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Posts Tagged ‘Operation Homefront’

We are pleased to be able to share with our community a New Year’s message from Operation Homefront’s President & CEO, John I. Pray, Jr., Brig Gen, USAF (Ret.)

Happy New Year!  We just finished a very exciting and highly successful 2017 and I am proud to say that due to the exceptional efforts of our entire community … volunteers, partners, donors and staff … we are well postured to continue delivering impactful programs to America’s military families throughout 2018.

As we start our new year, I feel it is important to reflect on who we are and why we do what we do. We at Operation Homefront believe in giving our military families the opportunity to thrive, not simply struggle to get by, in the communities they have worked so hard to protect.

This mission statement drives our team throughout the year.  All work to help our military families in their time of need because of all they have done for us in our nation’s time of need.

Similarly, I believe very strongly in Operation Homefront’s core values and see them as more than grand aspirational concepts and know you do too. They are real guides that shape our decisions and daily behaviors:  Do What’s Right, Respect Others, Perform with Excellence … and of course, Gratitude. We are honored to be recognized as a key conduit by which Americans can show their appreciation for all that our military community does on our behalf, and we are incredibly grateful to all who help us accomplish our mission.

We have many challenges and opportunities ahead in 2018 and it will take a well-coordinated and cohesive effort to bring our vital mission to life. Each member of our community performs a critical role, both individually and as part of a larger team. Our Core Values provide the common framework that allows us to work together and support each other in a culture that emphasizes trust and continuous improvement.

Only by working together will we make a difference, and thereby, make the lives of a very special and deserving group of our fellow citizens better. For example, in just a short while, we will award our 600th mortgage-free home, and our Field Offices and programs team are already working on our year’s first Homefront Celebration for military spouses near Pensacola, a Hearts of Valor retreat for the caregivers of our nation’s wounded, among many other events for 2018. Just last week, we announced the semi-finalists for the 2018 Military Child of the Year® Award, our 10th year of recognizing outstanding young people from each branch of the armed forces — the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and National Guard — for their scholarship, volunteerism, leadership, extracurricular involvement, and other criteria while facing the challenges of military family life

I invite you to learn more about Operation Homefront’s programs, and how you can get involved in 2018.

Sharing our noble mission with my fellow Americans is incredibly rewarding. I am grateful to each you who have joined us in serving America’s military families. Let me end by saying thank you, in advance, for your support in what I expect will be an amazing 2018!

-John I. Pray, Jr.
President & Chief Executive Officer, Operation Homefront

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* numbers through Summer 2017

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

Veterans like Nataly Morales and Joshua Virola embody the can-do spirit found in so many other former service members, who volunteer, on average, more hours than nonveterans.

While the rate of volunteering among all Americans, 25.5 percent of the population, is comparable to the volunteering rate for veterans, veterans put in an average of 43 more hours per year for a total of 169 hours, according to a 2016 study, the Veterans Civic Health Index.

Nataly, a Marine from 2002 through 2004, and her husband, Joshua, who served 15 years and deployed three times on active duty and as a reservist with the Marine Corps, received gifts from Operation Homefront’s Holiday Toy Drive in 2014 for their children, Carisma, 14; Faith, 9; and Isaiah, 7. After that, the whole family became regular volunteers for Operation Homefront over the next two years, until right before they moved to Texas at the end of 2016, when Joshua got out of the Marines as an E-5.

“They immediately asked how they could give back and started volunteering for every event,” said Vivian Dietrich, an Operation Homefront regional director.

Even though Nataly and Joshua were busy preparing for their move from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to Grand Prairie, Texas, they helped OH bag and transport the P&G products, including cleaning supplies and tissues, that were given away at the 2016 Thanksgiving Holiday Meals for Military event. First, they drove their car, while an OH staff member drove her vehicle, over two hours away to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to pick up the stored goods and bring them to a storage facility in Jacksonville, North Carolina, closer to Camp Lejeune. Later, Nataly and Joshua retrieved the products, and brought them to the event site at a school, using the U-Haul truck they had rented for their move to Texas. They also helped fill the reusable Thirty-One tote bags with groceries provided by Walmart.

Their children helped at OH events too, organizing supplies or handing out refreshments. “I’ve always tried to teach them to help, and they love it,” Nataly said. “It’s really cute to see them work.”

For Nataly and people like her, helping others is a form of sustenance. “We made the time,” she said. “It felt good.”

“We would have people over to our house on a daily basis because they didn’t have food,” Nataly said. Their dinner company included a lance corporal, his wife and their two young kids, and a sergeant, his wife and their two children.

“Usually, we’re the givers and we never take,” said Nataly, adding that’s why they were so appreciative of OH’s assistance. “Anytime that we receive anything from any kind of program, I cry because we’ve had some really rough times,” she said. “The kids have seen and have felt the rough times that we’ve had. To have people that actually care and they donate things, it breaks my heart. That meant a lot.”

In keeping with their giving nature, Nataly and Joshua chose where to live after he left the Corps, based on where they are needed the most.

Having met while both were on active duty, they each have family in their respective home states — Texas for Nataly and New York for Joshua. They chose Texas partly because of its lower cost of living, but mainly so they can help Nataly’s family. Her mom is sick with lupus and other health conditions; one sister is a single mom of three kids; and another sister has a child with special needs. “There’s a lot more need here,” she said. Her brother, a Marine Corps master sergeant stationed in Virginia, has kids who also live in north Texas. The third weekend of every month, Nataly cares for his kids, and takes them to their soccer games.

The family continues its volunteering with The Miracle League Dallas Fort Worth, for children with disabilities who want to play baseball, including Nataly’s niece.

Joshua works as a crane mechanic. He and Nataly hope his latest transition to civilian life goes better than a previous attempt. “We tried the civilian world for a little bit,” said Nataly, referring to the earlier stint in 2008, in between Josh’s active-duty and reservist periods. “It didn’t work out.”

Joshua first served four years on active duty, got out, and deployed to Iraq as a reservist for six months in 2006. During his 2008 stint as a civilian, he had found work as a warehouse manager. The company moved them to Mohave Valley, Arizona, “one of the hottest places I’ve ever lived,” and laid him off six months later, Nataly said. “We were stuck there. We had no money to move back home.” The only income was from Nataly working from home as a flooring estimator for her dad. “We were able to pay the rent, but we were behind on the cars,” she said. “We had a hard time with food. It was the worst year.”

Joshua was gone a lot after being laid off, trying to get back into the Marine Corps. After returning to active duty in early 2009, he deployed to Afghanistan for seven months in 2010. Another year-long deployment to Afghanistan followed in 2011 and 2012.

Nataly works as a pregnancy educator at the American Pregnancy Association. She also takes classes at both Tarrant County College and University of Texas at Arlington. She expects to complete her associate degree in December, and will apply for UTA’s social work program in the spring. She wants to work with veterans, using what she has learned and experienced to assist others going through trying times. “I want them to get the help that they need,” she said. “I want to be that one person who makes a difference. If anybody understands them, it’s another veteran.”

We are grateful for our veterans, those who chose to raise their hand when they pledged to defend our country. Join in the conversation with us as we celebrate veterans among us, by sharing stories of your own. Through Facebook or Twitter, please use the hashtag #RaiseYourHand to share your own inspirational story or picture of your military experience or a veteran in your life.

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

 by Christy O’Farrell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Christy O’Farrell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The calm before the storm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No longer should they carry that alone.

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

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

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

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

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