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Archive for the ‘Holidays’ Category

By Ashley Sistrunk, Guest Blogger.

The viral military Christmas card. Did you happen to see it floating around internet land the past couple of months? Totally cliché, right?

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sistrunkblog2Let me back up and introduce myself. Hey, I’m Ashley! I’m an almost 30 year old (how did THAT happen) wife and mother to four perfectly imperfect children….oh and I’m a military spouse whose husband is only halfway through the journey to retirement.

We’ve had quite an interesting military experience that I’m sure MANY of you can relate to.

When we were 18 & 19, we had this crazy idea to get married and start a family together…but didn’t factor in the expenses. My husband, Brandon, worked at a BBQ restaurant and I worked as a hairstylist in a salon. Not too bad, right? WRONG!

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We were married 4 beautiful weeks before we discovered we were expecting our first child! How did we find out? The fumes from the hair salon started to make me sick, so I did what any logical 19 year old would do….I bought 10 pregnancy tests and sure enough, they all read POSITIVE.

We told our families and within that process, realized we wouldn’t be able to afford a child with a BBQ income alone, since I could no longer tolerate the smell from the salon.

So, this started our military journey.

If you’re lucky enough to know my husband, you know he is one of the most giving, kind-hearted people on the planet. He will do anything for anyone, which can be taken advantage of at times. He knew that joining the military would cover the medical expenses of having a child, even if it meant sacrificing his own life at some point. Who does that?! Only 1% of America, apparently.

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Off to boot camp he went, while I was left behind, 6 1/2 months pregnant. I would write him letters every single day and would pray to receive one from him. Not a single letter came. When I finally saw him at his graduation, he explained that his unit kept getting in trouble, so their punishment was not being able to write letters. I think in a way, that helped prepare me for the rest of our military journey.

My husband missed the births of 3 out of 4 children. One due to tech school and the others due to deployments. The recruiter must have forgotten to mention the chances of that happening. Either that, or we were just young and naïve and assumed we would have a fairytale life.

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When he left for this past deployment, my children were 9, 7, 5 (she turned 6 while he was gone), and 2 months. “They” say deployments get easier each time. I say “they” must not have children or “they” somehow speed up time during deployments. No one prepared us for the emotional strain that this deployment would bring. The kids were now old enough to be downright MAD for him being gone. Not just mad, but incredibly sad too.

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I had to get creative when it came to keeping the kids and myself connected to the person we absolutely ADORE while he was thousands of miles (7,038 miles, to be exact) away, BUT… I’ve never had a creative bone in my 5’1 body.

That’s where Pinterest stepped in. Pinterest SAVED this deployment!

*All the mommas say AMEN*

Here are some things my family and I did to stay connected through this deployment:

1) Deployment wall: We had a family night a week or so before my husband deployed and we decided to spend that time putting our deployment wall together! *See picture*

We showed them on the map where we were and where daddy would be. We had two different clocks, one that showed our time and one that showed his. We had a picture of him in uniform and a picture of him with the kids (added later). We had a space where they could roll out a sheet of paper and draw him pictures or write him letters, or even just write down how they’re feeling that day. We had little baskets for mail received and mail to send out. I would catch them going to the wall and just staring at his picture. It was beautiful and heartbreaking all at the same time.

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2) Pictures on pillow cases, recording his voice in a stuffed animal, and video recording bedtime stories. If you haven’t visited your Airman & Family Readiness Center, I suggest you do! They have so many different things that can help a deployment along! My husband was able to go and have pictures of him and the kids printed onto pillow cases, have his voice recorded in stuffed animals, AND video record himself reading them each a bedtime story! So they got to see him every night before bed!

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3) Care packages: Pinterest has SO many awesome ideas for care packages! The kids loved putting things in the box and decorating it! They would say “Oh! Daddy will LOVE this!” And their little faces would light up! If you’re OCD, this will really test your patience, but it’s so worth it to see them wanting to get involved!

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4) Technology: This is huge for military families! We didn’t have Skype or video messenger until my husband’s 2nd or 3rd deployment. Before that, you heard from your spouse whenever they could find an open phone, which was never guaranteed. For this deployment, we were so blessed with technology! The kids were able to talk to their daddy *almost* every morning before school! Of course the connection was sketchy or would fail, but most of the time they could at least say hello!

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5) Holidays: Holidays are tough with your loved one halfway across the world. As the parent, you have to put your feelings on the back burner and focus on the physical/emotional needs of your children, ESPECIALLY around the holidays! For holidays, we would remove his picture from the deployment wall and tape it on a chair at the head of the table. This way, the kids could see he’s not been forgotten and that he is still a part of our special day, even though he’s not actually home.

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For Christmas, we made our first ever Christmas card! Yes, the viral military Christmas card! Honestly, the card ALMOST didn’t happen. I had my husband take his pictures from his deployment location, but the timing never seemed right for us to take ours.

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As each day got closer and closer to Christmas, I would see more and more pictures of all the happy families together on their beautifully crafted cards. At first I was sad. So terribly sad. I wanted nothing more than for my husband to be home for Christmas, but I knew that wasn’t an option. So, I decided TODAY IS THE DAY! We went out and got each shot on the first try, thanks momma!

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I pieced them together that night and decided to post them on FaceBook. The response was unbelievable! Within a few days, it was EVERYWHERE! So many spouses reached out saying “We’re apart for the holidays too! Thank you for showing us your togetherness through it all!”.

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Deployments are hard, especially if you actually love spending time with your spouse and consider him/her your best friend. The days can be so long and it can be so tempting to let that cause division in your marriage or family, but if you can focus on the good, you WILL get through it! Give yourself some grace. You will have days where you just want to bury yourself under the covers and cry and that’s ok! Try not to take that frustration out on the deployed member, but at the same time, be honest with them if they ask what’s troubling you. They will feel helpless at times, but that’s where you have to rise up and show them that you are strong TOGETHER, even if you’re not physically together. Your hearts are bonded, for better and for worse.

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Whether you have been with us on our journey for a while or are new to discover us, we’d like to look at some of our favorite moments. Thanks to your support, we continue to help build strong, stable and secure military families, and help them not just survive, but thrive in the communities they have worked so hard to protect. Thanks to you…

eoyblog500thhome 1. We continued to make dreams come true.

2016 started off with the celebration of the awarding of our 500th home through our Homes on the Homefront program, and continued with the awarding of 83 mortgage-free homes to veteran families. On average, Operation Homefront awards between 80-100 homes each year thanks to the support of our partners. As those families complete a two-year program, they earn the deed to their home – 120 families completed that process this year.

 

2. We were able to stand with and help military families get through tough times.

This year, we provided more than $3.4 million in emergency assistance grants to over 2,100 families who hit a bump in the road and needed help with rent or mortgage payments, major home or car repairs, utility bills or buying food for their families. Since inception, we have provided nearly 20 million dollars in financial assistance to military families.

In 2016, 89.4% of military family clients agreed or strongly agreed that our Emergency Assistance Program made them feel strong, stable, and secure.

 

3. We offered families coping with the visible and invisible wounds of war support and hope.

Our Hearts of Valor program, which provides support to caregivers of wounded veterans, has grown to more than 3,200 participants, giving them vital connections to others who understand their unique challenges. We were also able to host more than 80 at several retreats throughout the year, where these quiet heroes were able to rest and rejuvenate while connecting with other caregivers and resources.

 

4. We offered security and a place to heal.

Transition from service continues to be a significant challenge for our post 9/11 veterans. More than 80 percent of the families assisted through our emergency assistance program were those with a wounded service member. In 2016, Operation Homefront placed 380 transitioning veterans and family members in one of our rent-free, transitional Operation Homefront Villages, providing critical security and time for our veterans to heal and focus on their futures.

eoyblogvillagesThey join nearly 1700 veterans and family members that have found solace at our Villages since the program was founded, and we have helped defray nearly 4.7 million in rent and housing costs for these families, allowing them to save and focus on moving forward.

 

5. We brought attention to the contributions and strength of the military child.

The start of a New Year will bring with it the Military Child of the Year Award season. Once again, in 2016, we honored 7 extraordinary military children from across all branches of service, as well as awarding the inaugural Military Child of the Year Award for Innovation. Soon, we will announce the semi-finalists for the 2017 Military Child of the Year Award and Innovation award, and we could not be more excited to spotlight more incredible military children for the 9th year in a row at our April gala in Washington DC.

 

6. We helped military children with the supplies they needed to kick off a successful school year.

eoyblogbtsbMilitary children make many moves over the course of their lives, and starting a new school year in a new place can be a challenge. One of our favorite times of the year is our annual Back-To-School Brigade campaign in the summer. We are not only able to provide school supplies, but get a chance to welcome these families to our communities and make them feel at home. In 2016, we once again provided more than 31,000 military kids with backpacks filled with school supplies, and since the program began in 2008, Operation Homefront has provided well over a quarter-million backpacks to children in military families.

 

7. We honored the role of the military spouse.

More than 600 spouses enjoyed nights of relaxation and fun at our Homefront Celebrations, like this one just outside Fort Hood. It’s a chance for them to build a stronger peer support network and make new friends.

 

8. We welcomed new members to the (military) family.

We were honored to help welcome new bundles of joy for over 400 military moms in 2016 at our Star-Spangled Babies baby showers. These celebrations provide new parents early childhood tips and a support system when they are far away from home and family.

 

eoyblogcarrie9. We helped create memories that will last a lifetime.

We were able to help military families make precious memories together and celebrate Honor.Family.Fun by hosting military families at Carrie Underwood concerts across the country throughout 2016, culminating in a special concert and night aboard the newest Carnival vessel, the VISTA.

 

 

10. We made the holidays a little brighter for our military families.

In 2016, more than 1,000 children received toys at Holiday Toy Drive events, with many thousands more being served through our work eoyblogbikesbaewith commands, family readiness groups and other community organizations. 11,000 families received everything they needed for a spectacular holiday meal this year thanks to our Holiday Meals for Military events. In total, we have served over 175,000 military children and 57,000 family meals since we began our holiday programs in 2008.

 

What’s next?

We know there is still more work to be done.  In January, there will be more applications for assistance. Whether it is help paying an electric bill, fixing the family car or being able to put food on the table – military families need and deserve our support.   Your commitment will be crucial

Every day, across America, Operation Homefront employees, volunteers and supporters are serving America’s military families who have given  so much for our nation. Our troops and their families are counting on us.

Thank you for all that you’ve done to support our military families. We hope you join us as serve even more military families in 2017!

 

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ertIn the weeks before Christmas, throughout this great land.

Our elves on the homefront were lending a hand…

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Holiday Meals were bagged up and stuffed

To give to the families we can’t thank enough…

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Wishes were granted and moments were shared

Letting military families know that all of us cared…

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The smiles of the families and joy that abounded

Reminded us all of the mission we founded…

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To remember the many who serve so we remain free

Who won’t be home this year to decorate their tree…

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The East Garden Room of the White House features an American flag display formed from images of brave military members and their families, and Gold Star ornaments adorn the evergreen that honors the men and women who have laid down their lives for our country.

We hope you are home soon and with loved ones so dear,

Merry Christmas to all, and a Happy New Year!

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Thank you for helping Operation Homefront build strong, stable, and secure military families – all year long.

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Special thanks this year to…

Walmart, Dollar Tree, Beam Suntory, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, HEB, SAS Shoemakers, Thirty-One, Procter & Gamble, Ocean Spray, Navy Federal Credit Union, Samuel Adams , Veterans United and many more local supporters who helps us serve over 11000 military families with meals and toys this holiday season.

Our volunteers who gave us the priceless gift of time.

And finally, to our military far away from home… our most heartfelt thanks for keeping us safe. We miss you and pray for your safe return. 

Find these and many more terrific pictures from our Holiday Events on our Flickr page. If you would like to know more about #GivingStrength to military families, visit www.operationhomefront.net/givingstrength

 

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Pictured left to right: Walmart Executive Vice-President of Logistics Chris Sultemeier, Senior Manager at the Walmart Foundation Kathy Cox, Vice President Walmart Foundation Julie Gehrki and Operation Homefront President and CEO, John I. Pray, Jr.

Today we are joined by Kathy Cox, a senior manager at the Walmart Foundation, who shares the connection Walmart has with our military communities and the Foundation’s involvement in Holiday Meals for Military. 

By Erin Patterson.

The Holiday Meals for Military program can trace its start to the actions of a noble man who was moved to help a young military family pay for their groceries on the night before Thanksgiving seven years ago. One meal for one family gradually turned into hundreds, then thousands of meals for military families across the U.S. This year, the Holiday Meals for Military program will provide nearly 12,000 meals to families around the country.

The program would not be what it is today without the help of key partners, such as the Walmart Foundation. Kathy Cox, a senior manager at the Walmart Foundation, has led the strategy and grant-making for veteran and military families for the last 16 years. When she heard about the Holiday Meals for Military program, she knew that it was something Walmart wanted to support.

“Walmart and the Walmart Foundation have worked really hard since the beginning of this conflict [in Iraq and Afghanistan] to stay close to the pulse of our service members and our military families,” Kathy said. “In 2009, you’ve got American personnel and their families that had some real stress and strain. We had folks that were losing their loved ones, we had military service members who were injured. There were some real—both physical and financial—hardships that these families were dealing with. So for the holidays, what we wanted to be able to do was lift some of that burden.”

kathycoxblogimage2For Kathy and for the Walmart Foundation, it was the perfect time and the perfect program. Even more, she was very excited to be working with Operation Homefront. Kathy loved that Operation Homefront had strong relationships with military bases around the country, which meant that they would be able to specifically identify the families who most needed this type of program. At the same time, she was impressed with Operation Homefront’s fiscal responsibility. With 92% of financial donations going directly to programs like Holiday Meals for Military, Kathy knew that Operation Homefront was leveraging the Walmart Foundation’s dollars to have the highest positive impact on military families.

“We wouldn’t be investing if we weren’t certain that our military families were being served and were being served in the most efficient and effective way that makes use of our both in-kind and financial support,” Kathy said.

Looking out for service members and their families comes naturally to the Walmart Foundation. The Walmart family is filled with military families, and they have a lot of men and women who have served in the military and who are now a part of Walmart’s workforce. Furthermore, Kathy noted that military families often make up the community surrounding many Walmart stores around the country.

“There’s quite an alignment with military families anyway because that’s part of our DNA. If you’re surrounded by military families, you want to make sure that you’re supporting military families,” Kathy said.

Because the military is already such an integral part of Walmart’s community, the Foundation’s involvement in the Holiday Meals for Military program began quite organically, starting at the associate-level and moving up through the company.

“While the Foundation has helped with the corporate dollars, most recently in this campaign to make in-kind food donations, it’s our associates who have led. It’s the managers of stores that have been aligned with bases and military families that have a sincere desire to be that store of the community that serves these military families and helps lessen the challenge of putting a holiday meal on the table,” Kathy said.

Even though it started at a grassroots level, Walmart has an emotional investment—not just financial—in this program. Kathy remembers one year when she volunteered her Friday night to help prepare the bags of ingredients for the families. A young lady with two children came to register her family, and Kathy remembers how she could see that this mother had a lot weighing on her mind. As she went through the registration process, she was told that she and her family were the recipients of Christmas gifts that had been donated by another organization.

“And that’s when her resolve just broke,” Kathy remembers. “Once she regained her composure, she said, ‘You just have no idea. First, I had no idea how I was going to put a holiday meal on the table for my family. Now you’re telling me that also I have gifts that I’ll be able to share with my family. You have no idea how this will change our entire holiday season.’”

As we settle into the holiday season this year, Kathy reminds us that it’s important to be intentional in remembering our military families. Many of them are far from home and worried about whether or not they will be able to provide a happy, memorable holiday season for their children.

“Not all military families are base and with our all-volunteer force we have military families around us all the time,” Kathy noted. “I think we have to be intentional to try to get to know those families and to make sure that we’re being inclusive and recognize that not only are our military service members serving and sacrificing, these military families at home are serving and sacrificing right alongside them.”

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Returning from the holiday weekend, we found this message in our inbox:

“I just want to say thank you for sponsoring the Thanksgiving Meal this year. My son was born last Friday and funds have been a little tight this month. Having a wonderful home cooked meal meant the world to me and my wife. Thank you so much!”

There is no better feeling than to know that you made a difference in someone’s life when they needed some help. At Operation Homefront, we are privileged to witness this every day, thanks to the generosity of our fellow Americans. While we see the willingness to give year round, it is particularly evident during the holiday season.

givingtuesday2We are immeasurably grateful for this support, for this time of year also brings an increase in requests for assistance from our military and wounded, ill, and injured veterans. Since our inception, Operation Homefront has distributed over 57,000 holiday meals and served over 172,000 military children through our Holiday Toy programs.  But beyond holiday assistance, we warm homes, keep vehicles running, and ensure cupboards aren’t bare. To date, nearly 30,000 families have been helped through our emergency financial assistance program. Still more have been served through our rent-free transitional housing, Homes on the Homefront, the wildly successful Back-To-School Brigade, and more.

All thanks to the support of our community, partners, and donors.

Today is #GivingTuesday. For the 5th year, people the world over are joining together for one day to give back. Last year, on one day, over 700,000 individuals raised $116,000,000!

Please help our critical work continue by joining us this #GivingTuesday by #GivingStrength to our military, veteran and transitioning families when it is needed the most.

givingtuesday1Give Time:

With the help of our 3,200+ volunteers, we give strength to military families across the nation every single day through our programs. But there are always more families to support. You can help. Sign-up today to be an Operation Homefront volunteer to support military families in your area throughout the year.

Give Support:

We get requests from military families every day who need some assistance. Help us give strength and support to our service members when they need it the most. From help with a utility bill, to food assistance, to keeping a roof over a family’s head, you can help make life just a little easier for our military families and wounded warriors. 92% of all our donations made go directly to programs and services to support military families.  

16givingstrength_smpost_640x640Give Your Voice:

Email your Message of Thanks to info@operationhomefront.net or post a photo of a service member, veteran or military family member you know with their name, branch of service and when they served on the Operation Homefront Facebook page with #GivingStrength. You can also submit your personal stories for a chance to be featured on “Operation Homefront Strong Families” or our “Thank Military” Thursdays.

Learn more about our Giving Strength campaign by visiting www.operationhomefront.net/givingstrength

About Giving Tuesday:

In 2012, the New York’s 92nd Street Y, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, pondered the idea of harnessing the potential of social media and the generosity of people around the world to bring about real change in their communities. They decided to promote a day of giving worldwide. You can learn more about #GivingTuesday at www.givingtuesday.org

 

 

 

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3a3087d5-7199-4826-982d-7bd9b50a02cbAs Thanksgiving approaches, those of us in military and veteran communities will gather around tables and give thanks, and yet, among all the hustle and bustle, something may be missing.  This could be a loved one deployed or unable to come home, a loved one who never made it home, or a feeling of loss and disconnection for some families who are transitioning from service or coping with injuries from war or years of service.

As many are wont to do when times are hard, these families will stay busy and do their best to plaster a smile on our faces during the holidays. But the feeling of something missing, the uncertainty of the future, and the heaviness of heart will  often remain despite these valiant efforts.

But valiant efforts will be made. Commands overseas and deployed will do their best to be a substitute family, and so will our communities back home.  Families with a deployed loved one will add more chairs to their tables, inviting other families with deployed loved ones to join them.  Others in our community, some with no military connection whatsoever, just love of country and service, will open their hearts and their homes to service members stationed near them that can’t be with their own families. Some will continue to honor service by volunteering at community events to serve their neighbors in need on Thanksgiving, with hearts filled with gratitude and drive to serve others above self.

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Our Holiday Meals for Military events will distribute over 11000 meal to military families across the country, including 1600 just distributed in Texas this weekend.

At Operation Homefront, most of us have personally experienced how our community can come together to fill a void. 85% of our team at Operation Homefront are veterans or families of active duty.  Almost 50% of our staff had a parent who served – giving us a unique connection with the military children we support.

We are honored to see the tradition of service continue year after year through support and response to our Holiday Meals for Military program and the messages and comments we receive about ways to reach out and help military and veteran families during the holidays. But, mostly we know this to be true because this is just what the military and veteran community does.

They look out for each other. They give each other strength.

This Thanksgiving, we are thankful for the opportunity to serve, for the chance to fill a need, whether it be a boost of encouragement or the relief of a burden. We invite you to express your thanks and gratitude. We all have friends, family, loved ones or neighbors who are serving or have served. Join us in giving strength by honoring and recognizing our military and their families through our #GivingStrength initiative. Here are some ideas:

  • Submit your personal stories for a chance to be featured on “Operation Homefront Strong Families” or our “Thank Military” Thursdays.
  • Email your Message of Thanks to info@operationhomefront.net or post a photo of a service member, veteran or military family member you know with their name, branch of service and when they served on the Operation Homefront Facebook page with #GivingStrength.
  • Support a current need of families who have reached out to us for help. This time of year, we see a dramatic increase in requests for assistance. Any amount you can contribute goes directly to helping a struggling military, transitioning or wounded warrior family.
  • Serve. Sign-up today to be an Operation Homefront volunteer to support military families in your area throughout the year.

Go to www.operationhomefront.net/givingstrength  to see ways YOU can be #GivingStrength and doing your part for military families in your community and around the country.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Operation Homefront family!

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The Masons were one of 750 military families invited to attend “Honor. Family. Fun.” hosted by Carnival Cruise Lines in New York City. The event featured a special concert by Carrie Underwood and a naming ceremony for the newest ship in their fleet, the Carnival Vista. See more pictures here

Shay Mason served in the military as an Army Counterintelligence Agent and as a Russian linguist…and then she completed her active duty service in 1989.

Shay met Gary while at Howard University and earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Print Journalism. They fell in love, got married and then Gary decided to join the military.

Gary enlisted in the Army for a number of reasons: a better life, travel, opportunity, future stability for his family, and to serve his country. Shay and Gary agreed that Gary would serve, hoping to make the Army a career. During his years of service, they welcomed four children into their family.

As an infantry officer, Gary was deployed three times to the Middle East. His first deployment was to Iraq in 2008. His second and third were to Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. The last two missions were Special Forces and after serving for fifteen years, Gary had to retire in 2015.

He medically retired with an honorable discharge due to injuries he sustained from his last deployment. He suffered from back and ankle injuries and battles the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Shay became his full-time primary caregiver.

While Gary was transitioning out of the military, the condominium they were renting received serious water damage that made it uninhabitable. They had no place to call home and were forced to stay at a local hotel. Their financial situation became dire, causing additional stress for the family of six.

While living at a local hotel, they heard about Operation Homefront Villages and the rent-free transitional housing program in Gaithersburg, Maryland. They applied and were accepted and still currently reside there.

The Village provides them with a furnished apartment with all rent and utilities covered. In addition, families who stay at the Village get financial counseling and attend support groups with other wounded veteran families to help them make a successful transition to civilian life.

“Living at Operation Homefront’s Village is an opportunity – a tremendous blessing and stress relief,” said Gary. “We can save money, repair our credit, and restablize our children and focus on getting healthier as a family.”

So far, as a result of being at the Village, they have saved $14,000, and paid off $6,000 in debt.

The Masons are definitely on their way to a strong, stable future. Two of their kids are attending college and the two younger children are doing well in their respective schools.

“We have had a great time living there, there are other military families living at the Village and we bonded,” said Gary. “We are in communication with them and we hang out. There is a sense of community and it makes it easy for us…there is so much veteran support.”

Gary and Shay have started a family business to create media support kits. They will use these to help other military families navigate the unique challenges of military life, using their past experience to benefit others.

Join in the conversation with us as we celebrate those veterans among us, by sharing stories of your own. Through Facebook or Twitter, please use the hashtag #11days11stories to share your own inspirational story of a veteran in your life

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