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Last week, Operation Homefront hosted an activity-packed three-day celebration to honor our stellar Military Child of the Year Award® recipients.  And what an amazing three days it was!

The 10th annual Military Child of the Year festivities kicked off Tuesday with our BAH Innovation Award recipient, Shelby Barber from Hawaii, touring the Innovation Center at Booz Allen Hamilton. Her visit included a tour, a sampling of their state-of-the-art virtual reality experiences, and a brainstorming meeting with the Booz Allen Hamilton project team who will help Shelby bring to life her concept for a portable medical device for children with severe allergies.

On Wednesday, Brig. Gen. John I Pray, Jr., Air Force (Ret.), President and CEO of Operation Homefront, welcomed all seven recipients at a welcome lunch before the kids, their families, and OH staff departed for Capitol Hill to meet and greet their state congressional representatives.

Afterwards, the MCOY recipients came back to the hotel for dinner, where they received laptops from Booz Allen Hamilton and Microsoft, along with cash awards and some very special surprises from Kendra Scott and Cracker Barrel.

Thursday, our awardees had the opportunity to meet and mingle with OH staff, Region 1 Advisory Board member Danny Chung, and our National Board of Directors.

 

Then, it was off to the National Museum of American History. For the fifth year, OH worked with the Archives Center to give the MCOY recipients a behind-the-scene tour. When the MCOY recipients weren’t weaving through a maze of stacked artifacts, they were able to explore the exhibits, including the First Ladies display as well as the Star-Spangled Banner — the original stars and stripes that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 — providing the inspiration for the Star-Spangled Banner lyrics from Francis Scott Key.

Then, it was time for the main event — the gala! ESPN analyst and former MLB player Chris Singleton served as the emcee, and appropriately kicked off the evening with a rousing “play ball!” America’s Beloved Tenor, Daniel Rodriguez, sang the national anthem during the Presentation of Colors by JROTC cadets from T.C. Williams High School from Alexandria, Virginia.


 

John Pray started the program recognizing service members, veterans, and our military family members. Of the MCOY recipients, John said: “We recognize the extraordinary accomplishments of these seven recipients, who represent the collective excellence of military children everywhere. They personify resiliency, leadership, and strength of character. Their families and communities, as well as our corporate partners and the staff and volunteers at Operation Homefront, are very proud of them as individuals and all the other young people in the military families they represent.”

 

Two wonderful guests helped OH salute the MCOY recipients: Brennley Brown and Melissa Stockwell.

Brennley, an emerging country artist (you might recognize her from Season 12 of The Voice) spoke about how inspired she was that she was here with kids who were her own age and had already accomplished so much. She treated the crowd to a beautiful musical performance.

Melissa Stockwell, Army veteran, two-time Paralympian, and proud mom, spoke about her journey after losing her leg. In her remarks, Melissa spoke about resilience and her inspiration, telling the MCOY recipients, “your voices are so strong … stand up for what you believe in.”

Lt. Gen. Stephen Lyons, Director for Logistics, representing General Joseph Dunford and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered remarks that underscored the importance of the military family, particularly the children, in ensuring our nation has a ready force. “The decision of our service members to remain serving in our nation’s military is most often made at the dinner table,” said Gen. Lyons. “The way organizations like Operation Homefront care for our families and support children like these helps us keep our forces engaged and strong.”

 

Lt. Gen. Lyons then was joined by John Pray and Lieutenant General Brian Arnold, USAF, Ret., Chairman of the Operation Homefront Board of Directors, for the award presentations. Each presenter took a few moments to celebrate the military family behind the recipients, then they highlighted the amazing awardee accomplishments.

Several of our previous Military Child of the Year Award recipients were on hand to help present the awards to the new generation.

Military Child of the Year Alumni: (left to right) Alena Deveau (2012 Coast Guard Military Child of the Year), Nicole Goetz (2011 Air Force Military Child of the Year), Alex McGrath (2017 Navy Military Child of the Year), Christian Fagala (2016 Marine Corps Military Child of the Year), Henderson Heussner (2017 Army Military Child of the Year), Maggie Rochon (2011 Coast Guard Military Child of the Year)

But it was not over yet! For the second year, Carnival Cruise Line and Senior Vice President of Hotel Operations Richard Morse shocked, literally, the MCOY recipients and their families with a free family cruise.

“This has been a remarkable evening,” said John as he closed out the evening. “To all our honorees tonight, I know your parents, families, and communities are so proud of you. We are proud of you too. You inspire every one of us.”

 

With the 10th annual Military Child of the Year in the books, we turn our focus to wrapping up the logistics and towards planning for the 11th MCOY Gala to be held on April 11, 2019.

Special thanks to United Technologies Corporation, our presenting sponsor for the 2018 Military Child of the Year Awards Gala. Other gala sponsors were Booz Allen Hamilton, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, Military Times, La Quinta Inns & Suites, MidAtlanticBroadband, Veterans United Home Loans, and Under Armour.

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Before we jump into 2018, we’d like to look back at some of the best moments from this past year. It goes without saying that we are able to advance our mission to build strong, stable, and secure military families because of those who give – our individual and corporate donors. Thank you! These moments would not happen without you.

1. These women came to our caregiver retreat…in a hurricane! As Hurricane Harvey was skirting San Antonio, we were hosting a group of caregivers along the Riverwalk for a very special retreat, as part of our Hearts of Valor program. They would not be kept away by a hurricane and there’s a good reason. These retreats are designed to uplift those who are closest to wounded veterans. The retreats give caregivers a much-needed break and education about invisible wounds, compassion fatique, healthy living and staying connected. Special thanks to our sponsor, USAA, for making these retreats possible.

 

2. Our annual gala to celebrate military kids has become a must-attend event! Celebrating the youngest heroes of our military families is one of our favorite things to do. This year’s Military Child of the Year® Award, once again, recognized several outstanding young men and women who represent their families, their branches of service and their country very well. Read more about them and you’ll be inspired. Looking forward to meeting next year’s award recipients in April 2018 in Washington D.C. Who will they be? We’ll find out in early March! #GivingStrength

 

3. There’s no place like home! We get to be a part of making dreams come true through our Homes on the Homefront program that awards mortgage-free homes to veterans. To date, we’ve awarded 599 homes since the program began. All of this is possible because of our great partners like Chase, Meritage Homes, Wade Jurney Homes and Sears (who donated and raised money to provide two homes to veteran families in 2017). Stay tuned as we plan a big celebration for our 600th home in 2018.

 

 

4. Special nights for military spouses? Yes, we did! The call to military life is not easy on a service member’s spouse. Being apart from your service member AND trying to hold down the homefront is managed more easily when you have friends nearby. Our Homefront Celebrations give military spouses a night away to relax, make new friends and be pampered just a little. And thanks to our friends at Southern New Hampshire University, these events have bolstered the careers for some very special women who received a full-tuition scholarship at each celebration, like Megan Morris (pictured here at our event in Tampa, FL). Stay tuned as we announce another year of Homefront Celebrations around the country in 2018.

 

5. Awwwwwww! At our Star-Spangled Baby Showers each year, we get all mushy at the sights and sounds of our expecting moms and the young moms who bring along their sweet newborns. In 2017, we hosted 9 events from coast to coast, a few places in between and even Hawaii, providing critical baby supplies and large raffle items to hundreds of military moms. We were also excited to be joined by Procter and Gamble and Paralympic veteran Melissa Stockwell at our baby shower in Chesapeake, VA.

 

6. The holidays wouldn’t be the same without you! It’s been an honor serving military families around the country. Thanks to our generous donors, we served more than 11,000 families with everything they needed for a spectacular holiday meal. Since we began our holiday programs in 2008, we have served nearly 80,000 military families, impacting over 330,000 family members. See our feature blog to celebrate another year of bringing joy to our military families this holiday season!

 

7. When it was time to hit the books, we made it a little easier. Going back to school is expensive. Military kids have enough to deal with and not having the right supplies should not be one of their struggles. We were happy to meet so many smiling faces, like this child in Dayton, OH, and remove the financial burden from their families. This year, we hit a major milestone, as we distributed our 300,000th backpack since the program began which included more than 41,000 backpacks given to military children around the U.S. this summer alone.

 

8. Home Depot Really Is #DoingMore4Vets! From golf tournaments to renovating veterans’ homes to providing support for our Critical Financial Assistance program, The Home Depot Foundation, and its band of Team Depot volunteers, are a long-time partner who support means so much as they join us in giving strength to military families! We were honored to present a Cornerstone Award to Heather Prill, Senior Manager, National Partnerships at The Home Depot Foundation for her contributions to the national nonprofit’s mission to build strong, stable, and secure military families this past September.

 

9. Transition from service can be a challenging time for veterans. Especially if they are coping with injuries and illnesses from their service. Our rent-free transitional housing villages stand ready to help when these families need it the most. Since inception, our villages have welcomed more than 500 families who lived in a rent-free, fully furnished apartment to help them make a smooth transition to civilian life. Our Critical Financial Assistance program helps military and veteran families overcome unexpected crises like a major appliance or car repair or help with rent or mortgage. We’ve been able to help veterans like Petero Taufagu who needed help getting his car repaired. Later, through our partnership with American Airlines, he also received a brand-new Jeep Cherokee. So now he has a reliable way to get to his necessary doctor appointments. Our donors, sponsors, and supporters are the reason we have been able to provide over $22 million in financial aid, fulfilling more than 40,000 requests.

 

10. Fact IS Stranger Than Fiction! We can’t make this stuff up!

a. Cracker Barrel created the Flip It Forward Pancake Fundraiser and raised $64,000 for Operation Homefront! It included a media tour with a pancake artist who even created our logo in pancake batter. We thought about framing it…then thought again.

b. Who doesn’t secretly harbor the desire to shatter glass? Our friends at CDW found a way to convince PGA TOUR players Ben Crane, Smylie Kaufman, Ryan Palmer and CDW-sponsored Gary Woodland to compete in a “glass breaking” event between the golf pros. And more was at stake than just bragging rights – winner Gary Woodland presented an additional donation of 10 Lenovo Chromebooks – five to Operation Homefront and five to the charity of Woodland’s choice. The entire event raised support for military families through Operation Homefront.

c. A personalized burger? Carnival Cruise Lines is known for fun but they outdid themselves when they devised a way to laser-burn personal well-wishes from military supporters onto burgers they served to Marines at a special event at MCAS Miramar in California. They even got former Miss USA DeShauna Barber there to serve the burgers and provided a $25,000 donation to Operation Homefront. You have to see the pictures to believe it.

d. We’ll brave a blizzard for you! We were still in the doldrums of summer heat when Chevy first invited us to be a part of their #ChevySalutes event to honor the military at the Army-Navy Game in Philadelphia. Let’s just say winter hit with a vengeance that day and provided a very memorable experience to award a brand-new 2018 Chevrolet Traverse to one of the nicest caregivers and her seven-tour combat veteran husband. Don’t worry, we dressed warmly, mom!

 

11. We still get starstruck! We’ve been excited to work with some pretty inspiring people this year.

a. The Pale Ale Wins the Summer of Yes! Carson Daly who worked with Other Half Brewing to create a craft beer with proceeds to support Operation Homefront as part of his #SummerOfYes on the Today Show.

b. Wonder-Super-Mega-Amazing Melissa Stockwell: Through our partnership with P&G, we got to work with the very inspiring Melissa Stockwell, who is a bronze-medal winning, 2-time Paralympian, triathlete and Purple Heart wounded Army veteran. She attended one of our Star-Spangled Baby Showers in Virginia and has since welcomed her own baby Millie to her sweet family.

c. Tim McGraw Walks the Walk. And where do we start with Tim McGraw? We’ve been working with this country superstar since 2012. From his personal support to joining us to award mortgage-free homes along with Chase, he has been a steadfast champion for military and veteran families. #GivingStrength #startstrongstaystrong

 

12. We have the best volunteers! Our volunteers show up and pitch in whenever they are needed. We host hundreds of events all year long from Alaska to the tip of Florida, from San Diego to Massachusetts. This year, we created a special Volunteer Reserves which recruits our volunteers that want to get involved, but don’t want to volunteer on a daily basis or even a weekly basis, but they’re very interested in staying in the loop and ready to be called on when we need help serving our military families.

There are so many moments to remember in 2017. And each was an honor because we got to be a part of serving our military and veteran families. That makes any year a great year!

If you’d like to be a part of giving strength this holiday season and making our 2018 even better, consider giving to a current need of a military family to give them the best start possible to the New Year!

 

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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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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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Liz, her husband Doug, a wounded Army veteran, and their three children huddled together in the downstairs bathroom as Category 4 Hurricane Harvey passed through the small town of Rockport, Texas.

The ceiling started cracking overhead and one of her children and her husband were starting to panic.

Rockport had mandatory evacuation but her husband refused to leave.

“I prayed,” said Liz, who attended our Hearts of Valor caregiver retreat in San Antonio just one week after Hurricane Harvey hit.  “I had to remain calm, fight my fears, and assure my family that we would be OK. There were times when I wasn’t sure if we would make it, but I had to keep everyone else calm. One of the scariest points was when I heard a noise like a freight train and waited for a tornado to hit.”

They had just moved into the rental home the week before. The family had eagerly planned the move to Rockport and looked forward to being part of the small community. Liz said they thought being near the Gulf would be relaxing for Doug, who battles post-traumatic stress. The threat of a hurricane was the furthest thing from their minds.

Liz and Doug met in 2008 at a Fourth of July barbeque that Doug, a single dad at the time, was attending with his three kids. Doug had been injured during a deployment to the middle East but recovered enough that he chose to continue serving. “I fell in love with the kids first,” said Liz. The two married and the family followed Doug as he continued his Army career.

After 22 years of service, Doug retired on March 1, 2016. The family traveled for a bit after Doug’s retirement looking for a place to call home. On a trip to check out Corpus Christi, the family drove through Rockport. “We fell in love with Rockport,” said Liz.

Thankfully, Liz and her family survived the storm. They were anxious to get back to normal. As they were surveying the damage, a sheriff stopped by to check on them.

The sheriff told Liz and Doug the schools would be closed indefinitely and power could be out for weeks. The family quickly left for Oklahoma, where they had family, driving over downed power lines and receding water. Liz cried as she saw the extent of the damage to Rockport on their way out of town. There were flipped cars, dead animals and homes completely destroyed.

When Liz tried to cancel her spot at our Hearts of Valor retreat, her husband told her that she should still go.

Although she arrived in tears, Liz was thankful for the opportunity to attend the retreat. “I was stressed and completely overwhelmed by the events and everything that will need to be done in the weeks to come,” said Liz. “I am leaving the retreat very thankful, relaxed, ready to deal with things, and feeling like a giant weight has been lifted. Thank you all! I love you guys so much.”

 

 

WHERE ARE THEY NOW:

The family is still in Oklahoma with relatives, awaiting repairs on their home and anxious to move back. Operation Homefront will be there for the family, and for many families impacted by the most recent storms.  To help, visit our current needs page.

Within one week of Harvey hitting Texas, Hearts of Valor hosted two retreats for 63 caregivers who traveled from all over the country to arrive in San Antonio, Texas. Our sincere thanks to USAA for sponsoring the retreats for caregivers from all over the U.S.

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For Jamal Braxton, 2017 Military Child of the Year® Award recipient for the U.S. Air Force, and future U. S. Air Force Academy Class of 2021 cadet, is always ready for a challenge . It begins with an unshakeable belief that there is always something that can be done, whether through service to others or endless compassion.

This empathy for others, to be fully engaged, also drives Jamal to serve others. Both at home and abroad, Jamal has been active in and outside of the base gates. In the U.S. and overseas, he has championed the nonprofit New Eyes for the Needy, which purchases new eyeglasses for U.S. residents and distributes used eyeglasses to the disadvantaged in developing countries. In the current school year alone, Jamal has obtained 160 eyeglasses and 70 lenses for the nonprofit.

In addition to enduring the relocations and deployments of his father, Jamal has also known loss. Two of his school-age friends have passed too young, one to an auto accident and the other to a seizure. These experiences have driven him to embrace all that life has to offer while compelling him to give back and encouraging and supporting others to do the same.

While he acknowledges the obstacles inherent to military life, Jamal is poetic in describing the positive experiences he has had, particularly when describing the family’s time in Japan. “I personally loved living in Japan, because although they’re modern they appreciate nature to its fullest,” said Jamal. “Japan has shown me how to truly appreciate nature from their breath-taking scenery and by holding festivals like the Cherry Blossoms Festival and Hanami both appreciating the beauty of flowers.”

He has also been extremely active with the Red Cross at home and during his time in Germany. In these capacities, Jamal oversees monthly veteran house visits, youth group and leadership group meetings, numerous activities related to the armed forces, the recruitment of future Red Cross Youth Services leaders, and numerous fundraisers, including the International Measles & Rubella Initiative fundraiser.

He said his time with the Red Cross has fueled his aspiration to be a neurosurgeon one day. “I have always had an interest in the function of the brain and its amazing abilities from simple tasks like our five senses to language comprehension,” said Jamal. “So, my passion for the brain and the wanting to help others has steered me to the field of Neurology.” He also educates youth on International Humanitarian Law.

Jamal doesn’t stop there. He is a varsity athlete in swimming, track and field and cross country, active in Scouting, and has a job as a lifeguard.

Jamal is the son of Master Sgt. Lawrence Braxton and Ahllam Braxton of Hill AFB, UT. With all he has accomplished to date, the sky is the limit for this young man.

Operation Homefront would like to thank presenting sponsor, United Technologies, for their support of Military Child of the Year®.  Support from companies like United Technologies and all of our MCOY sponsors is invaluable in helping us showing appreciation for the contributions our military families make to our communities.

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teamdepotblog1Mission. It is something that comes up almost immediately when we talk about what we do here at Operation Homefront.

In deeper discussions, many of us in the non-profit community will bring up another word. Calling. Most all of us in the Operation Homefront community have met one or more military or veteran families that have had a profound impact on us individually. Sometimes, fate, or destiny, brings that message home in away that moves us deeply and reminds us that there is a greater purpose to our existence. The time when being in the right place at the right time changed a life.

Last month on our blog, we wrote about how a chance meeting between a weary traveler and a soldier on Thanksgiving Eve led to thousands of holiday meals being distributed to families ever since through our Holiday Meals for Military program. Recently, the right place at the right time for one struggling veteran family was the plumbing aisle of Home Depot in Hiram GA.

A caring employee at the store finds a woman sobbing while surveying plumbing fixtures, clearly at her wit’s end. The employee could have walked on by. But he didn’t. What poured forth from the woman was heart-breaking: her husband was a veteran with severe PTSD and physical injuries. They had four children, one with special needs. She was struggling to handle it all in a home seemingly falling down around them.

teamdepotblog2The “we-help-veterans” ethos in Home Depot stores is imbued in every staff member, so he brought her to the store’s Pro Desk to see what could be done.

Fast forward a few months. Operation Homefront, along with partners Home Depot Foundation and ServPro, came to the rescue to remediate mold, repair rain-damaged drywall, install a new water heater, replace hole-laden and uneven flooring, and install new and working cabinetry.

Together, we were able to make their house not just “livable”, but love-able.

teamdepotblog3These repairs won’t fix everything that troubles this family, true. It doesn’t fix the service member’s health issues. It doesn’t address the special needs of this woman’s fourth child. There is still much ahead for this family to tackle. But now the family has a safe, clean place in which to live so they can move on and up to a stable and secure future.

Thank you to our friends at The Home Depot Foundation for seeing that this family deserved more and making it happen.

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