5 Heartwarming Stories of How Veterans Continue to Help Each Other Even After War
When the men and women who served our country are in need, who do they turn to for a helping hand? The same people they relied on back on the battlefield.
These Warriors Don’t Like Losing Either
All athletes want to inspire, be it with a game-winning homer, a diving catch, or a no-hitter. The 33 men and two women who play on the Warriors softball team are no different. They just have less to work with.
The Warriors—whose full name is the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team—are a traveling collective of veterans from around the country. They all have different wounds—missing legs, arms, eyes—but they share a mission: shattering preconceptions, in themselves as well as in the crowd. “All of us were injured,” says Cody Rice, a 33-year-old outfielder and former airborne infantry squad leader who lost his right leg to a mine in Afghanistan. “We didn’t think we’d be able to do normal things again. But you get on the team and you realize that there’s nothing holding you back except yourself.”
The only thing holding the team back on this weekend in July 2017 is a nasty losing streak. The Warriors play about 80 games a year, all against able-bodied teams, and they just lost all four at a tournament in Minnesota. They’re looking to get back on track as they walk into Canal Park in Akron, Ohio, to play against a team of local celebrities led by the city’s mayor.
The Warriors have a lust for life on and off the field. Prior to game time, Rice, from Newark, Ohio, banters with teammate Josh Wege (“No leg-y Wege,” as Rice calls him) in the dugout. Seated nearby and cleaning off her bat-attachable prosthetic arm is Danielle Green from South Bend, Indiana. “All this is very, very therapeutic,” she says. “It’s all about, ‘Let’s see what I can do, how high I can take it.’”
Green’s first love was basketball. She played guard for the University of Notre Dame in the mid-’90s and went on to enlist in the Army in 2003. A year later, seven weeks after marrying her husband, Green was on security duty at a National Police Station in Baghdad. “We got this eerie feeling that something would happen,” she recalls. She climbed to the roof, and a rocket-propelled grenade whizzed by her, exploding a barricade. “It clipped me, knocking me down to my right side.”
She woke up in a hospital bed with her sergeant standing at her side. “I said, ‘Sarge, is my arm missing?’” says Green. She was asking about her left arm, the one that had tossed so many basketballs through so many hoops. “And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s gone.’ I broke down for a second or two.” Her sergeant did have one piece of good news: “He said they went back to the rooftop and got my wedding rings.”
At Canal Park, it’s the bottom of the fourth, with the game tied at nine apiece and runners on first and third. Cody Rice is at the plate. The first pitch, a strike. Rice readjusts his stance and cleans his bat against his prosthetic leg. He smacks the next pitch into center field. The runners score, and Rice races around the bases for an inside-the-park home run. He’s greeted in the dugout by jubilant high fives all around. The Warriors go on to win the game.
“What do you think?” Coach Bucky Weaver asks a young fan waiting for an autograph afterward. “Not bad for missing a couple of parts.”
There’s No Place Like a Tiny Home
They’re small houses, but they’ve got big ambitions. Ranging from 240 to 320 square feet, these homes are large enough for just a single room with a kitchenette and a bathroom. There are 26 of them on nearly five compact acres in Kansas City, Missouri, painted in rustic shades of red, blue, green, yellow, and gray. The sidewalks are straight and pristine. And there’s an American flag flapping proudly outside each front door.
This is Veterans Village, a one-and-a-half-year-old transitional community designed to help military personnel get back on their feet. The initial plan was to create a shared temporary living space similar to a group shelter, but that can be the wrong setting because shelters often lack privacy and safety. These small structures give vets their own front doors—and more. “It’s housing with dignity,” says Chris Stout, the CEO of Veterans Community Project (VCP), the nonprofit organization behind Veterans Village. “You get an opportunity to let your guard down, hit the reset button, and focus on starting over.”
New beginnings don’t always come easy for these veterans. Residents in the village were previously homeless, and some have mental health issues. But the cozy community gives them neighbors they can count on, much as they’d had comrades they could reach out to during deployments. “It’s not like a shelter, where you’re around people you don’t trust,” says Karen Carter, a resident and Coast Guard veteran. “I feel protected and free, which means I can be a better me.”
Stout is no stranger to struggle himself. In 2005, when he was an Army corporal serving in Afghanistan, his leg was crushed by over 4,000 pounds of debris. Back at home, he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a post-traumatic brain injury. He bounced from one job to the next and eventually began working at the United Way of Greater Kansas City, connecting his fellow veterans to organizations that offered legal aid and housing services. But he grew frustrated by the gaps he saw in the available services, especially for housing. One day he used his own money to put a veteran and his family who had been evicted from their apartment up in a hotel. “I thought, I could do this better,” says Stout.
In 2015, he and three veteran buddies started VCP, quitting their jobs and using Stout’s life savings. Five months later, Stout used his credit card to pay for the $3,000 worth of supplies to build their first tiny home model. They also purchased a building to be an outreach center, where any vet can get services such as free bus passes and counseling. Since the operation began, it has worked with approximately 10,000 veterans.
Once word got out about VCP’s mission, donations and volunteers flooded in. On Christmas Eve 2017, more than 100 volunteers began work on the first 13 tiny homes, each of which includes a bed, a desk, toiletries, and kitchen supplies. The plan is to have 49 homes by this October and then expand to St. Louis, Denver, Nashville, and Orlando. Each village will include a community center that will provide residents with free legal, medical, and dental care, as well as job counseling.
A big undertaking? Not in Stout’s mind. “We all went through basic. We all served,” Stout told CNN. “This is just my way to serve them.”
A Soldier’s Best Friend
Dave Sharpe started Companions for Heroes with the idea of linking veterans suffering from PTSD with shelter and rescue dogs. He knew it was a good idea because he was a veteran suffering from PTSD himself, and his shelter dog had saved his life.
By the time Sharpe was 21, he had already lost two friends from his unit in the Air Force security forces to suicide, one of whom had a wife and a one-year-old daughter.
Consumed with survivor’s guilt, Sharpe convinced himself that “‘if someone should have died, it should have been me. I’m single. No one is going to miss me as much.’ I was so ticked off.”
That anger led him to abuse prescription drugs and alcohol. He became violent, starting fights at bars. Soon, friends turned their backs on him. “I was always this happy-go-lucky guy,” he says. “Now I’d turned into a ball of rage.”
One day, a concerned friend insisted he leave his apartment and accompany him to a pit bull rescue. “Every dog there jumped on me, wanting me to take them,” Sharpe says.
“Every dog but one.” She was a pit bull mix, and she just sat there alone, wanting nothing to do with anyone. “That’s the one I picked,” he recalls. “I thought, I’m going to make you love me.”
He named her Cheyenne. “That night, she lay on my lap as I watched TV,” Sharpe says. “I felt a sort of peace for the first time in a long time.”
But the peace didn’t last. A few months later, he got drunk and grabbed his .45-caliber pistol. “I sat on the floor looking at the wall, my back against the bed. I thought, I’m ready.
I put the barrel of the .45 in my mouth and clenched it with my teeth.” At that moment, Cheyenne padded in from the hallway and licked his face. “It distracted me,” Sharpe says.
“I laughed and moved the pistol out of my mouth. I put it in my lap, and she plops down on top of the pistol.” That was all for that night.
A month later, he tried it again. This time he made sure the door was closed—with Cheyenne on the other side—but not locked. He wanted to make it easy to find his body. But somehow Cheyenne managed to climb back into Sharpe’s lap before he could harm himself. “I got chills,” he says. “How did she get the door open?” That night, he put away the pistol for good.
A staggering 16 veterans die by suicide every day. An estimated 670,000 shelter dogs are euthanized each year. Given his experiences with Cheyenne, Sharpe thought, Why not bring troubled vets together with troubled pets for their mutual benefit? In 2009, four years after he left the service, he started Companions for Heroes (C4H).
The idea was simple: Veterans suffering from PTSD would find shelter dogs, and C4H would reimburse all adoption fees and have the dogs professionally trained to assist with stress inducers such as traffic and crowds.
“Noises, car backfires, a glass drops on a restaurant patio, those are triggers,” says Sharpe. Vets, used to IEDs, don’t like surprises. “We like to see what’s coming at us.” Say a vet is punching in his PIN at an ATM: “The dog watches the rear while we watch the front. It’s a team effort, like we do in the military. If someone comes close, the dog signals the vet. If the vet gets startled, the dog nudges him with his body and brings the vet back to reality. He’s a reminder that you’re not over there; you’re over here. You’re home.”
Travis Warren is one of more than 3,000 soldiers C4H has helped. His two-year-old Plott hound, Cooper, “can sense when you’re having a bad day,” he says. And Warren has had his share. A Marine, he served a stint in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006, when it was dubbed the most dangerous city in the world. Warren escaped numerous firefights without any physical wounds. “PTSD is what I brought back with me,” he says. It manifested itself in night terrors. “I’d wake up in a dead sweat.”
Now Warren rests easy at night. “Cooper sleeps in the bed with my wife and me. He’s always touching me with his paw or his back. And I feel a lot better with him there. I have not had one night terror since I’ve had him.”
Sharpe’s dog, Cheyenne, passed away four years ago. Sharpe, who is now married with two young children, has a new dog, Darby—an Australian shepherd/Australian cattle dog/Lab mix. Like all C4H dogs, Darby is a rescue. The real question, of course, is: Who rescued whom?
Leave no one behind” may be the rule soldiers live by on active duty, but after the military, many of them have to face their demons alone. Chris Brown has found an unusual way for veterans to connect beyond the battlefield. He gets them together on the vegetable field.
Brown is the cofounder of Growing Veterans, a nonprofit farm that helps former soldiers transition to civilian life by growing squash, carrots, beets, and more alongside other sympathetic troubled vets. As Navy veteran Kenny Holzemer told the American Legion magazine, “If you share the deepest, darkest concerns of your soul when you are out among the rows of radishes and sweet corn, you know it will stay there.”
Working a nearly three-acre farm in Washington State, Growing Veterans unites more than 500 volunteers in a variety of earthy tasks, from planting and harvesting the crops to selling them at farmers’ markets or donating them to local food banks and schools. They even produce the very punny “PTS-Tea,” an herbal blend intended to help with anxiety, and a hot sauce made from homegrown ingredients called Fire in the Hole.
To Brown, this is therapy at its most basic: “You are bringing life into the world and using it to sustain your own life,” he told the American Legion magazine. “After being around war and death, it’s pretty cool.”
Brown came to the idea from his own post-military experiences. He served as a corporal in the Marines, and when he returned home after three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2004 to 2008, he found himself staring down many of the same challenges as other veterans: survivor’s guilt, a traumatic brain injury, and PTSD. He knew he could be in danger: At least 15 men from his unit had died by suicide since they returned home.
“As part of my healing process, a counselor suggested I grow food as a way to reconnect with my surroundings,” Brown says. He began growing mint and cucumbers in pots on his apartment balcony in Bellingham, Washington. Watching the plants grow had a calming effect. “I could see it was helping me, so I figured, why not bring that to a larger scale?”
Brown found an acre and a half in nearby Lynden, Washington; invested in squash, beets, carrots, and flowers; and opened the gates to veterans who might want to spend a day, a week, or a season there—and take home all the produce they needed. The emotional nourishment they received from fellow vets was, well, organic to the process. As Army veteran Paul Keupfer told goskagit.com, “I describe it as 50 percent growing food, 50 percent hugging.”
The Queen Wore Combat Boots
Desiree Pabon was lined up backstage at Hollywood Post 43, an American Legion hall in California, trying to steady her nerves and her legs. A sergeant first class in the Army, Pabon was used to walking in combat boots. Heels were another matter.
Wearing an off-the-shoulder evening gown, Pabon, 31, was vying for the title of 2018 Ms. Veteran America. Despite the name and the occasional tiara, Ms. Veteran America is not your typical pageant. There are no height or weight restrictions. There is a talent contest, but there’s also an optional push-up contest. The interview questions focus on the women’s knowledge of military history.
“Femininity isn’t just about looks,” says Army major Jas Boothe, who created the contest seven years ago and sees it as a celebration of all women, no matter what they wear.
“We honor and acknowledge that to serve is a sacrifice of every woman who has worn that uniform.”
Pabon learned of Ms. Veteran America when she was stationed in Qatar. “I was scrolling through Facebook, and I saw this picture of two of the queens,” she says. They were facing off in the push-up competition, “staring each other down. I thought, This looks like fun!”
She was also drawn to the competition’s focus on raising money for homeless female veterans. From 2010 to 2015, the homeless female veteran population tripled to more than 36,000, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Boothe, the pageant’s founder, had once been homeless, as had Pabon, when she was 19. “Seven months pregnant and sleeping on my aunt’s living room floor, that’s how I became part of that statistic,” Pabon says. “I wasn’t living outside, but I became one of the people who are couch surfing. That’s part of the homeless population that’s not counted at all.”
A year after her son, Javon, was born, Pabon rejoined the service; she later married a fellow soldier. Last year, she set her sights on Ms. Veteran America to celebrate how far she’d come.
The high point for her was the talent competition, where she recited a poem she’d written in the voice of a Women’s Army Corps (WAC) member from World War II, wearing a vintage uniform she had cobbled together from eBay. One stanza told her colleagues: “I want you to believe that what you are doing / Is not just for this war but for our future generation of / Female gladiators that we are paving the way for.”
Pabon won the competition and the prize money that comes with it: $15,000 toward a car, a home, education, or a student-loan repayment. As part of her reign, she acts as a spokesperson for Ms. Veteran America and performs 100 hours of community service, educating people about homeless female veterans.
“A lot of people get hung up on ‘I don’t have a talent’ or ‘I’m not good at wearing heels,’” Pabon says. “We want you to know it’s a competition among sisters. It is not about how good you look in a dress. It’s about your compassion for your own.”