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NEW YORK, New York (Sept. 11)--Smoke rises in lower Manhattan after the World Trade Centers fall Sept. 11, 2001. USCG photo by PA2 Tom Sperduto

NEW YORK, New York (Sept. 11)–Smoke rises in lower Manhattan after the World Trade Centers fall Sept. 11, 2001. USCG photo by PA2 Tom Sperduto

When we reflect on the events of September 11, 2001, the horror and pain of that day is often mingled with the hope and comfort of the many images and stories of heroism. Our generation had never seen such outpouring of concern and support from Americans, coast to coast.  From those who opened their homes to the stranded, to those who passed out water bottles to first responders near the scenes of tragedy, we were buoyed in our darkest hours by the values and spirit that has defined this country since its founding.

Today, 15 years later, as we pause to reflect this Sunday on Patriot Day, many of us may wonder, “Where has that spirit gone?”  You may hear others wonder aloud whether the America reflected in those days of fellowship and unity is gone, never to be recovered.

But there is one group that still believes.

Our men and women in uniform. And they have arguably carried the biggest burden and paid a heavy cost since that fall of 2001.

We have talked with men and women who joined specifically because of the attacks of September 11.  Some were mere children at the time, but they carried that calling with them until they were old enough to volunteer.  Still others talk about an opportunity given to them, or to their immigrant parents, and of a need to give back.  In the 15 years that Operation Homefront has worked with military and wounded warrior families, we have been amazed time and again at the love and reverence that generations of Americans have for this country.

And when reflecting on their service, the vast majority talk about bonds tighter than family, in some cases, and the privilege of serving with the finest men and women that America has to offer.

It is in these conversations that we see the core values of who we are as a nation, and the resiliency and strength that allows us to weather the darker times.

The men and women of our armed forces come from our communities.  The honor, courage, commitment and call to service comes from the communities they were raised in.  In short, they are America.

And they are not alone.

Support for military families comes from all walks of life. We see it at the events we host around the country. We often partner with other organizations serving other needs in their community, such as mental health and food insecurity. We see the young and the old all doing something to make their little part of the world a better place.

Americans answered the call then, and they continue to answer the call today.

Many say there seems to be a lot of anger in the air these days, whether it’s  talk shows, the web, or social media.  They wonder how to make it better. But we ask you to take a moment and really look around and see that your fellow Americans are still phenomenally friendly, caring, generous, and quick to help when help is needed. Sometimes the opportunity to keep the spirit alive comes to you, other times you need to seek it out.  But it is there.

This September 11 anniversary, we encourage everyone to find a way to keep the spirit alive in their community. It does not always have to be a donation of money or goods, it can be your time, an ear to listen or a shoulder to lean on. A smile to a stranger or stopping to take a moment to talk to someone.

doing so, we can, as in the words of President Bush in his address to the nation, “None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.”

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Our country’s service members, veterans, and their families have all Answered The Call to serve our nation, sacrificing much in the process. Service comes with many challenges – being apart as a reslt of deployment, the loss of a family member, adjusting to a new community and career, hitting a financial obstacle. Putting the needs of our country before their own, our military personnel and their families have always been committed to protecting us all.

If you are looking for a way to get involved in supporting our military families, we invite you to join our Answer The Call campaign.

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Guest blog from Dr. Sara Boz, Senior Director of Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor program

Suicide is a complex and frightening topic.  In our community, it hits so close to home that our reaction tends to be denial. Suicide is a hard topic to open up about… but we can no longer ignore it. We have to talk about it.

There is a phrase that sunlight is the best disinfectant. We need to take the topic of suicide out of the shadows and talk openly.

When a caregiver or a veteran tells me their story about a failed suicide attempt, it normally goes like this:

“I probably would have succeeded in killing myself, if only…”

  • “If only the phone hadn’t rang.”
  • “If only I had more pills.”
  • “If only the ambulance had arrived a little later.”

When a person plans their suicide they make the very final decision to die before their time on Earth is over.  They no longer fear death and dying.  They are at the point at which they perceive death is better than their current situation.  Those who have tried tell me that they felt there was no other solution to their pain and suffering.  They feel hopeless and in a single, desperate moment… they find the will and the means.

“If only” there was something we could do.

Working with veterans and their caregivers as director of Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor program, I have talked with many families who face the challenge of healing from both the seen and unseen wounds of war.  There are some ways we can help create more “if only’s:”

  • We can work on being more aware of the people we care about.  KNOW that it’s okay to ask someone if they are feeling suicidal. If I notice that someone is giving up, feeling hopeless, or not themselves, I will ask how I can help.
  • Put yourself in others’ shoes. I’ve tried to imagine the different ways of taking one’s own life. Maybe I can’t fully grasp how someone is willing to accept the pain that will likely accompany suicide but I can try and see the path they took to get to that point. Could it be that veterans do not have a fear of death and dying because they were exposed to so much death during their combat tours?  Maybe they think that the pain they are experiencing, whether emotional or physical, is more than the pain they would feel through death.  Understanding the path may help us steer someone off of it at any point before the end.
  • It’s okay to be persistent. You would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks, “I did enough to prevent this.”  I have known a few people who have been successful in their suicide attempts.  I will always wonder if I could have done more and asked more questions. If a caregiver or veteran talks about suicide, I will not leave them alone. A few years ago, a caregiver called me to ask for a housing resource.  During the conversation she mentioned that her husband may be suicidal because of the situation they were in.  She explained that there were signs that he was giving up.  I listened to her story, asked a lot of questions, and told her I could help. In this instance, the caregiver was way ahead of me. She already had a plan to get him to a physician that week and had made the house safe and free of all weapons over the past few weeks.  She planned to drive her husband straight to the emergency room if the situation progressed.  I called her about a year later to see how she was doing and they are all now doing well. Which proves that there is always hope…such an important message to communicate to the person who wants to give up.

I believe that most people don’t want to die. I don’t want anyone to give up on their life.  There is no definite solution to preventing suicide, and the tragic fact is that someone will find a way if they are resolute enough.  But maybe, just maybe, we can take steps that will save one. And then another. And before we know it, we have saved more than we have lost.

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. If you know of someone who may be suicidal, please refer them to the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 and press “1” or go to https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/ for more information including how to identify the warning signs.

 

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Navy Hipsley full rez wcc operation homefront

Meet Hipsley!

It began with the need to do something.  To make a difference.

A dedicated group of volunteers with the Mid-Atlantic Field Office of Operation Homefront, concerned about the heartbreaking statistics surrounding veteran suicides, approached the Field Office staff with an idea. As part of their annual fundraising efforts, they wanted to support Operation Homefront – and support the training of a service dog for veterans recovering from physical and psychological wounds.

Though not a need addressed by Operation Homefront programs, the Operation Homefront Mid-Atlantic team knew they could help, as they are active in supporting the needs of families at Walter Reed and Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Belvoir. They also knew an organization that worked with service animals. And so began a unique partnership between Operation Homefront, the community, and the non-profit Warrior Canine Connection.

After 18 months of planning and fundraising solely by the volunteers with support from Operation Homefront, their wish became reality Wednesday as Operation Homefront presented Warrior Canine Connection with a check for $25,000 to cover the cost of training a puppy named Hipsley at Fort Belvoir.

Navy Hipsley full rez wcc operation homefront mom in memory

Jane Hipsley, herself a “puppy parent”, after learning that a puppy will carry on the name and legacy of her son, Sgt. Christian Hipsley.

Hipsley is named in honor of Army Sgt. Christian Joseph Hipsley, an Army medic who graduated from Hannah More Academy in Baltimore in 2000.  He was known as an individual who cared deeply for people and who found uncommon courage.  Sgt. Hipsley’s 13 years of service entailed three tours of duty in the Middle East, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait.  Sgt. Hipsley was awarded the Bronze Star in 2011 for his efforts in saving five Afghan National Army soldiers after the caravan he was riding in was struck by consecutive IED blasts.  When the book was closed on his Army career, Sgt.  Hipsley had earned the Bronze Star with Combat Distinguished Valor and the Army Commendation Medal.  The soldier lost his battle with PTSD in 2014 at age 32.

Sgt. Hipsley’s mother, Jane, was in attendance as it was announced that a puppy would carry on the memory of her son by helping others.  Over the next 2 years, Hipsley and the other purpose-bred Golden and Labrador Retrievers will each empower 60 returning wounded combat Veterans. After this period, Hipsley will be permanently assigned.

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Margi Kirst, Chief Development Officer for Operation Homefront with the newest member of the military family.

 

“The beauty behind this is the connection between the community and donors who take the initiative to get involved, and the collaboration between non-profits.  It is the community coming together,” said Vivian Dietrich, Regional Director. “And at the end of the day, our mission of building strong stable and secure military families will be realized through the work of Hipsley with the Fort Belvoir families.”

Cyndi Lucas, Communications Outreach Leader for Operation Homefront Mid-Atlantic added, “It was unique opportunity to capture the passion of this group of volunteers. (Hipsley) will touch so many lives”

 

“We are extremely grateful to the enthusiastic group of volunteers from Operation Homefront’s Mid-Atlantic region who dedicated so much time and energy to raise the funds to train Hipsley at Fort Belvoir,” said Rick Yount, WCC founder and executive director. “In our work to serve more than 3,700 Veterans since WCC started, we have seen firsthand the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy in combating symptoms of PTS and TBI.  We are fortunate to have partners, like Operation Homefront, who are equally committed to supporting our nation’s Veterans and their families.”

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Working together to make a difference: Operation Homefront National and MidAtlantic staff with the “REDS” team volunteers.

About Warrior Canine Connection: Warrior Canine Connection is a pioneering organization that utilizes a Mission Based Trauma Recovery model to empower returning combat Veterans who have sustained physical and psychological wounds while in service to our country. Based on the concept of Warriors helping Warriors, WCC’s therapeutic service dog training program is designed to mitigate symptoms of PTSD, TBI, and other challenges, while giving injured combat Veterans a sense of purpose, help in reintegrating back into their families and communities, and a potential career path as a service dog trainer.  For more information, go to www.warriorcanineconnection.org.

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Taking part in the Memorial Day tradition known as a “flags in” is a profound experience.

The second you step through the gates at Hampton National Cemetery in Virginia, you know you are on hallowed ground. You understand the quote “They hover as a cloud of witnesses above this Nation.”

And if you listen, you can hear them.

In the sound of the flag, waving in the breeze. The very present sentry standing solemn watch…

 You hear their souls.

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In the rows upon rows of more than 26,000 gravestones including 638 unknowns and 7 Medal of Honor recipients …

You hear their souls.

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In the silence of soldiers filing in to honor those who have come before them….

You hear their souls.

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In the voice of the mother patiently walking beside her toddler, perhaps too young to know the full meaning of Memorial Day, but who understands they’re here for something important…

You hear their souls.

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In the unity of community coming together to honor…

You hear their souls.

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And upon leaving when the task was done, you hear…

“Thank you for remembering.”

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At 3PM Monday, wherever you are, stop in silence and listen to the souls of those who gave the last full measure of devotion.

Answer with gratitude.

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christianfagalaChristian Fagala was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 2. He would beat cancer – knocking out the disease with a combination of faith and a determination to see the bright side of things.

Chemotherapy didn’t just present physical challenges to Christian, but also cognitive ones. Despite having a harder time learning due to the effects of chemotherapy, Christian, now 9 years old, persevered and exceeded all academic expectations.

Christian felt the need to make a difference for others facing the same battle he had. At age 4, he began doing speaking engagements on behalf of childhood cancer programs. He has spent countless hours making videos and using social media to elevate awareness of childhood cancer. Christian has raised more than $20,000 in the last few years for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and CureSearch, a non-profit whose mission is to end children’s cancer by driving targeted and innovative research.

His faith has sustained him through hard times. “God hears our prayers and helps us as much as he can,” Christian said. “It reminds me that God can do very big things.”

Christian has also devoted more than 100 hours to homeless outreach. He also finds time to play youth soccer and enjoy a little dodgeball while participating in Scouting.

As a military child, Christian has relocated four times already and has endured 16 months of his father’s deployment. Christian sees a bright side to being a member of a military family, adding “Military kids get to travel a lot and live in a lot of places civilian kids may just travel to. We get to make so many friends from different places and experience different cultures.”

Christian aspires to follow in his father’s footsteps and to become a Marine. If medical issues become an impediment, then he wants to follow in his mother’s footsteps and work for the Department of Defense.

Christian is the son of Diana Fagala and Marine Capt. Justin Fagala of Quantico, VA.

This week, we will be shining a spotlight on each of our Military Child of the Year Award recipients, as well as the first ever recipient of the Operation Homefront-Booz Allen Hamilton Innovation Award. Be sure to check back daily or follow us on Twitter or Facebook for updates. In addition, throughout the months of April and May, we invite you to show your appreciation by sending a message of thanks and sharing #Mission2Honor with your friends and family. Follow this link to share your message, or post your own message on social media using #Mission2Honor.

Our heartfelt thanks to our presenting sponsor United Technologies, and all of our 2016 Military Child of the Year Award sponsors, for making this annual award one of the highlights of our year.  Your support allows us to bring the stories of our military families to the forefront, making a difference in raising awareness of the challenges they face in protecting our nation.

 

 

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jeffrey-burds-navyThe day before Jeffrey Burds’ mother passed away from colon cancer, she told him, “Do great things in life.”

Jeffrey was nine years old, and he took to those words to heart, devoting his life to making a difference in the lives of others. Now 17, Jeffrey has distinguished himself with his leadership and through his academic excellence through eight military permanent change of station relocations and 66 months of his father’s deployment.

Jeffrey is the very definition of a leader. He is the executive officer of the Camp Lejeune High School Marine Corps JROTC, the boot camp of which he was named an honor graduate in 2013. Jeffrey’s talent for leadership is further evidenced by his roles on the high school’s track, football, wrestling, and basketball teams, two of which he has captained for.

Jeffrey was awarded in 2014 with Most Valuable Player honors in track, Defensive Most Valuable Player in football, and the Sportsmanship Award in basketball. He has also captained his football and track teams. His coaches chose him to receive the 8th Marine Regiment Workhorse Award. The award is presented to “a senior student who is a team leader, shows exceptional character, and is a leader in the classroom,” and was presented to Jeffrey by the commander of the 8th Marines.

Jeffrey has accomplished all of this while maintaining a 3.94 grade point average.

Outside of the classroom, Jeffrey pursues service to community with American Cancer Society Relay for Life, National Downs Syndrome Buddy Walk, Special Olympics, and Semper Fi Fund Outdoor Odyssey.

As he contemplates his future, which may include service to his country as a Navy officer, Jeffrey continues to hold fast to the promise he made to his mother to “do great things in life.”

Jeffrey is the son of Debra Rae Burds and Navy Master Chief Hospital Corpsman Joseph Burds of Camp Lejeune, N.C.

For the next week, we will be shining a spotlight on each of our Military Child of the Year Award recipients, as well as the first ever recipient of the Operation Homefront-Booz Allen Hamilton Innovation Award. Be sure to check back daily or follow us on Twitter or Facebook for updates. In addition, throughout the months of April and May, we invite you to show your appreciation by sending a message of thanks and sharing #Mission2Honor with your friends and family. Follow this link to share your message, or post your own message on social media using #Mission2Honor.

Our heartfelt thanks to our presenting sponsor United Technologies, and all of our 2016 Military Child of the Year Award sponsors, for making this annual award one of the highlights of our year.  Your support allows us to bring the stories of our military families to the forefront, making a difference in raising awareness of the challenges they face in protecting our nation.

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by Cathy McCarthy, Operation Homefront, Navy veteran and military spouse

The email that Operation Homefront received began the way that many do, with a thank you for assistance we have provided. It included the common refrain we’ve seen many times over 14 years of providing emergency assistance to military families.

“I have frienfear for familiesds that have had a water heater rupture and flood their house, another their washing machines quit, another house payment problems, another car payment problems and we have left our wives/husbands with the entire load to manage.”

The Murphy’s Law of Deployments. Something many of our military families are intimately familiar with. If it can break, it will, and it will do so as soon as your service member leaves on deployment.

As a Navy wife, I experienced the car breakdowns. The sick children. Calling a neighbor at 5 am because I threw out my back and couldn’t pick up my baby. The appliances going kaput. And more than my fair share of shower cries.

But it is what the next two sentences said that gave me the most pause…

“The stress on these families can be unbearable. Some of us will not make the reintegration back into our families.”

There it is. In black and white. The worst fear of many a military couple, but one too often not confronted, or one we shove to the back of our minds or one we pretend does not exist. The specter that the stress, from years of deployments, or years of trying to recover from combat wounds (both seen and unseen), will eventually tear the family apart.

A RAND corporation study in 2013 looked at 462,444 enlisted service members who married while serving in the military from March 1999 to June 2008. “Researchers found that cumulative months of deployment matter. More cumulative months of deployment increased the risk of divorce among military couples, regardless of when the couple married or when the deployment occurred. The risk of divorce was higher for hostile deployments than for non-hostile deployments, and women were always more likely to divorce than male service members as a result of time in deployment.”

But what sticks out the most from this study is that 97 percent of the divorces occurred after a return from deployment.

There are some things that programs and pamphlets can’t fix. But, together with many of our partner organizations and fellow travelers in the non-profit world, we hope we can help do something to change the odds. If we can be there for the spouse and children of a deployed service member when the heating goes out in the dead of winter, or provide respite and a shoulder for a caregiver, or give a veteran a place to transition or a forever home, then we remove one burden. Perhaps that one thing gives the family time to breathe and regroup and focus on themselves.

We are lucky to live how we do thanks, in no small part, to the service of our men and women in uniform. It’s a debt we can never repay, and for some, we will owe in perpetuity. But the times we can repay, we should. In whatever way we can keep the stress and effects of war from becoming too great, we should.

Helping build strong, stable and secure military families is how we truly say “Thank you for your service.”

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