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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:

2012. Crowds filled the stands at a home game for the Houston Astros against the Colorado Rockies. Little did the fans know that they would soon see a life-changing event on the field as Operation Homefront and Chase donated a home to a deserving veteran of the war in Iraq, medically retired Army Specialist Quintin Muirhead and his wife Jennifer.

Just a few months into Muirhead’s deployment to Iraq in 2009, swine flu spread among the troops. When he grew weak and went to the medic, doctors discovered something much more serious. A number of tests revealed he had both pneumonia and leukemia. He fell into a coma on his way to a medical facility in Germany, where the diseases continued to weaken his body. After two months in a coma, he awoke and the pneumonia was gone. The leukemia, however, was not and Muirhead spent the next few months undergoing chemotherapy.

After chemotherapy, the Muirheads were ready for a new life. But they faced numerous challenges that made life increasingly difficult. Operation Homefront Village in San Antonio, which provides transitional housing for wounded heroes and their families, gave the young couple the fresh start they needed. But what came next would truly start them on the path to a strong, stable, and secure future.

The Muirheads’ were selected to be the first ever recipients of a new home through Operation Homefront’s Homes on the Homefront program. The couple were awarded a home in the Houston suburb of Katy that day at the Houston Astro’s game.

We caught up with Quentin to see how life has changed since leaving the service and starting over.

“Transitioning is harder than I thought. You develop so wanting habits and become use to so many routines that just go out the window.”

In the years since he received his mortgage-free home, Quentin has been able to pay off debts, build savings, and he even started his own business. He is also a semester away from getting his degree in business.

Quentin has come to terms that his body will never be the same. “I’m constantly in pain but as long as I wake up each day I’m willing to accept that pain.” But now, he won’t allow that to slow him down. “I finally feel like I’m enjoying my life, being able to travel, and save money.” Other members of his family have since moved to Katy, an opportunity Quentin attributes to his being able to put down roots for all of them.

His advice for other veterans facing transition? “I’ve also learned it’s ok to ask for help or admit when something is wrong. A lot of the times we let our pride get in the way of getting the help we need and deserve.”

Find out how you can help a wounded hero today. Visit our Current Needs page  or make a donation to OperationHomefront.org. 92% of Operation Homefront expenditures go directly to programs and services for military families in need.

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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:

Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York City, Walter Perez had a full ride scholarship to Syracuse University. Instead, he decided that attending college at that time was not for him because he wasn’t ready. After graduating from high school in 2000 and witnessing the attacks of 9/11, Walter decided to join the Army. As a first-generation military enlistee, he felt that it was his duty to serve his country and make a difference. In 2003, he enlisted at Fort Hamilton in New York City.

After serving for almost thirteen years, Walter medically retired with an honorable discharge in 2016. He attained the rank of Sergeant First Class and was an acquisitions contract specialist overseeing government related contracts. He also negotiated contracts on behalf of the government when purchasing items from vendors. During his term of service, he was deployed to the Middle East four times. Walter deployed to Iraq three times in 2003, 2007, 2009 and to Afghanistan in 2009. It was during his first deployment to Iraq that he was a victim of an improvised explosive device that hit the vehicle he was riding in and he now suffers from traumatic-brain injury.

During Walter’s transition to civilian life, he was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, but he didn’t have a plan for after the military. He had heard about Operation Homefront’s Rent-free Transitional Housing program through his Wounded Warrior Battalion Unit. Walter had a few of his peers tell him about the nonprofit also and that they could assist him while waiting for his Veteran Affairs benefits. Walter decided to apply and was accepted into the Village program in San Antonio, Texas.

Operation Homefront’s Transitional Housing Program allows service members to live rent free while they go through the transition process. Upon placement, Operation Homefront counselors set up a mandatory schedule that these service members, veterans and their families must follow. They are required to attend support groups, workshops, benefits briefings, and resume writing classes, as determined by their counselor.

They also undergo one-on-one financial counseling to reduce debt and build savings. Operation Homefront counselors meet with each family every 30 days to review their financial situation, determine where they are in the transition process, review their attendance in the required workshops and classes, and determine their ability to live on their own.

Once they have become self-sufficient, our counselors help them find suitable housing in an area of the country where they want to settle down.

While living at the Village, Walter took full advantage of every service the program offered. He needed the guidance and direction in a transition plan, financial counseling and employment resources. After living at the Village for nine months, Walter and his wife saved over $5,000, reduced their debt by 70 percent, and purchased their first home in San Antonio.

“I want to say thank you to Operation Homefront and their staff,” said Walter. “They had so much patience and they worked with us tremendously.”

“Operation Homefront went above and beyond to make sure we were successful,” added Walter. “Everyone spoke about the different resources that veterans are given, and we became a success because of it. I love the Village program and definitely recommend it – it’s worth it.”

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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Our long-time partner, Eckrich, joined us to surprise a veteran family in Corvallis, Oregon with a shopping spree at their local Safeway grocery store. But it didn’t end there. Nichole Hetland, caregiver and wife of medically retired U.S. Army veteran Jeremy, recounts the experience:

I want to share with you all, the amazing day we had yesterday!!!

I am a part of the Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor (program) as the caregiver of my husband during his recovery from injuries sustained in combat and while on active duty. Someone from Operation Homefront contacted me last week and asked if myself and my family could attend an event on behalf of their organization. We were told only to show up at the said location in Corvallis and the rest would be a surprise.

Since I have never been asked to do something like this, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. We showed up to the location we were given (Safeway store in Corvallis) and introduced to a great deal of very important people. Right after that introduction, we were asked if we wanted to go on a shopping spree? Seriously? Ummmmm, YES of course!!!

We were led through the store by the partners of Eckrich, Safeway, Operation Homefront, Oregon State University cheerleaders, their trusty OSU Beaver mascot, former Pro NFL football player Mike Hass, and an array of others. I was still in shock by the whole thing. I felt so shy (which most of you know is not a character trait of mine) but I think it was the overwhelming realization that we were actually on a shopping spree.

We ended up filling 2 carts full of groceries and I even got diapers, which is a huge expense when you have a newborn (yay!). I was grinning ear to ear. The kids were loving it. Shelves full of goodies and they didn’t have to ask mom and dad if it was ok to buy them….they just tossed them in the cart!
It was amazing and that wasn’t even the end of it. We dropped our carts off at checkout and walked out front to an awaiting stage. I thought to myself, “there’s more?”

We were told to stand up on the stage while they read my husband’s military bio. They then proceeded to say, “on behalf of Eckrich and Safeway, for being a hometown hero and fighting on behalf of our country for our freedom… a year of FREE groceries at Safeway!”

What?

Did I hear that correctly?

1 year of groceries….FREE…..!!!!

52 weeks of groceries at Safeway!!!!

“Wow” is all I could think! This was an amazing surprise and an even bigger gift for our family. Groceries is probably one of the biggest expenses we have monthly, so this is going to lighten our load tremendously!

I am so grateful to the people who chose our family to take part in this event. I am so thankful and grateful to Safeway and Eckrich for their generosity! As well as Operation Homefront for what they do for our veterans.

It was also pretty cool to get to hang out with former NFL football player Mike Hass. What a great, down to earth guy. We definitely felt the love and support from everyone that was there with us.

That was my amazing day!!! Can you believe it? I still can’t….so heart-warming….thanks to all!!!”

This surprise is part of the ongoing campaign by Eckrich to honor, thank, and support military families through its partnership with Operation Homefront. Eckrich, now in its sixth year of the partnership, has donated more than $2.5 million to the organization since 2012.

 

 

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mason-on-deck

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shay became his full-time primary caregiver.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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walmartblog1

By Emily Schmid
Director, Walmart Digital Communications
November 11, 2016
(reprinted with permission. Original article can be found here.)

Twelve years ago, Michael del Rosario was a Captain in the U.S. Army looking to make the transition back to civilian life. He loved the military, but wanted to focus on starting a new chapter with his family.

An officer with years of experience, Michael had no shortage of job prospects in the private sector and it wasn’t long before he had a decision to make. But after a series of interviews with Walmart, Michael knew he had found the perfect place.

So in 2004, Michael began his new career as an Operations Manager in Tobyhannah, Pennsylvania. It was a big change at first, but the support from his fellow associates helped.

“There were some prior service veterans that I had the good fortune to be reporting to, and they would sit down with me and make me feel that I had all the time in the world to talk about any of the struggles that we all have,” he said.

Drawing on his military leadership experience, Michael brought a unique perspective to his new role. Today, he is General Transportation Manager at a Walmart distribution center in Woodland, Pennsylvania, where he oversees everything from maintenance of vehicles to the safety department that ensures the well-being of his team.

Once he finally felt established in his new life as a private citizen, Michael started thinking about how to give back.

“I figured it was my turn to reach backwards and pull somebody else up,” he said.

So he volunteered to join the Walmart Foundation State Advisory Council, which is comprised of managers across each state who help support local communities. Once onboard, he noticed that despite the strong veteran presence in Pennsylvania, no veterans’ organizations were applying for grants. That’s when he found Operation Homefront, an organization that provides financial assistance to military families and veterans.

He brought the organization to the council’s attention, and soon Michael was off to deliver a check himself. He and the organization’s regional director instantly connected over their shared passion. So well, in fact, that before he left that day, the director asked Michael to join Operation Homefront’s advisory board.

Ever since, Michael has made it his mission to make a difference in the lives of military families. Last year, Michael received the Walmart Logistics Community Champion Award for his work with Operation Homefront, which under his leadership, coordinated the efforts of more than 170 volunteers, 6,500 volunteer hours, and fundraising efforts that raised more than $350,000 for veterans in 2015.

Through his work with Operation Homefront, Michael also began working with Penn State University’s Military Appreciation Committee. Together they organize events like Seats for Service Members, which donates free Penn State football tickets to military families. Every year at a Military Appreciation Day football game, Michael assembles the volunteer forces of Operation Homefront, Walmart, and Penn State to throw a massive cookout for current and active service members and their families.

Earlier this month, 500 Walmart volunteers converged on State College to serve food to nearly 10,000 military families before the game.

“It’s just great to be able to show them that we have their backs, and that we haven’t forgotten what they’ve been through, and most of all, that we truly appreciate what they’ve done for our country,” he said.

Michael has received multiple honors for his support for veterans, but he’ll be the first to tell you that the recognition is the result of the teamwork from his fellow Walmart volunteers.

“It’s not just me,” he insisted. “It’s the teammates I’ve got around me.”

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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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