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Posts Tagged ‘Wounded Warriors’

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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Navy Hipsley full rez wcc operation homefront

Meet Hipsley!

It began with the need to do something.  To make a difference.

A dedicated group of volunteers with the Mid-Atlantic Field Office of Operation Homefront, concerned about the heartbreaking statistics surrounding veteran suicides, approached the Field Office staff with an idea. As part of their annual fundraising efforts, they wanted to support Operation Homefront – and support the training of a service dog for veterans recovering from physical and psychological wounds.

Though not a need addressed by Operation Homefront programs, the Operation Homefront Mid-Atlantic team knew they could help, as they are active in supporting the needs of families at Walter Reed and Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Belvoir. They also knew an organization that worked with service animals. And so began a unique partnership between Operation Homefront, the community, and the non-profit Warrior Canine Connection.

After 18 months of planning and fundraising solely by the volunteers with support from Operation Homefront, their wish became reality Wednesday as Operation Homefront presented Warrior Canine Connection with a check for $25,000 to cover the cost of training a puppy named Hipsley at Fort Belvoir.

Navy Hipsley full rez wcc operation homefront mom in memory

Jane Hipsley, herself a “puppy parent”, after learning that a puppy will carry on the name and legacy of her son, Sgt. Christian Hipsley.

Hipsley is named in honor of Army Sgt. Christian Joseph Hipsley, an Army medic who graduated from Hannah More Academy in Baltimore in 2000.  He was known as an individual who cared deeply for people and who found uncommon courage.  Sgt. Hipsley’s 13 years of service entailed three tours of duty in the Middle East, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait.  Sgt. Hipsley was awarded the Bronze Star in 2011 for his efforts in saving five Afghan National Army soldiers after the caravan he was riding in was struck by consecutive IED blasts.  When the book was closed on his Army career, Sgt.  Hipsley had earned the Bronze Star with Combat Distinguished Valor and the Army Commendation Medal.  The soldier lost his battle with PTSD in 2014 at age 32.

Sgt. Hipsley’s mother, Jane, was in attendance as it was announced that a puppy would carry on the memory of her son by helping others.  Over the next 2 years, Hipsley and the other purpose-bred Golden and Labrador Retrievers will each empower 60 returning wounded combat Veterans. After this period, Hipsley will be permanently assigned.

margiwithpuppy

Margi Kirst, Chief Development Officer for Operation Homefront with the newest member of the military family.

 

“The beauty behind this is the connection between the community and donors who take the initiative to get involved, and the collaboration between non-profits.  It is the community coming together,” said Vivian Dietrich, Regional Director. “And at the end of the day, our mission of building strong stable and secure military families will be realized through the work of Hipsley with the Fort Belvoir families.”

Cyndi Lucas, Communications Outreach Leader for Operation Homefront Mid-Atlantic added, “It was unique opportunity to capture the passion of this group of volunteers. (Hipsley) will touch so many lives”

 

“We are extremely grateful to the enthusiastic group of volunteers from Operation Homefront’s Mid-Atlantic region who dedicated so much time and energy to raise the funds to train Hipsley at Fort Belvoir,” said Rick Yount, WCC founder and executive director. “In our work to serve more than 3,700 Veterans since WCC started, we have seen firsthand the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy in combating symptoms of PTS and TBI.  We are fortunate to have partners, like Operation Homefront, who are equally committed to supporting our nation’s Veterans and their families.”

region4volunteers

Working together to make a difference: Operation Homefront National and MidAtlantic staff with the “REDS” team volunteers.

About Warrior Canine Connection: Warrior Canine Connection is a pioneering organization that utilizes a Mission Based Trauma Recovery model to empower returning combat Veterans who have sustained physical and psychological wounds while in service to our country. Based on the concept of Warriors helping Warriors, WCC’s therapeutic service dog training program is designed to mitigate symptoms of PTSD, TBI, and other challenges, while giving injured combat Veterans a sense of purpose, help in reintegrating back into their families and communities, and a potential career path as a service dog trainer.  For more information, go to www.warriorcanineconnection.org.

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As he turns the key on his new home, Raphael Harris and his wife, Yesica, can see a new beginning and a fresh start. Not too long ago, they were once a family geographically separated and facing many financial and medical challenges. That was before they found out about our Operation Homefront Village.

RaphaelVillagesBlogRaphael is a military brat and grew up in South Carolina before his family moved to Alabama. After graduation, he decided to join the military and he became a Marine at age 17.

Raphael was first stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and then Camp Pendleton in California. During a deployment to Afghanistan, he was injured when an improvised explosive device caused the vehicle he was riding in to roll over. As a result of his injuries and trauma, Raphael was medically retired from the Marines after four years of service.

Transitioning out of the military can be difficult for anyone, and Raphael’s family was no exception. Raphael became friends with a service member who was also transitioning from the Marines. He told Raphael about Operation Homefront and how we offered rent-free transitional housing at our Operation Homefront Village in California. Raphael thought this might be a great solution for his family, so he put in an application, and was accepted into our program.

“Before coming to the Village, I was (away) from my wife, who was back in Alabama,” said Raphael. “We had a lot of debt.”

Our Village program provides rent-free, utilities paid, fully furnished apartments to wounded, injured, and ill veterans leaving the military. It is designed to enable families to heal together, while bridging the gap between military pay and veteran benefits.

While living at the Village, Raphael not only saved $15,000, but he was also able to reduce his debt by $15,000. “This is an amazing program which helped fill in the gaps during my transition and helping me to be more stable,” added Raphael. “I would recommend it to anyone who is qualified to apply.”

Raphael has since graduated from our Village program. Recently, he and his wife were able to realize a dream and bought a home in San Antonio, Texas. He continues his care at the VA and is going back to school where he will pursue a master’s degree that allows him to counsel wounded warriors with severe post-traumatic stress.

As with the Harris family, when veterans graduate from our Village program, they will have VA benefits in place, debt significantly reduced, and emergency savings available.

“In 2015, Operation Homefront served 111 military families through our transitional housing program,” said Senior Director of Transitional Housing Gracie Broll. “Our goal at Operation Homefront is to ensure our military families remain strong, stable, and secure throughout transition from military to civilian life. We do this by walking hand-in-hand with each family while providing them with the tools and resources needed for success.”

While the Harris family has settled into their new home and new beginnings, their story can inspire other families who are still in transition.

HectorVillagesBlogRetired U.S. Marine Sergeant Hector Perez deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan during his term of service. On a deployment to Afghanistan, “A road side bomb detonated and hit my vehicle and I was injured – spinal cord injuries, neural damage to my left leg and left eye, and some TBI and PTSD as well,” he said.

Like many in his situation, Hector was caught off guard and struggled to make ends meet during the transition process. Hector heard about our Operation Homefront Village from his recovery care coordinator and applied. He moved into the new Operation Homefront Village in San Diego, which celebrated its Grand Opening in January. There, he found relief and a way to get back on track with his life.

“It’s safe, it’s beautiful, it’s near all the VA (offices) I need,” said Hector. “Being a part of this community will help our family transition from active duty to retired tremendously.”

While at our Village, Hector will receive help to get control over his budget, reduce debt, and stabilize his treatment at the VA. He will also be given the tools and training he needs to establish a savings account and develop a plan for future housing.

“We will be able to focus on stabilizing income, bringing current debt down to a minimum, live in a safe environment with others in same position and continue care for disabilities,” added Hector. With the right supports in place, Hector now has hope for a bright future.

For many other families just like Hector and Raphael’s, our Villages provide a supportive environment, relieve the financial stress and provide a comprehensive package of individualized family support and financial planning services. Operation Homefront has Villages in three locations: Gaithersburg, Maryland; San Diego, California; and San Antonio, Texas. Since opening our first Village in March 2008, we have transitioned 453 families, which includes 724 military children.

View more pictures from the San Diego open house. Learn more about the Operation Homefront Villages.

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Whether you have been with us on our journey for a while or are new to discover us, we’d like to share a bit of what we do, how we made a difference in 2015, and what we look forward to in 2016:

1. We help make dreams come true

gettingtoknowusblog1picIn 2015, Operation Homefront awarded 95 mortgage-free homes to veteran families through our Homes on the Homefront program. On average, Operation Homefront awards between 80-100 homes each year thanks to the support of our partners. As those families complete a two-year program, they earn the deed to their home – 102 families completed that process last year. We are excited to be awarding our 500th home this month.

2. We’re here to help military families get through tough times.

Last year, we provided more than $4.2 million in emergency assistance grants to more than 2,300 families who hit a bump in the road and needed help with rent or mortgage payments, major home or car repairs, utility bills or buying food for their families.

We know that the holidays can be tough for our military families. In 2015, more than 10,420 children received toys at Holiday Toy Drive events, and 11,000 families received meals through various programs throughout the year, including our Holiday Meals for Military events.

3. We help families cope with the visible and invisible wounds of war.

Our Hearts of Valor program, which provides support to caregivers of wounded veterans, has grown to more than 2,600 participants, giving them vital connections to others who understand their unique challenges.

Transition from service continues to be a significant challenge for our post 9/11 veterans. More than 80 percent of the families assisted through our emergency assistance program were those with a wounded service member.

In 2015, Operation Homefront placed 111 families in one of our rent-free, transitional Operation Homefront Villages, providing critical security and time for our veterans to heal and focus on their futures.

gettingtoknowusblog2pic4. We remember the military child.

The start of a New Year brings with it the start of the Military Child of the Year Award season. We just announced this year’s semifinalists for the 2016 Military Child of the Year Award and in April, we will spotlight these incredible military children for the 8th year in a row at our gala in DC. In addition, this year, we are being joined by Booz Allen Hamilton who will award the inaugural Innovation Award to a military child.

One of our favorite times of the year is our annual Back-To-School Brigade campaign in the summer. In 2015, we provided more than 31,000 military kids with backpacks filled with school supplies.

5. We honor the role of the military spouse.

We were honored to help welcome new bundles of joy for over 1,000 military moms in 2015 at our Star-Spangled Babies baby showers. More than 600 spouses enjoyed nights of relaxation and fun at our Homefront Celebrations, including those in Tacoma, WA. This year, Homefront Celebrations and our amazing baby showers will return for another year of honoring those who hold down the homefront.

gettingtoknowusblog3pic6. We cover America!

Headquartered in San Antonio, Texas and Washington, DC, Operation Homefront serves every state from 17 locations across the country supported by 2,500 + volunteers.

What’s next?

We know there is still more work to be done. Every day, across America, Operation Homefront employees, volunteers and supporters are making great strides to help those that give so much for our nation. Our troops and their families are counting on us and it makes us very happy to know we’ll be there for them.

Your commitment will be crucial, especially with the ever-changing landscape of global threats and budget battles that impact our military and veteran families on a very deep level.

Here’s to building on the many successes we enjoyed in 2015 and continuing our journey in 2016.

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In his own words, guest blogger, Nathan Snell, veteran, U.S. Army shares his journey to war and back again, and how he finally found his place after feeling lost for so long:

The struggle is real. This is something we hear and read often in today’s culture. On Facebook. Or Twitter. Usually preceded by a hash tag (which kids don’t know is really just the pound sign). I don’t think most kids even know what it means to actually struggle. Still… doesn’t stop them from using it. The struggle is real. SMH (that means shake my head).

Doesn’t matter what rank, branch, occupational specialty. Or which combat theater. Regardless of the type of wound, extent of injury, or nature of illness… the one constant is that NO combat veteran will ever be the same. If, and when, we get home, we learn very quickly; the struggle is real.

I had completed my initial enlistment contract. I served in the Army honorably as an M1A1 Armor Crewman. A tank driver. And YES… I fit inside the tank. I know some of you were thinking it. Anyway…I was OUT. Had a DD214 in my hand for almost 6 weeks, when one day I got a certified letter in the mail.

Congratulations! You’ve been recalled to Active Duty in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom…for a period of not less than 500 days and change. You have 72 hours to round up your gear and report to your new unit. Crap. THAT just happened. Sadly, I was one of thousands of troops who went off to war that way. For us… the struggle is real.

nathan snell 2

“One of toughest things for a soldier to do is realize they need help. THE toughest is probably asking for it.”

I was a Soldier. Proud. Loyal. Patriotic. I kissed my young son, my spouse, and the baby still in her belly. Not literally but you know what I mean. And I said goodbye. I shipped out to the Diyala River Valley. Next stop; Baqubah, Iraq.

What they don’t prepare you for is how time completely stands still when you’re on deployment. It’s hard to explain exactly what I mean and you can’t really understand unless you’ve been down range before. The harsh reality, however, is that back home the clock NEVER stops ticking. Life goes on.

And for me that meant coming home 18 months later to an empty house, empty bank account, kids abandoned by their mother and living with my family, and the lasting effects that combat can have on a person. I assure you there is no Training Manual for being a full-time single father with sole custody while dealing with PTSD. I looked. Sadly, I was one of thousands of troops who came BACK from war that way. For us… the struggle is real.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I was lost. Very quickly I couldn’t find my place in the world. No idea where I fit in anymore. My kids were the ONLY reason I got out of bed most days. One of toughest things for a soldier to do is realize they need help. THE toughest is probably asking for it. We’re programmed to be strong. To suck it up. To drive on. Anything less is considered weakness. But when you’re raising 2 kids on your own, pride is a luxury you often can’t afford. Luckily for the 3 of us, I swallowed mine.

I reached out to Operation Homefront (OH) and asked for help. At the time, we were just days away from being homeless. From going hungry. From living out of a car with 2 children. I had hit rock bottom. For me… the struggle had become VERY real.

It starts with the case worker. It would’ve been easy to just say thank you for your service, we’re gonna cut you a check this month. Buy you some time. Keep the lights on and roof over your head for a little longer. And honestly I would have been both humbled and eternally grateful.

But she cared. Genuinely cared. About me. About us. Stopped and asked WHY? What’s happening in your life that’s got you to this point? More importantly, how can OH prevent this from happening again. Next month. 6 months down the road. Ever again.

A little over a year ago, my kids and I arrived at 1 of 3 OH Villages. This one in Gaithersburg, MD not far from Walter Reed. The thing about OH… I was never just a number. A name. A statistic. A random check or donation. OH made an investment in me. In my life. In my future. On a deeply personal level.

nathan snell 1

“(Operation Homefront) made an investment in me. In my life. In my future.”

Knowing that I had their support every step over that last year. Having someone sit me down and say “we believe in you, you got this, we’re PROUD of you…” THAT made all the difference. The changes that have taken place in us these 12 months. The transformation. The growth. The HEALING. I’m at a loss for words.

I’ve taken advantage of every opportunity Operation Homefront has provided. I’m not the same person I was a year ago. I’m no longer lost. Without purpose. I have found my calling once again. I set out on a path. Over the last year I’ve served the county and my community as a firefighter. I worked tirelessly to complete the Fire Academy at the University of Maryland. To become a nationally registered EMT. None of which would have been possible without the support from Operation Homefront.

I’m proud to announce that I was offered a Federal Firefighter position with the Department of Defense. I have been given a second chance in life. Something that is very rare. I want all of you to know what a profound impact you can have on a soldier’s life. Nevermind the struggle… the difference you can make… THAT is real. 

 

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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In the spirit and history of Veterans Day, we think there is no better way to honor service to country than to highlight some of the veterans we’ve been so very fortunate to help, each with their own unique and compelling story of commitment and sacrifice. We lead off the series with the story of our friend and teammate at Operation Homefront, Felicia McGrue:

Operation Homefront Village Director Felicia McGrue knows firsthand the challenges and opportunities faced by the wounded warrior families she helps every day. Just a few years ago she was a resident at the Operation Homefront Village in San Antonio herself.

In 2010, Felicia found herself facing a medical evaluation board. She truly believed she would be found fit for duty. “I was in denial,” stated Felicia.

Felicia was medically retired and began her transition to civilian life, which started at one of our Operation Homefront Villages in a rent-free apartment.

Felicia, far right, embraced her time as a resident at the Operation Homefront Village to work on a stable and secure future for herself and her young sons.

Transitioning from military to civilian life didn’t come easy. Reflecting on that time, Felicia shares, “For anyone who has served in the military, there is a grieving process you go through, whether you separated from the military voluntarily or involuntarily. We grieve over that persona we identified with; that strong, confident warrior that is ingrained in us from the beginning of our career.”

Felicia found that the confident warrior was still there, and she embraced the opportunity the Operation Homefront Village provided to work on a stable and secure future for herself and her young sons. While at the OH Village, she was able to obtain a master’s degree, significantly reduce her debt and complete a six month fellowship to assist other transitioning veterans.

Senior Director of Transitional Housing, Gracie Broll, recalls, “She put all her focus into her transition and our financial program and, before leaving the OH Village, she was able to put enough money down to buy a home. However, her heart remained at the Operation Homefront Village, and she was a frequent volunteer.” When the position of OH Village Director came open, it was as if her journey had come full circle.

felicia with check

Felicia, far right, has found another mission helping guide and support other veterans transition from service as the Operation Homefront Village Director in San Antonio.

 

Felicia believes staying connected and finding new ways to serve can help the emotional and mental aspects of transitioning from service. She also believes it is important that transitioned service members provide peer support and mentorship to other service men and women who will follow in their footsteps.

 

“Many of life stressors can be overwhelming but to compound that with physical and mental disabilities as a result of service to your country…it can sometimes prove to be unbearable. It can be difficult for veterans to navigate the VA system for medical treatment, establish permanent housing for their family, or find suitable employment to help them to sustain their household. They often still need that guidance and direction. Other, more seasoned veterans, have a difficult time letting go of that military standard and structure. They sometimes feel they have lost their sense of purpose. They can both be helpful in keeping each other motivated and provide encouragement for their family members as well.”

Thinking back to those early days, Felicia credits Operation Homefront for making a difference. “I am eternally grateful for Operation Homefront for my time at the OH Village, and I want to pass that help and assistance on to others.” Adds Gracie, “She has the passion to serve transitioning veterans and the dedication to do whatever it takes to ensure their successes.”

 

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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Logistics convoyHow far are you willing to go?

“For what?” you might ask.

Not ‘for what,’ but ‘for whom.’

How far are you willing to go for your fellow Americans?

When we think about laying it all on the line, most of us would say it’s easy to do when you think about your child, or your wife, or maybe even your beloved Golden Retriever that’s slowing down with hip dysplasia from years of chasing the kids upstairs.

But what about a complete stranger? Someone you’re unlikely to ever meet? Should it matter? Ask the heroes among us, and they answer with a resounding ‘YES.’. Those are the men and woman who enlist in one of our military branches of service and promise to defend our way of life…even those who hold different values, ideologies or faith, yet are bound together by one simple word: America.

And when you ask them, “How far are you willing to go?” They say, “All the way…even to death.”

That, friends, is laying it all on the line. That is what it means to answer the call to serve in our military.

When they sign up to serve, they agree to give it all, if needed.

Try to put yourself in the shoes of the young 20-year-old soldier, half a world away, who focuses on his mission, but his heart longs for home. He aches to return to the rolling plains of his home state. He can’t wait to play a pick-up game of basketball with his brother and his buddies when he gets back.

HomecomingHe is willing to put himself in a place that most Americans will never see, let alone comprehend, and possibly lose it all.

Why is he there?

The answer to that question could go on for days and would include words like honor, courage, and integrity.

But really it comes down to this – they answered the call.

 

 

He is willing to lay it all on the line because he loves his family, his friends, and his country.

And there are many like him. And today, we salute that uncommon kind of man and woman. And we remember those who paid the ultimate price.

Thank you for your service. You are not forgotten.

 

ATC-launch-photoWhen we think of those who serve, we, at Operation Homefront, are honored to answer the call as well when we step in to help military families get through difficult times and help build strong, stable and secure military families. With the holiday season and colder weather, nearly upon us, our requests for assistance will increase. You can answer the call too. If you’d like to honor those who are deployed and their families, the ones who are willing to lay it all on the line, consider giving a gift today.

 

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