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Archive for the ‘Wounded Warriors’ Category

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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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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mason-on-deck

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shay became his full-time primary caregiver.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Former Marine Sayku Dudley describes his childhood in Atlanta, Georgia, as rough. As a kid, Sayku was motivated to find a better life for himself.

Sayku started going to softball games and barbeques hosted by local military recruiters and became good friends with one of them.

“As things became worse in my environment,” said Sayku, “I decided to … join the military. As I was deciding which branch of service to go into, I thought the Marines looked the toughest and the fittest. I went into the Marines because I wanted to look like that guy who stood out from the rest.”

dudleyAfter basic training at Paris Island, South Carolina, Sayku was stationed at Twenty-nine Palms, the Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command in California.  He spent time in Japan and Mexico before returning to Atlanta to join the Marine Reserves.

After 9/11, Sayku deployed to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.  “I was almost killed,” said Sayku. “But I recovered.” Eventually he came back to Georgia. “My career was cut short at the end,” said Sayku. “I am fighting for medical retirement. I have had multiple personal problems. I have lost stripes. Since 2009, I have been going through the storm of my life.”

Sayku struggles with depression and post-traumatic stress. His financial situation was bleak and he faced having his lights and utilities shut off. He first turned to Wounded Warrior Project for help, and in turn, they referred him to Operation Homefront.  Operation Homefront was able to provide   the financial assistance he needed during a difficult financial time.

Sakyu request was just one of over 1,700 military families we’ve helped so far this year, and one of 11,000 since our inception in 2012.  89.4% of our 2016 clients surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that OH’s Emergency Assistance Program helps build strong, stable, and secure military families.

Sayku is thankful that things are better now than they were last year. “I was in a mental state that I didn’t know I was in or how to get out. After I left the military, I had problems and haven’t been able to do. This is not where I ever thought I would be.”

To those who donate to OH, Sayku said, “There are not a lot of words. I would rather do than say. I am so very thankful. I am glad that you (OH) was able to help me. Asking for help really checks your pride. I am very thankful for the help, and I am on a new path and thanks to you I can do for now. I definitely know what it’s like to not have. It’s very humbling to be where I am.”

Sayku recently began work at Home Depot part-time. “I haven’t been in the work world for a while,” said Sayku. “This is a new start. I have been on a rocky road filled with debts and family problems. But now I am in a different place and keep remembering how far I came. I am starting over new. This time I am going to succeed either by working multiple jobs or going back to school.”

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

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hector-perez-alternate-picHector Perez is a California native – growing up just a few miles from Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles. Like many young men and women, Hector was compelled to serve after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

With the influence of a high school recruiter, he enlisted in the Marines in 2002.

During his service, Hector deployed to the middle east many times. While in Afganistan, Perez recalls how a road side bomb detonated and hit his vehicle.

Hector was injured severely. “Spinal cord injuries, neural damage to my left leg and left eye, and some TBI and PTSD as well,” were all side effects of his accident. He received a Purple Heart and Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal for all his years of active duty service and, more specifically, for his outstanding service during his four deployments to Iraq and two deployments to Afghanistan.

No one is prepared for the effects of war, and, like too many of his comrades, these injuries caused Perez to medically retire in 2015.

Soon he was back in California but, this time, things were a little different.

Like many in his situation, Hector was caught off guard and struggled to make ends meet during his transition out of the military. “I had to realize wasn’t going to be able to spend 20 years, a full career, in the Marine Corps,” he said.

Hector heard about the Operation Homefront Villages, that provide rent-free transitional housing, from his recovery care coordinator and applied. He was accepted into the program and moved into the new Operation Homefront Village in San Diego. There, he found relief and a way to get back on track with his life.

“We were able to focus on stabilizing our income,” added Hector. “In addition, we brought our current debt down to a minimum and live in a safe environment with others in the same position and continue care for disabilities.”

While at Village, Hector and his family were able to reduce their total debt by more than $5,000. His wife graduated from college and they were able to establish stability. In addition, the family has been able to put over $15,000 into their savings and on average are able to contribute an additional $2,000 into their savings each month.

“It’s safe, it’s beautiful, it’s near all the VA (offices) I need,” said Hector. “Being a part of this community will help our family transition from active duty to retired tremendously.”

We’re glad he’s safe and back home where he belongs.

Meet the Perez family

 

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

 

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“I took a leap of faith and joined the Air Force.”

That’s how Dominick Griego describes his decision to serve. He had entered college, trying to balance the demands of a young family, college and a job. But he needed healthcare and a constant paycheck. So he enlisted.

Little did he know that decision would impact his family in ways he never imagined.

“The beauty of joining the Air Force was that I was also afforded the opportunity to see the world.” After training at two locations in Texas, he was stationed in Italy with his wife, Cecilia. “Italy was amazing,” said Dominick. “Both of my girls were born there.”

After Italy, the family was stationed in New Jersey for seven years. Dominick had seven deployments during his thirteen years of service. “I was gone a lot,” said Dominick. “It was a trying factor on my family, especially the girls. But we faced every opportunity and challenge thanks to my wonderful wife.”

dom-griego-9During Dominick’s last deployment to Afghanistan, he was hurt. At first, there was just the close call…Dominick was checking on an infrastructure in an area known as “Rocket City” when an IDF mortar blew up outside the chow hall. But three weeks later in Kabul, Dominick and his operations team were driving to another location when a suicide bomber drove into them. Dominick and his team ended up five feet away from 500-pound bomb.

“We ended up inside an attack and were under heavy fire,” said Dominick. “I passed out and when I came to, we were engaged by an enemy in the city. Fortunately, we were able to fight back and maneuver tactically. There were six of us and all six survived and returned home with minimal injuries. Sometimes you get lucky. I was stubborn and didn’t seek medical treatment. I stumbled around in country before ending up in hospital. They told me to make sure I rested my brain.”

Dominick decided to stay on in Afghanistan for six months. He was assigned to a task force looking for corruption and fraud. Six months turned into 13 months. Finally, in July 2014, he returned to the states. Dominick received a Purple Heart for his bravery and courage in the attacks in Kabul.

Despite his injuries, and the fact that Dominick had recently been diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery, Dominick reenlisted in the Air Force for another term in January 2016. He deals with traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress, and PTSD sleep deprivation.

Dominick was a Portraits in Courage honoree and attended an awards ceremony at the Pentagon. While he was there, he met one of our Operation Homefront staff members. Dominick’s wife took a business card.

When the Griego family’s heat and AC unit stopped working efficiently, the family recalled their chance meeting with Operation Homefront and filled out an application for assistance—Dominick didn’t believe the family would qualify. “I didn’t think that I was a candidate for help because you can’t see my injuries,” said Dominick. “Sometimes I am also in denial about my injuries.”

“The original heating unit was oil and the new unit is natural gas,” said Cecilia. “We all have allergies which was sometimes aggravated by the oil heat and it dried us out. This is different heat. We no longer have stress from worrying about fixing it. There is no way we could have done this without Operation Homefront’s help.”

dom-griego-2“I am at home a lot,” said Dominick. “What you guys did was amazing. Because of my health, I had no motivation to mentally or physically address the AC issue. The lack of efficient heat and AC made the situation more miserable as I was recovering from surgeries and chemo.”

“A lot of people tell me thank you for your service,” said Dominick. “Because my wounds are not visible, people don’t understand. But to say thank you and then do something like your donors do to say thanks—to blindly give. That gesture is beyond words. What you and your donors do justifies and reinstates the reason why I serve and wear the uniform and would do anything to protect.”

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

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michael-figueroa-picIt was a day that shook our country to its core. It also motivated thousands of young American men and women to step forward to serve in the military.

Michael Figueroa is no exception.

Born in Miami, Florida, Michael wanted to make a difference after witnessing the attacks of September 11. He enlisted in the Marines a few years later and served for almost 11 years before his medical retirement.

During his time in the Marine Corps, Figueroa was deployed on two separate occasions to Fallujah, Iraq.  As with many of his fellow veterans, the wounds were not visible and took time to surface. Once back in the United States, Figueroa began to suffer from the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and a Traumatic Brain Injury.

It hasn’t been an easy transition for Figueroa and his family. Figueroa’s illness has caused him to be placed in a military medical treatment facility for three separate occasions causing separation from his wife, Melissa, and daughter, Olivia.

“Due to my illness, I was being medically retired prematurely,” said Figueroa. “Also because of my illness, I have cognitive problems and have to rely strongly on my wife.”

Thanks to Operation Homefront, Figueroa and his family were able to be placed in one of our rent-free transitional apartments at the Operation Homefront Village in San Diego. The villages provide a furnished apartment, financial counseling and a network of resident military families to connect with. Being at the Village served to alleviate some of the family’s transitional and financial stress.

“Receiving an apartment helped us relieve the burden of possible homelessness which in turn helps our mental and financial well-being,” said Figueroa. “In periods of extreme stress, my mind cannot handle it at times, so this has helped me and my family keep our mental stability through this transition.”

Michael was able to save $16,000 and reduce his overall debt by $5,000. He and Melissa were able to accomplish several of their financial goals and educational benefits. Their future plans are to move to Oceanside and stay actively involved in the military community. Michael is studying computer science and hopes to finish his degree at Mira Costa College.

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

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