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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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operation-homefront-veteran-johnsonPaul Johnson understands that you never know where life will take you, what doors will close, and the others that will open. One life changing journey began for Paul when he emigrated to the U.S. from England in 2000. He settled in New York City.

And then, on September 11, 2001…

After that day, Paul felt the need to answer the call on behalf of his “new country.” He attended fleet week, toured several Coast Guard vessels, and fell in love with the Coast Guard. He decided to join.

It was a perfect match. Paul loved his job. Not only was Paul protecting his adopted country against the drug trade, but he was also saving lives. Paul and his unit made countless rescues, many involved migrants desperate to reach America who jeopardized their lives trying to cross the seas in structures barely seaworthy. Many of those rescued exhibited the signs of what they would give for a new life. They were exhausted, hungry, dehydrated and frequently required medical attention.

In 2013, however, it was Paul who needed medical attention, as he suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) in a shipboard accident. In addition to the TBI diagnosis, Paul was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. As a result, Paul’s dream of serving his country was ended with a medical discharge from the Coast Guard.

The loss in active duty pay caused a financial hardship, but rather than being deterred, Paul looked at his options. That is when he found Operation Homefront. Although he was not one to ask for assistance, his discussion with our caseworker made him feel like he had a sense of control, a voice in the process. Paul’s family received financial assistance for an auto payment, travel expenses, food, and later, a move to a home where they could focus on their future.

Now on more solid footing, Paul can reflect on the different direction his life has taken. Having a TBI has changed Paul’s life in both positive and negative ways. He became involved in adaptive athletics and that has opened up a wide world of new experiences for him. He has skydived in tandem and became a member of Team USA for the Invictus Games in England, the only Coast Guard member. He received a bronze medal in rowing. He is currently working with a Paralympic rower in a double scull with his eyes on the Rio 2016 Paralympics. Paul hopes that his participation on Team USA will inspire others to perform, believe, and move past their disabilities.

Vets-Day_blog_icontactPaul believes in the importance of understanding that one has options despite changes, injuries, and perceived inabilities. He tries to not think in terms of what he can’t do, but instead how he can do things in a different way.

Because he has been helpedby others so much in the past, Paul would like to get into the other side of service by doing peer counseling. To reach this goal, Paul is currently working on his Master’s Degree in Psychology.

But if we know Paul, he won’t stop there. He has learned that everything is a beginning, not an end.

If Paul’s example has inspired you to do something to help military families and wounded warriors, we invite you to join Operation Homefront and find your own way to answer the call. There are many stories like Paul’s, and they need help now. Visit www.OperationHomefront.net/AnswerTheCall

 

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We continue to honor our veterans and the families impacted by injuries that occur in the line of duty. Today’s story gives insight into the real-life challenges brought on when one’s life is changed in service to country.

Carlos Westergaard served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. When he returned home, he tried to reintegrate into civilian life. He tried to forget about his traumatic combat experience. But it was too much to forget.

westergaardblogveteransAlthough most people around him thought he seemed unaffected by his experience in Iraq, he was struggling with his emotions and tried to deal with them in private.

In 2008, Carlos and his wife, Elana, met in college and began dating right away. She noticed he had some anxieties about being in public, but didn’t understand the full extent of it until they moved in together two years later.

“His anxieties and emotional outburst began to increase to the point where he couldn’t leave our home anymore,” said Elana.  In the summer of 2011, his PTSD and TBI completely took over his life. He became very suicidal and his wife had to take him on many trips to the ER.  He was a truck driver in Iraq and he found it too difficult to drive anymore with his flashbacks so she had to drive him everywhere.

Eventually, Elana quit her job because she was so scared he would commit suicide while she was at work. This allowed her to get more involved in his care at the VA. At the time, he was taking over ten psychiatric medications that put him in a fog. She became an advocate for him to make sure he received the best care he could.

Finally, they decided to move to the country because it seemed like it would help his PTSD symptoms. The peace and quiet of country living did make things better. In the summer of 2012, Elana and Carlos got married.

Carlos began working with Brigadoon Service Dogs that summer and received his service dog Fiona in October 2012. She was a great addition and helped Carlos in so many ways. They also welcomed a baby boy to their family. Elana said his PTSD and TBI make life more challenging, but not impossible. Every day, they both get a little better at handling his symptoms.

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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kids at play

Steve, Rob and Bobby get some moments to goof off during promotions for Comedy Warriors.

Bobby Henline, Rob Jones, Joe Kashnow, Steve Rice and Darisse Smith share at least two things in common. They are funny…really funny… and they are wounded warriors. And now they are officially stars of a movie that follows their path to become headliners of their own stand-up comedy show.

I got to see the new documentary, called Comedy Warriors, this weekend at a local movie theater as part of the San Antonio Film Festival. The movie follows these five vets as they are mentored by some of comedy’s greatest – Zach Galifianakis, Bob Saget, Lewis Black, DJ Novak, and others. Other than Bobby, they have no experience working a room for laughs but they share the belief that humor helps them heal. I know it’s cliché but I laughed and I cried. Mostly laughed … a lot.

Joe Kashnow, who lost his leg from an IED explosion, said he used humor to handle the amputation. When doctors came for the consultation, he told them, “If you must take my leg, I have two requests. One – I want you to give me my leg back so I can give it a proper burial in keeping with my Orthodox Jewish tradition. Two – I insist that my prosthetic leg have a secret door that can hold cookies.” He said psychiatrists visited the next day to see what was wrong with him. In his stand-up routine, he jokes that his leg is buried next to a tombstone that reads, “More to come.”

But humor doesn’t automatically make life easy. Kashnow endures intense daily pain and was suicidal at one point. He asked himself “I suffer every day. What is there that is worth sticking around for?” His answer: His son … and all the moments he might miss if he left this life. And now, stand-up comedy gives him an outlet, and distraction, to deal with the pain. After his debut show in Los Angeles, Joe came off stage and said, “That was awesome. I’m still aware of the pain in my leg but for this moment, it’s not as bad.”

Follow Comedy Warriors on Facebook to show progress.

This movie is a must-see.

comedy-warriors

Me and Bobby Henline after the screening. It wasn’t my first time to meet Bobby…and he really is hilarious, on stage and off.

The movie follows each warrior as they go through the mentoring process, to their debut on stage and after. It is full of heart-warming moments. For example, Bobby’s teenage daughter tearfully wonders why people stare at her Dad’s scars on his face, “He didn’t ask for this.” Bobby and his daughter were at the screening the day I attended and she joked that she still had more Twitter followers than he did. Help Bobby out and follow him on Twitter.

And there are moments that make you cringe. “I told my wife that if I didn’t come back from Iraq in one piece, that she should go on without me. Thankfully she and her new husband rent me space in the garage.” This piece of fiction (Thank God!) was part of Bobby’s routine, who is still happily married to his wife.

This movie helps bridge the gap between civilians and military. Between the able-bodied and the disabled body. Between those who suffer and those who will. And it does it all with laughter.

After the screening, Bobby Henline took questions from people in the nearly full theater. I asked, “How can we help you promote this movie so more people see it?” He said, “Follow Comedy Warriors on Facebook and Twitter and, if you can, donate money so we can purchase entry into more movie festivals.” The film won Audience Choice for the Best Documentary at the San Antonio Film Festival. A much-deserved award. And I wish them many eyes to see this incredible story in the future.

Bobby, who has served on the board of our Texas Field Office, said he was the only one who survived the explosion that hit the Humvee he was riding in. “I owe it to the ones who didn’t make it, to do everything I can so they didn’t die in vain. I hope to bring more joy and good from this experience” to outweigh any bad from those who tried to kill.

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69 years ago today, LTG George S. Patton slapped a young private who had been hospitalized for psychoneurosis, and accused him of cowardice.

While visiting injured soldiers in Sicily, LTG Patton had been speaking to each of the visibly wounded men in the field hospital when he saw PVT Charles H.  Kuhl.  PVT Kuhl showed no outward wounds, and when asked what ailed him, his response, “It’s my nerves sir…I just can’t take it anymore” drew fury from the infamous General.  LTG Patton slapped him across the face with a pair of gloves and called him a coward.  As he exited the tent, LTG Patton heard PVT Kuhl crying, came back and struck him again, and ordered him out of the tent.

After a similar encounter a week later involving a different soldier, LTG Patton received a personal reprimand from General Dwight Eisenhower, and is widely thought to have lost command of the D-Day invasion as a consequence.

At one time, this attitude was common.  While the negative stigma associated with the invisible wounds of war still lingers today, the tide is changing.

Raymond Chandler, the Sergeant Major of the Army, openly admits to utilizing behavioral health resources at Ft. Bliss, Texas following a difficult deployment to Iraq.  He shows by example that recognizing your struggles and seeking help are acceptable, and even encouraged.

In his interview for SMA, General Casey asked if there was anything in his history that could embarrass the Army.  SMA Chandler shared his experience of seeking mental health counseling at Ft. Bliss. General Casey expressed that part of his history would not be considered a disqualifier, but an asset.

This changing attitude has been a long time coming. Many may not have received the recognition and help they needed, yet, but Operation Homefront applauds the efforts of the military to move towards education and acceptance of all wounds, both visible and invisible.

If you or someone you love is suffering, please encourage them to get help.  No one should have to fight these battles alone, or without the tools they need.

(Article by Rachel O’Hern, military spouse, a recent addition at Operation Homefront and all-around great gal!)

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Alfredo De los santos is afraid.

The Army staff sergeant survived an RPG attack on his humvee in Iraq two years ago. His right leg was amputated at the hip, and he’s still struggling to get the right fit on his prosthetic. He has severe PTSD and TBI. That means nightmares, crippling headaches, fear of crowds and other physical issues. He undergoes daily treatments at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

He’s braved tragedies and the horrors of war in his past, but it’s the future that fills him with fear.

“I’m very scared right now,” he told me over the phone. “I don’t even have a job. And I have issues with my family. Because of what I’m going through, they don’t understand.”

His family had to move back to New York. His wife and two kids have been through a lot, he told me. It was easier for them to return to familiar surroundings than stay by his side in Washington, D.C. The kids changed schools three times in one year to be with him. It was too much.

He recently moved in to Operation Homefront Village-DC. It’s one of two transitional housing facilities Operation Homefront runs. Wounded warriors and their families live in free, fully furnished apartments convenient to treatment. Residents can take classes on financial management, career guidance, counseling and more.

It’s all free, thanks in part Combined Federal Campaign contributions.

Despite his fears, Alfredo is also hopeful — and grateful.

“Thank you so much for your support and for helping me and my family to make my transition a little bit easier,” he said. “I wish that in the future I can give something back.”

You can give back by designating Operation Homefront (No. 12526) as one of your charities of choice for your CFC contribution. You can also help with your daily votes in the Pepsi Refresh contest. We’ve teamed up with a slate of other military nonprofits to encourage support. Please take a moment to help.

We truly appreciate it.


Alfredo De los santos is one of the residents at Operation Homefront Village-DC.

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Thanks to chats and texts, abbreviations now abound in our common speech. This is nothing new for members of the military community; they speak their own subset of English that raises ? from most of the outside world. But a couple of  military-related truncations are now part of the popular consciousness, thanks to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

TBI is the signature injury among service members. PTSD was first diagnosed back in the 1990s but is now so common, it no longer merits spelling out.  The VA estimates 20 percent of service members from the front suffer from it; other estimates are as high as one third.

So is it appropriate to add those four letters to a DL?  ICYMI, lawmakers down in GA seem to think so. They passed legislation that would allow current and former service members to request it be added as a medical condition on their driver’s licenses.

It’s a move that’s military family and veteran support groups are voicing concerns about. Kim Scofi, chapter president of OH Georgia, developed a survey on the topic; click here to share your thoughts.

The military is notoriously self-reliant and reluctant to ask for help, especially when it comes to mental health issues. I know the folks in Georgia who came up with and passed this law did it in the spirit of helping veterans. But IRL,  I can’t imagine service members and veterans suffering from PTSD will voluntarily label themselves on a document that gets passed around as often and as publicly as a driver’s license. I worry that by singling out stressed soldiers, by making an issue of a condition that manifests differently in everyone, we are still too focused on the problem, even exacerbating it.  But that’s JMHO.

We need to put our energy, expertise and funds toward a solution to the pain these families are in, and we need to do it ASAP.

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