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

 by Christy O’Farrell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The calm before the storm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No longer should they carry that alone.

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

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

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

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

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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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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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Guest blog from Dr. Sara Boz, Senior Director of Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor program

Suicide is a complex and frightening topic.  In our community, it hits so close to home that our reaction tends to be denial. Suicide is a hard topic to open up about… but we can no longer ignore it. We have to talk about it.

There is a phrase that sunlight is the best disinfectant. We need to take the topic of suicide out of the shadows and talk openly.

When a caregiver or a veteran tells me their story about a failed suicide attempt, it normally goes like this:

“I probably would have succeeded in killing myself, if only…”

  • “If only the phone hadn’t rang.”
  • “If only I had more pills.”
  • “If only the ambulance had arrived a little later.”

When a person plans their suicide they make the very final decision to die before their time on Earth is over.  They no longer fear death and dying.  They are at the point at which they perceive death is better than their current situation.  Those who have tried tell me that they felt there was no other solution to their pain and suffering.  They feel hopeless and in a single, desperate moment… they find the will and the means.

“If only” there was something we could do.

Working with veterans and their caregivers as director of Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor program, I have talked with many families who face the challenge of healing from both the seen and unseen wounds of war.  There are some ways we can help create more “if only’s:”

  • We can work on being more aware of the people we care about.  KNOW that it’s okay to ask someone if they are feeling suicidal. If I notice that someone is giving up, feeling hopeless, or not themselves, I will ask how I can help.
  • Put yourself in others’ shoes. I’ve tried to imagine the different ways of taking one’s own life. Maybe I can’t fully grasp how someone is willing to accept the pain that will likely accompany suicide but I can try and see the path they took to get to that point. Could it be that veterans do not have a fear of death and dying because they were exposed to so much death during their combat tours?  Maybe they think that the pain they are experiencing, whether emotional or physical, is more than the pain they would feel through death.  Understanding the path may help us steer someone off of it at any point before the end.
  • It’s okay to be persistent. You would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks, “I did enough to prevent this.”  I have known a few people who have been successful in their suicide attempts.  I will always wonder if I could have done more and asked more questions. If a caregiver or veteran talks about suicide, I will not leave them alone. A few years ago, a caregiver called me to ask for a housing resource.  During the conversation she mentioned that her husband may be suicidal because of the situation they were in.  She explained that there were signs that he was giving up.  I listened to her story, asked a lot of questions, and told her I could help. In this instance, the caregiver was way ahead of me. She already had a plan to get him to a physician that week and had made the house safe and free of all weapons over the past few weeks.  She planned to drive her husband straight to the emergency room if the situation progressed.  I called her about a year later to see how she was doing and they are all now doing well. Which proves that there is always hope…such an important message to communicate to the person who wants to give up.

I believe that most people don’t want to die. I don’t want anyone to give up on their life.  There is no definite solution to preventing suicide, and the tragic fact is that someone will find a way if they are resolute enough.  But maybe, just maybe, we can take steps that will save one. And then another. And before we know it, we have saved more than we have lost.

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. If you know of someone who may be suicidal, please refer them to the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 and press “1” or go to https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/ for more information including how to identify the warning signs.

 

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TanBlogImage

“From the second we got here, it reduced my symptoms…it’s a safer environment”

Our men and women in uniform accept that their call to duty can mean deploying to dangerous areas of the world. They look forward to the day when they can come home and be safe and secure among their communities and loved ones.

U.S. Marine Sophea Tan was no different. During his time in service, Sophea deployed twice – once for 14 months in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, then for eight months in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. As a result of injuries sustained during those deployments, he was assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Sam Houston while he received care at San Antonio Military Medical center. He, his wife, and three children lived in a home off base.

The family’s security was shattered when their home was broken into. The intruders broke in through the back door and stole everything. The violation rocked the family and triggered a worsening of Sophea’s post-traumatic stress. He began to show signs of worsening PTSD and he was losing sleep. His wife, Pitou, became significantly concerned that continuing to reside in the home would contribute to more of a decline in Sophea’s health, something they had been working so very hard to improve. After hearing about our Operation Homefront Village in San Antonio from other families on base, she suggested it as a solution to help address the crisis the found themselves in. Sophea applied and was accepted into the transitional housing program.

Living at the OH Village allowed Sophea to focus more on healing without worrying about the safety of his family. “From the second we got here, it reduced my symptoms…it’s a safer environment. I didn’t see shadows at night as often. When I was at the hospital, I didn’t have to worry about my wife being safe.” But it wasn’t just emotional and physically healing he found. Living in the rent-free apartments helped Sophea pay off debt and save for a down payment on a new home for his family.

Their future plans for their transition include pursuing their educations. Sophea wants to finish his master’s degree in criminal justice. His wife, Pitou, wants to study English as a second language and earn a certificate in cosmetology.

Vets-Day_fbthumbBlogOperation Homefront is honored to be able to answer the call of our brave men and women in uniform when they need it the most. We are able to do so because of the amazing supporters who stand beside us. If you would like to help answer the call, join us at operationhomefront.net/answerthecall

 

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KuschBlogImgArmy Sergeant Raymond Kusch has deployed to war zones in both Iraq and Afghanistan. While in Afghanistan on an ambush patrol of an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) factory, he knew he would need to move carefully. He didn’t know that danger was imminent.

Raymond began to move across a wall, inching closer to the target with each step. But when he placed his foot on the other side he stepped on a pressure plate IED. The explosion blew him 15 feet from the spot. Raymond was awake and alive, but his foot was gone. Shrapnel peppered his entire body. The sound of the blast punctured his ear drum. He suffered nerve damage in his right hand as well as a Traumatic Brain Injury.

Doctors operated several times, taking more of his leg with each surgery. In the months after he was injured, Raymond and his wife, Alyssa, experienced heartache after heartache. Raymond battled PTSD, the couple was homeless for over a month, and Alyssa suffered a miscarriage when the stress of their situation became too much.

Operation Homefront gave the Kusch family a safe haven. The family was put into one of our Operation Homefront Villages in Maryland and provided a rent-free apartment while they transitioned to civilian life.

Not only did living at the OH Village give the Kusch family a roof over their head, but it also offered access to a debt counselor to help them plan for the future. Raymond and Alyssa began to save money and pay down their debt, putting them in a better position for life after the military. They were able to save thousands of dollars, pay off several credit cards, and only have one car payment.

Raymond and his wife have since completed our program at the OH Village and moved back to their home state of Michigan.

“I really appreciate what you all did for me,” said Raymond. “A lot of stress was lifted from me.”

Raymond is now co-owner of a gaming business. His wife, Alyssa, went back to school to be a medical x-ray technician. Their story is one of many examples of the difference we are able to make in the lives of so many families, thanks to all of our generous donors and corporate partners.

We’d like to thank ESPN who recently gave $100,000 to help families who stay at our Operation Homefront Villages. If you’d like to make a difference for our military and veteran families through Operation Homefront, find out how you can answer the call.

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