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Archive for the ‘Disabled Veterans’ Category

Our veterans have given so much of themselves to an idea greater than themselves, and many of you have honored that gift through your support of our mission.  On the last day of our “11 Days, 11 Stories” series, we would like to show you how your support has impacted thousands of military and veteran families.  This support has truly made a difference, and we are encouraged, daily, by the efforts to give back to those who give so much of themselves.

Having seen his brothers serving in the Marines, Petero Taufagu felt inspired to serve as well. Born in Pago, Pago, American Samoa, he decided to enlist in the Army in 1993. Petero spent sixteen years in the Army, deploying multipe times including three tours to Iraq. In 2007, he was medically retired and began a new chapter in the expereince of many who serve: transition.

After he left the Army, Petero, his wife and five children moved from San Diego, California, to Las Vegas, Nevada. During the move their 2004 BMW broke down and with their limited funds, they fell into financial hardship. Petero’s mother had passed, so their savings were gone, leaving the family without money for their auto repair, security deposit, rent and food.

Having only one vehicle, the Taufagu family was not only experiencing financial stress but major logistic challenges. They had to coordinate dropping all five children as school as well as being two working adults. Petero’s wife had to work around his schedule. It was then when Petero was referred to Operation Homefront by the Warriors Transition Unit.

Thanks to Operation Homefront and generous donors, Petero paid off and repaired his car, as well as getting some breathing room with housing costs and groceries for his family.

“Thank you,” said Taufagu,” We had limited funds due to the move and my mother’s passing, and you guys made it happen.”

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Petero Taufagu was the recent recipient of a new Jeep Cherokee, thanks to our partnership with American Airlines.

Transition from service is a challenging time for veterans, and especially so for veterans also coping with injuries and illnesses as a result of their service.  Many times, just one financial crisis can mean the difference between continuing towards a strong, stable and secure future and a setback that can take years to overcome.  Our Critical Financial Assistance program, as well as our transitional housing villages, stands ready to help when these families need it the most.  Our donors, sponsors, and supporters are the reason we have been able to provide over $21 million in financial aid, fulfilling more than 40,000 requests*, including:

  • Providing rent-free temporary housing to more than 500 families of wounded service members, saving them over $5-million in rent and utilities though our Transitional Housing program;
  • Matching nearly 600 military families with mortgage-free homes through our Homes on the Homefront program, providing well over $56-million in deeded value;
  • Delivering over a quarter million backpacks to military kids through our Back-to-School Brigade; 
  • Serving nearly 70,000 military families through our Holiday Meals for Military program,  a program that has  impacted over 300,000 individual family members since inception.  In 2017, we will be hosting families at 32 events in 20 states, serving thousands more.

This Veterans Day, we encourage everyone to show their gratitude for the gift of freedom given to us by the centuries of service of our nation’s veterans. Send a message of thanks or stories with #RaiseYourHand. Send us your pictures and videos that show your support for our military, our country and why you answer the call! Together, united, let’s show our American pride and show some love for those who give so much to make our country great!

If you would like to help support families like the Taufagu family, you can support one of our current needs or check out more ways to give here.

If volunteering is high on your list of ways to give back, we welcome you to see the ways to Get Involved with Operation Homefront.

* numbers through Summer 2017

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Continuing our annual “11Days, 11 Stories” series honoring Veterans this month, where we spotlight the stories of veterans we have met through our work here at Operation Homefront.  You can find previous stories here:

2012. Crowds filled the stands at a home game for the Houston Astros against the Colorado Rockies. Little did the fans know that they would soon see a life-changing event on the field as Operation Homefront and Chase donated a home to a deserving veteran of the war in Iraq, medically retired Army Specialist Quintin Muirhead and his wife Jennifer.

Just a few months into Muirhead’s deployment to Iraq in 2009, swine flu spread among the troops. When he grew weak and went to the medic, doctors discovered something much more serious. A number of tests revealed he had both pneumonia and leukemia. He fell into a coma on his way to a medical facility in Germany, where the diseases continued to weaken his body. After two months in a coma, he awoke and the pneumonia was gone. The leukemia, however, was not and Muirhead spent the next few months undergoing chemotherapy.

After chemotherapy, the Muirheads were ready for a new life. But they faced numerous challenges that made life increasingly difficult. Operation Homefront Village in San Antonio, which provides transitional housing for wounded heroes and their families, gave the young couple the fresh start they needed. But what came next would truly start them on the path to a strong, stable, and secure future.

The Muirheads’ were selected to be the first ever recipients of a new home through Operation Homefront’s Homes on the Homefront program. The couple were awarded a home in the Houston suburb of Katy that day at the Houston Astro’s game.

We caught up with Quentin to see how life has changed since leaving the service and starting over.

“Transitioning is harder than I thought. You develop so wanting habits and become use to so many routines that just go out the window.”

In the years since he received his mortgage-free home, Quentin has been able to pay off debts, build savings, and he even started his own business. He is also a semester away from getting his degree in business.

Quentin has come to terms that his body will never be the same. “I’m constantly in pain but as long as I wake up each day I’m willing to accept that pain.” But now, he won’t allow that to slow him down. “I finally feel like I’m enjoying my life, being able to travel, and save money.” Other members of his family have since moved to Katy, an opportunity Quentin attributes to his being able to put down roots for all of them.

His advice for other veterans facing transition? “I’ve also learned it’s ok to ask for help or admit when something is wrong. A lot of the times we let our pride get in the way of getting the help we need and deserve.”

Find out how you can help a wounded hero today. Visit our Current Needs page  or make a donation to OperationHomefront.org. 92% of Operation Homefront expenditures go directly to programs and services for military families in need.

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Continuing our annual “11Days, 11 Stories” series honoring Veterans this month, where we spotlight the stories of veterans we have met through our work here at Operation Homefront.  You can find previous stories here:

The day the Army recruiters came to his middle school, U.S. Army veteran Jason Stidham knew that he wanted to join the military. He just needed to be old enough to enlist. So he patiently waited then, one day before he turned 18, Jason joined the Army.

During his enlistment, Jason was stationed at Fort Campbell, Tennessee, and at Fort Polk, Louisiana. He also deployed to Iraq. Ultimately, Jason left the military in 2010, after seven years, when his injuries prevented him from serving any longer.

During his military service, Jason met his wife Tommie. “Jason and I met through a mutual friend who set us up on a blind date,” said Tommie. “We met for breakfast at IHOP and he was the kindest and funniest guy I had ever met. The date wound up lasting for 6 hours! We had breakfast AND lunch there! He proposed on our 6-month anniversary and we were married two years later.” Since then, they have welcomed two children to their family.

A few years after Jason transitioned out of the military, they moved to Alvin, TX to be closer to Jason’s family. “His PTSD became a little too much for me to deal with by myself, (so) we agreed that having his family around would help him cope better with his trauma and, it has,” said Tommie. Finally settled in Texas, Jason and his wife Tommie were focused on living a simple, satisfying life.

While the family remains tight, this year served up three hard hits.

Jason went on medication for pain management, but his dosage was incorrect and had severe repercussions for the veteran. Jason had a seizure, was hospitalized, and was out of work for four months.

The couple gradually recovered from that experience and decided to use their income tax refund to open their own car repair shop since Jason is a certified mechanic. With only word of mouth advertising, the shop did not generate enough income to pay the bills.

To supplement their income, Jason became a driver until his shop could make more money. The couple was on the road to financial recovery once again when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. Their home flooded during the hurricane and then Jason was out of work for two weeks because of area flooding.

The third financial blow hit the family hard. With six kids, including one attending college and two months’ worth of rent due, the family was forced to look outward for assistance. They also needed help to pay for repairs to their washer and dryer.

Reluctantly, Jason and Tommie reached out to Operation Homefront for help. “Asking for help is extremely hard and it hits your pride. From the first time we spoke, Kerry (Operation Homefront caseworker) made me feel like she really cared. When Kerry called and said Operation Homefront would help, we never felt ashamed or embarrassed. Kerry was on our team and working with us,” said Tommie.

“Both of us were pretty emotional,” said Tommie. “Your donors have no idea the impact that they had on our family. Without you and your donors, two adults and six kids would be out on the streets. There are no words to express our gratitude.”

“Operation Homefront is amazing,” continued Tommie. “Our caseworker Kerry was wonderful, sympathetic, and compassionate.

“We are very grateful for you and your donors—people who actually care.”

This blog is part of our “11 Days. 11 Stories” series where we seek to honor veterans. Check back here daily through Nov. 11 to read stories of those we’ve served. You can also join in the conversation with us by sharing stories of your own. Through Facebook or Twitter, please use the hashtag #RaiseYourHand to share your own inspirational story or picture of your military experience or a veteran in your life.

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As part of our annual “11Days, 11 Stories” series honoring Veterans this month, we are spotlighting the stories of veterans we have met through our work here at Operation Homefront:

 by Christy O’Farrell

As Heidi Woodring’s husband, Christopher, was preparing to swear in to the Army, having enlisted the day before on Sept. 10, 2001, the twin towers were hit in New York City. At home in New Jersey, about two hours away from Christopher, Heidi was pregnant with their middle child, and her brother’s girlfriend called, urging her to turn on her TV. “I knew right then my life was going to change,” Heidi said. “I just didn’t know how.”

Fast forward one year: Christopher deploys, for the first of three times, to Afghanistan. When he returned home to Fort Riley, Kansas, Heidi noticed he seemed distant, and sometimes angry, but she didn’t worry too much because she thought it was to be expected, and she knew others who were the same way. Chris’ second deployment was extended to 15 months. While home on R&R, Heidi became pregnant with their youngest, and Chris returned a month before she was born.

That time, now at Fort Hood, Texas, Heidi noticed Chris’ drinking was increasing, and he still seemed angry at times. Reflecting on her experience, Heidi said she initially was angry too because she had always lived near, and been dependent on her family and her husband, not even learning to drive until later in their marriage. “I was thrust into the middle of Tornado Alley, not knowing how to do anything, with no friends to lean on,” she said. She made friends with other Army families through the family readiness group, knowing that people generally get more out of a situation when they invest time and effort into it.

It was during Chris’ third deployment that he injured his hand using faulty equipment, and had to have his thumb partially amputated, suffering nerve damage. But his main injury is post-traumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis they received in 2010 after Chris went into a “huge downward spiral” and was hospitalized, Heidi said. The Army medically retired Chris in August 2012 as a sergeant with nearly 11 years of service. He had first worked as a petroleum supply specialist, and was reclassified a few times.

That’s when Heidi found herself with a new title — caregiver — one she wasn’t sure fit her, didn’t fully understand, and questioned whether she could live up to. But with help from Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor program, a nationwide network of support groups for caregivers to injured service members and veterans, Heidi grew into the role that required her to be more independent and self-reliant. At a May 2011 HOV retreat in Oklahoma City that she describes as “life-changing,” Heidi soon learned she had not only enough strength within herself to handle her own responsibilities, but extra to share with others in the same position.

Now it was Heidi’s turn to serve. After the family moved to Las Vegas, to be closer to Heidi’s grandparents, she went in search of help, she said, because service members often have trouble asking for help themselves. She wasn’t scared, she was determined — to learn everything she could about PTSD and community resources. So she walked into Operation Homefront’s office in Las Vegas, and met Annie Baca, Nevada’s executive director. “That was probably the best decision I’ve ever made,” Heidi said. Annie pointed her in the right direction and eventually became a friend.

“Annie saw something in me,” said Heidi, who over the next several years, as a peer facilitator for OH’s Hearts of Valor program, grew the Nevada chapter from three members to nearly 80.

Annie remembers how sincere Heidi was when they met, wanting to share what she was learning with others who also needed help. “Her confidence and knowledge has inspired many across the nation,” Annie said. “I’ve seen Heidi personally assist many individuals in attaining benefits they needed. It has been an honor to have her on our Operation Homefront team as a core volunteer. She’s been one of the most reliable, dedicated volunteers throughout my tenure. She has definitely raised the bar …”

Operation Homefront gave Heidi its President’s Volunteer Service Award for her countless hours with HOV and at every Las Vegas event OH organized since 2012. It’s something of a mutual admiration club because Heidi says she may be Operation Homefront’s biggest fan, crediting the organization with helping turn her life around after Chris’ diagnosis. “I just absolutely adore the organization,” she said. “You’re not going to find a bigger supporter.”

Volunteering for military and veterans’ organizations is both empowering and rewarding, she said, when she sees how they can lift up people who need it.

Her own experience as a military spouse and mom influences her approach to volunteering. Mother to Alyssa, 19; Christopher, 15; and Kaylee, 9; Heidi allows that military life was hard, especially on her oldest. “It gets a little crazy,” she said. And they all have had to make big adjustments during the transition to civilian life, she said. For example, they don’t often visit the closest military base, Nellis AFB, Las Vegas, because it “doesn’t feel right,” and they have had to get used to getting paid once a month instead of twice. “We had to start our life all over again, [and] establish relationships,” she said. “It was a struggle.”

Heidi has been such a dependable helper at various OH functions including Back to School Brigade and holiday events that Annie recently turned the tables on her, insisting that Heidi attend the March 2017 Homefront Celebration, a military spouse appreciation dinner, as one of the 180 guests. That didn’t stop Heidi from helping in the morning, setting up tables and gift bags. But then she went home to do her hair and don her dress.

“That was amazing,” she said of the evening. She sat with women from her Hearts of Valor group, and all were touched by the speaker, a military wife and veteran. “There wasn’t a dry eye at our table,” she said. “She was very inspiring.”

The Homefront Celebration provides a rare opportunity for military spouses to dress up and be catered to, while socializing with others who can relate to their lives. Part of the fun is the glamour. In this case, Heidi said, that meant a beautiful venue, Red Rock Country Club, and a red carpet for taking selfies. “We don’t go to military balls anymore,” she said.

“I just noticed women who I’ve seen, and have been kind of down, were smiling and laughing and having fun,” Heidi said. “For me, it made it worth it.”

A few months ago, Heidi had to take a step back from some volunteering because she also cares for her grandparents, and as a proponent of self-care, she knew she shouldn’t take on too much. A friend became the Hearts of Valor group facilitator. The support group meets once or twice a month, and attendance varies, with a dozen people coming sometimes and fewer on other occasions. Often, caregivers’ schedules are not entirely under their own control, so it can be difficult to know when they are available for meetings. The main goal is to give members a chance to talk about their issues, she said, and to share friendship and resources.

Though she sometimes misses her old, pre-caregiver life, Heidi said an upside has been personal growth, which was inevitable as she got the hang of managing the household, operating as a single mom at times. “I’m not the same person I was.”

This blog is part of our “11 Days. 11 Stories” series where we seek to honor veterans. Check back here daily through Nov. 11 to read stories of those we’ve served. You can also join in the conversation with us by sharing stories of your own.

Through Facebook or Twitter, please use the hashtag #RaiseYourHand to share your own inspirational story or picture of your military experience or a veteran in your life.

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As part of our annual “11Days, 11 Stories” series honoring Veterans this month, we are spotlighting the stories of veterans we have met through our work here at Operation Homefront:

by Christy O’Farrell

Chris Rasmussen, an Army veteran who served five tours of duty over 16 years, has been adjusting to civilian life since 2014. At times, he still feels out of his element as a full-time student deciding on a new career, and a single father of two daughters.

“It takes a while to transition into the civilian world after doing something for so long,” said Chris, 38, dad to Savannah, 12; and Brielle, 8. “It’s hard to change. It’s like making a huge, major career change in mid-life.”

But he’s optimistic about the path he’s on, despite feeling like a fish out of water compared to other students and parents. Chris expects to graduate in December 2017 from Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with an associate degree in science, and transfer to University of Colorado, Western State Colorado University or University of Denver.

“It’s just deciding what I want to do and where I want to go,” he said, noting that he desires a career he’s passionate about, and is considering geography, or fields that would involve fighting erosion, wildfires or invasive species.

As tough as that is, pursuing the right occupation can be less daunting than raising two preteen girls. Their mother lives in Seattle, and visits usually every two to three months, Chris said. His two sisters and a long-time babysitter help him with the girls sometimes. “It’s hard for them,” he said. “I mean they’re being raised by a man.”

Chris also has received support along the way from groups such as Operation Homefront and the Wounded Warrior Project.

He received about $100 worth of groceries and a grocery gift card at Operation Homefront’s Holiday Meals for Military event in Fountain, Colorado, in December 2016. “It was really smooth,” he said about the food distribution. “You were there for under a minute. That’s how fast it was.” OH staff and volunteers were “real cordial and polite,” he said.

OH also gave him a $50 gift card to buy Christmas gifts. Chris had planned to retire from the Army after serving 20 years, but had to retire early, as a sergeant first class, for medical reasons. He receives payments from the Veterans Affairs Department, but when they are delayed, “it starts to spiral from there when you’re on a fixed income,” he said. “OH came in and helped me out of a tough spot.” He doesn’t want his daughters to worry about finances. “They shouldn’t stress about any of that stuff. That’s adult stuff.”

Having been a mechanic in the Army, Chris had worked at a car dealership in the parts department. He had to resign because it required him to lift and move heavy motors and transmissions, activities outside his limitations with two fractured vertebrae and other injuries. But it wasn’t just the physical demands that made the job a poor fit. Chris felt the work didn’t measure up, compared to what he had been used to. “It’s not worth it,” he said. In the Army, he felt he had “a bigger cause and a bigger reason than yourself” to put up with hardships that were lacking in the job at the car dealership. “I’m not going to hurt myself more for some guy who’s just making an extra buck off me,” he said.

“Civilians are different than Army people,” Chris continued. “I liked the service and I liked working together to solve problems with other like-minded people. When you have a problem in the Army, you all come together no matter what you look like or where you came from, you’re all the same.

“Your work has meaning. It’s purposeful. You’re driven. It’s different in the civilian side trying to find that same thing.”

Until he finds the right job, Chris says it makes more sense, financially, for him to care for his daughters, rather than getting a part-time job and paying $1,200 a month for before- and after-school care. “Daycare is ridiculous,” he said. “I can’t afford that. I’d be going to work just to pay for daycare.”

Not the type to sit on a bench looking at his phone when he takes his daughters to the park, Chris plays on the swings with them and chases them around. “I interact with my kids,” who play soccer, softball and volleyball, and love to fish, he said. They all like to take advantage of their beautiful surroundings. Last summer, they went white-water rafting, zip lining and rappelling. In the winter, they’ve gone skiing and snowboarding.

Since it has been difficult to find the right job, Chris focuses on his education instead. Most of the other students in his classes are 18 or 19 years old, and complain about homework. They “don’t know what hard is,” he said, adding: “Writing a paper is not that big of a deal,” compared to other challenges he has faced.

Chris enlisted in 1999, was based in Germany for four years, served a year in Korea, and also was stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado; Fort Benning, Georgia; and Fort Polk, Louisiana. His first deployment was in 2003-04 to Iraq, followed by two more tours to Iraq and two tours to Afghanistan, the last in 2011-12, for a total of more than five years deployed. Only about 1.5 percent of the 403,171 soldiers who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan between September 2001 and December 2011 served cumulative totals of five or more years, according to a 2013 Rand Corp. report, “Measuring Army Deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Chris sustained multiple injuries over the course of his deployments. He had his right kidney removed after his ureter collapsed, causing blockage and a bad infection. Though he noticed difficulty urinating, he “didn’t think much of it and kept going.” At one point, his fever spiked to 105 degrees. “I almost died because I was stupid and kept working.”

Having “been around a lot of explosions,” he also has endured a bad concussion, broke his foot, and required reconstructive knee surgery. “I messed up my back, messed up my neck. I beat up my body pretty good.”

He can’t run marathons anymore, but he likes to hike, and he goes to the gym to “keep the weight off,” and because he knows mental health is linked to physical fitness. “I feel bad when I don’t” exercise, he said.

He hopes he can factor his love of the outdoors into his new career, while also steering clear of vocations that often attract other veterans — law enforcement and border patrol.

“I did all these things in the Army. I rappelled out of helicopters and stuff. I can’t go to sitting in a cubicle staring at a computer. I’ll probably go insane. I have to interact with people, and I like being outside.

“I don’t ever want to be put in a position where I have to take a life, or see anything like that,” he said. “I’ve already done that and I’ve already seen it, the worst of it. I couldn’t imagine having to clean up a car accident after teenage kids. I’ve seen enough in my time, and I don’t want to see anymore.”

This blog is part of our “11 Days. 11 Stories” series where we seek to honor veterans. Check back here daily through Nov. 11 to read stories of those we’ve served. You can also join in the conversation with us by sharing stories of your own.

Through Facebook or Twitter, please use the hashtag #RaiseYourHand to share your own inspirational story or picture of your military experience or a veteran in your life.

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There is a scene early in the movie Thank You for Your Service where one of the main characters, Sgt. Adam Schumann (Miles Teller), his wife Saskia (Haley Bennett), and two children are sitting in a café after Sgt. Schumann’s homecoming from his tour in Iraq. Saskia is upset because she wanted the homecoming to be “perfect” and felt that the presence of the widow of Schumann’s squad member, James Doster, may have put an emotional strain on him. Sgt. Schumann assures her that his day was perfect, as he is home with “all of his pieces” and enjoying being with her and their two children.

The calm before the storm.

What one sees for the next hour or more is what happens to many military families after the bands stop playing and the flags stop waving. The reality is that homecoming and re-integration for too many of our veterans is far from perfect. That despite having all of their limbs, they return in emotional and spiritual pieces and spend years try to put them all back together.
If they survive long enough.

Statistically, 20 veterans a day are taking their own lives. Thank You for You Service is an attempt to reveal why from the eyes of a trio of squad members who return from Iraq during the surge years and is based on the bestselling book by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author David Finkel.

Throughout the film, we are shown, often in a blunt, in-your-face manner, the path that leads many of our combat veterans to that dark place where it becomes a matter of “choosing time and place” to make it all stop.

One of the three, Billy Waller (Joe Cole) reaches that dark place quickly. He returns not to open arms of his fiancée, but to an empty home. All of his belongings are gone, his fiancée won’t respond to his repeated and increasingly desperate phone calls. After a night at the bar with his friends, Sgt. Schumann and Specialist Tausolo “Solo” Aieti (Beulah Koale), Billy wakes up and goes to confront his fiancée at her job. Rebuffed by her, he pulls out a handgun and takes his life in front of her.

It takes more time for Adam and Solo to get to their dark place, but they do. The film shows the slow, relentless wearing down of their spirit as they combat survivor’s guilt, isolation, loss of purpose, anger, frustration, anxiety, fear and desperation. The two face insurmountable obstacles when they do try to reach out for help. A packed waiting room at the VA, the counter on the wall slowing and interminably ticking up into the 200s, the bored manner in which the clerk at the counters hands Sgt. Schumann his “welcome packet” and the shock of the 6-9 month wait for mental health care, the resigned way a counselor informs an incredulous and angry Saskia that there are too few beds and thousands needing help. In one heartbreaking scene, Specialist Aieti, literally vibrating on the edge of breakdown, is told he needs to prove his presence in the more than half dozen events where he sustained concussive injuries before the VA will approve service connection.

When one hears “Thank You for Your Service”, we understand it to mean that one’s sacrifices are acknowledged and appreciated. In this film, it means something entirely different. It seems to mean, “We got what we needed from you…so… Best of luck to you. You’re on your own.”

Towards the end of the film, the two men, Schumann and Aieti, seem to recognize they have hit rock bottom and begin to take the steps they need to truly return home. Aieti is last seen on his way to long-term treatment, in a bed waiting for Schumann, but who in one more act of looking out for his men, gives it up because Aieti needs it more. Schumman himself finds a sort of absolution in finally visiting another severely injured member of their squad who he felt he had failed, and in confessing his guilt to the widow of SFC Doster.

It’s not a textbook happy ending, but it ends with hope. Perhaps that hope is that by seeing Thank You for You Service , civilians will begin to truly understand what is meant by the high cost of freedom, and will help relieve the moral burden carried by our nation’s veterans.

No longer should they carry that alone.

We were able to connect with David Finkel, Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post editor, whose book inspired the movie, “Thank You for Your Service.” When asked whether “thank you for your service” is the best thing to say to a veteran, he responded: “I guess the better thing to do is to ask a question, like you would of anyone you’re interested in having a conversation with. The problem a lot of service members have with someone who says thank you for your service is that it seems an easy thing to say and doesn’t convey actual interest in the person. Not everyone feels that way, but a lot do.”

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We’re honored to be included as a list of resources for military and veteran families as part of the film’s outreach. See more at www.thankyouforyourservicemovie.com/civilians and find a list of resources that can help us help each other

The Veterans Crisis Line connects Veterans in crisis and their families and friends with qualified, caring Department of Veterans Affairs responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text. Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Support for deaf and hard of hearing individuals is available.

This blog is part of our “11 Days. 11 Stories” series where we seek to honor veterans. Check back here daily through Nov. 11 to read stories of those we’ve served. You can also join in the conversation with us by sharing stories of your own. Through Facebook or Twitter, please use the hashtag #RaiseYourHand to share your own inspirational story or picture of your military experience or a veteran in your life.

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Brittany with her stepfather, Bobby Henline.

In April 2009, Brittany (Wallace) Strout was a 17-year-old high school senior in San Antonio, who had decided to attend University of Northern Colorado, a 17-hour-drive from home. The daughter of a wounded soldier, she planned to study psychology to learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder so she could help veterans and their families.

Meanwhile, Operation Homefront had just launched a new award to recognize the extraordinary contributions of military children. Receiving 450 nominations for Military Child of the Year® , a panel of judges would select only one recipient.

That first Military Child of the Year®  was Brittany. Two years earlier, at the age of 15, she had taken on much greater family responsibilities after her stepfather, Robert “Bobby” Henline, then an Army staff sergeant, was severely burned in a roadside bombing at the start of his fourth deployment to Iraq in 2007.

When Bobby was wounded, the family was living near Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina. While Brittany’s mother, Connie Henline, traveled to be with her husband at what is now San Antonio Military Medical Center, Brittany helped care for her brother, then 9, and sister, then 8, with the help of relatives in North Carolina.

After Brittany and her siblings joined their parents in San Antonio three months later, Brittany got her provisional driver’s license so she could drive her brother and sister to and from school and appointments, all while going through her junior year of school herself. Connie was often at the hospital, or once Bobby was released months later, spending seven to nine hours a day on wound care.

“It was hard for my parents, especially my father, to balance that I was still his baby; yet I had grown up so quickly in such a short time,” Brittany said.

Today, Brittany, who turns 26 on Sept. 25, works with military families as assistant house manager at the Lackland AFB, Texas, Fisher House, part of a network of homes near military and Veterans Affairs hospitals where families can stay for free while a loved one receives treatment. She loves the job because “we stayed at the Fisher House when my dad was injured, so it’s kind of all coming back full circle.”

Receiving Military Child of the Year®, which now recognizes seven outstanding youth each year for scholarship, volunteerism and leadership while facing the challenges of military life, was a “big shock to the entire family,” Brittany said, adding that Operation Homefront “put down the red carpet” for their trip to Washington, D.C., to accept the award. “It was an amazing weekend for me and my family,” she said, with a highlight being a tour of the White House where they got to meet Michelle Obama and the first family’s dog, Bo. In 2010, Brittany and her father appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres show with Michelle Obama and former vice president Joe Biden, who each got to pick a special guest. The first lady chose Brittany.

“When you think about the hard times in anyone’s life, you just get through the day. You don’t have time to think whether this is the right thing, or the wrong thing, you just do it,” she said. “Now, looking back at it, … I now know … that not everyone would do that, but a lot of military children would. They would step up. They would be the caregiver.”

“So many other organizations should be awarding these military children because they don’t have a choice,” Brittany continued. Their mom, dad, uncle or other family member made the choice, she said, but “the child is not given a choice.” “Their sacrifice just comes with the territory.”

She didn’t fully realize it at the time, but receiving the Military Child of the Year® award helped Brittany define herself, as media interviewers and others asked her about her role as her father started his long healing process that has involved more than 40 surgeries, amputating his left hand, and turning to stand-up comedy and motivational speaking.

That time in their lives would have a profound effect on Brittany’s choices. She graduated from University of Northern Colorado in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a major she chose because she was fascinated by post-traumatic stress disorder and how war affects soldiers differently. She wanted to learn more about why military members “like so much adrenalin,” and when returning home from deployment, “why do some excel, and some, honestly, give up on life.”

She starts in January a master’s program in social work at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio. She needs an advanced degree so she can counsel wounded service members and their families, a choice shaped by her own family’s experience. Ultimately, she wants to be a wounded warrior case manager at Randolph AFB, Texas.

Brittany, Billy and their daughter, Addison, 3.

Brittany also is a newlywed, married to Billy, whom she met just before traveling to Washington, D.C., for the Military Child of the Year ceremony, and the mother of a 3-year-old girl, Addison Hope. In the next five months, she’s a bridesmaid in four friends’ weddings — two in San Antonio, one in Nebraska and one in Hawaii.

Brittany said she’s thankful to have a great support system between her family and Billy’s because life will become even more demanding once her master’s program starts. Their daughter keeps them on their toes.

“She has so much attitude,” Brittany said. “I don’t know where she gets it from. She is a spitfire.” Addison corrects her mother’s driving, Brittany said. She has been walking since she was eight months old, and she taught herself to swim.

Asked about advice for other military children and future Military Child of the Year® award recipients, Brittany said: “The most important thing … is to always take care of yourself in order to be the best mother, wife, friend, coworker. You have to nurture every aspect of your life to be the best in any one of them.

“I travel a lot because that’s what makes me happy,” she said. “I can’t be a great example to my daughter if I’m not happy.”

“I think it’s so amazing that Operation Homefront awards, now, seven awards to these children who are just trying to get through so many different obstacles that they are put through that other kids are not.”

In each of the first two years of Operation Homefront’s Military Child of the Year® program, the nonprofit organization named only one awardee. Starting in 2011, judges selected a child representing each branch of the military for a total of five awards. In 2015, Operation Homefront added the National Guard, for a total of six awards. And in 2016, a seventh award was added, the Military Child of the Year® Award for Innovation presented by Booz Allen Hamilton. This award is given for designing a bold, creative solution to a local, regional or global challenge, such as an invention, improvement to existing technology, or creation or expansion of a nonprofit or community service group. Operation Homefront and sponsors present the awards, including a $10,000 cash prize and other gifts, at a gala in April, the Month of the Military Child.

Military kids may not see the challenges in their lives as potential obstacles to overcome at the time, but those successes will serve them well later professionally and personally, Brittany said. She also emphasized the value of higher education. “I can’t stress to children [enough] how important college is, not only in the career field but also for personal growth. You can never be too educated, not just in academics, but in life,” she said.

Choosing a Colorado college was the right step for her, she said. Her family had been stationed in Colorado Springs when she was in eighth and ninth grades, and Brittany kept in touch with some friends she met there. She joined Sigma Kappa, becoming the sorority’s vice president of communications and then, in her senior year, its president.

“It was what I needed. I needed to have fun,” she said. “I needed to focus on myself, and I definitely got to do that in Colorado.”


Nominations are now being taken for the 2018 Military Child of the Year® awards.  Anyone can nominate…teachers, friends, parents, grandparents.  Click here to nominate. 

Help us promote it on Facebook and Twitter so we can reach as many families as possible.  Use #MCOY2018 to join the conversation. Deadline to apply is Dec. 4, 2017.

We can’t wait to be inspired by your nominations!

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