Posts Tagged ‘Hearts of Valor’

When they met, he was young, energetic and ready to defend his country. She was drawn to his courage and his sense of purpose and honor. They fell in love. They got married. And together, they brought beautiful children into the family.

But then, the unexpected happened…

retreatblog1This is the way the story begins for most women who are caregivers of wounded warriors. Each one understands the risks of loving someone who may deploy to a combat zone. But no one is prepared for what can happen as a result of injury.

“Being in the military gives a service member a strong sense of purpose,” said Sara Boz, Director of our Hearts of Valor program. “If they are injured and ultimately transition out of the military, they can be deeply impacted, by the loss of identity, as well as the injuries.” Some effects of PTSD and TBI take time to surface and even longer for the service member to acknowledge they need help.

The wounded warrior may display anger, depression, or isolation which affects the entire family. The caregiver, usually the wife, often bears the burden. They feel the pressure of having to hold the family together through painful procedures, flashbacks, paperwork, therapy, and the normal tasks of taking care of kids, homework, dinner, household chores, etc.

retreatblog2So what do these women need? Support and encouragement, and time to focus on themselves.  Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor retreats are designed to provide much-needed respite. This week, 27 caregivers attended one such retreat in San Antonio, Texas.

The retreat connects caregivers with each other, provides education on complex topics, and offers time to relax and regroup.

The stories are difficult to comprehend. “These women are young – in their late 20s and early 30s – and they have absolutely no time for themselves,” said Sara. “I had a couple women, who have young children, tell me that they don’t do Christmas because they are so exhausted they don’t have the energy to put up a tree.”

After one small group discussion, a caregiver walked back to the meeting room with tears in her eyes. “I’m so glad I came. No one else understands what I go through every day.”

retreatblog3The lives they live are illustrated in the sessions provided to help them: trauma and relationships, compassion fatigue, PTSD, TBI, caregiving and financial readiness. “The staff and presenters were phenomenal and so kind,” said Tania, one of the attendees. Small group discussions, led by topic experts, were spaced throughout each day so caregivers could fully discuss each topic, share their concerns and learn ways to apply the knowledge to their daily lives.

As the retreat wrapped up, each caregiver got to “chart” their emotions before and after a few days of time on their own. When they arrived at the retreat, the caregivers said they felt “worried,” “tired” and “overwhelmed.” By the time they headed home, their words changed to “relaxed,” “motivated,” “refreshed” and “excited.”

retreatblog4While their journeys are far from over, the news is hopeful. With therapy and time, many service members see significant improvement in the ways they deal with their visible and invisible wounds. So the pain of the past, can become the lesson of the present and the hope for a remarkable future with their families.

View more pictures of the retreat.

Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor program helps caregivers navigate their journey of caring for their injured service member. The program offers support groups around the country and a network for those who are struggling. Generous donors make programs like this possible – give a gift today and help us make a difference for families like those represented at our retreat.

For the retreat, special thanks goes to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, who sponsored five caregivers to attend the retreat, and Fisher House who provided Hero Miles to fly several caregivers to the retreat. In addition, the following businesses offered donations or discounted services: Menger Hotel, Ava’s Flowers, Hard Rock Café, Mobile Om yoga, and Geronimo Trevino III and the Geronimo Band.

The presentations were led by staff from the University of Texas Health Science Center’s Strong Star program, Operation Family Caregiver (a program of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving), the Military Child Education Coalition, the Child Mind Institute and classes from Shelly McCulloch Whitehair, CPA, CIA, CGMA, a financial coach for Operation Homefront.



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“This didn’t just change his life, but the whole family.” Cheryl Gansner, Dole Fellow and Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor Program Coordinator. Gansner joins us as a guest blogger for PTSD Awareness Month.


In July of 2006, Cheryl’s husband, Bryan, was severely injured by an IED in Iraq six weeks before coming home

 In July of 2006, my husband, Bryan, was severely injured by an IED in Iraq six weeks before coming home. As a social worker I knew that he might experience some form of PTSD. Once he arrived at Walter Reed, I kept my eyes open for any signs. Initially, he didn’t seem to have nightmares or jump at loud noises and he seemed in good spirits (the morphine may have helped).


A few weeks later, with daily surgeries, I was providing non-stop care and he was receiving a constant stream of meds. I noticed that he wasn’t sleeping in spite of heavy doses of narcotics. He said he was re-living the trauma every time he closed his eyes. Apparently his brain was trying to process what his body had experienced.

He finally fell asleep one night for a few hours and the nurse came in to take vitals. It was dark in the room. He started screaming at the nurse saying she was an Iraqi that had come to kill him. She quickly left the room. He looked absolutely traumatized when I turned on the light. His skin was gray and his pupils were hugely dilated.

That night started a long process of counseling and recovery. We spent years trying to adjust his medication combination. He spent his nights down in the basement in the recliner trying to sleep and I was alone in our bedroom. He shut out family, friends…everyone. This went on for about three years.

I was at the end of my rope. I was burnt out from my job as a social worker and caregiver. I finally got some direction when Bryan became sick with a terrible double ear infection that threw off his balance. When I took him to the doctor, he was asked what medications he was taking. Bryan said “none.” My jaw nearly hit the floor. I knew things had taken a turn for the worse, but I didn’t know he had taken himself off his meds.

When we talked more, he said he was having the urge to jump out of the car or drive off bridges and overpasses. I got him to see his psychiatrist at the VA right away and he started on a different combination of meds.

Unfortunately, things got worse. He wanted to divorce, quit his job and live in his parents’ basement. I was a complete wreck and felt like I was watching him slip away. I decided to talk to a friend/mentor about what was going on. She told me about a clinical trial using Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) for TBI and PTSD. Bryan felt it was worth a shot since it wasn’t another medication and was minimally invasive.


The treatment helped and he was on half the medication. I noticed that he was laughing again, engaging in conversation and doing well in his job. Since then, he has had two more rounds of HBOT which have also helped.




Does he still struggle? Yes, PTSD hasn’t gone away and he isn’t cured. But we have learned to work together as a team. It has taken years, more than nine years to be exact, and lots of patience but now he tells me when he needs to leave the room, or leave a location altogether. And I don’t get upset about it anymore. I connect with friends to vent and get ideas on what I can do to help him. Having a support system is vital in a post-injury life.

Cheryl, Bryan and Emory at their recent vow renewal ceremony in Hawaii.

Cheryl, Bryan and Emory at their recent vow renewal ceremony in Hawaii.


We’ve been through a lot together. Today WE are stronger. I say ‘we’ because this didn’t just change his life, but the whole family. Recently, we renewed our vows on the exact beach we got married on. I am so thankful that we didn’t give up and that my hero chose to carry on instead of letting it defeat him!


If you are struggling with the challenges from PTSD, reach out for help. Don’t try to face this alone. If you are a caregiver, join Hearts of Valor and reach out to friends. Together, you can educate yourself on PTSD.

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I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by

Sea Fever, By John Masefield

Coming home from war can be the beginning of another journey, one that, at times, takes our wounded warriors into the unknown, the lonely sea and sky.

For Chris, it began in 2008, after a 15 month deployment. Chris came home from that deployment a different person, according to his wife Heidi. Gone was her funny, sweet, loving husband. The jokes had stopped. She said, “He was self-medicating with alcohol and would become angry over the smallest things.” As time passed, Chris’s health worsened and in 2011, Chris was given a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). By that point, the lack of sleep had triggered a dissociative episode. This started the process that would eventually determine that Chris should medically retire from service.

Chris’ health continued to worsen, and in 2013, Chris went missing. Thankfully, he was found unharmed… but would he next time? Chris’ hospitalization after he was found was the turning point. Together, he and Heidi worked hard to find solutions, get treatment, and learn as much about PTSD as they could. Chris sought alcohol dependency treatment as well. Though the years have passed, Chris still has PTSD. It impacts him daily. But he has learned ways to manage his PTSD. He has his tall ship.

Heidi is his star.

Being a caregiver for our wounded warriors is an incredible burden, but one born and sustained by love. Chris and Heidi met in the high school lunch line when Heidi was a freshman. They have been married for 17 years. On the tough days, and there are very tough days, Heidi always remembers to tell Chris that she loves him. “That’s one thing I have learned, he needs to hear I love him, no matter what his mood is.” Still, it is not an easy path. Heidi wakes up every day to all the household chores, gets the children where they need to go, and manages all the household finances. PTSD affects Chris’ short term memory and he can’t drive to the store, or help get their three children to school or lessons or balance the checkbook and manage the bills.


Heidi, Chris and the kids, enjoying time together as a family. Though there are tough days, Heidi knows that sharing her experiences with other caregivers is important. “No one should feel alone and not know what help is out there for them.”


So, how do we keep the star from burning out? That is focus of the mission of our Hearts of Valor program and the Dole Foundation’s Caregiver Fellows program. Heidi has been a member of HOV since shortly after her husband’s diagnosis, and was recently selected as a 2015 Dole Foundation Caregiver Fellow. Of the 32 Fellows selected, 12 of them are participants in Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor program.

“When I first found Hearts of Valor, not long after my husband’s PTSD diagnosis, I was able to attend a retreat in Oklahoma City where I was able to learn so much about myself as a wife, caregiver, mother, and friend. The retreat truly taught me to be understanding, dedicated to my veteran but also to myself.” Heidi continues, “… Hearts of Valor has given me the opportunity to meet some of the greatest friends I have ever had and the chance to donate my time to help caregivers and wounded warrior families. No one should feel alone and not know what help is out there for them.”

As a Dole Fellow, Heidi will not only continue to build the network of support and friendship vital to the health and well-being of our wounded warrior caregivers, but to be a guiding force to caregivers nationwide. Senator Elizabeth Dole was inspired to launch the Elizabeth Dole Fellows Program after hearing from hundreds of caregivers across the country that they were not being given an opportunity to voice their challenges and needs. The mission of the program is to engage active military and veteran caregivers directly in the Foundation’s initiatives, allowing them to advise and play a leading role in raising awareness for the needs of caregivers throughout the nation.

When Heidi heard about the Dole Foundation accepting applications to be the voice of caregivers in her state, she was excited to help. As a volunteer with Operation Homefront since 2012, Heidi is perfect a perfect fit for this role, as she is selfless and incredibly kind. She believes that giving back is the most important part of being a caregiver and she is excited to travel with the other fellows to tell her story.

A tall ship and a star to guide her by.

As we continue to face the impact of 13 years of war on a generation, these guiding stars will remain critical to staying on course..

Learn More:

Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor

Hearts of Valor seeks to honor the service and sacrifice of the people who care for our nation’s wounded, ill or injured warriors by providing a community of support based on a foundation of empathy and mutual understanding. Twelve Hearts of Valor community members have been selected as 2015 Dole Fellows, and our Program Coordinator, Cheryl, us a Fellow Emeritus

Caring For Military Families: The Elizabeth Dole Foundation

(The Foundation believes) that our nation’s military caregivers need and deserve robust, effective support in light of the mental, physical, and financial challenges they face in caring for wounded warriors suffering from physical injuries, invisible wounds of war, or both.


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We are grateful for women like Sarita, who stand strong beside their warriors and fellow caregivers.

When Sarita met Jason, little did she know that her love for him would take her on a very unexpected journey. But it ended up being a path that allowed her to answer the call to help wounded warrior caregivers, because she would become one herself.

Sarita Pettus-Wakefield met Jason Wakefield and developed a long distance relationship with him, via email, while he was deployed. Jason was a staff sergeant in the Air Force and Sarita was an air traffic controller trainee. They both loved airplanes and soon they fell in love with each other.

And then things began to change.

Jason deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq and suffered exposure to smoke and burning trash and battled a parasite for two years. (He still deals with ongoing asthma and gastrointestinal issues.)

While in Iraq, he injured his ankle and received a minor TBI from a mortar blast. Then came a head-on car collision in Afghanistan, which resulted in another TBI. Jason also battled anxiety disorder and severe PTSD as a result of his combat experiences. But Sarita’s challenges were just beginning.

One week after they got engaged, the true nature and extent of his injuries came crashing in, literally. He was in a severe car wreck that was related to his PTSD. The accident resulted in severe leg injuries and several surgeries. In response, Sarita tried to be the super-perfect everything – fiancee’, caregiver, career woman and grad student. She did all this while juggling regular doctor appointments for Jason and dealing with the effects of his ongoing anxiety and PTSD. She tried to keep everything running smoothly, to make life easier for Jason. It all became too much for her to handle.

One day, she happened to be watching TV and saw an interview with Cheryl Gansner, program coordinator for Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor program and Elizabeth Dole Fellow. “Cheryl was like an angel and I literally sat there crying like a total nut at the TV…so happy and relieved that there was help out there!” said Sarita.

After watching the program, she realized that if she tried to do too much, she was no good for anyone. So she became a member of Hearts of Valor for support, and she, and Jason, decided to simplify things. They would both focus on school. And they eventually got married too. “I feel really happy, relaxed, and settled into my role of helping my husband.  We spend two days a week at the VA on average and one day a week with the Brain Center so we stay busy,” said Sarita.

As a member of Hearts of Valor, Sarita loved meeting fellow caregivers who understood that, while things may look great from the outside, invisible wounds are no less real and can make life complicated. It was so nice “to meet other women in my area to whom I could say terms like PTSD or TBI without getting a pity or confused look,” said Sarita.

She also decided to volunteer to lead a support group for Hearts of Valor caregivers. “Jason and I went through a really rough time trying to find help and I wanted to help ease some of the stressors that other caregivers go through and help them navigate how and where to get help,” she said. She’s been leading the group for two years. The caregivers really enjoy the camaraderie of meeting with other women. “My group opts for art projects, like painting and pottery, and I think art ‘therapy’ is helping all of us relax. Group members reach out to each other… and I see pics of them hanging out with each other (on Facebook) which totally makes me smile!! We are learning to belly dance at this month’s meeting. I have had women come to support groups in tears and leave laughing. Support groups work!”

We are grateful for women like Sarita, who stand strong beside their warriors and fellow caregivers.

Hearts of Valor is a network of people caring for wounded, ill or injured service members, created and maintained by Operation Homefront. To find out more about how you can answer the call and help military, veteran and wounded warrior families, visit www.operationhomefront.net/answerthecall .

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greenblogveteransEvery marriage has its share of obstacles. Those challenges are magnified when a life-changing traumatic injury occurs. For Michael and Justina Green, their marriage almost didn’t survive Michael’s combat injuries. That is not uncommon between those who bear the scars of war and the ones who love and care for them. But this story, thankfully, has a happy ending.

Michael and Justina Green’s little sisters were friends. That’s how they first met…over 20 years ago. Fate brought them together and now they’ve been married almost three years. It might have been longer but their engagement was delayed because Michael was in the Army for three years.

He was on his first deployment in 2005 and only in Iraq for three months when he was injured. He was riding in a Humvee, facing the back as the gunner. As the vehicle traveled over a bridge, an IED was activated. The Humvee was thrown off to the side. Michael suffered a right arm amputation and deep tissue shrapnel wound to his right thigh.

When Michael first came home from the hospital, Justina did everything for him. He suffered from daily PTSD so she tried to make life as peaceful and calm as possible. Then she met another family in a similar situation. The wife told her to let her husband do things for himself and try to heal.

This was good advice because tending to his every need was very tiring and hard on Justina. There were many times when Justina wanted to give up and walk away. She didn’t think their relationship was going to make it. They were fighting all the time and sometimes they would not talk for days. This went on for almost two years.

Justina turned to Michael’s mother and brother for support. They gave her a break now and then and provided her with the shoulder to cry on. Justina also met a nurse through the VA Caregiver Support program that checked on her all the time. Justina explained that the nurse would allow her to cry and vent. “When I felt all alone and couldn’t understand why the man I loved acted the way he did, it was helpful to reach out and just talk to someone.”

Also, Justina educated herself on PTSD and how that was affecting Michael. “There was so much I didn’t understand,” said Justina. But as she learned about the effects of PTSD, she could respond more appropriately. Over time, they started talking more and communicating their feelings. And Michael became more self-sufficient. Though it was painful and he struggled, he slowly learned to do things on his own.

Earlier this year, Justina attended the Hearts of Valor caregiver retreat in San Diego, CA in March 2013. “It was a very humbling and emotional experience. I was able to connect with others that understood what I’d gone through,” Justina said.

Today, this resilient couple lives in San Diego. Michael is working for a non-profit helping other wounded warriors. Justina is actively pursuing her dream to become a labor and delivery nurse. Michael has been fit for new prosthetics that allow him to play the guitar, surf, paddle board and kayak. “Because we both love the outdoors, this has allowed us to spend more quality time together making memories,” said Justina.

Those who care for wounded warriors don’t need to struggle alone. There are resources to provide support. Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor program is designed to support caregivers by providing social connections to other caregivers in similar situations, fostering support groups around the country, and sponsoring annual retreats to provide education on relevant issues.

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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Tara and her husband, Todd.

Tara and her husband, Todd.

As we continue to honor service to country, we wanted to include a story from the families who live with a veteran hero. Today we share the words of Tara Plybon, a wife who is a caregiver for her wounded warrior husband, Todd, and a member of our Hearts of Valor program.

The wives of three men and I stood along with my son, Liam and watched the bus full of our husbands and their duffle bags departing the hotel and heading for Afghanistan. We all hugged, had tears in our eyes, and thought, “Well here goes a year of waiting.” That was February 2009.

On Oct. 15, 2009 I received a phone call that changed our lives forever. My husband, Todd, had been critically wounded with a moderate brain injury and a broken leg. The Humvee he was riding in ran over an IED.  The only thing remaining of the vehicle was the back of it and the roof, which they pulled off my husband. Sadly, his friends, SSGT Christopher Staats and Sgt. Gabriel Green, who were riding in the front seats, were both killed instantly.

The next day, I found out Todd’s injuries were worse than I could imagine. He had bleeding in the brain, his right femur was blown apart in three places, he had two torn femoral arteries, his ribs were blown apart, he lost more blood and received more fresh units than most people hold in their bodies. It was pretty scary. He wasn’t expected to make it back to Texas and they couldn’t get us on a plane fast enough to see him.

Out of the eight men on the mission that day, 5 men came back. Two did not. The eighth man, my husband, has not totally returned home, either.  His heart and mind are still back in Afghanistan. His mind is constantly thinking about that day and what could he have done differently as a gunner. When September and October come around, his nightmares increase, sleep becomes a premium more than usual. The dark cloud of survivor’s guilt lingers.

In spite of that, physically, I got my husband back. Why was I so lucky? How was I more deserving? In fact, the more I thought “Why me?” the less deserving I felt. Guilt was super heavy upon my chest. How and why did my husband survive losing all of that blood? Why did he return to me? Why him instead of Gabe and Chris? It has taken four years of counseling for me to graciously accept the gift of Todd’s life being continued. Each of the men willingly joined up to serve their countries and each of them were happy to put their lives on the line for their friends.

My heart hurts for the loss of these wonderful men. But I know that my husband and his friends went on their deployment knowing that at any moment, an RPG could come in and get one of them or they could run over an IED while in a vehicle, or any sort of combination of possible horror. What can we do now to honor them and their loss? We can celebrate our love and live the life Todd has left in the best way we can.

The day of the blast was our fifteen year wedding anniversary. I have been blessed with a man that loves me more than life itself. And he is raising a wonderful son. I have love.

Tara Plybon is an active member of our Hearts of Valor program. The program has more than 1,000 members . Through Hearts of Valor, Operation Homefront seeks to support these caregivers in their own journey of healing by facilitating an online community that provides social connections to other caregivers in similar situations, fostering support groups by geographic area to encourage resource sharing and friendships, and sponsoring annual retreats to provide education on relevant issues.

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 #11stories11days to share your own inspirational story of a veteran in your life.


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Behind every wounded hero stands another courageous heart.

Behind every wounded hero stands another courageous heart.

Words can’t describe the joy we feel when we know we touched someone unexpectedly, and when they needed it most:

I just wanted to thank you all for the wonderful care package..I did not expect it and it arrived on a Friday evening when I was so tired and soul weary from a long week of caring for wounded soldiers both as a nurse and the wife and mother of 2 wounded soldiers. The beautiful candle and gift card with the books were so very timely. I cant thank you enough..you lifted my spirits and gave me strength to keep going knowing that I am appreciated.

We want to reach as many caregivers of our nation’s wounded warriors as we can so they can feel the same as this caregiver. That they are appreciated, that their sacrifices are known, and that there is help and understanding available to them.  That is why Operation Homefront established the Hearts of Valor program, and you can help us get the word out.

Hearts of Valor is a network of people caring for wounded, ill or injured service members, created and maintained by Operation Homefront. We seek to support these caregivers in their own journey of healing by facilitating an online community that provides social connections to other caregivers in similar situations, fostering support groups by geographic area to encourage resource sharing and friendships, and sponsoring annual retreats to provide education on relevant issues.

Please feel free to share this resource with anyone you know that cares for, or works with, our nation’s wounded, ill or injured service members.  Let’s let them know they are not alone.

Hearts of Valor website

Hearts of Valor on Facebook

Hearts of Valor on Twitter

Hearts of Valor on Pinterest

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