AHERO Magazine Fall 2019

Page 1

FALL 2019

A L A B A M A coasting presents

AHERO Warrior Lodge, pg 3 Meeting

in Common Cause, pg 12

The HER Foundation, pg 24 HEALING PAWS Rescuing Heroes, pg 26 Woody Williams & Gold Star Families Memorial Monument, pg 60


FALL 2019 1

Providing Light Speed Internet to Orange Beach & Surrounding Areas Visit our website to sign up for announcements & early-bird discounts.

IslandFiber.net 25908 Canal Road Suite G Orange Beach, AL 36561 (205) 616-4799


FALL 2019



Managing Partner/CEO Danny Calametti President/Publisher David Calametti Editor in Chief Dave Glassman Senior Editor Connie Conway Editorial Consultants Deanna Smith Tristessa Osborne Lynn Feehan Art Director Randy Jennings Published by Discover Gulf Coast Alabama, LLC 251-694-0457 david@alabamacoasting.com danny@alabamacoasting.com 5758 Huffman Drive North Mobile, AL 36693 ©2019 Discover Gulf Coast Alabama, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.

AHERO Mission..................................................................................................................... pg 4 BUILDING TOWARDS THE FUTURE Founder’s Message from Maj. Lee Stuckey, USMC......................................................... pg 6 MajGen James E. Livingston................................................................................................ pg 7 Building the MajGen James E. Livingston Warrior Lodge.............................................. pg 8 AHERO Thank You - Milton Truss........................................................................................ pg 9 Where do We find Such Women? ................................................................................... pg 10 THE POWER OF OUR INTERCONNECTED MISSIONS AHERO Meets DAV in Common Cause............................................................................ pg 12 Our Hidden Heroes............................................................................................................. pg 14 AHERO Thank You - The Aldridge Foundation................................................................ pg 15 The Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s Military and Veteran Caregiver Map....................... pg 16 Nurse, Mother, Wife, Caregiver........................................................................................ pg 17 A Unit of Two....................................................................................................................... pg 18 Paying it Forward!.............................................................................................................. pg 20 Thirty-Two Years of Military Service................................................................................ pg 21 Clinton Cox........................................................................................................................... pg 22 How Faith and Love Created a Foundation..................................................................... pg 24 Rescuing the Dogs Who Rescue Heroes........................................................................ pg 26 The Frenchy Connection.................................................................................................... pg 27 HEALING MOMENTS IN FELLOWSHIP The Wharf at Orange Beach............................................................................................. pg 30 AHERO Warrior Hook-up at The Wharf........................................................................... pg 32 The Woman Who Made it Work....................................................................................... pg 34 Forward Beside Them........................................................................................................ pg 37 AHERO Warrior Hook-up Islamorada and Polk County Alligator Hunt........................ pg 40 AHERO Warrior Hook-up on Pensacola Beach.............................................................. pg 42 AHERO Works..................................................................................................................... pg 44 Freeing Your Mind and Soul Through Journaling.......................................................... pg 45 AHERO Thank You - Beth and John Schachner Sr........................................................ pg 45 A Hunt That’s More Than a Hunt...................................................................................... pg 46 A Son Called Joel............................................................................................................... pg 47 AHERO Thank You - The Blessing of Friends.................................................................. pg 47 AHERO’s Warrior Week in Denmark................................................................................ pg 48 SOME GIVE, SOME VOLUNTEER, ALL HELP BY CARING Annual Gulf Coast Golfing4AHERO Tournament at Perdido Bay.................................. pg 52 High Points 4AHERO........................................................................................................... pg 53 Continuing the Fight........................................................................................................... pg 54 AHERO Thank You - AWKO Law Firm............................................................................... pg 54 A Letter from North Carolina............................................................................................. pg 55 Bringing My Art to AHERO................................................................................................ pg 56 HONOR REVERED, LOVED ONES REMEMBERED The Jewel on the Bay........................................................................................................ pg 58 Breaking Ground - Gold Star Monument ........................................................................ pg 60 Overwhelmed by Grief, Lifted by a Nation...................................................................... pg 62 My Gold Star Journey........................................................................................................ pg 63 Stepping up in Memory of Brandon................................................................................. pg 64 Q and A with Pete McKanna............................................................................................. pg 65 AHERO Supporters Island Fiber............................................................................................................................ pg 2 Tucker Shaver - REMAX...................................................................................................... pg 5 Resort Rentals....................................................................................................................... pg 5 Hemingway’s....................................................................................................................... pg 20 Bamboo Willie’s.................................................................................................................. pg 20 Tacky Jacks......................................................................................................................... pg 29 The Aldridge Foundation................................................................................................... pg 39 Aloha Grill............................................................................................................................ pg 41 Royal Barbers...................................................................................................................... pg 41 Aylstock Witkin Kreis Overholtz....................................................................................... pg 68 AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019 3


AHERO Mission SERVES • WELCOMES • PROVIDES Serves wounded service members and Veterans by offering opportunities that heal through time spent in activities and fellowship together with concerned citizens. Welcomes Veterans into a community willing to donate time and recreational equipment as well as natural and financial resources to support the events and mentoring that facilitate our mission. Provides a support network of Veterans experienced in dealing with emotional and physical wounds caused by combat-related stress, connecting them to the resources and assistance vital to their successful re-entry into civilian life. The military Veteran suicide rate more than doubles that of our non-Veteran population. So many Vets never receive the needed emotional support during their long rehabilitation and adjustment to life after combat.

EVERY HERO DESERVES A CHANCE TO HEAL AHERO is a nonprofit, tax-exempt charitable organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Donations are tax deductible as allowed by law. EIN# 45-3704451 4 AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019


FALL 2019 5


Founder’s Message We decided to publish this special fall issue of our AHERO Magazine for two reasons: 1) To let you know what’s been going on since early spring; and 2) To announce the kick-off of AHERO’s biggest outreach project yet – a huge fundraising drive to inspire donors willing to supply resources needed to build the ADA-compliant AHERO MajGen James E. Livingston Warrior Lodge. In addition to raising funds for construction costs, we look to partner with contractors across the building industry sectors to gain pledges of building materials, interior furnishings and appliances. The anticipated Lodge (beautifully rendered here in the magazine) will be able to accommodate approximately 50 wounded and injured Vets during AHERO’s weekend-long deer hunts and other events held at the farm in Shorter, Ala. This is a massive undertaking for AHERO. So I went through all the business cards I’ve received over the last 10 years or so. Saving business cards might seem odd for a military guy, but there are always folks out there ready to help people who really need it. Throughout my travels with the Marine Corps and talks to interested groups about AHERO, including individuals who share my interest in Mixed Martial Arts, I’m always eager to shake hands with listeners and happy to take their cards. By the time I lined them up, I literally had hundreds! Now we’re writing to the folks who handed them to me, asking for their help. Here’s what I let them know: In just 10 years, AHERO has been blessed to support more than 6,300 Veterans and to offer alternative paths for hundreds who were considering suicide as a solution to their seemingly insurmountable circumstances. We continue to support those who call on us by healing through outdoor recreational activities that foster fellowship and communication, and at this point we’re doing it across the world. We are growing!

In this issue, you can read about the journeys and challenges of Veterans and currently serving warriors who have great stories to tell. For example, Army Chaplain Chris Rusack’s “Forward in Combat: Bringing Comfort to His Troops” account describes his multiple combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. After meeting him at the First Annual Orange Beach Warrior Hook-Up this year, we asked him to tell us his extraordinary story. He very kindly sent it to us just before he deployed again. Also, you’ll learn about our American women’s early military service in an article written by editorial advisor and featured columnist, SgtMaj (Ret) Bryan Battaglia, USMC. Little known as an important part of our great military history, it deserves to be told. And in a way, it culminates in the modest tone and writing style of a note we received from LTC Madeline Bondy, US Army (Ret). We knew right away there was more to her story. Turns out, it was much more. Read it in the Interconnected section. Ready for Part 2 of Dave Glassman’s interview with Vietnam Veteran, retired Marine Sgt Peter McKanna? The account he gives of the combat mission that netted him a devastating (but never mentioned) wound is pretty riveting. We also think you’ll love the “love of family” theme of The Frenchy Connection columnist Norm (Frenchy) LaFountaine’s story, “A Coming Together for Dylan.” It tells of Iraq Veteran, Army Specialist Lance Gieselmann – a dedicated dad whose massive wounds suffered during combat operations in Iraq left his body devastated but his great capacity for love and fatherhood alive and well. All that said, it truly is your enthusiasm and support that keeps everything great about AHERO going. That, and the joy in the voices and expressions of the Vets who join us on fishing excursions and our many hunts and event gatherings, where good food and music bring us together with caring, loving citizens to celebrate life.

Maj Lee Stuckey, USMC

Hundreds of you have volunteered to help us do this over the years, even when it took up much of your time and demanded your family’s patience. So I want to say thank you. And again: Thank you! Because I can never thank you enough for continuing to make it possible for us to show these deserving warriors that people do care, and for helping us provide them with alternatives to losing their personal war at their own hands. Finally, please help us raise the AHERO Warrior Lodge by donating online at AHEROUSA. org, and by sharing about us on Facebook or letting us know if your company or organization would like to provide building materials or furnishings for the Lodge. Semper Fidelis! Lee Stuckey AHERO Founder and President aherousa.org

To connect with us, please go to AHEROusa.org/contact 6 AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate in the name of The Congress The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR to CAPTAIN JAMES E. LIVINGSTON UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS wing CITATION: For service as set forth in the follo

beyond the pidity at the risk of his life above and For conspicuous gallantry and intre Battalion, nd Seco E, pany manding Officer, Com call of duty while serving as Com y forces enem nst agai n actio in ade hibious Brig Fourth Marines, Ninth Marine Amp rmined dete a 2 May 1968, Company E launched in the Republic of Vietnam. On by the d seize been village of Dai Do, which had assault on the heavily fortified inder rema the from pany com isolating a Marine enemy on the preceding evening gston Livin ain Capt ts, agen g enin loying scre of the battalion. Skillfully emp dangerous open positions across 500 meters of ult assa to men his red euve man impacting near ds roun y fire. Ignoring hostile rice paddy while under intense enem emplacements y enem nst agai a savage assault him, he fearlessly led his men in gston moved Livin ain Capt fire, arms g supportin within the village. While adjusting nt to his eme e, shouting words of encourag to the points of heaviest resistanc attack the of m entu spurring the dwindling mom Marines, directing their fire, and ts, men frag ade gren by nded twice painfully wou on repeated occasions. Although ruction dest the in men his led usly courageo he refused medical treatment and y from their bunkers, driving the remaining enem g ortin supp ally mutu 100 over of . As the two pany com on the stranded Marine positions, and relieving the pressure company third a s, altie casu and evacuated companies consolidated positions village cent adja the on ult assa an g launchin passed through the friendly lines lion. batta y a furious counterattack of an enem of Dinh To, only to be halted by fire, y enem of me volu disregarding the heavy Swiftly assessing the situation and pany com his of men tive effec red the remaining Captain Livingston boldly maneuve the enemy’s ily engaged Marines, and halted heav the with es forc d forward, joine tly dfas remained time and unable to walk, he stea counterattack. Wounded a third positions and ble tena deploying his men to more in a dangerously exposed area, safety of his the of red assu n alties. Only whe supervising the evacuation of casu nt actions galla n’s gsto Livin ain Capt d. evacuate men did he allow himself to be Service. al Nav Marine Corps and United States uphold the highest traditions of the

MajGen James E. Livingston, USMC (Ret)

MajGen Livingston with wife, Sara Livingston.


FALL 2019 7


Building the MajGen James E. Livingston Warrior Lodge By Dave Glassman, USMC (Ret)

The doors will open, they will come, and nature’s healing will save lives ... The AHERO warrior lodge, scheduled to be built during 2020, will be bear the name of retired Major General James E. Livingston, USMC (MOH), for his heroic actions at the heavily fortified village of Dai Do, Vietnam on May 2, 1968. His conduct as a young officer is emblematic of the tremendous expectation we place on our citizens who swear an oath that requires them to become proficient warfighters and to risk grave injury or death. Lee Stuckey coined the phrase “screenporch therapy” when he noticed a few participants at an AHERO hunt gathering afterward on a porch to talk. He recognized the benefits of such sessions to any Veteran who had been devastated in body and/or soul by all he or she had experienced.


FALL 2019

Connecting with others in an environment that relieves the stress of horrors suffered was working. But guest Veterans, separated after each day’s hunt, had to stay each night at the homes and farms of graciously accommodating local residents. With a lodge of its own, Stuckey knew, more participants could gather as those he had seen on that porch. Sharing their stories and concerns with one another, they would experience the healing that such fellowship can bring. The ADA-compliant Warrior Lodge will take “screen-porch therapy” to the next level. During the hunts, which are led by seasoned hunters, the number of event participants can be increased to as many as 60, depending on the number of caregivers needed to come along.

Since AHERO’s inception, its hunts have involved transportation logistics and lodging resources. Transporting the Veterans – some who use wheelchairs – daily to and from the many-square-mile area of woods and fields in Alabama’s Macon County where they hunt, is complicated. Once completed, the Lodge will provide a comfortable, central home away from home for all. Making this dream a reality is by far AHERO’s most ambitious undertaking to date, but the value of watching spirits lift as stories, humor and cares are shared drives us on. So now we are asking for YOUR help in reaching our own next level of giving back to the brave men and women who have given so much for us all. Go to AHEROusa.org/donate.

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate “What I saw first-hand was the power of the camaraderie that AHERO events inspire. I understood the importance of the ADA-compliant Warrior Lodge they envision and for which they are now seeking funding and support. The Lodge will make the organization’s hunting events available to even more wounded Veterans who thought their challenges meant they could never again be part of such outdoor sporting activities.” ~Army Chaplain Chris Rusack

Back row l-r: Buddy Wallace, Ed Balls, Bill Boutwell, John Jackson (6 combat tour Army Ranger & Founder of Comfort Farms), James Halford. Front row l-r: Barry, Bryan Marshall (Army Combat Engineer Bronze Star & Purple Heart recipient)

-on what he saw at the AHERO’s Warrior Hook-Up event he attended at The Wharf at Orange Beach, and the value to our injured and wounded Veterans of the AHERO Warrior Lodge currently in its fundraising stage. The Lodge will make it possible for many more Veterans to participate in AHERO hunts. See the magazine’s “Events” section for Chaplain Rusack’s story of his ongoing deployments to Afghanistan and previous ones to Iraq.

To connect with us, please go to AHEROusa.org/contact



Milton Truss Donates Truss Package to AHERO Warrior Lodge Project

At Milton Truss, we value our Veteran employees and deeply respect their service and sacrifices made on behalf of our nation. We learned all about the AHERO Warrior Lodge project, and immediately were proud to commit to a donation of the entire truss package that will be needed to build the Lodge. Participating in AHERO events had provided us with insight into the need for accommodations for Veterans attending events – accommodations that include a central gathering place for moments of fellowship and sharing. The specially designed, ADA-compliant Warrior Lodge will allow these activities to take place under one roof in a comfortable, beautiful and well-equipped structure. Here, the “screen porch therapy,” which has become a meaningful part of the AHERO event experience, would be readily and conveniently available to all attendees, regardless of any individual’s physical limitations. “We have been blessed to enjoy the success of a thriving business, thanks to a robust economy and a booming construction market,” said Charlie Smith, owner of the Milton Truss company. “But we are well aware that the economy can only thrive when our national security is strong, and for that we must thank our men and women in uniform. We encourage other construction-industry businesses join us in this effort to support them.” –Deanna Smith, co-owner of Milton Truss


FALL 2019 9



Where do We find Such Men …

Women? By SgtMaj Bryan Battaglia, USMC (Ret)

From the “Hello Girls” and their critical contributions in World War I, to the American female in today’s armed forces, one common denominator continues to define their character: a faithful pursuit of duty upon answering the call to serve. Just for a moment, imagine how difficult it must have been in the early 1900s for a woman to serve in our United States military. To be trained, tested, offered the opportunity for growth, and accepted as a full-fledged member into what is traditionally a men’s organization, all of this must have felt frustratingly impossible. Perhaps like sitting down at a card table expecting to play five-card stud, but being dealt only three cards. Left shorthanded by virtue of not being endowed with the same level of muscular strength – some even believed “smarts” – as a man. Always seen somehow as flawed by society as it was then. Perseverance Years later, as our military was evolving, so many women continued to want an equal chance to serve but were still sidelined as our society wrestled with the concept of women in the armed forces, women in harm’s way, women in combat. But as history unfolded, it became

clear that women would persevere to overcome a dated system that for so long had rested on the excuse of inequalities. How did they accomplish such success? They did it by going right on serving our nation, never losing sight of their goal. Such perseverance has greatly contributed to the process of catapulting our armed forces into cutting-edge modernization, allowing it to grow and sustain a gender-neutral, diverse organization that can operate in a multi-domain environment. Admittedly, as a Marine infantryman during the ‘80s and ‘90s, I fully supported the notion that not every female service member has the faculty or grit for field soldiering, arduous duty, or combat and may be better qualified for more traditional, non-combatant roles. Through years of personal observation, I can also attest that the same rings true for many males. But across the years and with a better understanding of women’s holistic capabilities in their roles supporting Title 10, 14, and 32,* the Department of Defense has come to manage, and effectively utilize, the talent and potential of this would-be military demographic – still a minority – that manages to qualify.

Supporting the mission As the Sergeant Major for Regimental Combat Team 8, my commander (then Col. Dave Berger, USMC) under II MEF, was assigned the eastern region of Al Anbar Province, inclusive of the very volatile city of Fallujah, located just west of Baghdad. We had more than 5,000 service members from various service branches throughout our command. The regiment was spread out among 25,000 or so square miles of battlespace. Our core mission was three-fold: suppress and/or eliminate enemy combatants, build the Iraqi security and police forces, and re-establish the rule of law and municipal governance. Our female service members were deeply rooted in all three of these strategic tasks. They volunteered to work in the Civil-Military Operations Centers (CMOC) and at vehicle checkpoints in multiple locations in and around Fallujah. They provided support functions, worked with the city government, and participated in training the Iraqi security and police forces. All of these missions came with risk and danger. Unfortunately, during this 12-month tour, we lost hundreds of American service members, both male and female. Our adversary, Al

“Hello Girls” were the U.S. Army’s “Special Weapon” in World War I. Members of the Signal Corps, they are pictured operating a switchboard in 1918.


FALL 2019

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate Qaida, operated with utter barbarism fueled by murder and intimidation. They used these tactics even toward their own people, hoping to strike down Americans and Iraqi soldiers who had joined the new Iraqi military and police. This enemy showed no gender partiality in the treatment of adversaries. Threat and harm came as swiftly to females as it did to males simply based on the uniform we wore because of the reason we were there. Within the heart of Fallujah, regiments had been operating a secondary command post since 2004. Within this same compound, there was a single-story CMOC building. It was guarded by Marines, sailors, and soldiers, and every visitor was thoroughly screened before entry. Female Marines conducted body searches on all Iraqi female civilians and screened their packages. Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) called for search areas to be distantly positioned from actual CMOC buildings. This particular search area was outdoors under camouflage netting and nearly 300 feet from the main CMOC entryway – a safe stand-off for blast protection. Immediate dangers and risks to our men and women search teams included persons approaching with explosive devices hidden under their clothing, enemy vehicles ramming the barriers, enemy snipers, etc. Daily, nearly 500

personnel searches were conducted to ensure safety during the restoration of the city’s stability and thus its future. Tested, proven … heroic! I recall one particular day where CMOC business was being facilitated by the 5th Civil Affairs Group. Iraqi civilian activity in and around the building was high. Suddenly, amid the screenings and searches going on, a shot rang out. A male Marine working in the search area fell limp to the ground. Immediate chaos! Scores of civilians in and outside of the search area ran for cover. Vehicles sped off. Everywhere there was screaming and yelling. The Marine lay exposed in the open, a gunshot wound to his head delivered by a sniper somewhere nearby, likely waiting for his next American target. During the mass pandemonium, one of the nearby female Marines maintained her tactical composure, scanned the area to locate the shooter. Without regard for her own safety, she darted out from behind a cement barrier, exposing herself to sniper fire, and managed to grab the downed Marine by his flak jacket’s carrying strap. She dragged him back nearly 30 feet behind the barrier, where he would be protected against further sniper fire. But her job wasn’t finished. She called for a corpsman, then took up a rifle position behind

the barrier, ready to return fire should she spot further enemy combatants. The immediate actions of this Marine warrior were nothing short of courageous, yet her heroic example is but one among the thousands that have been executed over the years by America’s women in uniform. Our nation’s great debt Now, in spite of much resistance in earlier years, I believe they finally sit at the five-cardstud table with their brothers in arms, holding an equal number of cards. And while this brave Marine warrior escaped external bodily wounds that day, it was indeed a traumatic experience that left her with internal wounds that will impact her health and quality of life every day. She now stands within the ranks of the wounded and, like so many others, suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress. Our nation owes an incalculable debt to the fallen Marine she tried to save. But it also owes an obligation to care for the wounds of his courageous sister in arms, who put it all on the line that day. Because these and all the other brave men and women who have defended America’s freedom in the most arduous conditions, and now suffer for doing so, deserve our full attention in attending to their wounds, and our eternal gratitude for their honorable service. *The United States Code sets out rules and regulations in numbered sections, which our armed forces must follow.

Women continue to serve our country bravely in dangerous Middle Eastern war zones.

SgtMaj Bryan Battaglia, USMC (Ret) AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019 11


AHERO Meets DAV in Common Cause By Connie Conway

AHERO volunteers met this past May with members of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) organization at the home of Army and Coast Guard Veteran, Dave Riley, in Semmes, Ala. A dedicated member of both charitable organizations, Riley had initially brought the leadership of the two together. During the May meeting, he shared his insights on the positive impact the groups have had, and continue to have, on his life as a severely impaired military Veteran. While serving in the Coast Guard, Riley had contracted a rare bacterial infection that led to amputation, rendering him a quad amputee. He’d been an avid outdoorsman prior to this devastating experience – even while serving. But he spiraled down into depression before his wife and caregiver, Yvonne, along with assistance he received from DAV, could begin to turn his thinking around. He started reclaiming his interest in outdoor activities and, in 2008, took the next step: committing himself to preparing for a leadership role as a volunteer in

DAV’s extensive program of Veterans services. One thing drove him. He had seen so many other Vets struggling to survive terrible pain and depression just as he had. And recovery required a balance of optimism and realism, hard work, hope and time. He was still learning that. But whatever it took, he wanted to help those Veterans find their way out of that understandable but self-defeating kind of pain, just as he had been helped out of his. Leadership takes notice Marc Burgess, a Veteran who served in the Persian Gulf War, has been National Adjutant of DAV and Chief Executive Officer of its approximately 650-member staff since 2013. He learned of Riley and his participation in the organization’s programs, and insisted on meeting him. “I was immediately impressed by Dave’s steely determination to overcome every obstacle put in his way of living a normal life,” Burgess said. “This was a man who was learning to believe in himself again.”

Burgess decided to mentor Riley, knowing he could in time be “perfect for a top position in DAV’s volunteer program.” This was an extensive network of many volunteers from all over the country, Burgess explained. “Dave already had been volunteering, but leadership means the person doesn’t just lead – he or she must also inspire. I knew he would do both.” Burgess mentored Riley for a period of three years. The two became friends and Burgess eventually spent a week at Dave and Yvonne’s home, much of the time watching Dave craft his beautiful wooden gift boxes, which are marketed under the name, “Hook Made.” This refers, of

Above: Debbie Walker. As Director of Training for DAV in Alabama, Debbie travels extensively, connecting with Veterans and speaking publicly about DAV and its great value as champion of our injured and wounded Veterans. 12 AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate course, to Riley’s exceedingly capable “hands,” which are hooks. (We should mention here that he is also master of the computer keyboard, has skied downhill since his injuries, and plays a very competitive game of golf!) As Burgess had known he would, Riley advanced through the ranks over the years – all the way up, in fact, to the year-long position of National Commander, and then to the role of Chairman of the Board of DAV. Taking it to us Riley’s interest in volunteer organizations helping Vets was what had led him to meet the all-volunteer leadership of AHERO back in 2014. Since then, he has participated in AHERO events and activities with members and guest Veterans who bear severe physical and/or emotional damages resulting from military service. Ultimately, Riley told the story of his journey through impossible challenges in the first issue of this magazine, in spring of 2018. In the way of one meaningful moment leading to another (AHERO calls this the “Interconnected” principle), Riley had seen that a kindred purpose linked the DAV organization with AHERO. Both groups sought to provide services and activities to at-risk Veterans that could help them survive. The two, he thought, should meet, and he initiated an introduction between the leadership members. In the meeting this spring hosted by the Riley’s at their home in Alabama, representatives from AHERO and DAV shared information on the benefits and opportunities they provide aimed at improving the quality of life for America’s wounded and injured Veterans. Thus, each has become a “resource” the other can add to its arsenal of tools Vets can use to tackle the deficits and devils they face. A long history of help Created in 1920, DAV is a nonprofit charity offering support for all Veterans and their families, assisting them in ways large and small that facilitate their transition to, and progress through, civilian life. Help from DAV can take the form of rides to medical appointments and assistance with benefits claims, or relief when major disasters such as hurricanes or floods occur. But there is another aspect of support that DAV provides. It is putting the power of its vast organization behind legislation and social concerns that directly affect individuals struggling to cope with issues unique to their comparatively small group of Veterans. Highlighting two on DAV’s “docket” Physician and U.S. Congressman Raul Ruiz of Maryland has introduced a bill, H.R. 4451, to allow the VA to support the needs of caregivers of Veterans seriously affected with injuries and

illnesses related to their military service. There is an acute need for such support. Those who voluntarily rise to provide long hours of often physical work generally find they have made a life-altering commitment in caring for their loved one who has given our nation so much. A strong push is now on for the public to write to their Representatives in Washington, DC, urging their “yes” vote on this bill. DAV works on many fronts in its mission to keep faith with the concerns and struggles of Veterans trying to regain their footing as civilians embarked on satisfying and successful lives. But too often, society sees the word “Veteran” and automatically thinks “man.” In fact, the population of female American Veterans who have served bravely in every military capacity, including in combat, is rapidly growing.

DAV recognized this, and in 2014, first published “The Long Journey Home,” its extensive report on women Veterans. The organization has continued to focus on improving the lot of these returning warriors who still deal with unrecognized challenges and systematic slights to their value as Veterans after giving years to answering their country’s call. AHERO joins the fight AHERO is pleased to offer stories that tell, in their own words, what it is like to be a caregiver for a beloved but compromised Veteran. And to offer a glimpse into the lives of a few female Veterans who have returned to civilian life in search of a home and/or are intent on offering their next level of service.

Proudly welcoming Mom back home. AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019 13


In the Fight 24/7: Our Hidden Heroes By Kristan Nowland

I am standing before a roomful of listening caregivers, ready to speak about the importance of self-care to anyone who is providing ongoing care to an injured person. Suddenly I feel humbled, realizing that I am speaking to a roomful of “hidden heroes.” My heart goes out to these courageous warriors, these spouses, families members and friends of an incapacitated loved one. How drastically their lives must have changed without warning! Yet they are not complaining, not wanting pity. They are simply stating facts and seeking the support and resources that can help with their daily challenges. My determination to help ease their burdens strengthens. But then I realize that although I can teach methods and provide tools to this end, there is even more power for them in connecting with a community of other caregivers who understand without explanation, for they “have been there” and still are. A long-overdue champion The role of family members as caregivers for our military Veterans is not a new concept or vocation. Families during all wars have dealt with this responsibility. But this is the first time this scale of awareness has been raised. When Senator Elizabeth Dole’s husband, retired Senator Bob Dole, was admitted to Walter Reed Medical Center in 2011 for an extended stay, Mrs. Dole saw what she called “the tremendous challenges facing the loved ones caring for our wounded, ill and injured warriors.” Following her husband’s hospitalization, she established the Elizabeth Dole Foundation to raise awareness and seek solutions for these caregivers. She commissioned the Rand Corporation to do the first study of the caregiver population. The study revealed a national crisis. More than 5.5 million such caregivers were aiding our injured and ailing Veterans. Most were isolated and without support. The Dole Foundation called these dedicated individuals “Hidden Heroes,” and set about providing them with help. 14 AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019

Agencies stepped forward. Programs were developed. One was the National Caregiver Training Program, an in-person, online, and self-study training program established through a contract between the Department of Veteran Affairs and the nonprofit health care organization, Easterseals, in collaboration with other agencies. Through this program, more than 38,000 individuals have been trained. It was as a nurse and certified health coach that I was hired and found myself speaking before many groups, teaching in-person the self-care classes in stress management, effective communication and technology tools that help caregivers navigate their critical role. But I was also learning how friends and family often cannot understand what they are going through, especially when the Veteran they care for has PTSD. There’s no “obvious” injury, so what’s the problem? Literally, theirs becomes a “life of care” Most of us have heard the saying, “The loved one who left for war is not the person who returned.” The change in the returning wounded or injured Veteran has a widely recognized origin: training is difficult; war is hell. But imagine what happens if you are the individual left behind, let’s say the spouse. You go on working the job you have and, assuming you have children, taking care of them. You keep things running. Life is stressful, but you’re handling it. Then, suddenly, it is thrown into total turmoil. Your loved one is injured or ill needing extensive treatment, even ongoing hospitalizations. Your career likely has to go. Previous and new financial pressures collide; mounting stress threatens to affect the children. But you struggle on to meet your caregiving responsibilities … often unaware of your own psychological and emotional reactions, or finding yourself at a loss to understand those of your injured spouse. It is not surprising, then, that many caregivers go through a period of grieving a relationship they feel is lost to them forever. They may feel they now have to “be the buffer” between

the wounded or ill Veteran and the world, even the kids. They may struggle trying to explain why mom, dad, sister, brother, uncle or aunt is acting differently or irrationally. No, he or she isn’t able to attend parent night or your basketball game the way they used to. Noise or crowds are hard for her or him to take, and walking around the yard at night might seem odd, but it was “guarding the perimeter” and important in the Army. Building a tank in the garage? It’s just a harmless hobby, even if it is unusual … The demands and isolation that so often characterize the daily life of caregivers lead to sleep deprivation, poor nutrition and a lack of personal time or time with friends. As a former nurse in the U.S. Air Force and military spouse of 31 years, I can only imagine the myriad of physical and emotional stressors endured by those who care for our injured Veterans. Different voices, but a shared story of struggle and resilience Where do we go from here? Many advancements have been made – such as the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and National Training Caregiver Program – that bring to light the critical need to provide support, education and resources to caregivers, and to establish understanding of, and respect for, this role that those who take it on deserve. It is vital for our Hidden Heroes to know they are not alone and to be connected with the resources and community that can address and meet their needs. It is imperative that we do not think that this is someone else’s responsibility. Our Veterans and their Hidden Heroes deserve so much more. That’s why I am excited to see how AHERO recognizes their role and the importance of bringing forward the message that those who selflessly care for our wounded and injured American warriors are performing a vital, noble, but too-often-unsung service to this nation.

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate

TWO GREAT RESOURCES FOR CAREGIVERS: The VA Caregiver Support Line 1-855-260-3274 can connect you with VA services, a Caregiver Support Coordinator at your nearest VA medical center, or just listen if that’s what you need right now.

HiddenHeroes.org is the premier online destination for military caregivers. This firstof-its-kind website includes testimonials from military caregivers who share their personal stories; a vetted directory of valuable resources; the opportunity to join a private Facebook community for military caregivers; and calls-to-action for communities and individuals to get involved. Kristan Nowland



The Aldridge Foundation

We are grateful to Tom Aldridge and his family’s charitable foundation for their support of AHERO and the Veterans we serve. AHERO takes great pride in living up to principles of the Aldridge Foundation’s goal “to provide means whereby individuals can improve their lives and, by attaining their fullest Pensacola Elks Lodge 497 hosts the Aldridge Foundation check presentation. potential, help to improve the community where they live.” Reaching out to connect with Veterans dealing with difficult physical and emotional issues due to military service is central to our mission. Providing them with experiences that reinvigorate and improve their lives is the means by which we seek to do it. In our quest to succeed, we derive great inspiration from the Aldridge Foundation. AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019 15

THE POWER OF OUR INTERCONNECTED MISSIONS From the physical and emotional challenges of daily routines, to the loss of income and career identity that full-time caregivers encounter, a commitment to “be there 24/7” for one whose injuries have imposed tragic disability requires patience, compassion and love.

The Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s Military and Veteran Caregiver Experience Map

delineates the many facets, pitfalls and resources that impact the daily process of those who make such a commitment.

Military and Veteran Caregiver Experience Map Journey begins here

Becomin & adjust g awar e ing

Stages of the journey Finding a rhythm


‘Crisis stage’ has ended and caregiver begins to establish a new normal.

significant changes in loved one

Veteran’s relationship with family and friends begins to change

Identifies as caregiver


Su pp ort

i ng F i n d th m y a rh

Self-identifying as a ‘caregiver’ can happen at any stage. Many reject the term at first, finding it hard to identify with the label

Tries to navigate healthcare services

Reduces hours at work

Pre pa

Key needs • Assistance with physical / emotional challenges • Support managing daily tasks (child care, meal preparation)

Negotiates treatment plan with loved one

Veteran gets diagnosis

re Veteran is diagnosed

Setbacks are normal and occur at every stage of the journey. Over time, caregivers may learn skills to better cope with setbacks, but can still feel like they are moving backwards

• Counseling for marriage / relationship • Seek help from extended family • Recognition that caregiver is an integral part of the care team • Clear communication among primary care team, veteran, and caregiver

Veteran is diagnosed and a treatment plan is formed

• Diagnosis and creation of care plan for veteran • Training to manage the stress • Information and access to financial benefits • Information on employee rights (family leave, etc.)


Spouses/ partners



mil/vet caregivers provide




5.8% POST





Other family members

Friends or neighbors



9.8% 23.4% uncompensated care/year

Source: Rajeev Ramchand, Terri Tanielian, Michael P. Fisher, Christine Anne Vaughan, Thomas E. Trail, Caroline Epley, Phoenix Voorhies, Michael William Robbins, Eric Robinson, Bonnie Ghosh-Dastidar. "Hidden Heroes: America's Military Caregivers." Rand Corporation, 2014.

Key needs • Opportunities for self-care / respite • Navigation to available community services • Counseling for children and family • Counseling for marriage / relationship

• Awareness of resources

• Awareness of individual counseling services • Awareness of what to expect along caregiver journey • Access to emergency funding, grants • Flexibility with work schedule

ve co Dis


FALL 2019

Tipping point at home

Finding balance while caring for wounded, ill or injured servicemembers and veterans

The care plan comes together


Something needs to change!



We can handle this.

A military or veteran caregiver provides a broad range of care to, or manages the care of, a current or former member of the U.S. Armed Forces. Caring for a loved one is a difficult task, and military/veteran caregivers in particular are likely to suffer physical and emotional stress as a result of their caregiving duties. The information contained in Hidden Heroes: America’s Military Caregivers helps us better understand this population.

Caregiver is angry and frustrated—“what’s happening to my family?!”

Veteran/Servicemember Establishes new family roles and routines


Hidden Heroes | America’s Military Caregivers

Tipping point

Researches symptoms

Looks for time, support and resources

• Assistance for reentering the work force • Understanding / flexibility at work

Takes on increasing household activities

Sets up personal support network

• Opportunities for self-care / respite • Increased access to needed services

• Access to a peer support group

t jus Ad

Th riv e

ges len hal wc Ne

Builds network Caregiver begins to establish personal support system

Tries to maintain balance at home

New capabilities allow caregiver to re-balance

Each day is a cycle of understanding and problem solving

• Support for caregiver’s role within the care team • Support for any changes to the diagnosis or care plan

Reac t

Shares experience

Finds rhythm

• Time to spend with family/children outside stresses of caregiving

• Realization that the health or behavior of their loved one is changing • Added responsibilities at home • Difficulty focusing in day-to-day life • Overwhelming uncertainty and stress Landmarks • Desire for normalcy that makes it difficult to seek help Notices changes • Distancing from friends and family • Fewer interactions with family members, Caregiver begins to notice friends, or community

The journey continues to evolve

Connects with fellow caregivers for strength and support

Key needs

Caregiver may experience:

Every day is a work in progress.

Family faces new challenges

Caregiver notices changes in loved one that affect their relationship.


Contacts support

Stages of the journey Shifting priorities & seeking help

Caregiver seeks answers and begins to advocate for their loved one

e it i p r io l p r he g f t i n ng S hi e ek i &s



Caregiver may experience: • Grief or anger about their new reality • Continued uncertainty about the future • Permanent changes to life based on loved one’s care plan (i.e. moving location) • Development of skills to face new challenges • Reliable support network • Return to self-care and personal hobbies • Increased confidence in their advocacy and outreach • Hope for the future, even if it looks different than expected

Stages of the journey Becoming aware & adjusting

Caregiver accepts an increased level of responsibility for loved one’s care and starts to reach out for assistance.

Caregiver may experience: • Changes to day-to-day life (i.e. reducing hours at work) • Management of loved one’s healthcare plan (i.e. scheduling apts.) • Navigation of other support organizations, agencies, and community resources • Frustration while navigating complex healthcare systems • Disappointment that life has changed • Uncertainty about the future • Sense of guilt • Pride in increasing ability to manage loved one’s care

Key needs

Care Coordination

Caregiver Quality of Life

Health & Wellbeing

Family Relationships

Employment & Financial Support

Key moments

Crucial points of learning on the caregiver journey

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate

Nurse, Mother, Wife, Caregiver: Called on to be the Strength By Kim & Matthew Kopsack

Kim Kopsack met her husband, Sgt. Matthew Kopsack, U.S. Army (ret.), in 2008 as he lay recovering in a VA hospital in Michigan from wounds he had received while deployed to Iraq. “I was in nursing school at the time,” she explained, “and was preparing to graduate in 2009.” Matt had served in Kuwait and Korea, and as a combat-engineer team leader and a reconnaissance team leader in Iraq. He briefly described how he’d been injured: “While deployed to Iraq, my unit’s main job was route reconnaissance and IED detection. We had been struck with several IED’s and I had been wounded and stabbed during hand-to-hand combat. Finally, after the last IED strike, I was sent home. I spent a long time recovering in that VA hospital!” As a nurse, Kim understood much of what his care involved. Nevertheless, she knew this was her guy. “Matt proposed and we got married in 2010,” she said. “Eventually, the VA asked me to take over as his home caregiver.” She saw some irony in that, “Seeing as how I was already providing his care at home! So of course I excepted the responsibility.” What Kim said that she has learned over the years is that her husband is “an amazing man.” For his part, though, Matthew had to admit he had a troubled youth. “I grew up in the small town of Manassas, Virginia, always getting in some sort of trouble. Finally, my parents put me in military school. As a result, I got into less trouble and succeeded in school, then tried to enlist after graduation. I was the son of an army officer, so it was only in my nature to do that. At first I wasn’t able to go active-duty due to some hearing issues that I had growing up. But finally, I was successful at getting there in 1998.” A consummate military man, it seems clear that Matt has always had a huge drive to overcome his challenges and achieve his mission. Still, it was Kim who provided – and still provides – the lion’s share of the strength he needs to do this. “She has definitely been a lifesaver in my recovery,” he said gratefully. In 2013, after moving to Florida, Matt was introduced to AHERO. “The organization is instrumental in me battling severe depression and anxiety due to PTSD symptoms,” he said. He and Kim were glad to have this boost to their morale. “Then, after being in a wheelchair for so

many years, I was offered a unique chance at a life-changing surgery on my neck. Of course, I jumped at it. I had the surgery in 2016. It was a success. A year later, I was fully back on my feet!” Kim explained how Matt has worked at trying to function in society and today’s complicated world. “He still struggles with issues,” she said. “Depression and thoughts of suicide are the two biggest. He deals with those on a daily basis. The physical problems that resulted from a lot of his injuries are still hard challenges, too, but they’re actually easier because you can see them. You know what to do.”

It helps that Matt works at holding onto an overall positive outlook. And that he is able to keep his blessings in view. “Between AHERO, my service dog, Sarge, and – most of all – my wife, Kim, I have an amazing life full of joy and happiness,” he said. When asked, Kim responded thoughtfully. “Times do get hard. Sometimes things are hard on the children and can seem unbearable,” she admitted. “But we always make it through. It’s almost 10 years now, since I became his caregiver, and it has definitely been a struggle. But it’s what I do for the man and the family I love.”

Top row l-r: Ashtain Noel Davis-21, Alexis Destiny Davis-21, Adrianna Rosas Kopcsak-10 Bottom row row l-r: Kimberly Heather Kopcsak, Silas James Kopcsak-1, Matthew Jason Kopcsak, Aria Olivia Kopcsak-5, Jacob Riley Kopcsak-3


FALL 2019 17


A Unit of Two: 50 Years as Caregiver for My Marine By Alice Cole

Alice and Everett Cole

In early 1970, I was a young clerk-typist in Dietetic Services at the Montgomery VA Medical Center (VAMC) in Alabama, where I met a badly wounded Marine who had been transferred there from the Philadelphia Naval Hospital in October 1969. Having joined the Marines in 1968, deploying to Vietnam in January of 1969, Everett Cole was among the first Vietnam Vets to be admitted to our VA hospital. He had lost his right leg below the knee in a land mine explosion, had been severely wounded in his left leg, and had spent a year in hospitals. In caring for him, one of our dieticians had taken him under her wing. He would be receiving his first prosthesis, and she asked me to check on him for her. 18 AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019

I went to Ward 3B and shyly asked if he was Everett Cole and said that Mrs. Morton had sent me to see how he was doing with his new leg. After that, we saw each other around the hospital, where I basically referred to him as “what’s his name,” there was no relationship yet. I wasn’t interested, not only because he had long hair, but also because he smoked – a big turn-off for me. When I finally gave in and said I’d go out with him, but the first thing I asked him to do was to go to church with me. Back then, if guys weren’t willing to do that, I didn’t go out with them. Everett agreed, so even though I didn’t want to commit to a relationship, I said yes. Being the gentleman he is, he never smoked around me.

“When Everett’s gone to the hospital, I’m there, too.” – Alice Cole

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate Inevitably a Marine Everett loves the Corps. In 1968, he found out he was likely to be drafted into the Army and declared, “I am NOT going to be anything but a Marine!” Right away, he went to the recruiting office and joined up. After May 22, 1969, when he was forced to leave his beloved A1/1* due to his injuries, he had been filled with pain and guilt. He told me that on the night of his 20th birthday in Vietnam, he was with a young Marine who was hit and burned alive. He never forgets him and all the others who died. I learned quickly that Everett is a trooper, a proud example of what he feels a Marine should try to be. His pain since getting blown up has always been terrible, but he refuses to live any way other than normally. He’d been excited to get that first prosthesis, and worked hard to make it work for him. In fact, he was wearing it regularly within 2 weeks of receiving it! As for me, I had an uncle who had lost his leg when I was 13, so was used to being around someone who wore a prosthesis. It didn’t shock or upset me. By April 1970, we’d fallen in love and were married that July. He started college in January of 1971, and I continued my job at the VAMC until our first daughter was born in 1973. Our 2nd daughter was nearly a year old when Everett graduated college and began working the next day at the VA Regional Office. So we were living that “normal” life. An old injury flares up to take its toll In the 1990s, my husband began to have lots of problems with his left leg, which had almost been destroyed, resulting in multiple surgeries. Knee replacements began, lasted a few years, failed, and were repeated four more times, with his body rejecting them, resulting in infections. We’d laugh instead of cry and say, “They need to put a zipper in that knee to make the operation easier each time!” Still, Everett was determined to finish his VA career, without disability retirement, and he DID IT – retiring at age 55 with 30 years of service to his countrymen. After 10 years of enjoying retirement, the last knee infection caused his body to become septic and he almost died. On August 25, 2014, we became a “double-amputee couple” and have spent the last five years adjusting to that. This hasn’t slowed Everett down. In fact, he bought a farm, named it Freedom Farm, and got a John Deere tractor. And we’ve now finished touring each of the 50 States he gave his legs for!! Everett enjoys helping other Vets get the compensation they’ve earned for their injuries, even though he is technically retired. He’s still most

comfortable around guys who have served. We spend as much time as possible with groups like AHERO, encouraging and being encouraged. The dilemma of opioid use We had 3 daughters to raise and Everett was determined to be a good father – something his own dad had not been. And he is! Early on, he had done his best to control his pain so he could function normally, and for the most part that worked pretty well. Before he lost it, he’d managed okay on his remaining leg while wearing a prosthetic on the other. With long pants on, no one knew it wasn’t a full leg. We were in a bowling league together in ‘78. No one in the league thought anything but that Everett had been a Marine in Vietnam. He’s always been pretty much as able-bodied as anyone – bowling, soft ball, hunting, fishing, boating, etc. But one night as we were bowling, he stepped up to the lane, prepared to roll the ball, and somehow made a false move. Next thing we knew, there was Everett on the floor, yelling, “Alice! I broke my leg! Go home and get me another one!” Everyone was stunned. I rushed off to get him a “leg” from home, maybe laughing a little in the car, thinking about the looks on our friends’ faces. In time, though, the pain became unbearable for Everett and he was forced to have his opioid-based medication increased. Long after our bowling days were over, when the knee replacements were going on from 1993 to 2014, those medications helped him survive the pain. Now with both legs gone, the phantom pains are worse. With the Opioid Crisis declared by our government, the pain doctors told him they would be taking down his dosages. Guys like Everett are caught in the middle of this: docs taking away pain meds, but not offering any alternative solution for pain relief. As for using medical marijuana, it was not, and still isn’t, legal in our state. The Warfighter Hemp CBD oil is on our radar now, as we continue to work at reducing the opioids and having Everett have the quality of life he deserves. The life I live with the man I love My life with my wonderful husband goes on. When the VA or anyone else tries to “mess with my man,” I can get feisty until they “do him right.” Being a caregiver is precious to me. Every day I help Everett as he needs me to, but I’m also all for him being as independent as possible. I monitor his pain medication. And when he’s gone to the hospital, I’m there, too. No one can take care of him like I do. SOP (standard operating procedure) doesn’t work well for us and I have to be there to protect him when he’s sick!

As his hearing has further deteriorated, I’ve also become his “ears” ... listening and interpreting what folks are saying for him. He says his hearing loss is much worse than his leg amputations! We’ve gotten him a cochlear implant and are looking into doing it for the other ear. I learned that using it exhausts the brain because of the attention it requires to convert mechanical sound into understandable information. Reading lips of people speaking is impossible in a crowd or with background noise, so he tends to avoid crowds. We are and have always been a unit. I am Everett’s ears and legs. He is 100 percent disabled with the VA and Social Security, but not in his mind. He receives whatever he needs from the VA, from the power chair that lifts him to eye-level so he can converse with others and go as fast as they do while walking, to the modifications in our vehicle that allow him to drive. We are grateful to the VA for the benefits he receives, as well as thankful for the non-profit organizations who have given him all-terrain vehicles to get him off the sidewalk and into the woods and onto beaches. Because of their help and the joy Everett feels at having other Veterans like those at the wonderful AHERO Warrior HookUp to be with, it all works! *1st Battalion, 1st Marines

Everett Cole tells his riveting story while Dave Glassman holds the mic. Elks Lodge AHERO Warrior Hookup Dinner, August ‘19.


FALL 2019 19

AHERO Veterans

Paying it Forward!

The relationships we make, the smiles we see at our events – these are how we measure success. A great multiplier of each success is the Veteran who “pays it forward” after experiencing the positive impact of an AHERO event. So many VETS are doing just that. For example, Staff Sergeant Kyle Henley, U.S. Army (ret.), attended the Pensacola Beach Warrior Hook-Up this August and wondered how he could contribute. At the event, he heard about the AHERO Warrior Lodge soon to be built to accommodate more participants during Alabama weekend hunts, and this led him to rediscover his passion for land management. Now Henley is dedicating time and expertise to improving the 400 acres surrounding the site of the coming Lodge. In the case of Cpl Josh Burks, USMC (ret.), this year’s Hook-Up experience inspired him to do some mentoring. A fellow Marine combat Veteran had been laboring with his family through the complicated VA claims process, so Burks stepped in to provide assistance and connected them to much-needed resources. Now Burks has also joined the AHERO Magazine team. Welcome, Josh!


FALL 2019

Above: SSGT Kyle Henley, U.S. Army (Ret) Right: Cpl Josh Burks, USMC (Ret)


Thirty-Two Years of Military Service She’s been There, done That By Connie Conway

LTC Madeline Bondy, US Army (Ret) contacted AHERO after learning about it from fellow Veteran Heidi Luke.* Her note was warm but succinct, a consummate American Army officer’s friendly note:

“Not sure what an AHERO Warrior Hook-Up is, but I would like to know more. I first learned to golf at five years old, but haven’t played for about five years because of injuries to my spine, back, neck, shoulders that reduced my mobility and range of motion. I would love to slowly pick up the game again. In the meantime, I have volunteered at various PGA and LPGA events, as I love the game. I have only hunted pheasant once, but have always wanted to learn how to hunt. I love motorcycles but haven’t been able to ride since my injuries, but would love to support [events that support] them until I can find the right mode of transport that will allow me to ride again. Having been actively engaged in Veterans’ issues, I would love to do more to bring awareness of the challenges and successes. As a volunteer with different Veterans organizations, I enjoy supporting and helping them, which is what I truly want to do with my life. Just need to find the right place to start! What she described left us knowing that AHERO was right in her wheelhouse. Though physically challenged as the result of injuries and wounds through 32 years of active service (as we learned later, when we asked), Bondy’s extensive physical problems did not stop her from attending this year’s AHERO Pensacola Beach Warrior Hook-Up after her online application was approved. She earned her sea-going creds with fellow fisher-ladies aboard the informally dubbed “AHERO Chic Boat,” on which she is pictured in a great group shot that you can see in the Events section. And as we suspected, the story of her life and military career was an interesting one. “I’ve lived all over the world since I was three and a half years old,” she told us. “My father was an engineer whose business built much of the military’s infrastructure in South Vietnam. My mom was an educator in overseas US and international schools.” Bondy was inspired to join the military by the many service members she’d met, and by Veterans who were ex-pats like her parents. “I felt a

very strong draw to serve our country and other people,” she said. Her injuries occurred over 30-plus very active years of service. “In 1987, during my first deployment, I responded to a helicopter crash, and after my troops and I removed the injured, the helicopter exploded again knocking me down and causing damage to my head and my right leg, especially to my knee.” Years later, in Afghanistan, she sustained her last injury. “It was July 29th, 2012,” she said. “I hit my head three times while falling, before – unable to stop the impact with the ground – I hit for a fourth blow, landing on my left side. This caused damage to my neck, shoulder, back and hip.” Considering her many exposures to the violence and battering of war, Bondy added with a touch of wry humor that “my doctors are surprised my list isn’t longer!” The numerous injuries and wounds she did rack up left her in major pain. “Eventually, I was diagnosed with a torn ACL, tibial plateau fracture, and dislocated knee,” she explained. Even after extensive physical therapy and sur-

LTC Madeline Bondy, US Army (Ret)

gery, effective repairs couldn’t be made. Added to that were the seared-on-your-brain horrific scenes of war’s conflict. “Throughout my career as a combat MP, I saw a lot of serious injuries and deaths,” said this brave and steadfast warrior. “Some very hard to describe. Stuffing my feelings, disassociating and compartmentalizing eventually led to PTSD, anxiety and depression.” As too many of our military Veterans and currently serving men and women know, such are the very real effects to be suffered and worked around – but always endured – after giving so much to the country they love. Now retired from her long and stellar service career, Brody has moved (“Just last week!”) to nearby Milton. In keeping with their welcoming spirit, the volunteers and Veterans of AHERO will be delighted to know she’s here. *Readers of AHERO Magazine’s spring issue met USAF SSGT Heidi Luke (Ret) in a story by Tristessa Osborne about Heidi and the magnificent Hero, her service canine.


FALL 2019 21


Clinton Cox:

A Therapeutic Community Rebuilding Lives By Connie Bookman

Studies may seem like dull things, but often they reveal something startling that brings attention to an important problem. For instance, while males still outnumber females when it comes to Veteran homelessness, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported in 2018 that women comprise the fastest-growing segment of the homeless Veteran population. Another statistic: America’s women Veterans are twice as likely as civilian women to experience homelessness. On any given night, 40,056 of America’s Veterans may or may not find temporary shelter, but all are without a home – for any number of reasons. Of those Veterans, many are women who have a service-connected disability or have experienced sexual trauma, but have no personal income. They are in poverty.


FALL 2019

Finding Pathways for Change Jane* joined the U.S. Army at 18 to see the world. Serving as a medic for 16 years, she deployed during the Persian Gulf War, taking care of our sick and wounded warriors. Once returned back to civilian life in the States, however, she became homeless, suffering severe depression. After several suicide attempts, she found herself in Biloxi’s VA hospital. Things began to change for Jane when she learned about Pathways for Change. Through that organization’s extraordinary efforts on behalf of individuals in crisis, she was able to enter its Clinton Cox Residence (CCR), a twelveroom, state-of-the-art facility. Their program helps female Veterans ultimately transition out of substance dependence and become healthier, productive members able to care for themselves again.

Mary* joined the Army to escape physical and sexual abuse at home. She provided stateside support during the Persian Gulf War. Today, Mary is a survivor of sex trafficking, very proud to be celebrating 14 years of sobriety. “I’d been unable to cope with society on my own,” Mary admits. “Being homeless and finding myself in the VA hospital for a while, I was fortunate to come to Pathways For Change.” Now she talks about looking forward and becoming more independent as she learns how to handle her life. Jo* served for more than 10 years in the Army. Upon discharge, she found herself without family and with no place to go. Homeless for over a year, she says she slept “all over town, sometimes on floors, sometimes on two chairs pushed together.” She was always on high alert about her surroundings, Jo says, so she never had any solid rest.

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate After her recent arrival to Clinton Cox, Jo recalled her total disbelief at first at having her very own bed: “I was worried the bed would disappear. So I walked back to my room a lot and just stared at it, wondering why these people were being so kind.” Thousands of America’s 1.6 million women who stepped up to serve have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a reaction to a terrifying event or repeated exposure to danger. PTSD can severely affect a person’s ability to function. It can be acute, chronic or delayed, beginning months to years after the trauma. Sufferers may relive the traumatic event like it is actually happening at that moment. In many cases, Veterans are plagued with guilt for surviving an event that others did not. These brave Veterans have made unimaginable sacrifices to protect our freedom. Pathways For Change became aware of the astounding statistics haunting the Veteran community, and launched a loving, clinical program in 2017. The program utilizes a mode of treatment called a Therapeutic Community (TC). The goal: A healthy lifestyle as a productive member of society A TC is a positive environment where Veterans with similar problems live and work together to better their lives. Set up like a large family with the staff representing the rational authority or “parent” figures, there is a chain of command that must be followed, much like in the military. In other words, it is a hierarchy with all residents learning to work together and trust as they strive to earn better jobs, privileges, and status within the community.

SERVICES OFFERED AT THE CCR INCLUDE: • Individual and Group Therapy • Art Therapy • Equine Therapy • EMDR and Trauma Focused Therapy • Psychoeducational Classes • Mentorship • Military Sexual Trauma (MST) and PTSD Process Groups • Yoga and Tai Chi • Nutritional Classes • 12 Step Meetings • Vocational and Educational Counseling • VA Benefit Coordination

The residents of Clinton Cox are learning to trust for the first time in their lives. They are accepting the resources PFC provides and – also for the first time – are applying and receiving VA benefits. They are saving money for the first time for a home of their own where they can live an independent lifestyle. They have a new hope for the future … and the Pathways For Change staff are in constant awe of their powerful transformation. *Names are changed to protect subjects’ privacy.

Connie Bookman, LCSW, Founder and CEO of Pathways For Change AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019 23


How Faith and Love Created a Foundation By Nancy Bullock

The HER Foundation Founder Nancy Bullock


FALL 2019

I was a Georgia girl determined to serve in the military. In the Navy, I met my husband, CWO4 Patrick Alonzo Prevot. I had always been someone who said, “When I retire, I don’t want to just go make money in some job in corporate America. I want to continue doing something meaningful.” But in 2014, retirement came a little sooner than I expected when I got a very unexpected phone call. At the time, I was serving aboard the USS Summerset in San Diego and had just gotten off watch when my cell phone rang. It was Patrick, calling from our home in Florida. He was working at a civilian job, having retired from the Navy after serving for 31 years, and was aware I was on duty on the Summerset. So I asked if everything was all right. Of course, he said yes. But then he said, “I just wanted to let you know I went to the doctor today and … I have cancer.” “I’ve got this” I was stunned. The bells had started going off on the Summerset and the ships all around, so I waited until they were done. Then I said, “I’ll come home.” But he didn’t want that. “It’s just a matter of chemo and radiation,” he said. “I’ve got this.” I have always trusted him. So when he said, “If I need you, I’ll call you,” I knew he would. We talked every day. He went on working at his job helping Veterans get jobs. But that November when I called, he could barely talk. I asked my doctor and she said, “If I were you, I would go home.” With permission, I left immediately, forgetting my house keys. Did not even tell my husband I was coming. Got picked up at the airport – but with no key, I had to knock and it took Patrick 15 minutes to get up and come answer the door. When I saw him, I started crying. He had weighed 225 pounds when I left, but now he was 125. He said, “I knew you were coming,” and to stop crying I kidded him, saying, “Oh, so now you also have ESP?” I did take a job in corporate America, after all. It was what I felt I should do, given the situation. I did not realize that a greater power had something else planned and would find a way to tell me. That happens, but we stuff our ears with our problems and can’t hear. There I was, asking God, “Please help me. I am not happy here.” But not quite listening to him. Mysterious ways One morning, coming into my office, I found a newspaper that had been left on my desk. I am not a newspaper reader but there it was, opened to an article about the increasing number of homeless female U.S. Veterans. I read it but kept wondering who put the newspaper there. Next day, logging onto my computer, another story

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate popped up. Next three days, same thing: all about homeless female Vets. Finally I said, “Ok, God, I get it,” and started researching. I found that it was a serious issue. In the military, you always have that sense of “place.” You don’t really see the problem. I remember thinking, “Lord, you need to show me what you want me to do.” Sure enough, guidance came. I needed to establish a foundation with the goal of opening a residence for women who had served but now had no place to live, no home. Women who needed the support of a temporary home in order to become independent civilians again. Worried as I was about my husband, I knew that getting to work on this other problem was what God wanted me to do. I talked it over with Patrick. He sympathized, but explained there just wasn’t money available. That got to me. I said, “Oh, don’t tell me that!” and went on and on about that “same old no money government song and dance!” He listened patiently. Finally he looked at me and said, “Okay. So what are you going to do about it?” Making it real Being in the military for nearly 21 years, I learned you can’t do anything without structure. So I had learned some organizational skills. Though I was not originally from this community, I was fortunate to find talented Veterans and civilian professionals here who were inspired to become members of our board of directors. And we assembled an advisory board whose combined military and public experience provides us with valuable guidance. Together we came up with a name: The HER Foundation, an acronym formed by the words “Honor. Empower. Rebuild.” They express perfectly what we do. Next, we planned events, deciding first on a “Run For HER.” fundraiser. And we made our five year plan with the goal of having a facility to house our Vets by the end of the five years. It was 2015, and my husband seemed to be holding his own.

The ram in the bush* We wanted to know how much we would need to raise to purchase a house. As “luck” would have it, we had a board member who was a realtor. That September, she called, saying, “Come see this house that is on the market. It will give you some ideas about what we will need.” I did not know much about buying real estate, but when I got there I knew instantly that this was our house. Our realtor asked if she should check the selling price. I was still working on the 501(c)3 paperwork the government requires and said, “No. We don’t have any money yet.” But I was walking around, pointing, saying, “We are going to knock this wall down,” and “we will knock that out.“ So she asked again. Again I told her no, adding, “We are not going to pay for it. I have faith.” By then, I had seen the kitchen and was ecstatic about it and about the size of the house. So she asked again. Now, this young lady happens to be my pastor’s sister. I laughed and said, “You have asked me that three times! I told you I have faith that we are not going to pay for this. Don’t you have faith? Because if you do not, and you ask me one more time, I am going to tell your brother!” I had completed the necessary application process when the owner of the property called and asked what I wanted to do with the house. I had been to the Veterans Homeless Stand Down at the Salvation Army, where my husband was helping out. I had met some female Vets but there wasn’t much for them there, and they barely identified themselves to others as Veterans. That left me feeling heartbroken – especially in our community, where we have the biggest Veteran population on the Gulf Coast. But it also felt like another “message.” So when the owner called that day, I told him about our Foundation and what I wanted to do, but that I could not pay for the house. He asked if I wanted to rent to buy, but I said no

and said we really had nothing more to discuss. He agreed, but then said he had one more question. Did I believe in God? I told him yes, and he said, “Ok, let’s both pray just about it.” We agreed that he would call in three days. Three days later, he called. He had decided to give me the house for HER. A hard-charging, strong man The real work started on the building now called Faith House, while I and my board developed our strategies to get the Foundation up and running. My husband, meanwhile, was on oxygen, fighting his disease but still going to work. There were things that we had decided had to be done at the house, and when I would go over to look, I saw that somehow they were getting done. I never questioned it. Whenever I told Patrick what I wanted to do with the house and the Foundation, he would just say, “Okay.” Even if it disrupted our finances. He never questioned anything. His faith was so strong, maybe even stronger than mine. He had always been this hard-charging, strong man, so he kept going to his regular job until a week before he died on September 28, 2017. The house project went on hold while I and our whole family and many friends mourned. The HER Foundation is launched as of now. We keep going, but there is not a day that goes by when I do not feel blessed by the Lord for having experienced the unconditional love of my husband, Patrick Alonzo Prevot. By the way, remember all those renovations that had been perfectly completed while I tackled Foundation paperwork and planning and reached out to potential HER. supporters? I learned only later that those had all been done by my beloved husband, without me ever knowing. *“The ram in the bush” – Reference is made here to Genesis 22:13, in which Abraham is given the unexpected gift of a ram that solves his dilemma of having to sacrifice his son.

The HER Foundation’s Faith House will provide a yearlong temporary home to female Veterans working to establish a new civilian life. AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019 25


Rescuing the Dogs Who Rescue Heroes By Pachari Middleton

l-r Healing Paws co-founder MSgt Mike Arena, USAF (Ret) with Air Force Veteran Cristy Skitter and HP4A co-founder Sheila Hale

Healing Paws Graduates Scout, Hero, and Herbie

“I’ll never forget that first time a little girl came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for giving me back my daddy,’” Sheila Hale says. It’s one of the many memories she has and why she puts her heart and soul into the charitable organization called “Healing Paws for Warriors.” Helping Veterans heal, Sheila understands, puts families back together as well. She’s a driving force behind the organization, but you usually won’t find her at a podium giving speeches. Instead, Sheila is often in the background, operating and growing the program at the grassroots level, standing close by Executive Director Mike Arena in appearances throughout the community. She is literally on the fringes of the spotlight. What Sheila can’t hide, however, is her love for Healing Paws. It’s evident in her hard work - emails sent out at 3 or 4 a.m, her only quiet time before her family wakes up, then rushing out the door to her government job at Hurlburt Field. It is evident in the countless hours she has spent learning every element of starting a nonprofit and having a hand in every program decision. And evident, too, in the instances when she does step up to the microphone to talk about Healing Paws, her voice catching as emotion and tears well up. Sheila can tell you she’s always got Kleenex nearby, “because I’m usually the one crying in the front.” Sheila is not in the military, but her entire career has been working for the government,

within a specialized, tight-knit community that understands all too well the extra sacrifices made without special fanfare. After years in this community, Sheila knows many of its military members both before and after their deployments. In some, she can see changes, and they talk to her about their feelings. “I’m a sounding board of sorts – a civilian source they can talk to,” she says. When Sheila met Mike, an Air Force combat medic, she saw what she had seen in those others who had come back changed by their experiences. “I saw a darkness in him. Not because he had been told he had three years to live, not because he had lost his family. Not that he never smiled … There was something missing, but also something that he needed to confront and work through.” Mike credits Sheila for getting him on the road to recovery. “Sheila saw that glimmer in me and thought there was something to save, even when I’d almost given up on myself.” What happened next is a whole ’nother story but at the end of it, Mike had a service dog named Orian and a new “leash” on life. And he was working on that smile which was rusty, but it was there. They both realized their passion was helping Veterans, and somehow giving back. Healing Paws for Warriors was born. The mission of Healing Paws for Warriors is to provide Veterans diagnosed with PTSD, TBI, and MST* with trained service dogs free


FALL 2019

of charge. These dogs are rescues, surrenders, or donated, so the organization proudly proclaims, “Save a Veteran, rescue a dog.” The dogs have been given up on, much like the Veterans who feel they’ve been given up on by society. The two are coming together in a healing partnership that saves two lives. Veteran founded and led, it is an organization with first-hand insight into what the individuals in the program are going through. With his service dog, Orion, by his side, Mike trains and personally checks in with his students every week both during and after they’ve completed the program. As a medic familiar with stressors or triggers that the Veterans in training may experience, he knows when to dial it back. It is a grueling, two-month certification course, where dogs and Veterans learn new behaviors on their road to healing. “By doing this, Mike is also healing himself,” Sheila says. “It’s in his soul to help heal others, and it gives him an opportunity to pay it forward. Our men and women willingly sign up for military service knowing there’s a possibility they will be on the front lines. They live and fight like they will never die, and sometimes they come back broken. We want to make sure we’re there for them, so they won’t have to die as if they had never lived.” *The author refers to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Military Sexual Trauma (MST) Pachari Middleton is a retired U.S. Air Force Veteran

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate

The Frenchy Connection Cpl Norm “Frenchy” LaFountaine, USMC (Ret) Veteran Advocate

As many groups dedicated to helping Veterans do, AHERO seeks to partner and share resources with other philanthropic organizations, businesses, and individuals in order to carry out its mission. This is at the heart of its “interconnected” concept. No organization working on behalf of Veterans has unlimited resources. Each has talents, goals and funds. This is where the idea that “we are stronger together than the sum of our parts” comes in. AHERO’s main thrust is suicide prevention in the Veteran community. The causes of suicide are many, so easing the stressors endured by individuals who have experienced a trauma while in the military is paramount. At AHERO, we learned first-hand that one powerful approach to accomplishing this is to bring Veterans together in an atmosphere of enjoyment, camaraderie and fellowship leading to support and problem-solving. Solving the problems life throws at us is no big deal to the average person. But it can be a very big deal to those who are up against physical and/or emotional impairments, not to mention a mountain of financial issues. Here’s one great story that illustrates that, beginning from where it started … and led to a world of possibilities for one much-beloved son. We always ask our AHERO Vets to “pay it forward,” to help other Vets. Someone is always worse off than you are, as we say. One of the AHERO network Veterans, Ricky Mamoran, takes that “ask” seriously. As Mamoran tells it, “SPC Gieselmann and I met on a deep-sea fishing trip about nine years ago. We spent the day enjoying old stories and helping each other with the difficulties we both Lance & Dylan AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019 27

THE POWER OF OUR INTERCONNECTED MISSIONS faced. Fast-forward to 2019, after we had cemented a relationship that pushes well past the boundaries of blood and friendship. Lance is the reason I am still here today. Specialist Gieselmann was the lone survivor of an IED attack on his M1A2 main battle tank. It had left him with his back broken, and his left leg eventually requiring amputation. After recovering from his injuries, his unfinished mission in life was to be a father. “Lance’s son Dylan is currently earning his trade certificate in the advanced field of aviation mechanics and avionics at the Ozark Community Technical College,” Mamoran explained. “Graduation from this program requires a laundry list of extremely expensive tools that neither Dylan nor his dad can hope to afford – not even between Dylan’s job at Walmart, his Pell grant and the Chapter 35 amount he receives.” Concerned that his son might not make it to the certificate he was working so hard to earn, Gieselmann asked his buddy Mamoran if he knew of any assistance programs available to help purchase these tools. “This is why I chose to approach AHERO and its interconnected communities to help relieve this burden on Lance,” Mamoran says. “I knew that AHERO would go above and beyond to


FALL 2019

Total destruction by IED of Lance’s M1A2 main battle tank.

accomplish the goal of getting Dylan the right tools. Once again, proving that they are amazing citizens and military members who have the goals of the future of our communities at heart.“ AHERO did in fact use that “Interconnectedness” to put out the word to the Corporal JR Spears Detachment and L/CPL Joseph Whitehead Detachment of the Marine Corps League,

as well to our AHERO supporters. Together – with one other key Veteran contributor – they were able to make a large monetary donation to cover the full list of high-quality tools needed, thus honoring the service and sacrifice of a fellow Veteran and his family. And as the AHERO special-projects volunteer tasked with seeing to it that Dylan received what he needed, I was thrilled to be involved.

Members of the Spears & Whitehead detachments of Marine Corps League and Cornwell Tools join AHERO to support Dylan Gieselmann’s required for a commercial-grade tool set to start his career in the Aviation.

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate The “key Veteran contributor” mentioned above was Dan Daly, a friend of mine. I knew that Dan, who is a distributor of Cornwell Tools, would likely be interested in this serious young man’s story. Dan is a retired Naval officer in Gulf Breeze with neighbors and customers who are AHERO supporters and volunteers. Hearing about the situation, he wanted to help Lance’s son start his adult life with the ability to launch a “well-tooled” career in avionics. In short, Dan jumped in with both feet. Cornwell Quality Tools has been manufacturing here in the United States since 1919. Cornwell also supports Veterans by offering a program that helps get Vets get started in a Cornwell Tool Franchise business* of their own. Dan can tell you more about that, but in my opinion, it is altogether fitting that AHERO would be helping to purchase American-made products sold at cost to support working American families who donate their time and/or hard-earned money to AHERO. Basically Dan told me this: “When I was approached to help make the tool presentation to

Dylan possible, all that I needed to know were the details. Being a Veteran and a father, I was all-in from the start. I get it!” Lance appreciates that sentiment. “This journey began with a need my oldest son had, and a best friend and battle buddy who knew how to network. My concern for my son was great, and AHERO answered the call without hesitation. Many organizations I’ve had the opportunity to be part of do great things for service members and Veterans, but nothing for their loved ones. That’s where AHERO has filled the gap, understanding that a soldier is often lost without the love and support of family. This organization does what it says and really takes care of our warriors. ‘Thank you’ cannot fully express the appreciation and great honor it is that AHERO thought my need was worthy and not only went to meet it, but continued to go above and beyond for my son.” *For more about Cornwell’s Veteran Tool Franchise Program (“BYOB – Build Your Own Business”), contact Dan Daly at 850-454-5758.

Lance inspects his new blade, compliments of Cornwell Quality Tools.


FALL 2019 29


Rusack poses with U.S. Army Chaplain Chris ch just prior to tossing it cat r monster Red Snappe xico. back into the Gulf of Me

The “AHERO Arma da” leaves the Oran ge Beach, Ala., pass out to the Gu lf of Mexico.

l-r: Chris & Kristan Nowland with Katie & Thomas Crews at the testimonial dinner event 30 AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate

The Beautiful Wharf at Orange Beach Alabama’s premier family entertainment and lifestyle showpiece hosted its inaugural AHERO Warrior Hook-Up Weekend from May 2nd through May 5th of this year, to the great appreciation of attendees. The wide, blue Gulf vista and fresh salt air welcomed guest Veterans, caregivers and volunteers onto gorgeous yachts, charter boats and private fishing craft to exercise their deep-water fishing skills – or to really discover for the first time what the sport is all about!

active duty & participating eer staff and nt ent. lu ev vo er O nn ER AH ial di at the testimon Veterans pose

Art Favre and Krista

n Nowland show off

her keeper catch.

Mr. Art Favre, the boat crew, and AHERO participants aboard the “Work of Art” Viking Sport Fisher.


FALL 2019 31


Here’s how the AHERO Warrior Hook-Up at The Wharf at Orange Beach Went ON THURSDAY, MAY 2: Beginning at 1600, our guest warriors, volunteers and caregivers checked in at The Port@the Wharf. Dinner was served at Blue Water BBQ restaurant. At 1630, AHERO volunteers Brian Leiser and Lee Stucky spoke, welcoming all. This gettingto-know-you phase was (as it always is) both heartening and lively. So many service branches, deployment experiences, memories and new interests to share! Then, at 2100, we were treated to a patriotic light show. FRIDAY MORNING, MAY 3: From 0630 to 0700, participants gathered in heightened anticipation at The Wharf and Orange Beach Marina, where coffee and breakfast biscuits were served. Boats had been stocked with all necessary gear and supplies, and we headed out: an impressive parade of seaworthy vessels led by the spectacular fishing yacht, “The Work of Art,” with its owner, well-known Louisiana businessman, Art Farve, aboard. Under the bridge sailed our armada, all of us new or seasoned sailors poised to send ourselves off with a “group wave” to any envious landlubbers watching us go. The wave is a Warrior Hook-Up tradition, begun by participants aboard the fishing boats at the yearly AHERO Pensacola Beach Hook-Up event. Now, slicing through waves as we approached open waters, our parade of crafts surged and scattered, taking us all ever closer to a chance at the catch of our lives! FRIDAY, MIDDAY: Our boats began arriving back inshore. An all-day Community Awareness Volunteer Tent had opened earlier at 0900 at the port, with lunch provided by the OBA Publix (Orange Beach, Alabama Publix). Meanwhile, a fish drop had been set up supported by the MOBILE BIG GAME FISHING CLUB of Mobile, Ala. Fish caught during the morning were dropped off for weigh-in and cleaning. FRIDAY EVENING: From 1800 to 2100 Dinner was provided by our successful fishing participants, whose catches were prepared, and all were entertained by singer-songwriter Cody James. SATURDAY MORNING, MAY 4: At 0900, The Port @theWharf Community Awareness tent was again open. From 1000 until afternoon was Free Time for Warriors. Many signed up for community-supported activities such as zip-lining, or enjoying the Oasis and visiting the beautiful beaches, etc, by using the link provided at registration. SATURDAY EVENING: 1800 to 2200 – Fish Fry and Open Mic @ the Port - Dinner was provided by Friday’s catch and sides by Jenny Lane. 2130 – All were invited to enjoy a patriotic light show. SUNDAY MAY 5: 0900-1000 – Our Sunday Service commenced the Weekend’s Wrap-Up. 1000-1200 – Fortified by brunch provided by City Hope, preparations to leave began. 1000-1300 – After goodbyes at the Community Awareness Volunteer Tent @ the Port, we parted for home. 32 AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate

l-r: Chris, Ronnie, and Kristan

This one’s a keeper! Chaplain Rusack’s ‘run of luck’ snags him an Amberjack!

Orange Beach Warrior Hook-Up 2019 “Welcome Aboard” celebration

Warrior Hook-Up attendees at The Wharf at Orange Beach, May 2019 AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019 33


The Woman Who Made it Work: A Q & A with Summer Franco By Connie Conway

Franco Family, l-r: Gunner, Reece, Sanders, Mickey, Summer

Summer Franco is an Orange Beach, Ala., resident and businesswoman who partners with her husband, Marine Veteran Jose (Mickey) Franco, in their rapidly growing technology firm, Island Fiber. She is also a very involved mother and citizen. Still, when asked to do some of the heaviest lifting to bring the AHERO Warrior Hook-Up weekend event to Orange Beach, Summer agreed with enthusiasm. Then she went above and beyond to take time for an interview. 34 AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate CC: First – on behalf of AHERO, let me say thanks for the huge job you did for the organization and the many Veterans, caregivers and volunteers who came to the event. Given your full life with work and family, the question is … whatever possessed you to agree to do it? SF: Oh, I gladly put my name in the hat to help with the event. First, Orange Beach is my home. And second, I have a very strong belief in AHERO’s mission. I have watched men and women walk into a room of strangers and, within short a period of time, feel like family. These service members look for places that are comfortable, where they feel like someone understands them and the thoughts that run through their minds. AHERO provides that. So I guess being able to be instrumental in bringing the event to my hometown … well, how could anyone resist? CC: So I take it you were raised here? Did you have relatives who were Veterans or in active service? SF: Both my grandfathers served in World War ll. I was raised in Gulf Shores, Alabama. CC: But you and your husband decided to settle in Orange Beach? How did you meet Mickey? SF: Mickey and I met during the wedding festivities of a mutual friend. He had grown up with the bride, and she and I had become friends working together. CC: Love at first sight? SF: I didn’t have a clue who he was, but I told myself right then I would marry him in six months. He proposed seven months later. We have been married for almost ten years and have three boys. Gunner is 13, Reece is nine, Sanders is three, and Franco Boy number four is due in early 2020. I’m surrounded by guys. Even both of our dogs are males! But, as the saying goes, mothers of boys will always be surrounded by good looking men. At least I’ll always have a dance partner! CC: That’s a comfort. So … when did your business, Island Fiber, get its start? I know it’s a technology company focused on fiber-optic, lightspeed delivery, but what inspired Mickey and you to get into that business in your area? SF: We had sold another company, and Mickey saw a real need for getting light speed fiber-optic service into our area after other companies failed to do it. We had become fed up, too, with basically non-existent internet service. We started Island Fiber to bring improvement. It’s still in its early phase, but has been very well received by our community. Being a resort area, the quality and speed of internet service here is really important. Also, so many residents in our area work from home. Their businesses rely on the service. And children need home access to the internet to complete assignments. So for me, watching Mickey’s vision become a reality for these people is just amazing.

CC: And your role in the business? SF: Well, I just pay the bills and do payroll. It’s an understatement to say Mickey is a hard-working man. His dedication to providing everyone with great internet service goes far beyond what any 8-to-5 job requires. He wants everyone Island Fiber serves to feel they’re treated as friends and family. CC: That’s similar to what drives AHERO. Which leads me to ask: When did you and Mickey learn about the organization? SF: We met Lee Stuckey through our mutual friends Matt and Amy McDonald. We rode over to their farm for dinner one evening to learn about AHERO. They knew about Mickey’s time in the Marine Corps, and introduced us. I think Lee and Mickey would have talked for days! That was about three years ago. Mickey met Dave Glassman after that, and when we attended the Pensacola Beach Warrior Hook-Up that August, I met him, too. CC: Dave is good at spotting a fellow organizer. I understand he asked you to put together this year’s inaugural Orange Beach Warrior Hook-Up event. There must have been so much to do! Did you get to go fishing? SF: Execution was my thing. The list of people in our community who helped on everything is very long. There was a lot of planning, organizing volunteers, getting everyone to Orange Beach and on the boats for early-morning departure. And putting together the program for dinners and testimonials. So, no, I didn’t fish. I wish we had space here to name everyone who helped. But they know who they are and how much I appreciated the work they did.* CC: Any surprises catch your attention? SF: I loved listening to my husband speak about what AHERO is doing and how it has helped him. Mickey is not one to discuss his service. He’s a proud but very private man. Never wants a fuss made over him, but likes to stay in the background. So the fact that he spoke about how comfortable and welcoming AHERO makes these events … that was special for me. CC: You enjoyed yourself? SF: Every single minute! And I’m looking forward to doing next year’s event. Planning has already begun! *The Wharf at Orange Beach Manager Jim Bibby put his staff at AHERO’s disposal to help make this event successful. Jade Hubbard and Sheena Mizell provided information and connections with The Wharf ’s many businesses, entertainment venues and restaurants, and helped publicize the event. We thank them most sincerely!


FALL 2019 35


In prayer with his troops … (Chaplain Rusack in foreground)

The Orange Beach event this year was also where Army Chaplain Chris Rusack attended his first Warrior Hook-Up. The chaplain saw how effective this type of community-involved, volunteer-run event could be at re-invigorating Veterans whose military experiences had left them seriously injured or wounded and too often at risk of succumbing to a deepening, even potentially fatal, depression. Then we heard him noting that he would soon be deploying again. It would be only the latest of several tours of duty he’d served. Of course, we asked for his story. He very kindly sent it to us “with my thanks and blessings.” We think you’ll enjoy reading it. 36 AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate

Forward Beside Them: Bringing Comfort to My Troops By US Army Chaplain (MAJ) Christopher S. Rusack During my first of five deployments to the Middle East as a chaplain, I was dubbed “Pastor of Disaster” by the front-line soldiers of the 1-327th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. Those 15 bloody months from September 2007 to December 2008 in Bayji, Iraq, would later be seen as the worst casualty-producing period of that war. I subsequently deployed four more times to Iraq and Afghanistan with other Infantry and Special Forces units. Before that first deployment as a chaplain in 2007-2008, I was prepared to serve on the battlefield because I had already deployed to combat as an enlisted infantryman in the First Persian Gulf War (Operation Desert Shield and Storm). Finding my path My early Army career had included combat on the front lines in the first Persian Gulf War. An enlisted infantry soldier at the time, it was there that I first felt the call to become a chaplain to our warriors. After leaving the Army to pastor a civilian congregation, I traded my shirt and tie for a uniform again – this time with a Cross on it. Of course, when senior Army leaders see a chaplain with a Combat Infantry badge it’s a pretty sure bet where he will be assigned. Welcome back to the infantry, Chaplain Rusack! I was back home with my tribe, exactly where I need to be. During that first deployment as a chaplain, I walked beside them every day on their patrols, during air assaults and on route-clearance missions, going with them everywhere imaginable to do what the infantry is tasked to do, every single day. I’ve walked with them through the “valley of the shadow of death.” Some I’ve held in my arms as they died, closing their eyes and telling their brothers in arms they were gone. Some of those were young men I had baptized and loved like my own sons. Civilian pastors often struggle with fathoming this kind of ministry. It’s definitely a unique calling, one as painful as any can be. Yet it has been the supreme privilege of my life to love and care for soldiers through every terrible situation.

When I joined the Chaplain Corps I was blessed to be mentored by a highly decorated infantry chaplain who had braved several tours in Vietnam. He left me with words I live by and pass on to the junior chaplains I lead: “Your men will be polite to you, even give you a little bit of respect … because of the Cross you wear, but remember this: The front-line warrior who faces death every day won’t truly respect or listen to you until you are willing to go where they go, eat where they eat, sleep where they sleep; in the mud, the rain, blistering heat or bitter cold … then, most especially, be willing to share the dangers and risk of death they face every day. Do that, Chaplain, and those battle-hardened warriors who would never darken the door of your chapel, or any chapel for that matter, will completely trust you with their lives.”

That old lucky rabbit’s foot: myth vs miracle We are pastor, spiritual leader, confidant, listening ear, morale booster, often even “Lucky Rabbit’s Foot” to our troops. Although I would say it didn’t work like that, they insisted it did. Virtually every platoon begged me to come along on missions. “Stuff ” happened with me there, they claimed. “We find caches of weapons and bomb-making stuff, or we roll-up (capture) or kill bad guys!” You can’t argue with Infantry logic. It didn’t happen on every mission, but it did happen quite often. Maybe a little too often ... Still, I always knew where my brand of socalled luck really came from. I had the Big Man Upstairs watching my six. Many miraculously close calls had happened that should have injured or killed me prior to February 2008, yet

Army Chaplain Chris Rusack in the field AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019 37

HEALING MOMENTS IN FELLOWSHIP they had not. But under God’s sovereignty, even the “Lucky Rabbit’s Foot” can have a bad day. On that particular day, our platoon hit a known enemy village. Huge caches of weapons, bombs, radios and enemy propaganda materials were found. One bad guy left behind was rolled up. But his friends had gone on to “squirt,” meaning they’d left town to set up a big surprise for us on the road back to the base. My vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device, a huge one. Had I been in a HUMMVEE, I would have been killed along with others in the vehicle. But I was sitting by the back door of a newly fielded Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle when the bomb went off basically under my feet. It blew off the back door, knocking me out cold. It broke my ankle, damaged vertebrae in my back, and perforated my leg with hot shrapnel. I learned that it’s considered a really bad day when the chaplain gets hit. From the men in the platoon to the medics, guys wanted to carry my litter. I was usually the one reassuring wounded or dying soldiers. Now it was my turn. I will never forget the concerned look on their faces or the love they had for me. Later medevaced to a higher-echelon medical treatment facility, I was faced with a trip to Germany. I fought against that and won, just wanting to go back to my soldiers. Once I did return, I reassured but also joked with them, saying, “Hey, your Lucky Rabbit’s Foot ain’t so lucky anymore is he?” Oh, combat humor... You gotta love it. Connection that heals So, four deployments later, dealing with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), my own post-traumatic stress issues, and living with scars inside and out, I continually look for ways to help my soldiers and their dear families as well as the combat-Veteran community. Therapy through the VA or other sources including behavioral health modalities and programs are largely good and very necessary. I have personally attended many myself with truly positive results. But they can only go so far in reaching our nation’s warriors. Prior to attending my first AHERO event, which was the Inaugural Orange Beach, Alabama, Warrior Hook-Up in May of this year, I had enjoyed some small, Veteran-focused hunting and fishing trips across the country, seeing their unique benefits. But I saw things taken to a totally different level when I arrived at The Wharf in Orange Beach.


FALL 2019

When boat Capt. Steve Turner said, “Chap, you better hold on,” and then accelerated our boat to around 60 mph out into the Gulf, where I hooked into my first fish, something very powerful happened. Later in the day I would land the biggest fish of my life, and I am a life-long fisherman! But more than experiencing the fight of that monster fish and an adrenaline rush a bit similar to what warriors in combat do, the connection I felt to my boat crew and fellow warriors said it all. The life of an active-duty military member or Veteran can be a lonely and isolating one, fraught with challenges including depression and suicidal impulses. Once home, returned to civilian life, you can lose that sense of connection and camaraderie you so counted on while in uniform. Seeking help and overcoming the stigma of talking about your experiences or challenges can be the hardest part, but it is a tremendous sign of strength. Many Veterans still feel that they seem broken or damaged when they seek traditional treatments. The good treatment programs out there help to mitigate those feelings. Then there is AHERO. I can only speak for myself and from past experiences, but as I was on that boat far out in the Gulf of Mexico, or enjoying meals or other fellowship moments AHERO provided for us, I talked with the dozens of other Veteran and active-duty military members, some with visible, debilitating wounds and injuries, many enduring the terrible but hidden pain of PTSD. What I saw first-hand was the power of the camaraderie that AHERO events inspire. I understood the importance of the ADA-compliant Warrior Lodge they envision and for which they are now seeking funding and support. The Lodge* will make the organization’s hunting events available to even more wounded

Veterans who thought their challenges meant they could never again be part of such outdoor sporting activities. I had literally showed up at the Warrior Hook-Up not knowing a single person. I left with friends for life. What I’d found was that same connection and team unity we all enjoyed while in uniform. We also met the incredible Orange Beach community of “every day” people who want to give back to the military. Kids gave out T-shirts, boat owners and businesses actively participated or supported the event, while local Vets and their families networked tirelessly on our behalf. Organizations gave their time or contributed toward expenses, and members of area churches served us breakfast. The sense of community and connection was palpable, making us all feel loved, appreciated, and – most importantly – safe and at home. Yet the true power of the event was as simple as this: When our nation’s heroes feel that kind of connection, the walls come down and healing takes place. Whether out on a fishing boat, or over a meal and adult beverage at day’s end telling our ridiculous fishing stories, you heard it in conversations everywhere as our deeper stories and common bond were shared. Because of that we all left on the final day feeling strengthened, encouraged, and blessed. That is something very special, something you can’t just experience or replicate so easily in other ways. So a great big “Thank You, AHERO!” for making that possible for each of us who attended this incredible event – even this old “Pastor of Disaster.” *Note: Obtaining the American with Disability Act seal requires builders to comply with standards that enable wheelchair-bound individuals and other persons with disabling conditions to utilize all aspects of a facility.

The Aldridge Foundation

Robert Aldridge, the patriarch and chairman of our foundation, served in the United States Air Force. His service and love for our country have been the inspiration behind the Aldridge Foundation’s creation of scholarships for young men and women who are currently serving in, or have been honorably discharged from, the United States military. We feel compelled to support our wounded military Veterans in this same spirit. Recently, the AHERO organization and its efforts to provide recreational and social activities to our nation’s wounded heroes came to our attention, greatly impressing us. It is our hope that our gift will allow these heroes to heal emotionally and physically. At the Aldridge Foundation, we believe in AHERO’s mission to provide the programs and activities through which these worthy individuals can reach their fullest potential and thus greatly improve their own lives. In doing so, they will also be improving the communities in which they live.

Robert Shelton Aldridge

Our Chairman Bob Aldridge age 86 still reeling them in! AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019 39


AHERO’s Warrior Hook-Up Islamorada & Polk County Alligator Hunt By Lex McMahon

In conjunction with its strategic partner Titan FC, AHERO hosted two amazing trips in August and September 2019 that personify the ultimate Florida hunting experience.


FALL 2019

Warrior Hook-Up Islamorada The first of the two adventures was the annual three-day AHERO Warrior Hook-Up in Islamorada, widely considered the sport fishing capital of the world. In late August 2019, a group of three Veterans were joined by AHERO Ambassador and COO of Titan FC, Lex McMahon, and one of his elite Mixed Martial Arts fighters, Mohammed Usman, Titan FC heavyweight. In the past five years, AHERO has established strong relationships in the Islamorada community, anchored by Caribsea Fishing Charters and its owner/captain, Kenny Spaulding. The group was hosted at the Islander Resort with top-notch accommodations on the beach. During the two days of fishing, almost 80 mahi mahi were caught and all Veterans went home with coolers full of fresh fish.

Warrior Hook-Up participants at Islamorada shows off the catch!

Alligator Hunt! In September, two Veterans led by McMahon embarked on the second event: a two-day stay in Polk County, Fla., for a nighttime alligator hunt on private land with a lake where no one else hunts. ’Gators of all sizes were spotted throughout the experience. This activity provides an incredible adrenaline rush. Our group worked in harmony as a team, managing to harvest three alligators ranging from the smallest, at 8 ft. 7 in., to a monster eleven-footer! Between excursions out for alligators, the Vets enjoyed fellowship and conversation with one another as they sat by the campfire. They shared stories from their past and “relived” together each breathless and triumphant moment of the evening’s hunting adventure. Alligator hunting was established in 1988, due to the growing need for control over the population of 1.3 million alligators in Florida. Previously, alligators were on an endangered species list but they made a huge rebound, becoming somewhat of a dangerous presence. Nuisance alligator removals averaged 7,726 a year between 2001 and 2015. The range is from 5,833 in 2002 to a high of 11,664 in 2006. Alligators are removed when classified as a “nuisance” — longer than four feet and posing a threat to people, pets or property, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. This information is at http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/managed/alligator/data/


These two events were hugely successful, not only for our participating Vets but also for those of us at AHERO. Having the satisfaction of seeing these Veterans, who have gone through so much, be able to relax and enjoy themselves doing something they love is the greatest payoff, and demonstrates once again that we’re stronger together!

R3oyal B arbers N R S orth oyal treet Mobile, AL

Bridgette Jerkins 251.554.0595 Tuesday - Friday 7am - 5pm AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019 41


What’s a Warrior Hook-Up About? Fish, Fun, Friendship, Magic … & Lemonade! By Terri Szombathelyi

I’m a great fan of the popular music group, The Revivalists. As it turned out, so are some volunteer Veterans of AHERO. Which is how I learned about that charitable organization. I was raised in a military family, my father being a Marine for more than 20 years (we did our share of traveling!), and I have uncles and cousins who are Veterans or still serving. Also, the grassroots aspect of AHERO appealed to me. People doing for other people is a life-affirming activity. The level of pain suffered from injuries and wounds received while serving – whether it be mental, moral, or physical – can be best understood by those who have walked in their shoes. The group’s volunteers are always ready to listen to a Vet in crisis, I learned. They invite him or her to step out of isolation into the fellowship of others who have walked that path and understand. They do this by organizing outdoor sporting activities, group discussions and oneon-one mentoring – activities that offer a physical or emotional release that these Veterans and service members may have considered lost. I have volunteered with AHERO for three years, witnessing communities coming together in so many ways. Fishermen give time or offer their boats and fishing knowledge to take the Vets out on the water. Civilians and retired military members volunteer their help during 4-day weekend events, either in the form of providing their business services, donating supplies, or raising awareness or funds. They give freely whatever is needed so at-risk Vets can enjoy a weekend of sun, fishing or hunting, and bonding. There’s the “just tell me what you need” businessman, Robert Gleim, a dedicated fan of AHERO, whose Bamboo Willie’s Beachside Bar hosts the corn hole competition in support of the event. Or the ease and comfort provided


FALL 2019


The Elks Lodge # 497 of Pensacola Beach Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church The Grand Marlin Restaurant • The Santa Rosa Yacht Club Flounder’s Beach Church • Bamboo Willie’s Aloha Grill of Gulf Breeze • Firehouse Subway of Gulf Breeze Pensacola Beach Properties • Surf & Sand Hotel American Legion Post 378 • Private boat owners to all of our visiting participants at the Surf & Shade Hotel provided by their General Manager, Amanda Donaldson, and her welcoming staff each and every year at the Hook-Up. And, of course, all the individuals who work the merchandise table and both teach and lead by example. The core group includes Sandy, Jim, Ken and Kolby, who get the supplies together, and they are joined by Walt, Mouse, and Stu, who help me to get it moved around over the weekend without losing anything but a little sleep. Every year, there are more people who offer time and have the desire and initiative to increase public awareness of AHERO and its mission by selling AHERO tee-shirts, hats, and posters over the weekend. They come bringing their time, sweat, donations, and sheer heart to this worthy cause. Lemonade stands were a thing this year. I mention this because I love lemonade, but there’s often some wonderful “new thing” at each Hook-Up. My friend Mary Summerford has helped with the Sunday work for two years now. She sums it up quite well: “It’s so exciting to see it all come together. It is something spe-

cial in our community, working with other volunteers who do so much is amazing, and how it all helps the Veterans in so many ways is great.” It is both heartwarming and humbling to observe the locals who support the service members and how the Veterans are able to help and support each other. Since 2017, The American Legion Post 378 of Gulf Breeze has been a part of the Motorcycle Escort that starts at the Beach Ball on Pensacola Beach to the American Legion site. The trolley service transports the Hook-Up’s Vets to and from the Legion. The trolley’s rumbling is like the sound of spirits rising on that day. I cannot repeat the word “support” enough. There are many interlocking loops in AHERO’s support system. They have come together over the years to “knit” a sort of safety net to pull together what volunteers and Veterans want to “give back” to our warriors who have suffered through injury and wounds. That is what this volunteer sees and experiences each year. And what keeps me coming back. By the way, did I mention that there were lemonade stands this year?

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate “I’m retired from the United States Army and 80-percent disabled due to a combat injury. I am a soldier through and through. Though a survivor [of combat trauma], I love the Army and the opportunity I got to protect and defend my country. I would do it all over again!” Cpl April Elaine Veal, U.S. Army (Ret)

The Breathe Easy’ s Viking Sport Fishe r was dubbed this and played host to year’s “chic boat” many of our female Veterans.

ght-up” in ark gets “cau

al sh The occasion h. angler’s catc

l an

hen they stea

the action w

“Thank you so very much for this weekend. This was the most activity and interaction I have had with people outside of my house in over six years. For those few days I wasn’t thinking about the stressors in my life. At times, while fishing, I had to go into the cabin to get out of the heat and sun because of the medication I am taking. But that did not hinder my experience. I caught a fish and that was exciting. Most of all, I was with fellow Veterans who did not judge me. They accepted me for who I am. I was asked this weekend why am I taking pictures and not enjoying myself. I laughed inside, because photography is my relaxation/therapy. Without this weekend, I would have stayed home. But because of you and AHERO, I felt welcomed, and that I had a purpose. And that purpose was to take photos. Thank you for having me this year. If there is anything that I can do to help in future events, please feel free to ask. Sincerely, Michael L. Glover Kimberly A. Glover

Heidi Luke slays the massive Amberjack!

Gold Star Dad, Larry Laymon, and Shannon Fell pose with their Amberjack catch of the day.

sports his e dog, Hero, g the Heidi’s servic hile navigatin w ck booties specialized de ng platform. fishi Breath Easy AHERO MAGAZINE FALL 2019 43


AHERO Works By Rick Outzen

In August, the eighth annual Pensacola Beach AHERO Warrior Hook-Up was held to bring together Veterans with patriotic members of our community and provide a relaxed atmosphere that would help heal the physical and psychological wounds of war and military service. Retired Marine, Dave Glassman, described the yearly event to me. “Wounded, injured and disabled Veterans travel from all over the country to join our local Veterans and citizens for a fun-filled, therapeutic, extended weekend on Pensacola Beach.” Why? The daily suicide rate for military Veterans is estimated at 18 to 22, which calculates out to over 8,000 annually. According to a report released last month by the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, 325 active-duty members

died by suicide in 2018, the highest number since the Department of Defense began collecting the data in 2001, and exceeding a record set in 2012. A significant part of the AHERO Warrior Hook-Up is the testimonial dinner during which some of the participants share their struggles with PTSD, depression, thoughts of suicide and other health issues. At this year’s event, volunteer Tristessa Osborne started a testimonial journal to help those who weren’t comfortable going to the microphone to share their experiences. With the permission of those who transcribed their struggles, Tristessa shared the journal with me, and I published excerpts on my blog, ricksblog.biz, last week.

One Veteran wrote that “not a day goes by that I don’t contemplate suicide” and was grateful for the chance to enjoy fellowship with other Veterans during the weekend, writing “AHERO gives us a weekend, a day, a few hours to breathe.” A Marine Veteran who served in Afghanistan wrote, “I have experienced IEDs, have had a TBI, suffer from PTSD and I strive to live on. Suicidal thoughts leave my brain now and that encourages me to participate in AHERO’s program … Here, I am mentally stable while experiencing good epiphanies every day!” I encouraged readers of the blog to share comments. Sue Kirk wrote, “I sent a pretty broken and depressed fellow off on a plane last month to one of your hookups, and I was scared to death as to how he would do, but I had to let go for his sake. He came home so much better in mood, and I could see more of the son I sent overseas than I have in all the time I have been caring for him since his return.” AHERO is not a magic silver bullet that cures PTSD, but it is a difference-maker. Please check out the organization at aherousa.org and consider supporting it. And if you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255), or call 911 immediately. Previously published in InWeekly, “outtakes” column, Sept 16, 2019

Tristessa Osborne


FALL 2019

A beautifully bound journaling booklet was designed for, and is available for purchase at AHEROusa.org. All proceeds from the sale will go toward AHERO’s programs and events for wounded and injured U.S. military Veterans and active-service members.

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate

How Freeing Your Mind and Soul Through Journaling can Heal By Tristessa Osborne

Throughout my personal journey of healing over the last few decades, journaling has been nothing short of mission critical. I first learned about keeping a journal in my early teens; now, over and over again, I reach for this particular tool in my “toolbox” the most. Journaling allows a stream of consciousness to give those internal thoughts you dare not say out loud a home other than in your mind. It’s a vital tool for anyone, particularly anyone with the type of wounds that seem to run at times through the body as if they are life’s blood. Putting those streaming thoughts on paper frees the mind and soul. Instead of being locked in overthinking them we can release them, even if just for a moment. Sometimes a moment can change a life. Sometimes it can give life. Bringing the Journal to AHERO Because I know the power of this tool from personal experience, it struck me one night during a flurry of texts about logistics for the

2019 Warrior Hook-Up, that AHERO needs a journal. Let’s do something to help those who don’t easily speak, giving them a way to be heard. In previous years of volunteering at the AHERO Warrior Hook-Up, I was unsettled at the thought of not being able to reach everyone in attendance. I knew very well that some don’t feel like they want to be “reached.” But perhaps we can capture valuable feedback and constructive thoughts from them – maybe even use those, with their permission, to encourage others to participate who are also on this quest to heal. It quickly became evident that what happened, gave life to a previously unknown void. Warrior Hook-Up weekend commenced that August. It was soon became apparent that the journal was going to serve the purpose of allowing the silent to share, and then some. Throughout the weekend, we quietly introduced it. We left the individual contributors in peace to write and reflect. From across the room at the Elks Lodge one evening, I watched as a mother who

lost her son wrote in the journal, tears rolling down her face. Immediately I thought, “Oh-no! Must. Go. Fix! “ I walked over to the table. The mom looked up and smiled at me, tears still flowing. She thanked us and said she needed a little time because she had a lot to say. It was that moment when I knew that this would be something special for many of our participants and families. Since that weekend, we’ve been able to share some of the stories with you during Suicide Awareness Month (thank you Rick Outzen, Independent News), and we have plans to continue the journaling project on-line and at our AHERO gatherings and events. We appreciate all the heartfelt written contributions we’ve received so far. Your stories, thoughts and concerns are so much of what AHERO is all about, and we look forward to reading more of them from you and others.



Beth and John Schachner Sr,

owners at Pensacola Beach Properties, for donating use of their 4-bedroom luxury condominium to AHERO for accommodations during the 2019 Warrior HookUp event. Your kind generosity was of great help to our organization! AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019 45


A Hunt That’s More than a Hunt By Mark Oliva There’s that moment in woods that comes right after the shot. It’s when the rifle’s crack is done echoing. It’s when anticipation, exhilaration and disappointment all hold their breath. The hunt is about to be over, but for a few precious seconds, it still lingers. That was my moment in Maine’s North Woods this year. I was peering through my riflescope and just yards away was a black bear. The first shot sent her spinning and tumbling. The second anchored the sow. She moved no more. My long breath escaped, held since the decision was made to squeeze the trigger. My thumb found the safety and flicked it back on. It was the culmination of a year’s worth of planning, tempered expectations, and days of rain and mosquitoes. A Vision The hunt actually started a year before. A nonprofit Veteran organization with which I’ve volunteered, AHERO (America’s Heroes Enjoying Recreation Outdoors), had asked me to meet Paul and Dee House, founders of House in the Woods. The two organizations share similar goals. They both engage Veterans to get out into the woods, hunting and fishing, creating networks of support through fellow Veterans. The hunts that both organizations host give a chance to thank Veterans for their service and offer healing and recovery, and rekindle the hunter’s soul. Paul and Dee started House in the Woods in memory of their son, Army Sgt. Joel House, who was killed in action in Taji, Iraq. Paul said that Joel loved being in the woods, so he and Dee built House in the Woods to heal Veterans through outdoor recreation. It’s the same place that AHERO’s founder, Marine Maj. Lee Stuckey, found his healing. Paul offered to partner with AHERO and, with two other Veterans, I joined other groups in Maine. For a month, volunteers – all Veterans and their families – had been preparing for the hunt. They cut trails, set stands, baited sites, cooked meals, cleaned linens and picked up and drove Veterans. They literally did all they could to welcome the Veterans to House in the Woods. Hunt Camp The lodge was buzzing with anticipation. Paul warned that while every volunteer, including the Veterans who are all registered Maine guides, wanted each guest to take home a bear,


FALL 2019

the success rate in Maine is roughly 30 percent. The previous wet spring would make that even tougher. The bears were gorging themselves on the plump berries that grow native in Maine. Strangers quickly become friends in a hunting camp, especially Veterans. Stories are traded of service, dates of combat tours are swapped and eventually hunting tales that have grown bigger through the years are retold to fresh ears. Each morning, the hunt holds promise. Each night, there are the stories of close encounters, “might-have-beens,” and even a couple bears that came in. When they did, hunters gathered to see the harvest and congratulate the successful hunter. They even did it while quietly hoping they were next, myself included. Looking down at the bear, the hunt over, the uniqueness of this hunt struck me. There’s something special about sharing time in a hunting camp, in the solitude of the woods as it goes to sleep. The night creeps in, but the shadows that often linger of physical, emotional and spiritual tolls are pushed back. In the fellowship of Veterans and hunters, there’s healing and restoration. I got to share it with them. It’s good for the soul. A Hunter’s Heart Celebrating a hunt, successful or not, is something with which all hunters can relate. It’s why we celebrate our heritage. President Richard Nixon first set aside a day to honor our outdoor heritage with National Hunting and Fishing Day, observed the fourth Saturday in September, this year on Sept. 28. Across our nation, the fall hunting season will be in full swing. Birds will be flushing, waterfowl cupping for landings, deer, moose, elk and even bear will be quietly picking their way through the woods. It’s the perfect time for all to rekindle their hunter’s heart. Take someone with you. Share the hunt. Make memories. Connect. Find that brief moment for yourself, the one that comes after the shot and just before the realization, the hunt has become a harvest. Better yet, make it a moment that adds to your restoration and that of someone else, that only comes at dawn in a marsh, under the sun flushing fields and the quieting of the evening woods. This is where the hunter’s heart longs to be. Republished with permission from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Inc., and taken from their 2019 online publication’s NEWS section.

l-r: retired Marine SgtMaj Brandon Bragg, retired Army SFC Jason Cogan and retired Marine MGySgt Mark Oliva pose with the night’s bounty. The three who hunted at House in the Woods because of AHERO’s support, were able to harvest three black bears.

Retired Marine MGySgt Mark Oliva was able to harvest a 140-pound black bear sow with the help of House in the Woods volunteer guide and Army Veteran Clint Richardson. Note. Maine has the largest bear population in the United States. The black bear is classified as a big-game animal, and hunting licenses and bear permits are required for hunting them during the 13-week fall season. This helps control the overpopulation of the animal, which can lead to their starvation or to potentially dangerous encounters with humans as these bears seek food during lean stretches of the year. AHERO’s hunts, such as the bear hunt described in this excellent article above by Mark Oliva, are led by seasoned hunters with specific understanding of the rules, protections and dangers – to both the animals and humans – of the sport.

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate

A Son Called Joel By Paul House

Joel was killed on June 23, 2007, his mother’s birthday. On that day, three of the other soldiers who were with him also died. A young soldier with him whose birthday it also happened to be was not killed. Our son was a Christian, just as all in our family are, and we know he went to heaven instantly to be with his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. After he was killed, one of his battle buddies emailed me. Whenever they all came in from battle, Joel would play his guitar, the friend said. Then he would read his Bible and go to sleep. The peace on Joel’s face when he was sleeping after they came in from battle was what helped this thoughtful young man get through the war. He was so kind to tell us that.

Our son Joel was pretty quiet, for the most part. He loved his family and had a big heart. He also loved going to our family camp here in Maine where he would swim in Silver Lake or take his kayak and his fifteen-foot Old Town canoe with its four-horse Mercury motor out on the water. Joel, who was a sergeant in the Army, enjoyed building a fire in the fire pit, cooking hot dogs and roasting marshmallows for S’mores. He would play his guitar for hours, sometimes even falling asleep with it in his arms. Loving the outdoors so much, he hunted, fished or would just go exploring in the woods. I wanted to share his love for the outdoors with his brothers in arms, so having AHERO Veterans on this hunt with us made it special. We made a special bond with these friends for a lifetime.

Paul House, Joel’s dad, is cofounder with his mom, Dee, of “Joel’s House in the Woods”



The Blessings of Friends

What can we say about Pastor Shawn York, Mr. Andy Arnold and friends, and the Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church congregation? Pastor Shawn’s response when word got out that AHERO needed help covering expenses for this year’s Pensacola Beach Warrior Hook-Up weekend was to let his flock know that the church would cover up to $5000 of any funds they donated. Andy then set up a Facebook fundraiser. It so happened that he was having a birthday (52 years young!) and would do his own matching gig: Pastor Shawn York announces his congregation’s $3,000 of his friends’ donations would be matched by him. success in raising more than $20,000 to support the If both were successful, AHERO could count on nearly half of the funds 2019 Pensacola Beach Warrior Hook-Up events. needed for the event. They were. Donations rolled in: more than $8,600 from Pastor Shawn’s generous congregation members and $3,600-plus from Andy’s caring Friends. Added to the match amounts, it came to $20,000 – over the top to cover expenses for the entire event. The Crew of the A-Squared l-r: Pastor Shawn York, Sgt Justin Massellas, USMC (Ret) Col Ken Biland, U.S. Army (Ret), Andy Arnold, Brady Jenneman.


FALL 2019 47


AHERO’s Warrior Week in Denmark, 2019 By By Col James Cobb, USMC (Ret)

The AHERO crew is pictured with Carla Sands, U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, as they joined Danish Wounded Warriors as guests for a BBQ at her official residence.Â

Our week 2019 started with the arrival of the AHERO Team in Copenhagen on Sunday, August 18. Team members came from locations across the U.S., including New York, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Texas and Arizona. A great team was assembled for this trip and lasting friendships were made. Arriving a day earlier than the remainder of the attendees allowed the AHERO Team to explore Copenhagen on Sunday afternoon and well into the night. As a team, we stuck together walking around the city, then returned to our quarters at Holmen, an historic 17th century naval base.

Riding enduro over rough Danish terrain 48 AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate A week of energetic touring Monday, a half day of free time found us doing more exploring of Copenhagen before we formed into teams with other arrivals. Together we were an international group of representatives. From the US, members of: •AHERO •U.S. Special Operations Command •USO Virginia Beach •Explosive Ordnance Disposal Foundation •Danish Wounded Warriors International Law-enforcement members from: •Greenland •England •Denmark After a long, enjoyable and picturesque ride, we reached the Aalborg Barracks in northern Denmark for a two-night stay. After our evening meal, we got acquainted with other Warrior Week attendees during a social hour at the base club. Tuesday morning we loaded up and headed for the Jaeger Corps, Denmark’s SOF Regiment Headquarters. Welcomed by the regimental commander, we sorted ourselves into three groups for the day’s events. Parachute-tower training, jaunts through rough terrain in tactical vehicles, and extensive weapons firing – all activities were well planned and executed. Back at Jaeger Corps Headquarters again, we received accolades for not breaking any of their high-speed toys, although we did drop a few motorcycles and found the deepest mud holes for their tactical vehicles to traverse! After a tasty barbecue, we returned to our billeting area. Our contining battle with jet lag necessitated much rest. Wednesday found us aboard a 90-minute, high-speed ferry crossing the bay to the Weibel Company, maker of Doppler radars that our U.S. companies and military use. In our honor, the company had raised the American flag, and inside they hosted us with a great lunch followed by a tour of their workspaces, and talk on the equipment they make. Off to Jonstrup just outside of Copenhagen, where we donned uniforms and eveningwear for a 6 p.m. departure to the gala dinner at the old Stock Exchange (circa 1600). And what a dinner it was! We were seated with members of the Danish military, law enforcement, leaders of industry, and government officials, as well as with U.S. Embassy representatives and supporters of the Danish Wounded Warrior program. We enjoyed dinner, various speakers and entertainment before departing back to Jonstrup and another social get-together. Delighted to sleep in on Thursday morning, we departed at noon for a barbecue lunch outside Copenhagen at the residence of U.S. Ambassador Carla Sands, who hosted us with Defense Attaché Capt. Michael Biery, USN. Also in attendance were the Danish Minister of Culture and Ministers of Defense (both past and present), as well as other supporters of the Danish Wounded Warriors program. Ambassador Sands’ residence is beautiful, and we were most graciously welcomed to a fantastic meal and thanked for our service and as friends to Denmark. After the lunch and visit, we headed for downtown Copenhagen to tour the city’s fire and police departments and enjoyed waterway tours on Copenhagen’s canals and harbor. We were treated to an excellent dinner at Nimb, a 4-star restaurant within Tivoli. Sustained by the delicious food, we spent the evening delighted by the rides, concessions, and beautiful gardens at this magical park. Opened in 1843, Tivoli is the second oldest amusement park in the world. We returned to our quarters for some restorative sleep, as we anticipated an energetic day on Friday at the Danish Naval Special Warfare Frogman Base.

The sky is the limit as AHERO’s Jonathan Kanzigg experiences the parachute training tower.

Participants leapt from “fast” boat, braving icy water!

The famous Tivoli Amusement Park in Copenhagen AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019 49

HEALING MOMENTS IN FELLOWSHIP Our last day of Warrior Week was by far our most challenging. We “might get wet” was an understatement! A 9 a.m. briefing on the mission of the base was followed by a tour and lunch, and then – wet suits. For some of us. Others stood around in shorts and T-shirts wondering how cold the water was. Zodiac boats and tactical Jet Skis appeared. Familiarization rides on tactical “Fast” boats commenced, at high speeds of up to 25 knots “casting” from them as they sped on. Translated, this meant jumping from a perfectly good, dry boat into the cold water. Initiation jumps were from atop a hanger at the end of the pier. In spite of it all, everyone smiled throughout the day, which saw only one minor accident. “Minor” to me, that is. Likely it was “major” to the person who tumbled over the front of the Jet Ski.

Warriors relaxing on a Danish fast ferry ride

Deanna shaking hands with Lt Col Kåre Jakobsen, commander of the Jæger Corps-Danish Special Forces.

Entrance to Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen 50 AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019

Matt Kunda and Søren Gade

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate

Homeward bound Discomforts (largely ignored) included getting soaked and – for some of us – finding we were not as flexible as we once were. Another enjoyable barbecue dinner and we said goodbye to our hosts. Now finally over jet lag, we headed back to our quarters to prepare for Saturday’s departure. Warrior Week, Denmark 2019 was a great experience. Our hosts went to great lengths to plan and execute this event and it went off without a flaw. Except for souvenirs, gifts and beverages we bought, the cost for everything we did in Denmark was borne by the Danish Wounded Warrior organization and its sponsors. This was my second Warrior Week in Denmark. The memories I stored and friendships I made will last all of my days. Our hosts and the Danish people could not have been more accommodating and friendly. I was honored to be invited. But the highest honor for me was being with fellow Veterans and supporters of AHERO and the other organizations who made this trek to the land of the Vikings.

Veterans and retired officers: Standing l-r: Capt Graham Johnson, USMC , Sgt. Charles Hernandez, U.S. Army, Deanna Smith, Charlie Smith, Col James Cobb, USMC, Ariz. State Patrol Sgt. Matt Kunda, Cpl, USMC , Ariz. State Patrol Sgt. Neil Brooks, Sgt, USMC, Sgt Clifton Trotter, USMC Kneeling l-r: LT GEN Chris Nowland, USAF , Fire Chief Jonathan Kanzigg AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019 51


Kappa Sigma Kicks off 2nd Annual Gulf Coast Golfing4AHERO Tournament at Perdido Bay By Hunter Labbie

Hunter Labbie University of West Florida Kappa Sigma Fraternity brothers inspire local golfers at the 2nd annual Golfing4AHERO Tournament at Perdido Bay Golf Course, November 16th, 2019.

Our “baby,” the Gulf Coast Golfing4AHERO Tournament, is near and dear to the hearts of the brothers the Kappa Sigma’s Sigma-Xi chapter who have held it for the past two years. Now we have done it again – partnering with AHERO on the 2nd Annual Gulf Coast Golfing4AHERO event this November. I had previously hosted fundraisers for charities such as cancer research and 2nd Amendment rights. Now a University of West Florida junior majoring in supply-chain logistics, I grew up with a father who was an arctic paratrooper who trained to meet emergencies in difficult, even hostile, environments. “Always remember to serve those who have served you,” Dad would remind me. I took this stern but ultimately uplifting advice to heart. When we as a fraternity “discovered” AHERO and learned of its mission, our goal was to develop an unbreakable bond with both the Veterans it served and the volunteers and supporters who made its work possible. Each time we attend, host, or support an AHERO event, we leave humbled and enlightened. In addition, the organization has impacted our members in ways that cannot easily be put into words. All year, it works non-stop to accomplish a mission that should be of concern to every American: preventing suicides among 52 AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019

our military Veterans who have lost the desire to live, often because they have lost sight of why life is worth living. A real boon to area Veterans and those it brings from far afield, AHERO is spreading its message. Most recently it was delivered in the form of the spirited Warrior Hook-Up weekend of fishing and camaraderie held at the Wharf in Orange Beach, Ala., in May and then again on Pensacola Beach, in August. The events were both very successful, highlighting for those communities the plight of America’s injured and wounded Vets who may be struggling with deep and difficult issues. The difference between the noble charitable causes I mentioned before and this group is that in working with AHERO, you’re able to see your efforts help change a Veteran’s life and often see the positive impact it has on his or her family. Where community members gather in strong support of a great cause, they become an unstoppable unit – in this case, one often able to save lives. Many of my brothers in Kappa Sigma have family or friends that are or have been on “the front lines” for our freedom. That’s a big part of the reason why we take every opportunity to help those who have been there and suffered for it. But we would not be able to do that if

Hunter’s support of AHERO has been inspired by his dad, U.S. Army SGT James Keith Labbie.

it hadn’t been for some inspiring and effective people who have helped us on our way. For example, we owe our introduction to AHERO to our former president, Aaron Goldstein, a truly good person. As for our annual November golf tournament, it wouldn’t even happen if it weren’t for our host, the Perdido Bay Golf Club, and its fundraiser committee, which includes Zach Slavin, Evan Seagle, Aaron Williams, Stephen Fuller, and Alex Najara. Our undying thanks to all of these individuals. We will continue to strive to help AHERO achieve its goals of giving our nation’s heroes a chance to heal. The efforts we make are generously reciprocated in various ways by the organization, including helping us to advertise our Military Heroes 5K run and recruiting runners to compete in it; allowing us to use their warehouse for making Christmas presents for foster kids; and providing our brothers with amazing networking opportunities. As AHERO grows in Florida and beyond, Kappa Sigma hopes to grow with it. For now I’ll just say, “May God bless Kappa Sigma, AHERO, and our brave men and women formerly and now in uniform. And may God bless the USA!” Note: If you would like to host a golfing tournament on behalf of AHERO, contact Dave Glassman at info@AHEROusa.org

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate

Dear AHERO friends

and family:

new job at to Germany and my e ov m r ou th wi ng challengi ications that This year has been d some medical compl ha I n, tio di ad n . I d) a Comman ERO events: AFRICOM (US Afric d HIGHPOIN TS4AH ne an pl r ou of o tw d r us to lea ccesses to made it impossible fo That said, we have su b. m cli ey tn hi W t. M p and the the Oregon fishing tri ep going strong. rst came the report, because we ke HighPoints courses. Fi e m so ke hi an th er run rath ot elevation In June, I decided to 00 feet), for a 7,830-fo 9,2 of t in po gh hi a (to ain Race point: 8,700 Stelvio Pass 30k Mount Mountain Race (high k 50 0 10 ps Al iss Sw , I ran the in Muenster, gain. Then, in August and down a mountain up s wa It . et fe 20 gain of 6,7 o ran. Also, feet) for an elevation 35th out of the 81 wh in g in m co g, in ish fin eeded at mmit trip via Switzerland, and I succ ermany, we made a su G n he irc nk rte Pa hin Garmisc . on a winter weekend Zugspitze at 9,718 feet e th … y an m er G of p ge for me was gondola to the to K. The major challen 50 at e ac -r tra ul st fir s my eption when The Swiss Alps 100 wa irment (no depth perc pa im n sio vi y m to e ntain, du ut it was a going down the mou I and a brain tumor. B TB m fro s ue iss ce lan ere are ba finished. I look down). And th racers who started, 65 90 f O n. sio vi di e ag y 5th in m ths of training, success and I finished during the many mon t or pp su eir th r fo ily y fam terans. I owe huge thanks to m to support disabled Ve ng ui in nt co r fo O ER ks to AH for AHERO’s and another huge than hPoints raised $4000 ig H 19 20 , st gu Au d nuar y an All-in-all, between Ja en more! Together we can do ev . es iti tiv ac d an ts en ev Loving living, d Family Jeremy Thompson an

Combat-related injuries and surviving brain cancer notwithstanding, J.T. is reaching new heights in the Alps.


FALL 2019 53


Continuing the Fight By Hannah Trevino For nearly 20 years, the local law firm of Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis and Overholtz (AWKO) has been honored to successfully pursue legal cases for our local active-service military members and Veterans, as well as for their spouses. Throughout, AWKO has made a conscious effort to also support our Veterans and their families by following a hiring process that draws heavily from the greater Pensacola area’s military community. Moreover, the firm has undertaken to help preserve the area’s military history. This includes purchasing largely naval-based memorabilia from Pensacola’s fabled downtown outpost, Trader Jon’s, and donating these to a planned maritime museum. The collection was then donated to the University of West Florida. Recognized as one of the top product-liability firms in the country, AWKO’s efforts have recently turned toward representing service members locally and nationally on two separate litigation fronts. The first military-specific case injury claims are related to hearing loss and tinnitus conditions alleged to have been caused by defects in the design of the dual-ended (yellow/

olive) Combat Arms Earplugs used by many thousands of service members from 2003 to 2015. In May of 2019, firm partner Bryan Aylstock was appointed by U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers to act as lead counsel for the entire national litigation of the case. However, the firm’s work involving service men and women and their families does not end there. AWKO is also pursuing claims involving injures and deaths caused by state-sponsored terrorism. Specifically, AWKO represents our military personnel injured by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and explosive force penetrators (EFPs). The main scope of these injuries occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such cases extend past the local sphere to national involvement. In order to succeed in its campaigns to benefit our deserving troops, AWKO continues to hire local Veterans and the spouses of active service individuals. These employees bring a unique perspective to the firm, including speaking the military vernacular and understanding that never-ending list of DoD acronyms!

“The military language is unique, and I understand the jargon,” says U.S. Coast Guard reservist, Marine Science Technician 2nd Class E-5 Michelle Press, an AWKO team member. “Being compassionate has helped me communicate with Veterans plagued with PTSD. I work to help ease their frustration and talk them through the process.” Pensacola is not only the cradle of Naval aviation; it is also home to current military members and Veterans. They proudly represent all the branches of our military. AWKO continues to embrace that community with open arms in a joint, dedicated effort to secure justice for all.



AWKO Law Firm of Pensacola

When the defense acquisitions system fails, the warfighter can be severely impacted. When the process reveals poor decision making or deception, it can require a strong legal team to defend against wrongdoing and provide recourse for damages and/or suffering. AHERO extends appreciation to the Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis & Overholtz (AWKO) Law Firm of Pensacola for its extensive and continuing litigation work on behalf of our service members and Veterans. During this process, AWKO learned about AHERO and supported its mission to reduce suicide through outreach, event programming, and building strong relationships that can be counted on during dark and difficult times. 54 AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate

A Letter from North Carolina to AHERO By Mackenzie Shuford

Dr. MacKenzie Shuford, DC with her daughter Blair and celebrity guest, Jon Stewart at the 2019 Warrior Games in Tampa, Fla.

Thank you so much for the ama zing opportunity to provide care to the athletes at the Warrior Games. I am a chir opractor in North Carolina, the daughter of a Marine Veteran and wife of an active-d uty Marine currently serving with MARSOC. My entire life has been affiliated with the military … as such, I have an affin ity for the challenges that our military – especially our Veterans and “Wounded Warrior s” – face. I would characterize my life as an active lifestyle competing in coll egiate and PRO-AM soccer and working through the injuries and physical training nec essary to compete. This year I had the experience of a lifetime. AHERO supported my volunteer service to Team SOCOM during the 201 9 DoD Warrior Games in Tampa, Florida. During the games, I met and treated some of the nation’s finest men and women. These athletes and warriors, while faced with personal challenges, demonstrat ed positive attitudes, strength, resilience, and kindness ever y minute of ever y competition day. Although they were competing against each othe r, they operated as a team with the highest degree of sportsmanship. During my time at the competi tion, as a result of support from AHERO, I was able to provide nearly 100 trea tments in both soft tissue Act ive Release Technique and chiropractic adjustment. Some days my schedule wen t from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. providing approximately 30-minute treatments for each athlete. In many cases, the athletes had never been exp osed to this type of treatment and repeatedly mentioned how I relieved their pain and prep ared them for, and supported thei r recovery from, the competition. Some received dail y treatments, others periodic one s. Meeting each one was an experience I’ll never forg et. The athletes were absolutely ama zing. One thing that I heard dur ing the opening ceremony really stuck with me: “These men and women did not let their worst day define them.” I will never forget my time treating these brave men and women, and I am so thankful for the support that AHERO pro vides. Sincerely Dr. Mackenzie Shuford, DC

Dr. Shuford’s grateful athlete participants, such as the two below, sent their appreciation: an amazing ”) Shuford is ax “M ka (a have my back Dr. Mackenzie en nervous to be s ay w al ve ha wer back . She chiropractor! I d disks in my lo te ia rn he a of e tened to my adjusted becaus y injuries and lis m n io at er id ns co ain priority was really took into tention. My m at ed ed ne at th arrior Games problem areas my events at W l al in te pe m co e by stretching to be able to . She helped m ck ba y m g in at tches to do on without aggrav en gave me stre ev d an ly gh ou or g me win 4 gold my muscles th hand in helpin a d ha ly ite fin am SOCOM, my own. She de perfect fit for Te . A ze on br 1 d an Dr. Max at our medals, 1 silver, … I hope to see go r he e se to d the team was sa titions. mps and compe ca ts or sp re futu

Dr. Mackenzie did an amazin g job for us at Games in Tam the Warrior pa, Fla. this pa st summer, 20 and tired from 19. We were so competing in re our daily even assisted us in ts, and Macke between and nz ie af te r our events. blessed to ha We were trul ve her suppor y t us with Team you for adding SOCOM. Than her to our Ada k pt ive Sports prog to see her agai ram, and hope n. Leticia Vega Team SOCOM

ng Chief Phillip Fo M Team SOCO AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019 55


Bringing My Art to AHERO By Austin Owens Five years ago, I learned about AHERO while working on live performance music video projects with my partner, Destyn Patera, at Lenseafilm, LLC. Our client held a board position with the non-profit Veterans support organization and we got into a discussion about my passion for graphic artistry. He asked me to create a poster for the AHERO Warrior Hook-Up weekend event that would bring together wounded service members and Veterans as a way to help them heal. Art – in particular, illustrating – has always been a part of my life. I had started a business, Bostastic Art, and was creating artwork professionally. The idea of taking part in a project that could help an important cause such as bringing down the skyrocketing rate of Veteran suicide was exciting. I decided to get involved. Though I am a civilian, I have always been very patriotic. My family has a history of military service, including my grandfather, a Marine, and his father who was in Patton’s Third Army. My mother’s dad served, too. He was in the Navy for many years. So I was raised with deep appreciation and respect for the men and women who have served, and I have always looked for ways to show it. Now AHERO was offering me an opportunity to use my art and video production talent to do so. Along with the poster I would create, Destyn Patera and I were asked to make a video testimonial of AHERO’s 2016 Pensacola Beach Warrior Hook-Up. The result proved to be a perfect “memento” for those who attended to share with friends and family the many healing moments of connection and support they and

Austin’s creative talents extend far beyond his digital artistry. His work in the film industry, alongside his partner Destyn Patera, can be appreciated at Lenseafilm.com. 56 AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019

fellow Veterans felt and witnessed during the event. The video can still be viewed at AHEROusa.org. One Vet, SSgt James Calloway, US Army (Ret), who lives in Missouri, stood to tell his dramatic story on camera about downing bottles of pills in a pain-and-depression-driven suicide attempt. A spinal-cord and brain injury had forced him into medical retirement after serving for 19 years. Only his text message to someone he’d met a thousand miles away at an AHERO event had managed to result in help getting to him in time.

Through this organization, I’ve met amazing individuals who, despite a mountain of adversity, still strive to better themselves and help those in need. Guys like Dustin Tuller, whose bravery and battle wounds during 2003 in Iraq resulted in three Purple Hearts but cost him his legs. Or Dave Riley, a man of astonishing courage who forges on through life helping other Vets despite the loss of his limbs. At the 2019 Warrior Hook-Up, I also met Veteran Keith Ockimey, a motivational speaker who helps Veterans rebuild their confidence and find their purpose in life. Keith sat talking

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate

with me for the better part of two hours while I signed posters. A writer and extremely creative person, he shared thoughts as he jotted down notes for me to keep that were intended to help me grow as an artist. Despite all he had been through and the fact that we were here to support and celebrate wounded Veterans, Keith took the time to talk to this civilian about things that were important to both of us and what we would both like to get out of life. It was a very human moment in which two people from very different backgrounds were able to relate and share thoughts about life and creativity. I will always be thankful to Keith for his service, and for those couple of hours he spent chatting with me. I have been humbled and inspired by my experience with AHERO. I hope that I can continue to grow with their volunteers and Veterans who are so dedicated to supporting the brave men and women who have served and sacrificed for this nation I love so much.


FALL 2019 57


The Jewel on the Bay: Veterans Memorial Park of Pensacola

The character of the greater Pensacola area reflects not only the presence of so many of the nation’s current, retired and Veteran defenders, but also the strength of its military infrastructure. All have a home in this iconic American community of diverse people whose love of country is sometimes vocal and sometimes quiet but always unmistakably there. If its widespread community contains the prose of Pensacola, the Veterans Memorial Park of Pensacola can be said to express its poetry. Walk in and monuments of exquisite statuary seem to appear before you unexpectedly, each an accurate depiction of its time. Carved expressions draw you in, detailed as they are to convey the bleak weariness yet dogged determination of warriors in battle or standing watch. In the stillness of evening, the Park is bathed in light under a sky it shares with the wide world beyond its place on the rim of Pensacola Bay. But by day the scene often shifts to one of solemn ceremonies of remembrance. On those days, speakers rise to caution us to never forget that peace and freedom are hard won, and that proof of this lives here, in this place, and in the lives of those who serve and the hearts of those whose loved ones served but never came home.


FALL 2019

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate

Pensacola Firefighters on crash fire rescue alert as U.S. Marine Corps UH-1Y and AH-1W helicopters prepare to land in support of the 2019 Marine Aviation Memorial Placement Ceremony.

Marine Corps Brigadier General Adams and Colonel Johnson console families of the fallen at the Memorial Bell Tower brick-placement ceremony, 17 May 2019. AHERO MAGAZINE FALL 2019 59


Colors change. Fear, longing and brave facades are shared by family e th r e d n u e k li a s d n ie fr d n a blue star banner. e th n o k c o n k d te c e p x e n u n A door, blue turns to gold. Tragedy, pain and loss overwhelm. e ic rv se f o r a st e lu -b e u tr e Th r becomes a polished gold sta of sacrifice. 60 AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019

Woody is pictured here, executing a salute.

“It is very emotional, and a little bit amazing to them that they have something that represents the sacrifice of families, which has never existed in our country before.” Hershel Williams, MOH recipient

and founder of the Hershel “Woody”

Williams Medal of Honor Foundatio

n, describing the reactions of Gold Star

Families to the placement of monume


in their honor at Veterans memoria

parks across the nation.


AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate Breaking Ground: I Join Our Gold Star Families Making a Place to Honor Our Loved Ones By Lynn Feehan

I met Dave Glassman, a member of the Gulf Coast Gold Star Monument Committee, in 2018. At that time, he asked me to speak as a Gold Star Mother at Operation Song on Pensacola Beach. Dave explained that his involvement was focused on the efforts to erect a Gulf Coast Gold Star Families monument at the Pensacola Veterans Memorial Park. The monument, Dave said, would be a tribute to those who had sacrificed a loved one as a result of service in our armed forces. A few years earlier, on Veterans Day in November 2015, immediately following my Air Force Veteran son’s death, I had attended the day’s events at the Park for the first time. After

the ceremonies, I was approached by a recruiter who asked if I had any children who would be interested in serving in the military. I was completely speechless and ended up rudely walking away without saying anything. That previous Veterans Day had been the last one I could tell my son in person that I was proud of him. I later realized that being part of the Gold Star Committee and its monument project would allow me to have the voice I was missing. This project is for the population that mourns in silence. It will provide unity and comfort for all who will visit the Park in the future. Please know that there are many others who are like us out there. And that, here at Veterans Memorial Park of Pensacola, our Gulf Coast community

has come together to give a tribute to us, the family members left behind, as well as to honor our lost service member. The strength and determination of the committee members is inspiring. It was truly an honor to be part of the groundbreaking ceremony, and to meet Medal of Honor recipient, Mr. Hershel “Woody” Williams, who at 93 years of age is the last surviving true hero of the Battle for Iwo Jima. An American hero in every sense of that designation, Mr. Williams has spent many years working to honor the Gold Star Families. Now I look forward to the dedication ceremony when the monument has been completed, and to seeing Mr. Williams again.

CWO4 Hershel “Woody” Williams, USMC (Ret) MOH and Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson participate in the Gulf Coast Gold Star Families Memorial Monument Groundbreaking ceremony, 26 May 2019. AHERO MAGAZINE FALL 2019 61

HONOR REVERED, LOVED ONES REMEMBERED Below are portions of an article on Purple Heart recipient CPL J.R. Spears, USMC, whose death marked the 2000th U.S. warrior killed in Iraq. The article was published soon after his death.

Overwhelmed by Grief, Lifted by a Nation A fallen Marine’s family finds they’re not mourning alone Lesley Conn@PensacolaNewsJournal.com

The letters and the packages come from all over the country, sometimes in bundles and bags. Some are addressed only to “The Spears Family, Molino, Fla.” A few weeks ago, a stranger left a Marine condolence album tucked behind the family’s screen door. Another week, a fourth-grade class at Gulf Breeze Elementary School sent letters of sympathy, the wobbly writing paired with hearts, flowers and other crayon art. Letters, albums, Marine mementos -- they all find their way to the small home on Molino Road, where a family is overwhelmed by its grief. Jonathan Ross “J.R.” Spears, 21, was killed Oct 23 [in 2005] in Ramadi, Iraq, by a single gunshot wound as he scrambled toward a buddy wounded by a grenade. J.R. was the first-born of Marie and Tim Spears. Their only son. Spears was the 2,000th military fatality in Iraq, according to the Web site Iraq Coalition Casualties, which tracks Department of Defense death reports chronologically. On a global scale, death No. 2,000 was a marker, a time to contemplate the war and the sacrifices being made by American military forces for people in a faraway land.

Woody delivers the Honor & Remember Flag to Mr. Tim Spears in honor of Cpl JR Spears, USMC and JR’s Mother, Marie Spears.

For the Pensacola area, Spears’ death brought the war home like nothing before. He was the first combat fatality from Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. The intense young man who stares back from his official Marine photo grew up in Molino, played four years on the Tate High School football team’s offensive line and was a Subway sandwich maker at the eatery on Nine Mile Road. “I think everyone can see their son or their grandson in J.R.,” said his uncle, Ed Spears, 35. “Our community is really close, so you know someone like J.R. It’s a part of you.” As a 6-year-old, he [J.R.] became fascinated with President John F. Kennedy, even dressing up in a suit to give a school report so that he might better resemble the president … He graduated from Tate in 2002, but his football weight - 265 pounds - made him too heavy for the Corps. By 2003, he had lost 60 pounds and made it through boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. He embraced every tradition, every instruction imparted there. Among the personal effects in his wallet, along with two worn pictures of his sisters, his family found a weathered “honor” card that all Marines receive in boot camp. The card defines honor, courage and commitment and serves as a constant reminder of Marine standards. When J.R. died, he was on the last day of a six-day patrol with India Company, Third Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment. He was leading a small team when it came under attack. His commander, Capt. T.R. Hickman, told his family in a letter that J.R. was respected and loved by his subordinates, peers and seniors. “In our organization, there are many good Marines and several great Marines, but only a few leaders of Marines,” Hickman wrote. “Your son was truly a leader of Marines. “ J.R., who had been in line for promotion to corporal, received the rank posthumously. He also was awarded the Purple Heart. It rests in the family room, near a set of his dress blues with their newly stitched corporal stripes, the flag that draped his coffin and the family beach portrait that he insisted on the last time he was home on leave.

Copyright 2003-2015 Q Madp PO Box 86888 Portland OR 97286-0888


FALL 2019

A Note to a Be


ed Son from His J.R ., This June Dad 30th you will b e 35 years old know you and in heaven. I your mom will be celebrating. about the 14 ye I st ill think ars, so far, that you have misse Things like seei d out on. ng your sisters graduate H.S. their college ca and start reers, and finis hing your colle so you could b ge degree ecome an office r in the Marin think by now yo e C or ps. I u would be mar ried with a kid You would’ve b or tw o. een a great dad . I know your si you terribly an sters miss d wish you wer e still here for talk to. I miss ta them to lking to you ab out cars, music, just life stuff. I gi rls and am still so sorr y for ever ythin missed out on g you have . But what has kept me going years is the fact all these that I know yo u were doing w loved. I know hat you you loved the Marine Corps being a Marin an d loved e. I love you, So n, with all my heart. Happy Birthday !!! Love, Dad

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate

My Gold Star Journey By Lynn Feehan

Shane’s first Air Force picture

Becoming a Gold Star Mother begins long before you ever heard the term. It begins first with pride and hope. Pride that your child has chosen to join the armed forces and is prepared to defend this country as so many others have done since 1775. Hope that this road will provide your son or daughter with a sense of honor and purpose, and that they will develop the life skills and leadership qualities that are so available for them to learn in the military.

The rest of this particular journey is different for everyone, but the end result is the same: Someone loses a child. My family’s military history began with World War I, in which my great-grandfather earned a Purple Heart. Through the following generations, we had family members enlisted in all branches of the service. With strong ties to the military on both sides, it came as no surprise that my 19-year-old son, Christopher Shane Riordan, decided to join. In November 2004, he landed in the United States Air Force, assigned to Security Forces. Over the nine years and four months spanning Shane’s military career, he received a dozen medals, including the Air Force Achievement Medal, the Iraq Campaign Medal with two service stars, and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal. In addition, he regularly took college classes, and he rose to the rank of staff sergeant. He loved the Air Force. By the age of 24, Shane had served two tours in Iraq, for a total of 18 months. When he returned from the last year-long deployment, he began seeing a military doctor for chronic pain, insomnia, anxiety and depression, and was introduced to a wide assortment of addictive opioid drugs. As his military career came to a close at 28, the Veterans Administration diagnosed him with PTSD. This agreed with an independent psychologist’s diagnosis earlier that year and completely contradicted his superior officer’s assessment that “PTSD isn’t a real thing.”

My son died 14 months later, following the funeral of my father, a retired Air Force master sergeant. Shane was three months shy of his 30th birthday. Among those left behind were his two beautiful little girls. As with all who have lost a loved one, it was, and still is, indescribably heartbreaking. While I knew his death was attributed to military service, Shane was not in the military at the time of his death, so there was no one to reach out to for guidance. I wasn’t even sure he could have a military funeral (as it turned out, he did), nor did I know he could have been laid to rest at Barrancas National Cemetery nearby, Pensacola (he was not). Seven months later I received a certificate award from President Obama honoring Shane for his service. Then, three years after Shane’s death, Dave Glassman called me a Gold Star Mother for the first time. Now I have a community to share with and help.

Shane with daughters MacKenzie and Madison.

Shane’s Shadow Box

Shane with his grandmother, Sherry Van Dyk AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019 63


Stepping up in Memory of Brandon By Justin Faur

About two years ago, friends of my family lost their son to an overdose of drugs he’d turned to, to help escape whatever demons he was dealing with. Brandon Demko was 32, a Marine who had served in Iraq. Though he came from another city in Michigan, Brandon and I had always known one another because our fathers were in the same “oldies” band together. But apparently he had come home completely changed, suffering from severe PTSD. His parents had been taking him to New York and other cities, seeking treatments such as electroshock and whatever else they could find. In high school in my own hometown of Redford, Mich., I had considered joining the Marines like Brandon had done. But for some reason, after graduation I chose not to. I’d always loved sports and played baseball and ran track in high school, yet I also turned down scholarships to be a collegiate athlete. Clearly unsettled on what I wanted to do as a career, I took a few years off, then opted to go to a tech school, which turned out not to be right for me, either. My love of sports had never stopped. I’d continued coaching young teams, and playing softball myself. Realizing this was my path, I entered Central Michigan University, changed my major to sport management with a minor in athletic coaching, and am now pursuing a master’s in sport administration. I also ran a Tough Mudder, a charity-based challenge. Soon I discovered that I had a parallel path with sports to follow in life: linking my love of physical challenge with my desire to help others. Joining the mission I am a firm believer that things in life happen for a reason. In 2017, as I signed up for my second Tough Mudder, one of the charities they listed caught my attention. Its acronym, AHERO, stood for “America’s Heroes Enjoying


FALL 2019

Recreation Outdoors.” I checked out AHEROusa.com, and read about what they do and why they do it, which is to help stop the incidence of suicide among our hurting, wounded Veterans. It hit home. I had other friends and some family members in the military at the time, and many of my cousins, uncles, and grandfathers had also “joined up” at one time or another. Our neighbor, “Mr. Jim,” was a WWII Vet who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, something I’d only found out at his funeral. I wanted to get behind the AHERO mission, to help not only those close to me but others who might fall into the statistical category of the returning Vet who has been seriously wounded and feels depressed and isolated. Brave Americans at risk of taking their own lives. I was onto something important, I was sure! I’ve been with AHERO ever since. For a required class project, I worked to bring attention to the organization, naming an at-home CMU volleyball match “Military Night.” We sold T shirts that said, “Fire Up Troops,” netting $300 for AHERO. Soon I was inspired to put on two Golfing4AHERO events and a charity bowling challenge called Strikes4AHERO. Strikes4AHERO has been my most successful event to date. “This is all I have” It can be hard work and pretty draining trying to juggle college, a job and a charity event at the same time! But it’s for the Vets that AHERO is trying to help by keeping them engaged in activities they love. The satisfaction in doing that is unmatched. So I don’t want to stop. I want to continue raising money and bringing awareness to what AHERO is all about, and to get more people to join us – not just from my college but from my community as well. During a Strikes4AHERO event, something happened that reminded me of why I want to do this for those who have fought for my free-

LCpl Brandon Demko, USMC

dom to do such things. While passing out raffle and 50/50 tickets, a gentleman asked me why I was doing it. I told him about AHERO. He’d already bought some tickets, but then he pulled out a $20 bill and said, “This is all I have in my wallet, but I want you to add it to the funds for AHERO. I am a Veteran, and I suffer from PTSD.” “Once a Marine … ” Even as I type this story, I am moved by that gentleman’s words and the look I remember in his eyes. And by the memory of our friend, Brandon, who suffered through so much – a family’s son I wish I could have helped the way AHERO is helping his fellow Veterans right now. His family’s loss is profound. But they reminded me that being a Marine serving his country had been so important to Brandon. “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” his parents said. Brandon had loved that honor.

AHERO Needs You! - AHEROUSA.org/donate

Part 2

Q & A with Pete McKanna: Continued from Part 1 in Spring/Summer issue of AHERO Magazine By Dave Glassman

Apache outside “If we weren’t at Fort n Marble and of Da Nang, betwee traveled over Monkey Mountains, we , Hue,Quangto Laos or up to Khe Sanh Ho Chi Minh Tri Province, and the e in the bush Trail. We learned to liv ... Charlie was and survive off the land Missions were always looking for us. y, take out this always ‘head to this cit e, head over to building, destroy a villag moving.” that area.’ We were always – Pete McKanna From Pete’s story, Part 1

DG: Was there much more kinetic engagement during this tour? PM: [Nods] Much more than my first tour, which was bad enough. This time, we were using weapons of all types. There was a lot of personal contact with the Charlie. We used crossbows and knives – very quiet – in order to make our approach in specific approaches. In camp, we were always cleaning weapons, field training new Marines, learning new procedures, and physical training. Learning to eliminate someone without sound. I never promised my guys I’d get them all home alive, but I would get them all home. DG: Most people don’t realize you lost part of your left leg during your last mission on Christmas Day. Can you describe the day when it happened? PM: Sure. [Points to a nearby parked car.] It’s as clear in my mind as the color of that car. We were on a search-and-destroy mission into a village. It was a hot zone, and we knew it.

DG: So, when your first tour in Vietnam ended, you got to go home? PM: No, I never went back home. Spent about two months at MCAS, Kaneohe Bay & Camp H.M. Smith Hawaii, a month on the North Shore enjoying some R and R. We were assigned to training classes, security details, I was an instructor for weapons class for the M-60 & 50 machine guns. Buying time trying to decide what to do next. A lot of officers tried to talk us out of going back. I guess they had their reasons. DG: But you went back anyway. When was that? PM: January 1970. We came into to Da Nang on military aircraft. I was assigned to Kelo Company, located in the area of Monkey and Marble Mountains, our secondary base. DaNang was primary. We seldom stayed there, our job was out in the bush. We’d set up camp but never for more than one night because the VC and enemy villagers would learn right away where we were and come calling. DG: Hopefully there was good leadership? PM: The highest officers we had were majors and captains. Lieutenants came and went very fast. Machine guns and gunnies. Officers would come in hoping to leave in three months, six months – try to change all sorts of things we were doing, and then depart. They didn’t have to do much but stay in camp, give orders, most of which weren’t followed. But there was a lot of SNCO leadership. I cherished the learning time with them, and I passed it on to my guys. You started as a corporal and then got promoted by your CO to sergeant. I was promoted ... then I put the stripes in my pocket and moved out on patrol.

Recruit training graduation photo of Sgt Pete McKanna, USMC (Ret) AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019 65

PART 2, MCKANNA FOR AHERO MAGAZINE A hot zone both in personnel and abundance of weapons and ammo. It was a large village. Most were not that large, but this one was, and heavily occupied, but it required destroying. DG: A lot of Marines?

DG: But still inside the cemetery? PM: Yeah. I was thrown up and back. As I came down, my body was somewhat horizontal and began hitting headstones. Then all hell broke out. That mine had set off a warning to the VC and villagers. By the time we were halfway through, they were prepared. They knew we were coming.

PM: Three squads, all positions. My squad was going in the “back door,” a cemetery. We called it that because of its proximity to the village. The other squads were on the flanks. We had heavy weaponry from another company on the north side – tanks and weaponized vehicles. So we had it covered. My greatest fear was controlling crossfire, because it was a 360 attack. But me in a great moment of wisdom decided with the back-door approach, we could be inside the village first, before the other guys. So we came out of a tree line and started in. We’re about halfway through the cemetery where I’m flanked by my radioman and a machine gunner. The others are spaced out in parallel formation. I never allowed my guys to stay close. Grouping provided a larger target for Charlie.

DG: What about you? Did you get pulled out? medevaced?

DG: Where were you?

DG: How long until you got medevaced?

PM: I was on point. Wasn’t supposed to be, but I was, and all of a sudden, I heard a click. Next the explosion. Later my guys told me it picked me up and threw me to the right and back.

PM: Not quite an hour before we got air support out of Danang. Two pilots who were friends of mine knew where I’d been but weren’t sure I was still out there. They knew where my squad was, because they were at our briefing back at base. After I was evacuated to Da Nang Hospital, those pilots came in to visit and told me, “There’s nothing left of the village. We leveled it.” They were a few years older than I was. (Shakes his head.) Months later, I learned they both were killed in action. They died young.

PM: Not right away – the area was too hot for a helo. But I was conscious. Crawling. We were all looking for cover. My guys got in front of me and set up a machine gun, and I was right with them. No doubt in shock, but the adrenalin was running high, and we were in a fight. My corpsman came and slapped my face, so I came to my senses. Didn’t know I was hit, though. When I asked is anyone hurt, he said “No, but you are,” and rolled me on my back. They’d opened fire and the zone was so hot. He claimed he told me what happened, but once he finished wrapping my wounds, I was back in the fight.

Pete inspects the Korea Memorial at Veterans Memorial Park to plan routine maintenance and lighting upgrades.


FALL 2019

DG: Big loss for all of us, but hard when they’re also your friends. I’m sorry. After that, your wounds meant you were out of the fight. PM: Yeah. We’d lost 12 in that one mission, one at a time. It was Christmas Day 1970, by the way. That year was the biggest for fatalities in the war. DG: Let me get this straight. On Christmas Day 1970, you lost your leg and a lot of Marine friends but right away you were forced to leave? PM: Yeah. My parents were originally notified that I was KIA on Christmas Day. Forty-eight hours later, they received another visit and were informed I was just injured. After I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks, I was given orders for stateside. They put me in a medivac, headed back to the world on a very long ride. Taking off ... it was a bad day for me. I wouldn’t be with my guys again, and we hadn’t completed the mission.

l-r: Veterans Memorial Park Board members Pete Frano, Jim Durr, Warren Palmer and Pete McKanna.

DG: But you lost that battle. Must have been tough. DG: The worst day any Marine can imagine. PM: Not that I ever thought I wasn’t going to get injured. But when I got back they mistakenly dropped me off at an Air Force base, then decided they weren’t going to treat me there since I was a Marine. Not even change my bandage! I was there for 72 hours. The pain was way off the charts. I said, “Then what am I doing here?” So, they put me on a jet with a medical detail and I ended up at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital. During my stay, I went through four operations. At that time, they had no prosthetic services there, so I was flown to the VA Hospital in Pittsburgh, where they said I’d be there for a year. I told them, “No, I am NOT going to be here for a year.” DG: And – ? PM: I was there for three months. Raised so much hell they sent a major in to ask what my problem was. “They (a Navy XO) want to court martial you,” he said. I told him the story. He went out and came back with a Navy captain who asked, “Have you got your prosthetic?” “Yes.” “Can you walk?” “Yes.” “Let me see you walk.” I walked, and he told them, “Discharge his ass.” DG: Like, “This is MY Marine, and I want him back!” PM: Yeah. You know, there were guys in there with terrible injuries. Some with two, three, even all limbs gone. Several who received Dear John letters in the hospital. Nobody came to visit them. We all had problems, but we wanted to help the guys who really needed support, emotionally and with their injuries. Some couldn’t have artificial limbs. I saw guys just give up and succumb to their injuries. One young guy had what they said was a “heart attack.” DG: All services? PM: Mostly Marines, some Navy. Then an overload of Army, most of them drafted. Hated everything about the military. Talk about depressing! A lot of them were addicts, either alcohol or drugs. Drugs were plentiful in Nam. It was bad news. Anyway, I was discharged from the hospital. Then a new battle started. I didn’t want to be retired, but the Corps wanted me and guys like me with injuries to be retired. To prove my case, I was required to go through a battery of tests, including mental, psychological and physical testing. I passed all but one – running at a sprint. I couldn’t quite make the time. I didn’t miss by much.

PM: I felt I hadn’t finished my mission. I’d earned a lot of respect from officers who learned from me, in some cases served with me in-country, where I saved their sixes. They knew I was an aggressive individual. But it was all about the mission. It took 24 months of JAG fighting for me in Pendleton and DC. Everyone was so kind. But the word came down from DC: I was going home – battle done, war over – never really knowing the war would never end for me and others. DG: To another battle fighting spinal cord, nerve and pain issues, ever since. PM: Right. Even all these years later there’s a lot of pain. If I turn or twist, it hurts. It grabs you. I’d rather get stuck with a knife. But I have to live with it because I’m not into pain meds. Heaviest thing I’ll take is a muscle relaxant, since they’re not narcotics. But if I am going to the Park or doing something very active, I’ll take them. DG: Which brings us to your work with the Veterans Memorial Park here in Pensacola. After a long post-career as a successful businessman, you’re basically legendary as a volunteer there. PM: Thanks. I’d sold my businesses after 18 years, then got recruited by the corporate world for another16. Retired, was recruited by a commercial funding company where I’m still employed. I also volunteer as the Veterans ambassador for Covenant Hospice in Pensacola. For me, the Park was a discovery. I got a call from Jack Brown to serve on the foundation. I drove over and saw the wall, reading the names. Some I knew. A board member was stepping down, so I accepted the position. I’d seen things that I could help with, like reducing the size of big hedgerows, which really opened the place up when we did it. So many more improvements were and are needed, like new lighting for the whole Park, as well as fixing the crumbling memorials. And continuing the brick project. DG: You were a shoe-in for operations officer. Completing the mission there. And all these years, no one there has known about your prosthesis. PM: I don’t talk about it. Others are suffering so much more. I was just a Marine doing my job, not handicapped or a hero. We’re all trying to maintain the Park to the highest standards, forever respecting all who have served. You guys at AHERO are the real heroes for all you do for the wounded Veterans. DG: Thanks, Pete. And thanks so much for letting us bring your experience of serving our nation to our readers! AHERO MAGAZINE

FALL 2019 67

We Salute Our Military Staff The attorneys and staff at Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis & Overholtz are proud to recognize the military servicemembers, veterans and spouses working at our firm. We thank them for their service to our country and are honored to work alongside them as they continue their fight for justice.


FALL 2019