Monday, May 27, 2013

The First and I Hope the Last.....

Many Americans are confused by Veterans Day and Memorial Day. I will admit in my younger days, I was confused as well. I'll admit before 9-11, Memorial Day was another day off from school or a reason to have a long weekend. I always participated in Memorial Day events, but I never really understood them until OIF and OEF entered my life.

Since Chaz has been injured, we have turned down many events that were on Memorial Day weekend where they wanted to honor Chaz's service. Chaz and I will not allow Chaz to be honored on this weekend. Chaz has Armed Forces Day, Veterans Day and everyday to be celebrated. Today is the day to remember those who served so valiantly, yet are no longer with us. 

This is a picture of the bottom of my computer monitor. I spend a lot of time at my desk. Sometimes I like sitting here because of what I can get accomplished. Sometimes I get so frustrated that I have to walk away. I put these bracelets here as a daily reminder of how blessed I am to be here. I am reminded that I am blessed to be an American. And I am reminded that I am blessed to still have my soldier with me. I have these bracelets here to remind me of the sacrifices made by others so I can continue to enjoy my life.  I have these here to remind me that I might be having a bad day, but it could always be worse.

We lost SFC McSwain June 8, 2006. We lost SGT McConnell March 18, 2013. In between these two Heroes, we have lost an additional 30 plus Heroes. I stopped counting in 2006. Yes it was in that one year we lost over 30 friends to OIF. Now we've lost friends to OIF, OEF, training accidents and invisible injuries. You look at the numbers and see statistics, I see faces and families. I want to take a second to reflect on two very personal losses. Mac was our first and I can only pray Derek is our last.

When I learned about Mac, I was shattered to my core. I was the first one of my Army friends to lose someone to combat. This was all new territory and I had to figure out the way all alone. The worst part of it was Chaz was still in Iraq and I had no idea if he knew and if he was ok. Chaz and Mac came to Ft Campbell together. They deployed to Kosovo together. They left Campbell together and returned to Campbell together. Mac's wife and I were not the closest of friends but we did have a few great moments together as our hubbies bonded during their service. I just didn't feel right invading her space upon hearing about Mac's passing. I just went to the memorial service instead. I could not imagine what she was going through and I wanted to be respectful of her privacy.

I'll never forget Mac's memorial. I sat with a friend just a few rows behind Mac's wife. When she put their new baby up on her shoulder and I went into the ugly cry. You know, the cannot control yourself, snot pouring out of your nose, sounds like you might be having an asthma attack cry. Their baby was just two months younger that our Ryann. Mac was just a few miles from Chaz when Mac was killed. So many thoughts ran through my head. Mac's service was the first time I had to deal with the Westboro people. That entire day was just horrible and I mean horrible. When Chaz called me a few days after Mac's service we had the one and only "during deployment" phone call that involved tears. I am a tough chick, but just hearing Chaz's voice after that service sent me into tears. Those tears were tears of reality. I realized that when you choose to marry a soldier you have to accept the horrible dose of reality that occasionally comes with it. That was a hard pill to swallow.

Fast forward through a few years and I realize we've lost so many. Chaz has told me more things about war then I ever wanted to know. I know too many stories of what happened to so many of his friends. I can see their faces and I have seen the families that are left behind.

That brings me to Derek. He literally stole my heart one day. He was such an amazing guy and he fought so hard. The day after Chaz's surgery, I get a call in the Starbucks drive thru that sent me into shaking. Let me assure you, I freaked the Starbucks people out with my shaky hands. The tears came when I got to Chaz's hospital room. I'll never understand how he could survive 2 IEDs, fight for 20 months and then his body just stop. It just doesn't make any sense.

Derek's mom entered my life thanks to facebook friends who wanted us to help them on this journey. I have so many great memories of Derek and those who love him. Derek stole my heart the day he asked us to be there when he stood up for the first time. I'll never forget him saying to me before that day, "You have to be there, you're like family now." What a great day that was and we were so blessed to be a part of it. I am so thankful for all the great stories I can tell people about Derek.

We didn't get to make it to Derek's memorial or service. Sadly Chaz was fighting another battle with bacteria. Not being there truly broke my heart. I was able to see Siobhan just after Derek's passing. But I wanted to be there that day to hug Siobhan and Krystina. I know they know we could not have gone with everything going on with Chaz. Knowing that they understand has never made it easier on me. I think about Derek all the time. When Ryann smiles it makes me think of her and Derek and them being silly about their mutual missing teeth. I think about Derek and how Chaz and Derek once decided if I took my tater tot casserole to war, I could end the whole thing. I think about Derek telling me about how excited he was about retirement and getting married and moving on with his life.

Chaz and I have lost Heroes to so many different circumstances. We've lost them to IEDs, snipers, training accidents and to me what is the most painful, the invisible injuries. No matter how we lose them, the loss never gets any easier. The only part that makes the loss any easier is seeing a glimpse of them every now and again in those who hold their memories so dear. I am so honored that I have memories of so many Heroes. I can only pray they are smiling down upon me today and I pray I am making them proud.

Today please take a moment to reflect on this day and it's true meaning. Think of our first and last losses, Mac and Derek. Also think of the thousands of other service members who have served, but are not with us today. Think about their loved ones who are the keepers of the Heroes. Please give thanks for the loved ones who not only keep the Heroes' memories alive but also for their willingness to share those memories with all of us. Please just take a minute to treasure the memories of Memorial Day.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

We Need Your Help and Why?!

So many of you are aware of our journey. Many of you have followed us through our ups and downs. Many of you are aware Chaz retired from the Army in January. We are finally moving forward with our lives, but we now need your help and perhaps help from a few of your friends or even friends of friends or golf buddies, gym friends, heck, who am I kidding, all of the above.

August 1, 2007, Chaz and I sold our first home and purchased a cute two story 1800 sq ft home within 15 minutes of Fort Campbell. We were able to mortgage our home for only $142,000 because it needed a lot of work done to it.

Chaz was at the NCO Academy at the time. He worked 15 days on, 4 days off for those first 2 years we were in our current home. During this time the girls were 2 and 5. I spent a lot of time at home with them. I took it upon myself to pull up all the carpet and lay the hardwood laminate. I tiled on the back splash in the kitchen. I changed all the light fixtures and door knobs and my honey done list goes on and on. You can for sure say we know the hard work involved in home ownership. But this was our home and I loved putting all the sweat equity into it.

The day Chaz was injured, I found myself in a trance walking around the house trying to figure out how he would get around our cute little two story colonial home that we both really liked. I knew there would be a lot of obstacles in his way. I remember someone asking me what I was doing walking around in my trance. I told them I was planning for Chaz to come home. I remember someone saying, "We've got time for that." I also remember snapping and saying, "I need a distraction, ok?!" At that moment I was waiting hours between phone calls with updates on Chaz's condition. I desperately needed to focus on something. That night I just cried because I knew this house was no longer suitable for our family. I knew we'd have to move out to move on with our lives. I loved this house because we had put so much time and effort into it. But I knew in order for our family to move on and live happily ever after a new house would have to be built.

In May 2011, we made plans to bring Chaz home for the first time. I was amazed at all the people who wanted to help. We were blessed by a cleaning crew for both inside and out. CSM St Louis had our ramp installed at the front door. Chaz's Nurse Case Manager, Colonel Crum, had all of his adaptive equipment sent in front of us. The day after we arrived home Colonel Crum called to see what we needed. I told him lifting Chaz's chair up and down our stairs was interesting. Crum ordered me a wheel chair for the upstairs. Crum worried about me getting hurt carrying the chair up and down the stairs everyday twice a day. (Funny story, I got hurt a few times before that chair arrived.)

Fast forward to now. We are still here. We love this house. Chaz's jokes all the time about how he lives in a "Cripple's Nightmare." It's so true. All of our bedrooms and full bathrooms are upstairs. Chaz either walks or scoots down the stairs once he is up and showered for the day. He spends his day on the lower level. On our bottom level he bumps into transitions that are between the rooms. He has to use a kitchen chair to transfer onto the toilet because normal adaptive devices don't fit into the "toilet closet" (as he refers to it). If they do fit, the bench is not wide enough to support him. (Remember he's a big boy.) He cannot reach anything in the cabinets because they are too high. The sink is also too high and then too deep, so when he helps me wash the dishes he gets a pretty good wash himself. He cannot go into the back yard to play with our girls. The back door leads to a deck that has a big step down and the 3 steps down to get to the yard. He also cannot get to the back through the gate because of the hill on the side and then the ground itself. Basically Chaz is trapped in his house and is dependent on the girls and I to make it accessible for him as he needs. Let me assure you, I have done everything I can think of to make this house work for him for now. Due to his recent bout of shingles and then the back surgery, Chaz is having a hard time wearing his legs. So if he can't access it by wheeling or scooting it "ain't happening". Which means this house is even worse for him right now.

So what have we done about all of this? First we contacted a non-profit for help. Helping A Hero has agreed to help us. You can learn more about them at  Chaz and I are putting in a $50,000 mortgage and his $64,000 grant from the VA. Helping A Hero has pledged another $100,000. So we have $214,000 to start with. It's one heck of a start, but we'll need more. 

Chaz's adaptive bathroom costs $40,000 minimum and seriously that's just for basic needs. Chaz needs special doorways, lower cabinets and so on. When you start looking it all it is so intimidating. The book from the VA is about 100 pages thick. We have to complete all the tasks in the book in order to receive the $64,000. No, I am not kidding. Hello it's the government, they don't just write checks without hoops. I will say our SAH (special adaptive housing) Representative has been awesome. He has gone the extra mile to help ensure we check all those boxes. Here's a link to the FAQ sheet on the VA SAH grant so you can learn more. Question 13 (begins on page 4) lists the most important things that must be done for Chaz to receive the grant. Please remember this is just the cliff notes version of the SAH grant.

Donna Campbell, our realtor (and my 3rd and 4th grade music teacher), helped kick off our journey to our Happily Ever After when she helped us get our land in McMinnville, Tennessee. Our builder is Elaine Rains Construction and she has been a huge advocate for us. County Commissioner John Pelham held a meeting and got the county to wave all the charges for the fees and permits. Elaine just has to file the papers for us.

We are getting there, but we need still everything from shelves to shingles from HVAC to hardware from plumping to pipes. So a few friends are trying to help us out. You can visit or to see what they are doing for us. Operation Ward 57 has gotten involved in another way too. So you can see you have multiple ways of getting involved. It's quite awesome!!

So how can you help?! You see the links above. Of course money is always the easy answer, but we need supplies and labor too. Do you know someone who would donate shingles or roofing supplies? Do you know someone who would donate flooring? Do you know a professional who would volunteer or deeply discount their time to help us? We need it all.

Don't think you can help. $5 buys those electrical plate covers. $5 buys a few tiles. We can make $5 go somewhere, trust me. We will be thankful for any and everything.

Chaz's house will cost around $300,000 minimum. This figure is excluding the land cost. I know a few have questioned the cost. I can assure you we took the plans we were given and with the advice of our builder, we looked for every way to save money and cut costs. We lowered the ceilings, opted to not put in a fireplace, removed decorative pitches from the roof and a few other little things that will save money. In addition, we have 10 boxes of tile, a shower system and a ceiling fan that I found when cleaning our garage that will be put into the new home.

A few people have said to build up, not out. Keep in mind if we were to build up then Chaz would need an elevator to access the entire house. An elevator would be expensive to put in and I cannot imagine the maintenance bill on that. We realize it is cheaper to build up, rather than build out in a normal situation. However this house is for Chaz and he needs it to be able to fully accessible to everything. So we need to build out not up.

I know a few have disagreed with Chaz having a house bigger than we currently own. I invite the critics to please come visit our current home and follow Chaz around for a day. Watch him have to sit at the back door and watch his girls play because he can't get to his back yard. Watch him pull himself or walk up the ramp to get inside. Watch him roll over the transitions and try to not fall out of his chair onto the tile in the kitchen. I have to laugh at the critics who see the cost and think Chaz is getting some elaborate mansion. We are seriously going with only Chaz's needs and that is the proposed cost with all of his needs factored in. We are not building a home for an average "leg walker." We are building a forever home for a wounded Hero. Please keep that in mind when you are criticizing what we are doing. Please also know we have the plans that have been and will be used in other homes for other Heroes. Please keep in mind that our home is within the standards of many, many other Heroes and their homes. Heck we took a few frills out just to save money and still the critics come. We can happily provide links to the other heroes who are in the same situation and also need your help.

Please consider what you can do to help families like ours heal and move on with our Happily Ever After. Every little bit helps and most importantly pray that we can get all this done sooner than later. THANK YOU!!!!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Let Me Tell You About This One...

Yesterday Brian was kind enough to share the second story TF1 did on our family. I love this video and let me tell you why....

Despite all the criticism, I waited almost two months to take the girls to see Chaz. Since day one of this journey, I have found myself thinking about how they must feel. It's no secret I have sheltered our girls as much as possible. I think any mother wearing my shoes would.

Thanks to the nurses in Germany, I knew what Chaz would look like when I saw him. I was incredibly scared to see him for the first time. I knew it would be pretty bad and I just couldn't contemplate letting our little girls, who were 5 and 8 at the time, see him in that state. I took off to Walter Reed in DC on January 26, 2011 and left the girls with my Mom.

I knew the right thing to do was see to Chaz and assess the situation before bringing the girls in. I knew his mental state was excellent and I needed him to help me make the right choices.  The decisions that we had to make were horrible. There was not one easy choice during the first few months of our journey. Heck who am I kidding, we haven't had an easy choice this entire journey. I knew had to keep our family apart for a while in order to do what was best, so I did. Chaz didn't like this decision anymore than I did, but we agreed that was what had to be done.

We had decided in January to bring the girls up to see him on their Spring Break. We worked so hard with our medical team, OT, PT, social worker and child psychologist to put a reunion plan together. Chaz decided he wanted to be tube free before seeing the girls. We thought the fewer the tubes, the less frightened they would be. Chaz and his team made that happen. He was down to a only PICC line when the girls saw him. 

In the meantime, every Wednesday I was in Reagan National and Nashville International Airports switching off between Chaz and the girls and it sucked. One Wednesday I would get up, take the girls to school, catch my plane and be with Chaz by lunch. Then I'd spend a week with him, have lunch with him, and that Wednesday and catch an afternoon flight and be with the girls by dinner time. This went on from January 26 to May something. Thanks to Hero Miles, I was able to make our plan work and not drain our emergency fund.

Each step of the way I was criticized by family, friends, medical staff and strangers for our decision to keep them away from each other. It was our decision, not my decision. Yes I came up with the plan, but Chaz and I decided together that this was what the girls needed. However all of the blame fell on me. I was labeled as a horrible person for being so selfish and keeping Chaz from his girls and for keeping the girls from their Dad. People forgot that the Army kept Chaz away from his girls for over half of their lives. People failed to realized we were raising Infantry daughters. Our girls were thrilled that they could call their Daddy now. They had never had that option before. Not seeing Dad was truly just another day to them. Not seeing him so early on, kept their worries to a minimum. These details were not factoring into the critics minds. No instead they saw a guy with no legs and a woman keeping his daughters from him.

Somehow I blocked them all out. I put myself in a "heal my family" tunnel. All I cared about was Chaz's opinion. He didn't want the girls to see him in the state he was in. He confided all of his feelings in me and as his wife it was my job to make sure his wishes were carried out. So many people somehow felt like they knew what to do in my situation. It was a hard eight weeks of back and forth. Very few people gave a crap about the weight I was carrying. Very few cared about the fact that I was wearing myself out to make it all work. Instead the people who should have cared and listened just kept piling their doubts and criticisms on my back. I remember the day when I seriously felt like I was drowning. I wanted to give up. I was literally in the hallway of Hell. The only problem was I didn't have time to break down. The three loves of my life needed me. So instead I put my big girl panties on and literally told a few people to f-off. (It felt pretty great, by the way.)

On March 20, 2011, our little family was reunited for the first time post injury. We were reunited in the living room of the Fisher House we stayed at while at WRAMC. You'll see in the video that I had to give the girls another little pep talk in the car. I wanted to remind them of what they would see. You'll see the girls and I rush in and you'll see me tear up. Those tears are a part of this beautiful moment where I realized that Chaz and I are one heck of a team. I realized that all the critics can just kiss my ass. I realized that only those three people in that room at that moment were all that mattered. The smiles on our little girls' faces told me that Chaz and I had made all the right choices.

On March 21, 2011, Chaz stood up for the first time. Michel and Gilles captured this moment for us as well. You'll see Michel try to talk to me, but I couldn't talk. I was just so thankful. I was thankful for technology and medicine that was helping to heal my family. I was thankful for so many things that made that moment possible. Words cannot express how thankful we are to Hero Miles and the Fisher House Foundation for all they have done to help us make the moments on this video possible. I was just swallowed by the blessings the Lord had given us and couldn't help but cry.

I hope you enjoy my behind the scenes thoughts. I'd get some tissues ready if I were you, I needed them. Here's the link...

Thanks again to Brian for sharing these videos! I am thankful that someone else thinks stories like ours need to be told!