One Pedal at a Time

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Dan Hurd standing behind his bike which has several personal belongings tied to it.

Dan Hurd’s infectious smile and true contentment rests gently with him wherever he goes. But this hasn’t always been the case. There have been many days where the voices of fear, shame, depression, and anxiety have made it hard to smile and trust others.

The years of sexual abuse, PTSD from time served in the military, battling years of painful addictions, and struggling to ever have any real peace eventually lead to him believing this life just wasn’t worth living anymore.

After multiple failed suicide attempts, Hurd was invited to go on a weekend ride with friends that would inevitably change the course of his life forever. Here’s his personal account:

In 2017, I was in a dark place in life. I had tried to commit suicide for the third time and felt like my life was this dark void. After I was released from the hospital, I was in the stage of telling everyone I was better, but deep down, I still had no idea how to change my life or what direction to go in.

My best friend had tried for years to get me to go bicycling with him with no success. He was an avid rider and I never really had the motivation to join him. I rode motorcycles, and in my mind, it would be a downgrade.

This time though, for several reasons, I ended up taking him up on his offer. With nothing to lose, I decided to ride with him and two mutual friends. We rode 20 miles. It felt good in the moment but I still felt the same after. A few days later we rode again. This time 30 miles. Again, in the moment riding felt good, but this feeling of being in a void lingered. What changed everything was the third ride I took with him the following weekend. We took a 166-mile trip.

I remember in the first half falling asleep while riding and barely made it to our destination. What helped me get through was the encouragement of my friend, who told me, “stop worrying about what we’ve done and don’t worry about what we got left; it’s left, right, left, one pedal at a time.” After that trip everything changed.

I realized what got me through it wasn’t worrying about the past or the future but only living in the moment. Taking it “one pedal at a time” became my mantra and my turning point. Hearing that was like someone throwing a glow stick in the void. My void wasn’t as deep as I thought.

I fell in love with bicycling and started planning longer trips. I became addicted, but it was a better addiction then my past choices of alcohol and drugs.

After only a few months of riding, I knew that I needed to do something EPIC.

Cycling proved to be so transformational for Hurd that he decided to sell everything he had, get a bike and begin a journey around the country, visiting fellow veterans he had served with in the Navy. He traveled across 48 states in the continental United States. As the trip went along, it was obvious that it was meant to be more than just a trip to visit friends. The journey totaled 25,000 miles in about three years to raise awareness for suicide prevention. “Broken down on a daily basis that’s 22 miles a day, and that’s my dedication to service members that lose their battle every day to suicide,” Hurd said.

His deep passion to share his gift of cycling with others, along with his desire to raise awareness about suicide prevention, was how the One Pedal At A Time Movement was created.

Now after 20+ states and thousands of miles later, you’re invited to be a part of this journey and learn to take life, one petal at a time. Join the movement! #OPAATMOVEMENT

To learn more, visit: ridewithdanusa.com or opaatmovement.com

Foundation Trains Shelter Canines as Service Dogs for Disabled Veterans

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service dog trainer pictured with service dog in his arms

Miracles happen every day at CAMO Foundation, and the angels who perform them are the 4-legged variety. Dedicated to providing service dogs specifically trained for the unique needs of disabled veterans, the nonprofit organization in Palm Beach Gardens, FL is the only organization in the country that uses mature dogs rescued from local pounds.

The brainchild of Mike Lorraine, a professional dog trainer with 20 years experience, the foundation is located on a picturesque farm in south Florida, co-owned by Lorraine and a local area businessman, Joe Mullings. Their mission is simple: Provide military veterans who are physically or emotionally challenged with shelter dogs who have the right qualities—intelligence, focus, drive—to be service animals.

Yes, shelter dogs! Most service dogs are raised as puppies. However, Lorraine believes that there’s a certain fearless, stoic quality that makes select shelter dogs the perfect match for injured combatants. You might say that they’ve both seen conflict and survived.

One of CAMO’s biggest success stories so far is 26-year-old Matt Kleemann, a former Navy diver who specialized in underwater repairs on submarines. While driving home along a snowy road, he swerved to avoid a deer and plunged over a cliff. When he awoke, he was paralyzed from the chest down. Wheelchair-bound, he says, “The original plan was for me to just get my dog, Charlie Brown, but Mike saw potential in me. So, I started to come down every day.” Today, Matt serves as a mentor to visiting veterans.

Continue on to CAMO Foundation to learn more.

Meet the Active Pearl Harbor Veteran that Just Turned 100

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veteran witha huge grin in a shriners hat waving with U.S. flag in the background

On the morning of December 7, 1941, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Adone “Cal” Calderone had just finished his breakfast aboard the USS West Virginia, when his ship was attacked by eight torpedoes and four bombs from a Japanese air raid.

The 21-year-old soldier was trapped and wounded on the ship from the attacks, taking shrapnel to the face along with other injuries. “The doctors wanted to keep me longer,” Calderone said of his injuries, “I wanted to get back out there.”

Calderone would go on to serve the Navy for a total of six years.

Now a World War II veteran and a survivor of the Pearl Harbor bombings, Calderone resides in Stark County, Ohio, where he just celebrated his 100th birthday.

Calderone enjoys music, driving, staying active, and sharing his experiences from the war. “Dad really gets around,” Calderone’s son, Greg, told Stars and Stripes. “It’s amazing that he’s 100 years old.” Calderone’s 100th birthday officially makes him the oldest known living Pearl Harbor survivor.

“If feels good to be 100,” Calderone said, “It’s so nice, very nice.” Calderone spent the day celebrating with about a dozen of his family members and friends, including his wife of 75 years, Carrie, at a surprise birthday gathering in front of his house.

When asked what the secret was to his 100 years, Calderone gave a smile and reported without hesitation, “Good wine.”

From Battalions to Business Degrees

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Graduating group of veterans lined up to accept their business degrees in caps and gowns shown from behind

If you happen to be one of the millions of veterans leaving the military for civilian life, you face a daunting challenge. You may have flown a gunship; you may have driven a tank; you may have commanded a unit…but how do you convince a corporate recruiter that this counts as management experience?

Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, admitted to US military newspaper, “The civilian business community does not understand military service skills and how to translate them. But they want to.”

Business education can help those with a military background segue into the business world, by equipping them with the means to see how the skills from their previous career can be utilized in a different context. Simply put, an MBA teaches you to speak the language of business.

After years, or even decades in leadership positions, today’s veterans have considerable professional experience – which is very applicable to the business world. A military background, therefore, means that they are often well-prepared for management roles. Despite this, hiring executives are often skeptical and wonder how frontline experience translates to the front office.

To help uncover the challenges and advantages of an MBA education for a veteran, we spoke with Major Grégori Bassaud, who at the time of writing, was pursuing an International MBA (IMBA) at EMLYON Business School in France.

Being a veteran can mean management experience

A married 43-year-old father of two young children, Bassaud is a career officer. He spent 21 years in the French marine corps. His service was primarily spent in airborne units where he rose up the ranks as a platoon leader, a company commander and finally as a staff officer (deputy chief ops in his battalion). He’s been deployed abroad several times, including one-year tours in French Guyana and two-year tours in Réunion Island and Martinique. A skydive specialist, Bassuad has 600 freefall jumps to his name and has been awarded the National Order of Service Merit.

During his time at EMLYON, Bassaud has been impressed with the school’s lecturers, particularly with “their in-depth knowledge in their respective fields; their ability to make it simple whatever the difficulties may be.” He notes that he considered alternative graduate degrees which were less expensive than an MBA, but in the end was convinced that the return on investment would make it worthwhile. “The advantages include relevant events like the career forum, with more than 300 companies, regular testimonies from alumni through the IMBA mentoring program, which gives you access to people holding great positions. Being at EMLYON is already being in business, already being in a professional environment where you learn everyday through the context alone.”

What advantages do you think people with a military background have when they pursue an MBA?

Seniority and maturity, which offer two advantages. First real management experience: the average age of my cohort is barely 30. Only a few of my classmates have real management experience and even that is very limited—they only managed four to five people; I had to manage more than 200.

Secondly, both of your feet are on the ground. When you have gained professional experience in more than 15 countries, worked with a huge and various range of stakeholders – belligerents, allies from various countries, NGOs, diplomats, politicians, religious representatives – you have fewer certainties than your classmates. Your approach to case studies is more careful and exhaustive, you pay more attention to the details and your judgement is often rather softer than your colleagues’ – which might not be what people expect from those who’ve served in the military.

Why do you think people with a military background should consider earning an MBA?

A military background can be useful in terms of soft skills, but you also have to take into consideration your weaknesses when it comes to hard skills such as accounting, finance, marketing, and corporate strategy. Although an MBA does not provide deep insight into all of these fields, except strategy, the very broad range of topics covered gives you the sufficient tools to successfully take up your targeted position.

You should not ignore the benefit of spending a year with people younger than you when pursuing a full-time MBA. Despite their limited background, they have already gained interesting experiences and they are up-to-date, always aware of the latest technology, the latest apps, the latest online tools, etc. A year with them is an accelerated course of training in the latest trends.

How do you think networking is different for someone with a military background?

MBAs are not as widely acknowledged by employers in France as they might be elsewhere, on top of which companies can be hesitant when dealing with candidates with atypical profiles. Even companies that are aware of MBAs expect a classic career path—for instance, an engineering degree followed by an initial professional experience, then an MBA. When coming from the army, networking is much more complicated. You have to rely more on the network of former military personnel who made the switch than on the school’s alumni network. Due to this additional difficulty, having the intensive support of your career services office is useful.

After adhering to a regimented military timetable, how do you handle the challenges of attending study and social functions that happen in the late evening?

As a matter of fact, veterans are used to extended shifts. Being accustomed to early morning hours makes your life easier. You are always on time. Many of your classmates are not, despite regular warnings by the faculty. The main challenge is combining the workload with your family life, which is definitely a huge challenge. Only 10% of my classmates have children. The pace of the course is definitely set for monks, or at least for people with total freedom.

Studies suggest that people who are physically fit are also more successful in their careers. If this is true – do you think it’s another advantage for a military person?

The first thing to point out is not all military veterans remain physically fit. However, in my case, some of my classmates were surprised that I was so physically fit for my age. I also had a comparable feedback from a headhunter, telling me that it presented a good image. So I agree that it is a kind of presentation skill.

Source: topmba.com

Navy Veteran Receives Financial Support from the Gary Sinise Foundation in face of Foreclosure and Cancer Battles

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Allyson Petersen sitting in a hospital bed

By Brandon Black of the Gary Sinise Foundation

The first time it happened caught Kimberly Petersen off guard when she was watching her daughter, Allyson’s softball game. Seconds had passed, yet Allyson still had a blank stare, if not, unconscious look on her freckled face. Episodes like this kept repeating on and off the softball field, with each instance lasting for between 20 to 30 seconds.

Allyson, 11-years-old with long brown hair that matched the color of her piercing hazel eyes — the spitting image of her mother at that age — had something wrong going on inside of her. From what her daughter was exhibiting, it appeared to Petersen to be a type of epilepsy known as absence seizures, which are common among children.

Petersen spent eight years in the Navy as a corpsman. Her grounding in medicine came from advanced placements at clinics and hospitals. She and her “Ally” thought nothing more of the seizures. Allyson, unsuspectingly thought she was merely spacing out.

Appointments were scheduled with her regular doctor but problems arose with her insurance provider, preventing necessary scans being done. The alarm bells slowly began to ring as the length of each seizure Allyson experienced began to intensify, and were now accompanied with facial grimacing and her right-hand curling inwards during each episode. The noise finally hit a crescendo one summer evening in June 2016, when Allyson experienced several prolonged seizures in the same day, including a terrifying moment unlike anything before.

“We were out on the front deck when she collapsed on the flowers,” Petersen said of the startling scene that took place at their home in Sturgis, South Dakota.

Allyson’s body draped over the broken pots.

“I rolled her over, and she had stroke-like symptoms on the right side of her face.”

Allyson needed immediate medical attention and was soon after taken to the emergency center at Regional Hospital in Rapid City, a 30-minute drive from their home. After undergoing several tests, including a CT scan, it revealed that a tumor had massed over a section of Allyson’s brain that controls for speech and motor functions. Scared and frightened by the revelatory news, Allyson looked at her mother and said, “Am I going to die?”

Nearly 5,000 children and adolescents are diagnosed each year with a brain tumor, according to the American Cancer Society. As the second most common form of cancer in children, very few drugs exist in the marketplace to treat brain tumors, making traditional methods of radiation, chemotherapy, and invasive surgery typical medical care options that supplement clinical trials.

Days after visiting the emergency room, Allyson was admitted to the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she underwent an open craniotomy to remove the brain tumor. The procedure didn’t go according to plan.

Allyson Petersen's headshot
Allyson Tedder was diagnosed with brain cancer when she was 11 years old and continues treatment to this day.

During the surgery, the pediatric neurosurgeon recognized that the tumor had embedded itself deep in the brain. In the best interest of Allyson’s quality of life — ensuring she has full ability of speaking and motor functions — the decision was made to leave a fraction of the tumor in her brain to avoid any permanent damage.

In the three months that had passed since the procedure, it was discovered that the tumor had begun to regrow. With limited treatment options, Allyson was placed in a clinical trial to mitigate further growth of the tumor. The treatments didn’t work as Allyson developed complications that resulted in her leaving the trial. Chemotherapy became the next preventive measure to quash the tumor’s growth.

“She started developing cells behind her cornea which can cause blindness and irreversible damages,” explained Petersen about the dangerous side effects Allyson experienced from the cocktail of drugs that had been pumped into her body.

Several years had gone by since Petersen and her husband divorced. She wasn’t just taking care of her sick daughter and keeping her family afloat. She was also midway through a master’s degree program. The balancing act came at a high cost.

“Even though I have good insurance,” she said, “the out of pocket expenses, the food, the hotels, gas, time away from my other kids, putting the dog in the kennel, it felt like I was robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

She and Allyson frequently commuted more than 600 miles from Sturgis to Masonic Children’s Hospital so that Allyson was able to receive critical follow ups and MRI scans each phase of her cancer treatment. Depending on how much time Petersen was able to take off from the Meade School District, where she serves as a special educator, she wasn’t left with many options.

Flying to and from Minneapolis wasn’t in the cards. Petersen would either have to book it to Minneapolis in one day or spend the night at her parent’s home in Watertown, a six-hour drive from Sturgis, before spending the next four hours getting into the city.

Bills began piling up. Those that could be paid were done in piecemeal. Other bills weren’t paid at all. Downsizing expenses and making ends meet became the survivalist mentality she and her family adopted under the sole income she was bringing in. They had no other choice. It got to the point where she had to seriously ask herself, “do I pay the credit card bill, or do I pay the water bill?”

In the pecking order of priorities, Petersen was stretching every dollar she could to ensure her children had food on the table, a roof over their heads, and that she had gas in her car. She even picked up a summer job to supplement her salary by working nearby Black Hills National Forrest at an RV resort in Spearfish, South Dakota. Yet for all that she was doing to make ends meet, she was delinquent on her monthly mortgage payments.

Five months overdue, her home loan provider gave her notice that if she were unable to pay the balance and associated late fees in full, she would face foreclosure on her home.

“I have four kids looking up to me. I can’t quit, and I can’t sit there and wallow about it and have a pity party,” she said of finding any ways to deal with her financial circumstances.

While there were plenty of times, she admits, where she broke down and cried out of sight of her children, sometimes in the car or the backyard, she was resolved to seek help. Her mother, Linda, insisted she look into the Gary Sinise Foundation as a few years ago, the organization had helped her younger brother with the purchase of a new suit for his wedding. Perhaps the Foundation could help another veteran in financial need.

Through the Gary Sinise Foundation’s Relief and Resiliency program, the urgent financial needs of those like Kimberly Petersen are addressed through an initiative called heal, overcome, persevere and excel or H.O.P.E.

Petersen was hesitant at first but eventually relented, and in early February of this year, she submitted an initial inquiry seeking mortgage assistance. Within days of her submission, the Foundation’s Outreach team contacted her, requesting additional information to supplement the initial application. Not long after, she received a phone call from the Foundation with an update on the status of her application.

“She was taken aback and almost relieved of her stress,” said Nick Wicksman, who handled Petersen’s application from the start, and who was on the phone with her as the bearer of good news.

The Gary Sinise Foundation was going to cover the last four months of her mortgage and associated late fees. Petersen, having struggled tooth and nail year after year supporting her family as a single mother, was overcome with gratitude.

“She’s able to no longer worry about what is owed but to focus on the present and future by focusing on the health of her family,” said Wicksman. Had she not received financial assistance from the Gary Sinise Foundation, Petersen said matter of factly, “We would’ve lost the house.”

familytrip
Through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Allyson, her three brothers, and Kimberly were able to take a family trip to London in June 2019.

While they’re not out of the tunnel just yet in Allyson’s cancer treatment, they can see the light. Despite setbacks in her regiment of treatments, Allyson was able to compete on the freshman girls’ volleyball and softball teams during the school year while also participating in the school newspaper as a photographer and journalist.

She fights the fight as oral chemotherapy treatments continue as do visits to Masonic Children’s Hospital. Looking back on the last four years and thinking about the question Allyson had asked her late in the night while at the emergency center, Petersen said, “In some ways, the tumor and her cancer diagnosis have brought us closer together because we’ve learned that you don’t know what’s going to happen from day to day.”

“Between Masonic Children’s Hospital and the Gary Sinise Foundation, I know I wouldn’t have my daughter.”

From the Corps to Corporate America

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Headshot of Laurie Sayles

U.S. Veterans Magazine asked Laurie Sayles, president and CEO of Civility Management Solutions (CivilityMS), and Jackson Dalton, president and founder of Black Box Safety, Inc., to share what it was like for them to transition out of the military and into the boardroom.

Laurie Sayles with Civility Management Solutions

Founded in 2012, CivilityMS provides professional consulting services as an SBA 8(a) certified, verified Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business (SDVOSB), Economically Disadvantaged Woman and Woman Owned Small Business (EDWOSB/WOSB). The firm’s status as a SDVOSB is verified with the Center for Veterans Enterprise (CVE) and the Veterans First Contracting Program.

USVM: Tell us about your transition from military life to one as a business owner.

Laurie Sayles (LS): I am from Chicago, IL, and have always sought out a means of having my own money or supplementing my income. I was a baby-sitter to single women in the low-income projects complex I resided as a young girl and I modeled professionally during high school, all before I joined the USMC. So, I often say that I have always been an entrepreneur.

But after getting out of the USMC, I returned to supplementing my income. I tried medical billing as a home-based business only to learn it was a scam. I also became a wellness coach and a bootcamp fitness instructor, to name a few.

My journey was long after transitioning because there was no outreach during the 90’s for military personnel leaving the USMC. For example, TAPS didn’t exist, and no one in the marketplace really cared that you were a veteran. Also, the Internet was not what it is today and there was no support to help translate your MOS. It was a more challenging time.

But I wanted to work in corporate America, so I took a job for $17,000 in 1989 as a receptionist. With that, the journey began to learn the difference of being a civilian in this space as an African-American woman with no degree. Within a short period of time, I began to take English, grammar and speaking courses to help me modify my means of communication.

I climbed the corporate ladder from receptionist to administrative assistant, to an executive assistant, to an operations director to a project manager over a 20-year period. Then in 2012, I became president and CEO of Civility Management Solutions.

USVM: How did your experience in the military influence your skillset as a business owner?

LS: My experience from the military has a huge influence in my skillset as a business owner. Again, being an African-American woman in business adds more challenges that many cannot identify with unless they belong to this ethnicity. But, thanks to being a woman that served in the Marine Corps, I am accustomed to operating in a man’s world and a world that is full of alpha males! The Marine Corps is not known to be, “The Few, The Proud, The Marines,” just as a slogan—it’s a culture and a lifestyle. As I often say, if you re-enlist in any branch of the military, it really speaks to you adapting and accepting that culture completely, otherwise you get out after first term. No one—and I do mean no one—that knows me personally walks away not knowing that I served in the Corps. It shows up in my demeanor and my strength as a business owner.

USVM: What advice would you give someone transitioning from the military into becoming a business owner?

LS: Make sure you start your homework early when you know your end date. There is so much to offer us when we get out of the military, and finally this country is beginning to recognize this fact. Our discipline, leadership, resilience and determination set us apart from anyone else who never served. So, with running anything … you’ve been trained while you wore the uniform; trained to operate in high integrity; and trained to leave no man behind. All three of these lead to you being a strong leader willing to take full responsibility for your actions. Help others be successful as you become successful.

Do take advantage of all the training being offered by the SBA in your State, affiliates of the SBA, and programs offered to veterans of the military. Get yourself affiliated with associations and advocacy groups that focus on the type of work you want to do as a business owner.

Lastly, network, network and network some more to find people that you can engage with. And get yourself some mentors! Each one will add different values and you can call on them as needed.

Jackson Dalton and Black Box Safety, Inc.

Headshot of Jackson DaltonBlack Box Safety, Inc. specializes in the prevention of serious injury in the workplace by supplying safety equipment for government agencies and organizations. Dalton is a Board-Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and holds a Master’s degree (MPH) in public health—only 17 percent of CSPs hold both (Board of Certified Safety Professionals, 2017) —as well as a Bachelor’s degree in business administration.

USVM: Tell us about your transition from military life to one as a business owner.

Jackson Dalton (JD): I was injured while serving in the Marine Corps. As a direct result of the injuries I sustained, I went through 3 leg surgeries and was not able to walk for a year. While serving, I was hurt at work—essentially an occupational injury. From this experience, I have made it my mission in life to ensure that others aren’t hurt at work, so that they can continue to do the things that they love to do.

As a direct result of my Marine Corps experience, I transitioned from the military into a career in occupational health and safety. I pursued a Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree in Public Health, and spent over 10 years working as a Safety Engineer. Three years ago, it was my desire to help more people in a more meaningful way so I left my job at 3M and started my company, Black Box Safety, Inc., which is a supplier of safety products and safety training to government agencies and organizations that are looking for ways to reduce risk and help their employees stay safe and healthy.

USVM: How did your experience in the military influence your skillset as a business owner?

JD: My experience in the Marine Corps instilled two traits: Grit and bearing. Grit is the ability or decision to persevere in the face of extreme hardship and danger. Bearing is the ability to maintain a calm and confident demeanor in the face of adversity and uncertainty. I learned that the most contagious thing in the world is not infectious disease—it’s human emotion. As a leader, if I lose my bearing and communicate emotions of fear and stress, those emotions will be transferred to those I’m leading. I served as a squad leader in the Marine Corps and today I serve as President of Black Box Safety, Inc., where I am responsible for the health and welfare of 2 full-time employees and 4 part-time employees.

USVM: What advice would you give someone transitioning from the military into becoming a business owner?

JD: This is the advice that I would give to someone transitioning from the military to entrepreneurship

  1. Take advantage of every educational opportunity available including but not limited to: Post-secondary education funded through the Post-9/11 GI Bill and Dept. of VA Vocational Rehabilitation Ch.31,; free business start-up courses offered through the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) [SBA offers free business courses online at SBA.gov]; apply for a free SCORE mentor; podcasts featuring business start-up advice; and finally an often-overlooked resource that proved to be of great value and benefit to me, Shark Tank and YouTube.
  2. Join an incubator that is composed at least partially of active-duty and veteran business owners. I benefited greatly from the camaraderie I found by applying to a veteran incubator called Tactical Launch. I went through this incubator 2 years ago, and I am still close friends with many of the members of the cohort and many of us continue to be successful in business. The camaraderie is necessary when starting a business, especially if you are the sole founder. It’s actually the number one thing that servicemen and women miss the most when transitioning out of the military.
  3. If you are able to do so, start your business now. Many business startups require very little in the way of capital and expense. Most can be started out of your home with a phone, a laptop and a lot of determination. The biggest mistake I see in other founders is the desire to have everything ready prior to launch. A good plan executed today is better than a perfect plan executed tomorrow.

2 WWII veterans who are lifelong friends celebrate 96th and 97th birthdays together

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WWll veterans pictured smiling lifelong friends celebrate birthday together

World War II veterans and lifelong friends celebrated their 96th and 97th birthdays together in Whittier, California on Sunday. U.S. Army Veteran Randel “Randy” Zepeda Fernandez is turning 96 this week. His best friend of nearly 90 years, U.S. Coast Guard veteran Salvador “Sal” B. Guzman, just turned 97.

Fernandez’s son, Steve Fernandez, decided a major event was in order to mark the momentous occasion.

So he organized a massive celebration that drew a parade of community members, firefighters, sheriff’s deputies and even mariachi musicians.

“This is amazing. I didn’t expect it to be this big,” Steve Fernandez said.

Both veterans said they were surprised by the outpouring of gratitude.

“I knew nothing about this,” Guzman said.

The men’s friendship dates back to childhood.

“We’ve known each other since the second grade,” Randy Fernandez said. The men attended elementary school and junior high together, before they both attended Garfield High School, they said.

Randy Fernandez helped liberate concentration camps and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which helped organize the event. Guzman patrolled the Northern California coastline on horseback from 1943 to 1944.

“Both veterans reunited in the 1950s and bought their first homes on the same street in Montebello, raising their families together,” the sheriff’s department said in a written statement.

Continue on to CBS News to read the complete article.

How the Gary Sinise Foundation Helped a National Guardsman and Special Education Teacher

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Renee Villareel holding her daughter, Natalie, above her head.

By Brandon Black of The Gary Sinise Foundation

At the start of the year, one semester separated Renne Villareal from earning a degree in Special Education. One semester stood between her and starting a career teaching kids and adolescents diagnosed with physical and mental learning needs.

Her years-long endeavor started in high school, fueled by what she saw as malicious attacks on the boys and girls whose impediments made them targets of harassment. They were teased and bullied because of how different they looked and spoke. Some were called “stupid,” while others were called “lazy.” Villarreal was not one to stand idle and watch. She felt the instinct to charge to their defense. It was the right thing to do, no doubt, and it came as second nature.

Both her parents served in the military, which is how Villarreal inherited their values and sense of duty. Standing up for the rights of others, and advocating for kids with disabilities became her mission ever since her time as a student at Lyman Hall High School.

“I realized this is what I’m going to be good at. I want to be a teacher,” she said. “I want to help and stick up for these kids that need me.”

At Southern Connecticut State University, where Villarreal is currently an undergraduate, her fieldwork in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy puts her side-by-side teaching children with autism. Under the guidance of an accredited therapist, she develops individualized lesson plans focused on improving her client’s interpersonal behavior and learning skills.

At the same time, for the last two years, Villarreal has been serving part-time in the Connecticut Army National Guard, attached to the aviation unit of the 1109th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group. Joining the National Guard was her way of fulfilling her patriotic duty and honoring her parents’ service. The pay isn’t much, she admits, so to make ends meet, she supplements her income from the army and therapy by working a few days a week at the neighborhood PetSmart.

Up until the second week of March, she was living paycheck-to-paycheck. But the 23-year-old single mother, the sole breadwinner with a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, was unprepared for the public health pandemic sweeping across the country.

A crisis loomed on the horizon.

On March 8, Governor Ned Lamont announced the state’s first confirmed case of COVID-19. The dominos fell right after with COVID-19 infections popping up in counties throughout the state.

Southern Connecticut State University closed its campus, opting to deliver the curriculum online for the next semester, which pushed Villarreal’s fieldwork courses from the spring term to the fall. It also pushed back her graduation date to later in the year.

One by one, her primary sources of income started drying up. The National Guard reduced her service hours, and with that, a drop in her monthly paycheck. Parents of her clients canceled ABA therapy sessions for the foreseeable future. And a number of part-time employees at PetSmart, including Villarreal, were furloughed.

Her life was upended in a matter of weeks. “How am I going to pay rent?” she asked herself. “How am I going to put food on the table?”

Sleepless nights beget sleepness nights. Alone and caring for her daughter with limited resources at her disposal, Villarreal was overcome by a cruel mixture of stress and depression. Standing amongst the throngs of people waiting in line at the local food bank one day, Villarreal felt she had hit rock bottom.

“I felt like a bad mom because I wasn’t able to provide,” she said. “No mom wants to feel that way.” As her finances started dwindling, Villarreal had her reasons for hesitating in asking for help.

“In my mind, I’ve always done everything by myself,” she said while ticking off a list of life decisions she made independently of others from enlisting in the army and working multiple jobs to paying for her bills and education.

By the time she contacted the Gary Sinise Foundation at the end of March seeking financial assistance, Villarreal said her situation was making her “drown with worry.”

“I put in all my effort to try to make the best life for my daughter and me that I can. I felt like it was all about to go down.”

To keep her afloat, the Foundation paid two months of her rent through the Emergency COVID-19 Combat Service fund. Villarreal also received a Walmart gift card to cover the costs of groceries and other out of pocket expenses, such as buying diapers.

“The foundation literally changed my life,” she said. “I don’t know how I would have made it without them.” In a matter of days after receiving help from the Foundation, Villarreal has experienced an about-face in her life.

No more waiting in line at the food bank with her fingers crossed that staples such as milk and eggs will be available, and more importantly, not past their expiration date. No more stressful days and sleepless nights that mired her for weeks on end.

Renee Villareal's daughter, Natalie, smiling up at the camera
Renee Villareel’s daughter, Natalie, who will be three in September.

“It’s scary to think that I could have lost everything I’ve worked so hard for,” she said about being embarrassed and afraid to ask for help. In short order, she and her daughter, Natalie, have become glued at the hip.

“I’m able to really take advantage of my time now and just catch up with myself,” she said about having time to relax and read a book or take Natalie outdoors to go fishing and to the park.

When Villarreal graduates this fall, she will be among a growing number of professionals nationwide who are entering an in-demand occupation. Projections from the Connecticut Department of Labor show a dearth of special education teachers at the primary and secondary school levels. Increasing numbers of children over the years have been diagnosed with a physical or mental disability that adversely affects their ability to learn in the classroom, explained Villarreal.

In the 2015-16 school year, more than 70,000 students in kindergarten to 12th grade in the state of Connecticut required special education. That number has since ballooned in the last five years to well over 79,000 students representing 15.6% of the state’s student population.

Despite the uncertainty of what lies ahead for her and Natalie with the state yet to see a bend in its curve of coronavirus cases, Villarreal remains focused on becoming a special education teacher.

Blue Water Navy Act Helps Veterans Achieve the American Dream

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Bryan Bergjans with his family at an awards ceremony

By Bryan Bergjans, Navy reservist officer

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 was passed in January, and with it came a lot of changes for military and veterans that they may not know about. As a Navy veteran, I am extremely thankful that this Act carries with it long-awaited benefits to those Navy Vietnam veterans.

The law also brings with it a host of other benefits that changes the landscape of the VA Home Loan benefit as we know it. The new law exempts Purple Heart recipients currently serving on active duty from the VA Home Loan Funding fee. In 2019, you couldn’t receive exemption status unless you were receiving VA disability, and as it stands today, we have a lot of active duty still serving but who were injured in combat and received Purple Hearts that would have had to wait until discharge to be exempt.

Prior to the Blue Water Navy Act, the VA Home Loan Benefit provided entitled military and veterans an opportunity to purchase a home up to, but not limited to, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) conforming loan limits with zero down payment.
For example, to buy a home in St Louis, Missouri, a qualified veteran or military member could purchase with no down payment up to the conforming loan limit, which in 2019 was $484,350. Now this sounds great, and it has been a great benefit no doubt, but what about the high cost areas? What about folks who live in the coastal regions where housing prices have sky rocketed over the last 5, 10, 15 years?

These folks would have to bring in sizable down payments in a market like today, where the supply is low, most options are new construction and the prices are extremely high. So, our military members were forced to rent, or even worse, settle for substandard housing options (we won’t get into those).

Then this little miracle showed up on January 1, 2020, and changed everything! VA Guaranteed Home Loans will no longer be ‘limited’ to the FHFA conforming loan limits. Military and veterans who are entitled to the benefit will now be able to obtain a no-down-payment home loan in all areas of the United States.

The caveat to this is that every lender has established specific caps or max loan amounts they are willing to lend on this program. This actually gives our men and women of the armed forces and veterans the opportunity to purchase their dream home, in their dream location, across the US without having to worry about a substantial down payment. The VA Home Loan is the best performing loan in the mortgage play book.

Every servicer would like to have these types of loans in their portfolios because they have very low default/foreclosure rates. This is a testament to the folks who get VA Loans, who have shown such as honor, courage and commitment! Those who are eligible for this program have all raised their right hands and said they are willing to give it their all for our freedom! This change was long overdue and an exciting new chapter for military and veteran home buyers.

Strange Days, Indeed

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Headshot of Scoba Rhoades

By Scoba Rhodes

Like you, I have been cooped up in my apartment for almost two weeks. For me, the lifestyle hasn’t changed all that much, except when I head outside, the experience is very different.

Since being confined to a wheelchair, I’ve had to adjust to working more from home. It took me over ten years to adjust to my situation, so to expect anyone to do it overnight is a really tall order. Everything is closed except for the huge lines waiting to get inside the grocery stores. No one is hanging out at the coffee shop, the malls are either empty or closed all together, and even the pool at my apartment complex is locked due to “an abundance of caution.” I agree with these measures since they are meant to save lives. But in the meantime, I can’t help but wonder if the lives the government is hoping to save aren’t going stir crazy wondering when this will all be over.

During my voluntary internment, I’ve been catching up on my reading. Much has been work-related, with some personal development mixed in, and quite a few have been articles advising us on how to best cope with the current crisis. My current book is titled, “How to break the habit of being yourself.” It’s quite a read.

I have read articles providing ideas on working out inside your home, new recipes to try, even ideas on making movie and music lists. There have been articles on the power of positive thinking during this crisis, and that may be the most misused concept yet. I’ve heard many state and federal government briefs stating over and over that this is a temporary condition, yet I’m pretty sure when this article is published, we may still be in our homes waiting out this wave.

I am part of a group of neighbors that get together every Wednesday and share some good wine and conversation and catch up with each other in our neighborhood clubhouse. It has been closed for a few weeks, so we decided to meet outside today, keeping our six-foot distance and each bringing our own wine. We were having a great time until one of the complex managers said we had to go back to our apartments. I complied, as did everyone else, and I cannot say the manager was wrong to do it. In fact, looking back, I can say it was the correct decision. I just felt like a 54-year-old man being told to go to his room.

I can’t help but wonder once this is all over, will everyone have adjusted to the new habits, and will shaking hands will have become a thing of the past? When these thoughts enter my mind, I immediately find a book I’ve been putting off reading, place a Blu-ray on I’ve been thinking about, or just sit down with my wife and have a cup of coffee together, something we haven’t done in a long time. Thanks to the current level of technology, I can meet with clients and friends using Zoom or Skype, something I am quite used to. I actually did my first year at USC from my hospital room, and it was the Skype application that allowed me to be in the classroom. This was in 2012, long before the schools went online. Necessity is always the mother of invention it may seem.

I am part of the population with compromised health issues. Being paralyzed, having bronchitis as a child has left me with scar tissue on my lungs, and being in my mid-fifties all means I cannot afford to be cavalier about the current situation. Now when my wife says to make sure I take a jacket, or don’t forget my hat, I no longer say “I’ll be fine.” Now my answer is “Thank you sweetheart. I got it.” I head out, collect what I need, and return home.

I am attempting to build relationships online, in the hopes that when we are allowed to congregate again, we will still be somewhat familiar with each other, and have a newfound appreciation for the joys of personal connection. There are networks on LinkedIn and Facebook for every group you can imagine. Nextdoor.com is also a great place to find and connect digitally with your neighbors. If you’re in Orange County, I relish the day when we can meet in person, share a cup of coffee at my favorite coffee shop, or grab a nice lunch (or martini) at my favorite hangout at the District Mall.

I can’t pretend the current situation is not happening (which it is), nor abandon hope that it is temporary (which I know). I realize by taking these steps now, I am participating in a practice that will benefit our nation, and possibly save a life. I remind myself that I am not being sent to my room, I am doing this willingly in support of a greater health effort. When I feel frustrated or cooped up, which happens more than I’d like to admit, I find a lesson online and learn something new, or take time to reconnect with my wife.

One thing is for sure: Our habits and attitudes will be forever altered. Some for the betterment of society, some for the safety of ourselves and our families. Let’s attempt to make those changes out of diligence, and not fear.

To quote author John Shedd, Admiral Grace Hopper, and Albert Einstein, “Ships are safest when in port. But that’s not what ships are for.”

Be safe and healthy everyone, and remember, “This too shall pass.”

How the Girl Scouts are Spreading Joy to a Navy Ship

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A man in a military uniform holding a stack of packages

People Magazine‘s Senior Graphics Operator, Nikki Smalls, and Live Graphics Operator, Lucas Walsh, began a conversation one day about Walsh’s sister, Caitlin Walsh. Caitlin is currently serving in the Navy aboard the U.S.S. Truman.

The entire crew of the Truman tested negative for COVID-19, but have collectively agreed to isolate themselves rather than take deployment as an extra precaution.

When Nikki Smalls heard about Caitlin and the rest of her crew, she wanted to find a way to show her gratitude for their service while also spreading some extra joy. Teaming up with her daughters’ Brownie Scouts Troop, Troop 83340, she decided to lead the girls in creating care packages to send to those serving on the U.S.S. Truman.

Continue on to People Magazine’s website to read the complete article

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