On one occasion, we had 12 people hanging out in a 900 square foot military housing unit (shout out to Jackson Park)!  Never thought I could have so much fun crammed into a tiny kitchen peeling 20 pounds of potatoes. I was blessed to spend time with so many amazing military families from all over the country, each with unique stories but united in our support for each other (despite their unfortunate choices in NFL teams – Go G-men!).

That’s two units on the second floor there, folks.

 

  • Style 2: Hit The Road Solo: I decided one year when my husband was deployed on Thanksgiving to take to the air and go see extended family. My parents and brothers were literally on another continent at the time, so I went to see my grandma, cousins, aunts, uncles and in-laws. A three-day whirlwind tour, pregnant, with toddler in tow.  Many military families are familiar with the “short time, long list of places to be” tour. In hindsight, I might have scaled it back a bit. It was great to see family, but a bit exhausting by the end. That is how I found myself at SFO crying to “I’ll be home for Christmas” at 10PM at night. But I also met a young soldier on a layover who was flying home to see his little girl, having been deployed to Korea for the previous six months.  I still have the coin he gave my 2-year-old daughter in my jewelry box.

Actual coin given to my then 2-year-old daughter by a soldier on his way home to see his daughter. I’ve kept this coin for 20 years.

 

  • Style 3: Dinner at the Command Because You or Your Spouse Has Duty: Not many can say they have had Thanksgiving on a submarine (the boat, not the ship…don’t ever call it a ship). Hubby had duty and we were invited to come have dinner with him. After all these years, I have never stopped marveling at how the guys (gals, too, now) could handle life undersea for so long in those tiny spaces. I’ve had walk-in closets bigger than the mess deck on one of those things. I have also had Thanksgiving at the dining hall when I wore the uniform. And while it may not be Momma’s cooking, our shipmates do a pretty darn good job.

 

  • Style 4: Eat Somewhere That Is Open on Thanksgiving: Because they’re in 12-hour shift work and you have a whopping 10 hours to do anything, including sleep.

 

  • Style 5: Pick Your Own Day to Celebrate: I once had homecoming shortly AFTER Thanksgiving, so many of the division families got together and had Thanksgiving in early December, potluck style. Thanksgivings can be the day before, day after, or week later. I bet someone has had it in October…any day but actual Thanksgiving.

We are very sorry but we are unable to accommodate your Thanksgiving plans this year. Can we touch base in April?

 

Which is why that year on actual Thanksgiving Day I resorted to …

 

  • Style 6: I’m Over It: Turkey sandwich. Early bedtime. Enough said. But seriously, sometimes, it is okay to just give yourself an out and take a pass on festivities.  Quiet and rest is often vastly underestimated.

TOTALLY NOT an accurate representation of the sandwich I actually had. Think less lettuce, tomato, cheese and more tears.

 

And finally, last but not least…

  • Style 7: Overcompensating: And, when my husband was FINALLY home for the holidays, I busted out the Bon Appetit, Southern Cooking, Food and Wine and found the most complicated cookie, cakes and side dish recipes, created an over-the-top centerpiece, and decorated like our home was getting photographed for Town and Country. For me, him and two toddlers. Because we had not had a Thanksgiving together in a long time and I was going to knock it out of the park and create the best memories ever! I recovered in enough time for Christmas, which believe me, was much more low-key.

Did I bake enough desserts for 4 people? I don’t know…better make three more pies!

 

But in all seriousness, as tough as it can be for families, in our hearts, we know it is so much tougher for our service member.

The challenges we can face as military families at the holidays is one reason why I love Operation Homefront’s annual Holiday Meals for Military program so much.  It is such a nice way to meet the military families in our communities and let them know we appreciate all they go through and that we are thinking of them. Most of the time, I bring my kids along to volunteer, and we always have an amazing time. We’ll be distributing over 7,000 meals in November and December this year in cities across the USA. That’s a lot of holiday cheer, and this year, we will be serving a holiday meal to our 400,000th family member since the program was born from a chance encounter between a Beam Suntory executive (one of our sponsors) and a young military family in a supermarket in Utica, New York, near Fort Drum.

If you would like to provide some holiday cheer for a military family this year, please consider donating to our Current Need fund for holiday meals.  You can also join us in our Raise Your Hand or Giving Strength campaigns or volunteer at one of our upcoming Holiday Meals for Military events.

For military families interested in receiving a holiday meal, you can find our list of events and links to register here.

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Operation Homefront!

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To honor our Nation’s veterans, Operation Homefront would like to share the stories of the veterans who have touched our lives through our programs.  Please join us every day as we feature a new veteran in our #11Days11Stories series leading up to Veterans Day 2019.

Arlacee and Thien Luu are a power couple, though they might laugh at the description.  But anyone reading their story can see the power of their courage to never give up and have faith.

Arlacee, now an Army reservist, originally enlisted in the Army – and proudly served – to earn the education benefits and for the challenge. “A lot of people … did not think I could accomplish basic training, much less complete my contract,” Arlacee said. “I chose the Army because I wanted to accomplish my dream of joining the military and to prove that I am capable of anything.” In the Army, Arlacee, an E-4 specialist, was a surveyor and a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist. Her platoon worked on nuclear, biological and chemical reconnaissance vehicles.

Thien, her husband, served in the Army from 2007-11, including a 2009 Iraq deployment. He was medically retired after sustaining a traumatic brain injury from an IED blast.

Even these challenges did not shake them.  Then came their transition from service.

Arlacee and Thein had no idea how to afford a place of their own and they ended up staying with family when they first left military service. This allowed them to save a little and prioritize their spending to care for their baby’s special needs.

dual-veteran-family-receives-mortgage-free-home-chase-operation-homefront-varep-october-2018-phoenix-arizona-web

Arlacee’s and Thien Luu’s 1-year-old son, Derek, was born without ears, and with a heart condition that required surgery to correct. He can hear with hearing aids, but because of his hearing impairment, Arlacee would like to enroll him in a school for the deaf. She acknowledges that caring for Derek, who is “beating the odds,” has been a lot of work for them, not only going to doctors’ appointments but also accepting his limitations.

On top of the childcare needs, they felt financially stymied trying to address their career goals, which required them to further their education. Arlacee’s wants to go to graduate school, and possibly work part time as an intern with the university’s geology department. She received a bachelor’s degree in biology in 2012 from New Mexico State University and will attend University of New Mexico in Albuquerque to pursue advanced degrees in geoscience, using her post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits. She would like to become a geoscientist, perhaps supporting the military or working for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Luckily, Arlacee remembered Operation Homefront’s Homes on the Homefront program. While they were stationed in Hawaii, an Operation Homefront (OH) employee described how JPMorgan Chase and other partners donated mortgage-free homes across the country to award to eligible military families.  Once families are accepted into Homes on the Homefront (HOTH), they receive financial counseling to assist with saving, paying down debt and improving credit. Homes are deeded to those who successfully complete the program in two to three years.

A home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, caught her eye. Arlacee grew up on and near the Navajo reservation. She and her parents, who still live in New Mexico, are part of the Navajo Nation, and Arlacee missed the “remarkable” desert and mountainous landscapes, colorful scenery and clean air. Though she feared HOTH was too good to be true, she applied and was accepted for an Albuquerque home.

“We never, in a million years, thought we would be matched with a home,” Arlacee said. Using the Navajo word for thank you, she added, “Ahéhee’ for your generous donations.”

“We are extremely grateful, you have made a huge impact on our lives. This house is a true blessing, allowing Thien and I the opportunity to provide for our son and to continue our education. We are determined to make an impact and share our generosity with others, as you have done for us.” Arlacee said she also looks forward to the financial counseling that comes with HOTH because it will reinforce budgeting and the importance of saving, and hold them accountable. “It’s a push in the right direction,” she said.

Living in the HOTH home without the pressure of a mortgage is “such a relief,” Arlacee said. “It’s … a heavy burden off our shoulders …(and) we can focus on our child.”“Veterans go through different trials and different situations” such as injuries that sometimes require them to take things slower, Arlacee continued. “It makes life a little bit harder in different scenarios, compared to my coworkers … we face different challenges. [Operation Homefront] is a good organization to help alleviate some of these issues that we face.”

“I’m so grateful that … it’s not a too-good-to-be-true situation. We’re grateful to the donors.”

There are many families who still need our help. Check out our Current Needs page and you can help us serve America’s military families today.

Operation Homefront is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to build strong, stable, and secure military

Just as these veterans raised their hand to swear an oath to serve their country, you, too, can join in committing to support them through Operation Homefront’s #RaiseYourHand campaign. Learn more at operationhomefront.org/RaiseYourHand

families so they can thrive — not simply struggle to get by — in the communities they have worked so hard to protect. For over fifteen years, we have provided programs that offer: RELIEF (through Critical Financial Assistance and transitional housing programs), RESILIENCY (through permanent housing and caregiver support services) and RECURRING FAMILY SUPPORT programs and services throughout the year that help military families overcome the short-term bumps in the road so they don’t become long-term chronic problems. Please visit us at www.operationhomefront.org to learn more or support our mission.

 

 

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To honor our Nation’s veterans, Operation Homefront would like to share the stories of the veterans who have touched our lives through our programs. Please join us every day as we feature a new veteran in our #11Days11Stories series leading up to Veterans Day 2019.

An oath for life, and to give your life, is one of the most solemn gifts one can offer to their country and to another. Medically retired Army Sergeant Jennifer Gonzalez and her husband have offered theirs, and it has not come without a high cost.

Jennifer was only 17 when she joined the Army. A recruiter contacted her, and Jennifer became interested in the medical field. Although Jennifer knew of her family’s history of military service, she would be the first and only female from her family to serve. “I thought joining the military sounded cool,” said Jennifer. “And I was spontaneous and liked to take risks.”

During her 11 years with the Army Reserves, Jennifer had one deployment to Iraq that forever changed her. Suffering from post-traumatic stress. Jennifer was medically retired.

Because of her disability, her husband is now also her caregiver, while also dealing with his own transition from military service. When the family moved to a smaller town, Jennifer’s husband found it hard to find a job, especially one that was comparable to his previous job at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Without a second income, Jennifer and her husband soon found themselves in financial stress. When Jennifer received a disconnect notice from the electric company, the couple reached out to Operation Homefront for help with their monthly bills.

Thanks to generous donors, Jennifer and her family will not have their power disconnected. Not only was Operation Homefront able to pay Jennifer’s utility bill, but also paid her auto insurance payment and provided food assistance.
Jennifer is not alone. In 2017, Operation Homefront received 1,900 requests from veterans across the nation that needed help with their utilities. Additionally, over 1,300 veterans needed help providing food for their families, and over 1,300 service members requested help with their auto payment and insurance. With two more months left in 2018, we are on track to see the same, if not more, especially with the recent natural disasters hitting heavily populated military areas, such as the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.

“I am so appreciative and grateful to Operation Homefront’s donors who help military families without another place to turn to,” said Jennifer. “We had no family to turn to for help. It is very humbling to ask for help, but we are so grateful. Your donors think of others after the fact (completion of service).”

“Operation Homefront is a great organization,” continued Jennifer. “My caseworker Erik was great to work with. There are a lot of emotions a veteran feels when they are transitioning; it can be shameful to ask for help and very hard to do, especially for veterans who are very independent. I never felt like I was treated differently.”

Just as these veterans raised their hand to swear an oath to serve their country, you, too, can join in committing to support them through Operation Homefront’s #RaiseYourHand campaign. Learn more at http://www.operationhomefront.org/RaiseYourHand

There are many families who still need our help. Check out our Current Needs page and you can help us serve America’s military families today.

Operation Homefront is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to build strong, stable, and secure military families so they can thrive — not simply struggle to get by — in the communities they have worked so hard to protect. For over fifteen years, we have provided programs that offer: RELIEF (through Critical Financial Assistance and transitional housing programs), RESILIENCY (through permanent housing and caregiver support services) and RECURRING FAMILY SUPPORT programs and services throughout the year that help military families overcome the short-term bumps in the road so they don’t become long-term chronic problems. Please visit us at www.operationhomefront.org to learn more or support our mission.

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Deidrick Caesar, who exited the Air Force in late 2017 after 15 years of service and five deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, no longer worries about providing a home for his wife, 12-year-old daughter and new baby due this month.

Deidrick, his wife, Lissette, and daughter, Lianna, were one of the first families to move into a new home constructed under Operation Homefront’s Transitional Homes for Community Reintegration (THCR) program. The new program, made possible by the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation, was designed as a gateway for stability so veteran families can remain strong, stable and secure after their military service.

During his Air Force career, Deidrick served as a medical technician. He enlisted in 2002, first deployed in 2005, and deployed for the last time in 2014. His experiences range from working in the intense, trying environment of the emergency room or intensive care unit at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan to being the noncommissioned officer in charge at the neonatal intensive care unit at San Antonio Military Medical Center.

As Deidrick prepared to leave the Air Force on short notice after narrowly missing promotion requirements to E-6, he and Lissette were concerned about transitioning, particularly affording housing after losing steady income. Due to his experience downrange, Deidrick receives compensation for a 50-percent Veterans Affairs disability rating for post-traumatic stress disorder.

But with a baby boy on the way, and Deidrick needing to finish his degree before changing careers, they weren’t sure how to find their way forward. Thanks to THCR, they now feel reassured they won’t lose their footing. “It’s kind of a big deal … that a paycheck won’t be coming in,” he said. “It’s … a struggle just to come to terms with what am I going to do now. How are we going to survive?”

While living in the roughly 2,000-square-foot home in the Helotes area of San Antonio, technically rent-free, they will pay utilities and make an additional monthly payment. OH will refund them the total amount of the additional monthly payments when they graduate in two to three years from the program, which also provides financial counseling to assist families with saving, paying off debt and improving credit. The Caesars can use that refund for a down payment on a home or other needs.

The Caesars are grateful that Operation Homefront and the Clark Foundation are a major part of the solution that will lead to self-sufficiency. “This is probably the biggest blessing so far,” Deidrick said. “It’s a great feeling. That’s what everyone dreams of, being able to … buy a house … having a place we can call home.”

Deidrick acknowledges that working in trauma care took its toll over time. “Most of my deployments were rough,” Deidrick said. “I’ve seen all the soldiers and the coalition forces and even detainees come through with massive injuries.”

He also endured a health scare of his own that led to a major surgery in 2016. While imaging a blood clot found in 2015, doctors discovered a mass that was growing. Fearing it might be cancerous, they removed it, which required a 56-centimeter incision in his back and gluteus and 72 staples. The mass was benign but doctors continue to monitor Deidrick, who was a patient at the same hospital where he used to work. He could not walk for about six weeks and needed six months of physical therapy at Brook Army Medical Center’s Center for the Intrepid.

Deidrick was anxious while waiting to find out if the mass was cancerous because both of his parents died of cancer about 13 years apart in the 2000s.

Through it all, Deidrick has maintained a positive attitude and outlook. He sees a mental health care provider regularly for problems sleeping. He also stays active, working out, running 5K and 10K races, hiking and volunteering when he can.

“Always, I’m that type to look on the bright side. In my eyes, I always feel like I can overcome anything. … My wife, on the other hand, she might not have seen it that way. To be able to ease her mind, especially with a baby on the way, it makes me that much more happy that we have this opportunity to get help and to better ourselves for the future.”

Deidrick could work as an emergency medical technician, but after witnessing so much death and serious injury, he would like to shift focus and become an athletic trainer, working to prevent injuries or rehabilitate those who have been hurt. As a sports fan, particularly for teams from his hometown area of New Orleans, his dream job would be working for a professional sports team, but he is open to helping anywhere he can, including possibly supporting the military.

Using his post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits, Deidrick is taking classes toward his associate degree at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio. He would then like to transfer to University of Texas at San Antonio for kinesiology, the science of body movement.

Deidrick, who had hoped to stay in the Air Force until he was eligible to retire, said it “hurt at the time,” when he had to get out, making the adjustment to civilian life difficult. The Air Force was all he had known since he was 19. “It becomes you,” he said. Still, he believes “everything happens for a reason.” “Maybe … it’s time for me to do something different.”

Someday when the family is more settled, Lissette would like to finish her bachelor’s degree, started at University of Miami, where she also worked as a pharmacy technician. She now works as a business analyst for a health care company.

Lissette heard about THCR on the local evening news on channel 4, NBC affiliate WOAI. Deidrick said they hardly ever watch the news, and it was a “stroke of a good luck” that Lissette happened to be home and tuned in at that time. Ordinarily, she would have accompanied Deidrick to the gym at that time of day, he said. When Deidrick returned home, she told him about the program, and they felt it was meant to be. They decided to “go for it.”

The Caesars feel fortunate to be moving into a home that is larger than their apartment, with more space to spread out, which will make everyone more comfortable once the baby arrives.

Operation Homefront “definitely helps … open doors and gives families an opportunity to get on their feet … to set them up for success after the military,” Deidrick said. People may think they don’t have anywhere to turn, “but with organizations like Operation Homefront, you always have help … to stop you from falling too far to where you feel like you’re hopeless.”

Operation Homefront is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to build strong, stable, and secure military families so they can thrive — not simply struggle to get by — in the communities they have worked so hard to protect. For over fifteen years, we have provided programs that offer: RELIEF (through Critical Financial Assistance and transitional housing programs), RESILIENCY (through permanent housing and caregiver support services) and RECURRING FAMILY SUPPORT programs and services throughout the year that help military families overcome the short-term bumps in the road so they don’t become long-term chronic problems. Please visit us at www.operationhomefront.org to learn more or support our mission.

 

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Just as these veterans raised their hand to swear an oath to serve their country, you, too, can join in committing to support them through Operation Homefront’s #RaiseYourHand campaign. Learn more at http://www.operationhomefront.org/RaiseYourHand

To honor our Nation’s veterans, Operation Homefront would like to share the stories of the veterans who have touched our lives through our programs.  Please join us every day as we feature a new veteran in our #11Days11Stories series leading up to Veterans Day 2019. Today we can take a humorous look back at a life of service through the family’s eyes:

As Haily Radnor and her husband Steve, an Air Force first sergeant, near retirement in early 2019 after 24 years of service, she looks back fondly on their time in the military, while also looking forward to having Steve around more often.

The Radnors and their five children – Austin, 13; Sierra, 9; Cheyenne, 6; Skyler, 3; and Logan, 5 months – plan to move from Colorado Springs, Colorado, where they are stationed now, to Pennsylvania to be closer to Steve’s extended family.  For his second career, Steve may stay in human resources because he has enjoyed his most recent assignment as a first sergeant, caring or the morale and welfare of airmen.

Hailey has a few thoughts on what she will (and won’t miss) about their life of service as a military family.  Thoughts I am sure many of us will nod our head’s in agreement about:

What she will miss:

  • Belonging to the larger military family, and feeling the love, from time to time, from people and organizations who care, and value their service, including Operation Homefront. Haily attended a May 2018 Operation Homefront Star-Spangled Baby shower in Colorado Springs at which she and about 100 other new and expecting military members and spouses enjoyed each other’s company, and received special gifts, including Cracker Barrel rocking chairs, cribs and other necessities.

“Knowing that there are those out there that do appreciate what we do, that life isn’t being taken for granted … makes it that much easier for us to get up and do our thing every day,” Haily said.

  • The strong bonds they have formed with other military families. She and her military spouse friends are flexible, accepting of change and patient because they know that being high-strung and uptight doesn’t work.  “Your children reflect how you behave,” she said.  “It’s not worth getting upset over little things.”
  • Being the friend she would like to have. “Everyone needs someone to be strong for them when they can’t be,” she said.  That requires putting yourself out there, and meeting people without fear of being hurt even though that can be scary.  “It makes us better people and it teaches us.”

At the same time, Haily recommends, “allow yourself to make mistakes because if you don’t, you cannot learn from them to become a better person.”

  • The sense of duty, knowing that there’s a purpose in my husband’s work.”
  • Their newborn won’t know the excitement and rewards of military life. Yet if Steve stayed in, he likely would go remote for a year, missing much of their baby’s first two years of life, so they decided it’s “time to hang up the boots.”
  • Being surrounded by others who don’t take their country or their lives for granted. Having known families who lost loved ones in war, she and Steve always make it a point to teach their children to be appreciative, respectful and accepting and inclusive of everyone, regardless of differences in age, background, appearance or income.  “All they see is a new friend and that’s all that matters.”

“If you ever go on to a military base and “Taps” is playing, the kids at the playground freeze and stand toward that music and put their hands on their heart,” Haily said.  “Life just freezes for those few moments.”

What she won’t miss:

  • Steve’s long, frequent absences. Though all but one of his deployments happened before they married in 2004, he deployed in 2015 to Kuwait for six months.  They had four children at the time.  He also has had assignments that kept him away from home, including his current one, which requires him to be on call 24/7.  When they were relative newlyweds with only one child at the time, Steve performed maintenance for the Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s demonstration squadron, and was traveling more than 200 days a year.  Even when he was home, he worked 12- to 15-hour days, she said. Their son, Austin, now 13, didn’t understand why his father was gone, or would only return for short periods.  “The emotions on him were really hard,” she said. “It was hard for him not having his dad, even though we could have our little Skype talks on occasion a couple times a week” at most.  It wasn’t enough to take the place of his daily presence.

Steve’s schedule improved some when they moved to Germany, but he still worked long hours as an NCO instructor.

  • Her kids having to repeatedly adjust to new communities and schools. When the Radnors, who moved seven times over 14 years and four duty stations, relocated to Arizona from Germany, their kids had difficulty “breaking in” to established friend circles, and felt excluded.  There was a stark contrast between their military-friendly neighborhood in Germany and their more civilian-centric community in Arizona, where many neighbors had never traveled outside the state, she said.  It was a “heartbreaking” time, she said, but improved in Colorado.
  • Knowing that more military members will lose their lives serving their country, never to return to their families. And that countless others will spend lengthy periods away from their families.

What do you or will you miss (or not) about YOUR military service?  Tell us in the comments.

Operation Homefront is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to build strong, stable, and secure military families so they can thrive — not simply struggle to get by — in the communities they have worked so hard to protect. For over fifteen years, we have provided programs that offer: RELIEF (through Critical Financial Assistance and transitional housing programs), RESILIENCY (through permanent housing and caregiver support services) and RECURRING FAMILY SUPPORT programs and services throughout the year that help military families overcome the short-term bumps in the road so they don’t become long-term chronic problems. Please visit us at www.operationhomefront.org to learn more or support our mission.

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Rita is on her way to receiving the deed to her home early. “I have never been in such a financially stable position in my life”

To honor our Nation’s veterans, Operation Homefront would like to share the stories of the veterans who have touched our lives through our programs.  Please join us every day as we feature a new veteran in our #11Days11Stories series leading up to Veterans Day 2019. 

Rita looks back proudly on her Navy service from 1998 through 2003, working as an electronics technician, testing portable communication equipment on land and on ships. She was twice named junior sailor of the year at her command. “The military is a part of me. … It always has been and it always will be.”

After five eventful years of active-duty Navy service, and another 10 years as a Navy spouse, Rita Starks found herself at a low point.  She and her husband had divorced, and she couldn’t afford a place of her own.

So she and her two kids moved back in with her parents in Wisconsin. She thought they would live in her parents’ basement for only a few months. It turned into 4½ years.

The opportunity to move her family in October 2016 into a donated, three-bedroom, mortgage-free house in Cambridge, Wisconsin, was more than she could have hoped for. The home, donated by JPMorgan Chase through Operation Homefront’s Homes on the Homefront program, was about a half hour from her parents, and just the boost Rita needed to improve the lives of her children.

Rita’s low-cost lifestyle and participation in our Homes on the Homefront program has enabled her to focus on saving money. She was disciplined about paying off debt before entering HOTH, and says the program’s goals motivate her to follow the old adage to pay yourself first. “I see … savings money as a bill that I have to pay every month. This is an expectation of the program, and that’s why I’m going to do it the best I can.”

In one year, Rita saved over $18,000, and is on her way to receiving the deed to her home early. “I have never been in such a financially stable position in my life,” she said. “I was always financially dependent on someone else, but now here we are all on our own. What an amazing feeling!”

Being in their own home had other benefits the whole family could enjoy. Her 15-year-old daughter, Caylin, craved her own room. “She had zero privacy,” Rita said. And Rita needed a way to keep a close eye on her son, 11-year-old Jaydin, who has muscular and neurological disabilities, and requires constant supervision. Jaydin is nonverbal, only weighs 41 pounds, must wear a diaper, and didn’t walk until he was 4½.

In the main open concept living area, Rita can see Jaydin even if she’s washing dishes. He spends time on the deck outside without her worrying he’s too close to the street. “It’s perfect,” she said, “The open concept allows me to give Jaydin a little more freedom yet still know that he is safe.”

Rita and her kids have come to love the community, schools, and citizens of Cambridge over the last 15 months. Rita, who works as a special education paraprofessional at the local middle school, brings Jaydin to work with her in the mornings, where he catches a bus to the elementary school one mile away. In the afternoons, he rides the bus back to the middle school to go home with his mom.

“Everybody has welcomed him with open arms,” Rita said. “They’re so accommodating here.”

Jaydin can continue as a student in the school district until he’s 21. “We plan to stay right here for a long time.”

Caylin is on the high school’s varsity spirit squad, a cheerleading and competitive dance team, and performs with the show choir. She and her mother often volunteer to help with various events and fundraisers, either through the school district or Cambridge’s Community Activities Program, which provides recreational and educational services. “It’s really been good [for] getting to know everybody in the community,” Rita said.

She’s excited she can pay for Caylin’s college. HOTH “not only changed our lives in the present, but this is going to continue to change our lives,” Rita said. “When I’m gone, it will continue to pass on to my kids. It’s an accomplishment I would not have been able to do on my own. For that I am forever grateful.”

Rita has an associate degree and plans to look into taking classes at University of Wisconsin –Whitewater toward a special education teaching degree.

There are many families who still need our help. Check out our Current Needs page and you can help us serve America’s military families today.

Operation Homefront is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to build strong, stable, and secure military families so they can thrive — not simply struggle to get by — in the communities they have worked so hard to protect. For over fifteen years, we have provided programs that offer: RELIEF (through Critical Financial Assistance and transitional housing programs), RESILIENCY (through permanent housing and caregiver support services) and RECURRING FAMILY SUPPORT programs and services throughout the year that help military families overcome the short-term bumps in the road so they don’t become long-term chronic problems. Please visit us at www.operationhomefront.org to learn more or support our mission.

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As a caregiver for her injured Army veteran husband, Vicki Stasiak knows firsthand the difficulties of the role: handling most of the household responsibilities and child care, managing sometimes overwhelming medical and mental health issues, and worrying about finances.

Shouldering multiple burdens, often alone, takes an emotional toll on the caregiver, which impacts the whole family.

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Over the eight years since her husband, Adam, was honorably discharged in 2009 as an E-5 sergeant with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, and shoulder and knee injuries that required surgeries, Vicki has learned what helps reduce the strain. Operation Homefront’s caregiver support group, Hearts of Valor; mental health counseling; addiction treatment; and a service dog have helped them get their lives back on track since Adam’s two deployments to Iraq. She also has learned where the military, government agencies and society could do a better job understanding and assisting wounded, injured and ill veterans and their caregivers.

“I was just on my own,” said Vicki, initially unsure where to seek help. “I learned of things just through word of mouth,” through researching on her own, and later by networking.

Vicki became friends with another veteran caregiver in 2013 who told her how much she likes Hearts of Valor, a nationwide network of support groups that also provides retreats and online forums. Hearts of Valor is open to all caregivers of post-9/11 wounded, injured or ill service members. Vicki registered with HOV and has seen the organization help caregivers find themselves again. “There’s a fine line sometimes between being your own person and who you are, and the role that you’re given,” she said. “Nobody expects to be a caregiver or wants to be. It’s something that you’re just kind of thrust into.”

Spouses in their 20s and 30s are particularly caught off guard when their service members’ injuries abruptly end their military careers and change the trajectory of their lives. When their spouses enlist, they think they’re “going to do all these fabulous things, and travel the world, and have all these new experiences,” Vicki said. It’s a shock when they find they’re in their house all the time because their spouses can’t physically leave or don’t want to go outside the security of their home, she said.

Vicki volunteered for training to lead a HOV group, starting in 2014, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she and Adam had met, and where they lived then with their five children. Vicki and Adam married in 2003, and he adopted her two children from a previous relationship, Katie, now 19, and Nick, now 17, when they were 4 and 2. The Stasiaks also have Grace, 14; Emma, 12; and Olivia, 10.

The Stasiaks bought their first home in Windber, Pennsylvania, in summer 2017 to live closer to friends they met while both families received training with their new service dogs, who are litter mates. Vicki is working toward establishing a HOV group in their new town, about three hours from Lancaster.

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While she got involved with HOV, Adam received counseling for his PTSD symptoms. His 10 years of service included two year-long deployments in the mid-2000s. Adam later received a 100-percent disability rating from the Veterans Affairs Department.

While Adam tells his therapist about his worst experiences, he “feels the need to protect me and the kids from some of the details,” Vicki said. “He’s seen things that we can never imagine, and he doesn’t want us to even try.”

Losing what he thought was going to be a long-term career also hurt Adam, Vicki said. He thought he would retire from the Army after 20 years or more, not 10. Instead, he was left facing questions such as, “What am I going to do now?” and “How will I provide for my family?”

The Stasiaks like to advocate for awareness about invisible injuries. “Just looking, you don’t see anything physically disabling with my husband … He’s not an amputee,” yet has some debilitating issues.

Vicki also encourages caregivers to seek support at HOV meetings, even though she knows they have limited time for themselves. Caregivers often have little control over their schedules because of doctor appointments and many other obligations. “That’s something as caregivers, we completely understand,” she said. “We really want those friendships … but [outsiders] just don’t understand the daily life that we have. In our group, there’s no judgement.”

Speaking from experience, Vicki urges caregivers to apply to attend a HOV retreat. When she went to one in 2015 in San Antonio with two of her group members, she found the various presentations helpful. “I felt as a group facilitator, being able to go and learn these things and take them back to my group and pass on the information … was really beneficial.” She also appreciated the down time, as there are opportunities for relaxing, journaling, socializing and sightseeing. For caregivers who would like to attend a retreat but are concerned about leaving because they need respite care for their spouse, child care or transportation, “Operation Homefront and Hearts of Valor will really work with you to make that happen so you can go and take that time for yourself to recharge,” Vicki said.

By many measures, her family is more stable now, Vicki said, though living strictly on disability and Social Security payments is challenging. She had previously worked as a dental assistant. They wish someone had told them Adam must transfer his GI education benefits to a child or spouse before he got out of the Army because now they can’t use them to help pay for Katie’s college.

Since their financial circumstances don’t allow them to donate money, they both volunteer their time as much as possible instead, including with Operation Homefront. “That’s what we try to instill in our children,” she said. “You always get to choose how you spend your time.”

Through it all, Vicki stuck with her marriage because she knew Adam pre-injury, and saw glimpses of his old self as he began the recovery process. “For me, it was worth it,” she said. “I knew what he was like before the war.”

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There are many families who still need our help. Check out our Current Needs page and you can help us serve America’s military families today.

Operation Homefront is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to build strong, stable, and secure military families so they can thrive — not simply struggle to get by — in the communities they have worked so hard to protect. For over fifteen years, we have provided programs that offer: RELIEF (through Critical Financial Assistance and transitional housing programs), RESILIENCY (through permanent housing and caregiver support services) and RECURRING FAMILY SUPPORT programs and services throughout the year that help military families overcome the short-term bumps in the road so they don’t become long-term chronic problems. Please visit us at www.operationhomefront.org to learn more or support our mission.

 

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