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

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.”

USVCC, NFL Hall of Fame Host Service & Sports Heroes

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A military veteran sitting in a wheelchair in his uniform, looking at the camera

By Rich Dolan

On March 9, the United States Veterans Chamber of Commerce (USVCC)—in conjunction with the Pro Football Hall of Fame—hosted a benefit dinner to support the U.S. Invictus team. The event was hosted at the historic New York Athletic Club, whose athletes have won 271 Olympic medals since the inaugural Modern Olympic Games in 1896.

The night was dedicated to the bravery and commitment of the wounded military veterans who make up the U.S. Invictus team and featured a silent auction of NFL memorabilia to benefit the team. Kevin “Red Eagle” Brown, president and CEO of USVCC, opened up the night, explaining the mission of the USVCC and the organization’s dedication to helping veterans successfully transition from the military to civilian life.

“Underneath the umbrella of support for all veterans, we have a laser-focused look at our wounded warriors that are participating in adaptive sports,” said Brown.

Brown also recognized the late Pro Football Hall of Fame member Chris Doleman for his contributions to USVCC and the veteran community. “It was his original inspiration that identified the similarities between transitioning ball players and transitioning service members.

“Both of them leaving behind a team, both of them leaving behind something bigger than themselves—a higher calling, a mission, a victory,” said Brown.

Medal of Honor recipient Paul “Bud” Bucha also spoke to the attendees, defining what it meant to be an adaptive athlete. “An adaptive athlete is a competitor who uses the modification in sports to meet the challenge of their disability,” said Bucha. “Basically, an adaptive athlete is an able-bodied athlete with all the problems mankind can think of being thrown in their way.” He went on to thank the many corporate sponsors of the night, the athletes and the veterans who he added, “have gone to the gates of hell and back to serve their country.”

Retired Army Master Sergeant and U.S. Invictus team co-captain George Vera also spoke to the attendees. Vera shared his personal story of the events that led to him become an adaptive athlete. In 2015, Vera’s base in Afghanistan was attacked by terrorists using a Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) and assaulters with suicide vests in an attempt to overrun the outpost. Vera led part of a counterattack that successfully defeated the terrorists inside the base.

However, in the process Vera was shot four times in his legs and back, leaving him paralyzed below the waist. Vera experienced a rollercoaster ride of emotions throughout his recovery, and he explained how adaptive sports helped save his life. “Although I couldn’t be a regular Special Forces guy, Istill had the ability to help lead,” said Vera.

He also discussed the bond that adaptive sports bring to the wounded warrior community. “Although it’s great to bring home the gold medal, I don’t really think that’s what it’s about—it’s more about overcoming adversity and helping others overcome adversity,” Vera said.

Among the other honored guests of the night were Pro Football Hall of Fame members Kevin Greene, Curtis Martin, Mike Haynes, Curly Culp, Harry Carson, Morten Andersen and Rickey Jackson. Greene also held a fireside chat for the attendees, where he spoke about his time serving in the U.S. Army and his reverence for the wounded warriors playing on the U.S. Invictus team.

“They volunteer, first of all, to serve our country in the combined armed forces, and then despite all the adversity that they’ve experienced and are presently experiencing they’re now becoming heroes of the field of sports,” said Greene. “They’re being heroes for us now on a different stage, on an international stage, representing this country in these sporting events.” The fireside chat came to a playful close as Greene was asked if he would take Tom Brady on his team, to which he replied, “does a fat baby fart?”

The main event of the night featured a fireside chat between NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Pro Football Hall of Fame President David Baker. Baker opened up the discussion by reciting “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley. Henley wrote the poem in in the late 1870s after losing a leg to tuberculosis. The poem was meant to define fortitude in the face of adversity, and strength in the face of permanent disability.

Throughout the fireside chat, the long relationship between the NFL and the military was discussed, as well as the fact that three NFL players—including an NFL commissioner—have received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Goodell then touched on his 2008 United Service Organizations (USO) tour that brought him to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait to visit deployed soldiers, saying, “I was just amazed at what these people do for us. The men and women in our military are just extraordinary,” added Goodell. He went on to say that the 10 days he spent on the tour were some of the most inspiring days of his life, adding that the debt which is owed to U.S. soldiers for what they sacrifice could never be repaid.

The two also discussed Goodell’s contributions to the veteran community, including his support of the Merging Vets & Players (MVP) organization, which helps transitioning service members and professional athletes navigate life outside of uniform together. When asked about his thoughts on the Invictus Games, Goodell told Baker that he didn’t think there was anything more inspiring.

“I don’t think that there’s anything more important in the world to show people that you do overcome those problems, you do overcome those challenges, and you’re doing something really positive in the world and inspiring people who are watching you as athletes on the world stage,” Goodell said. “When you combine football, athletes and our veterans, that’s a magical combination in my view.”

The night ended with the silent auction of NFL memorabilia and VIP picture opportunities. Over $150,000 was raised by 256 attendees and all proceeds will fund the U.S. Invictus Team Training Camp at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Campus in Canton, Ohio. Official sponsors of the event included Caliber Home Loans, Seeger Weiss, World’s Greatest Videos, Aetna, CVS Health, GEICO and Loews Hotels.

Due to COVID-19, the 2020 Invictus Games have been postponed until 2021. For more information, visit invictusgamesfoundation.org

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.”

Jon Bon Jovi —A Song For The Unbroken

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by Kat Castagnoli, USVM Editor

With his signature black leather jacket, still-tousled hair and mega-watt smile, Jon Bon Jovi is every inch the rock superstar you’d expect him to be.

The band that bears his name has released 14 studio albums, five compilations and three live albums. This translates to 130 million records sold worldwide, with more than 2,700 performances in over 50 countries for more than 30 million adoring fans.

Yet the level of Bon Jovi’s fame is unequaled by the size of his heart. Few may know this son of two former Marines is true philanthropist, and he’s made helping military veterans and their families his personal mission.

During a recent interview on CNN’s ‘The Lead with Jake Tapper,’ Bon Jovi announced that his JBJ Soul Foundation has donated half a million dollars to help build 77 new homes for homeless veterans in Washington, D.C. The project has taken ten years to complete alongside Help USA, a non-profit whose goal is tackling the issue of homelessness in the United States.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 50 percent of veterans who were homeless (since 2010) have been housed. But Bon Jovi says there are still more out there who need a helping hand. “Oftentimes, they’re [veterans] left to deal with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and the issue of coming back to the workplace after leaving the battlefield,” he said in a blog on mypositiveoutlooks.com. “Life as you knew it is going to be different, and sometimes, people need that extra help.”

Born to Rock

Bon Jovi, or John Francis Bongiovi Jr., was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. His mother, Carol Sharkey, was a former model and one of the first Playboy Bunnies. She met Bon Jovi’s father, John Francis Bongiovi Sr., after she enlisted in the U.S. Marines. John Sr. was already serving when they met.

It’s been said that Bon Jovi is a blood relative to the late Frank Sinatra, who was Bon Jovi’s great uncle on his father’s side, according to a May 1988 issue of Spin Magazine. This would certainly account for the rock star’s love of music from such a young age.

“Every kid who ever played in their garage dreams of being in a “Big Rock Band,” and I was no different,” said Bon Jovi during his induction speech into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

He explained, “I was first introduced to music at seven years old when my mother brought home a guitar she bartered for, along with the Kenny Rogers “Learn to Play Guitar” record. As a kid, my parents took me to lessons where this guy in a little cubicle smoking a pipe, opened up a book of scales and tortured kids with his smoke and lack of interest.

“After a couple weeks, I quit, throwing that guitar down the basement stairs. That guitar laid there in the dark, until I was around 15 and a man named Al

Bon Jovi and rock band 1987
Portrait of American rock band Bon Jovi backstage before a performance, Illinois, 1987. Pictured are, from left, David Bryan, Tico Torres, Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, and Alec John Such. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Parinello moved into our neighborhood. I didn’t learn quickly, and I was by no means any good, but Al showed me the magic of a song.”

Bon Jovi attended St. Joseph High School in New Jersey, but took little interest in his studies. He spent most of his adolescence dreaming about becoming a rock star; playing in his buddy’s basement, the local talent show, block dances and at clubs.

After high school, Bon Jovi worked as a janitor for a time. While sweeping floors at The Power Station in NYC, he got the opportunity to record demos. One of the demos, ‘Runaway,’ he sent to every label and manager he could think of before playing it for a D.J. at a new radio station. A few months later, ‘Runaway’ was playing on the radio, not only in New York, but in Tampa, Chicago, Detroit and Denver.

Shortly after, Bon Jovi was signed by Mercury/Polygram in 1983—the label he is still with to this day—and he gathered together David Bryan on the keyboard, Alec John Such as bassist and Tico Torres as the drummer to form the band, Bon Jovi. Their first album, Bon Jovi, was released in 1984.

Livin’ On a Prayer

By 1986, Bon Jovi had achieved widespread success and global recognition with their third album, Slippery When Wet, which sold 28 million copies worldwide. Slippery When Wet included three top 10 singles, two of which reached No. 1: “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Livin’ on a Prayer.”

His next album, New Jersey, not only shared the same success as Slippery When Wet—the album had five top-10 hits on Billboard’s Hot-100. No other album or artist ever produced as many top-10 hits, according to IMDb.com. And two of these top-10 hits, “Bad Medicine” and “I’ll Be There For You” topped the charts at number one, according to Bon Jovi’s biography on Billboard.com.

Jon Bon Jovi performs at the Soul Foundation 10 Year Anniversary
Jon Bon Bovi sings onstage at the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation’s 10 year anniversary at the Garage in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

But despite his success, Bon Jovi felt something was missing. “I had the No. 1 album, the No. 1 single and I opened up the window of the hotel and there was us on the billboard out my window: Literally, right there, celebrating the No. 1 this and that,” he said in an ultimateclassicrock.com interview. “And I thought: ‘Wow, this is a high. What do I do to get higher?’”

During a break on tour, he and his high school sweetheart, Dorothea Hurley, flew out to Las Vegas to elope on April 29, 1989. Fast-forward 30 years later: the couple remains happily married with four children: a daughter, Stephanie Rose, and three sons, Jesse James Louis, Jacob Hurley and Romeo Jon.

“She’s the glue,” Bon Jovi said of his wife in a Huffpost.com interview. “I’m the crazy visionary with all kinds of things flying, and the seams are all splitting. She’s the one following me with the glue and the thread and needle, keeping it all together.”

To Be of Service

When Bon Jovi was asked to appear at Rockefeller Center in NYC for the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony this past December, he seized the opportunity to share with military men and women his new song, “Unbroken,” which shines a light on veterans struggling with PTSD.

In an interview with Variety, Bon Jovi says the song is written from the perspective of a soldier living with the ghosts of combat—a “daunting task” for the songwriter because he himself had not served and the subject matter was foreign to him.

“When you write a song that has to do with soldiers, my only background in this was protest songs that were of the era, whether it was John Fogerty about Vietnam and “Fortunate Son,” or ultimately Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,’” Bon Jovi said.

But when Academy Award-nominated director Josh Aronson reached out about a documentary he was doing on a soldier’s journey, entitled, “To Be of Service,” the singer was instantly inspired.

“He [Aronson] told me just a couple of things that the soldiers had said that were going to be in the film. And when I asked him the name of the movie and he said, “To Be of Service“, I got it. “It came to me immediately,” he said. “I just grabbed my guitar and pretended to be that soldier and the narrator of the film.”

After Bon Jovi finished the song, he decided on a whim to send it to Prince Harry, creator of the Invictus Games—an annual international, multi-sport event for wounded, injured or sick servicemen and women. The games were named after the short poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, an amputee himself.

Prince Harry speaks with Jon Bon Jovi at Abbey Road Studios
Prince Harry speaks with Jon Bon Jovi at Abbey Road Studios, where a single has been recorded for the Invictus Games Foundation on February 28, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Hannah McKay – WPA Pool / Gettyimages)

Bon Jovi thought the Games’ choir of real soldiers singing “Unbroken” would bring attention to the issue of PTSD. “And so I just wrote him [Prince Harry] a letter and I said, ‘I’ve got this song, I’ve sung with your brother, I’ve met your father, your grandmother, your grandfather.’ And so I said listen to it and let me know. And so he said absolutely,” Bon Jovi explained in a Town & Country.com interview.

The duo met in February at the iconic Abbey Road Studios in northwest London to record a special single of “Unbroken” with the Invictus Games choir—the event one of the last public engagements Prince Harry made as an official royal.

While Coronavirus concerns have caused this year’s Invictus Games to be delayed until 2021, the special single of “Unbroken” debuted in March. The song will also be included in the forthcoming Bon Jovi album, “Bon Jovi 2020.”

Over the next year, Bon Jovi and Island Records will also donate 100 percent of the net proceeds from the download of the song to the Patriotic Service Dog Foundation, according to a Variety.com article.

And while “To Be of Service,” currently streaming on Netflix, takes viewers from boot camp and battle to night sweats and heartache, Bon Jovi found a way to not only honor veterans but end his song on a hopeful note, concluding, “well, the blessing and the curse is/ Yeah, I’d do it all again.”

Two US Army Veterans Receive Complete Home Renovation Thanks to National TV Show Military Makeover with Montel and WWE Superstar Lacey Evans

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Military Makeover Army veteran suprised outside of his home renovation

In true Military Makeover style, host Montel Williams, cast and crew, special guest WWE Superstar Lacey Evans, and equally passionate national brands have come together again to serve those who have served.

U.S. Army veterans Luke Harvey and Natasha Woodruff along with their 3 children will be given the gift of a beautifully renovated home among other gifts of gratitude. The first of eight (8) episodes airs on May 15th at 7:30am EST. All aired episodes can be viewed at militarymakeover.tv.

Luke Harvey, a medically retired and disabled combat veteran, served 6 years in the United States Army as an infantryman. In 2008, he was deployed to Iraq, where his convoy was hit by multiple IEDs. In 2014, Luke was medically retired from the military for PTSD and TBI (traumatic brain injury), and was awarded a Purple Heart. Luke met Natasha Woodruff while he was recovering from his injuries. Natasha too is a medically retired, disabled veteran who served as a Geospatial Engineer in the United States Army. During Natasha’s service, she was sexually assaulted, which left her with permanent injuries and PTSD. Upon retirement, Natasha was awarded the Women of Courage Award by the Pentagon for her perseverance in shining a light on the issue of sexual assault in the military.

Military Makeover stars Montel Williams and Lacey Evans outside the home being renovated
Military Makeover stars Montel Williams and Lacey Evans oustide the home being renovated

The Military Makeover team came equipped with donations from generous brand partnerships that the show cultivates. Brand partners provided supplies like floors (Tarkett), roofing (ABC Supply), HVAC systems (Goodman Manufacturing), countertops (Caesarstone), computers (MyComputerCareer) and other home furnishings. Other partners pitch in and donate gifts for the family such as insurance (Geico), mortgages (New Day Financial), caption enabled phones (CaptionCall) and smartphones (AT&T). Exclusive weather sponsor, AccuWeather, ensured sunny skies throughout the week, while Unilever kept the volunteers hydrated with Lipton beverages. The Harvey-Woodruff makeover was made possible by all of these generous companies.

Volunteers from the community and guest WWE Superstar Lacey Evans, a veteran of the U.S. Marines, stepped up to lend a hand in support of the Harvey-Woodruff family throughout the renovation process. The final reveal unites cast, brand partners and volunteers, creating a literal “community celebration” of support for the change they created together.

“In the nearly three decades since I retired from the Navy, I’ve never really taken the uniform off because standing up for those who are serving now and those who have served has been the greatest honor of my professional career.” – Montel Williams, Host and Co-Executive Producer

“We are so fortunate to be able to cultivate strong partnerships with national brands, non-profits, and local military communities to make each makeover better than the next.”-Mark Alfieri, Founder and CEO of BrandStar

Luke and Natasha Harvey outside their home with their childrenMilitary Makeover with Montel®, A BrandStar Original, is America’s Leading Branded Reality TV Show that offers hope and a helping hand here on the home front to members of our military and their loved ones. A veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Navy, talk show legend and military advocate Montel Williams, who creatively co-produces the show along with a colorful cast that seeks to transform the homes and lives of military families across the country. The cast includes co-host Art Edmond, designer Jennifer Bertrand and contractor Ryan Stanley. This special series enlists caring companies of all sizes as well as non-profits and the local community. Help starts at home for veterans on Military Makeover. Join us as our makeover team engages to change the living situation – and the lives – of these deserving families. Military Makeover with Montel EPK

Season 22 Air Dates on Lifetime @ 7:30am EST or visit www.militarymakeover.tv

May 15th – Episode #1

May 21st – Episode #2

May 29th – Episode #3

June 4th – Episode #4

June 12th – Episode #5

June 19th – Episode #6

June 25th – Episode #7

June 26th – Episode #8

These Chuck Norris Facts Will Make You Love Him Even More

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Funny Chuck Norris meme

On March 10, Carlos “Chuck” Norris turned 80 years old. Before becoming a martial arts expert, acting and creating his own gym, Norris served as an Air Force Pilot in South Korea and has become the subject of some of America’s favorite jokes. In honor of Chuck Norris’ 80th birthday, we wanted to share our top ten favorite Chuck Norris jokes.

  • Chuck Norris was once bitten by a cobra. After days of excruciating pain, the cobra passed away.
  • One time, Chuck Norris went to Mars. That’s why there’s no sign of life there.
  • Chuck Norris doesn’t try to survive a zombie apocalypse; the zombies try to survive Chuck Norris.
  • Few people know that Chuck Norris has a diary—it’s called the Guinness Book of World Records.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Chuck Norris has never cheated death. He always wins fair and square.
  • Chuck Norris is actually the creator of the giraffe. It came to be after he uppercut a horse.
  • Chuck Norris has punched people so hard that their blood started bleeding.
  • Chuck Norris has never had to put gas in his tank. All of his vehicles run on fear.
  • Chuck Norris doesn’t need to look at a clock for the time. He tells the clock what time it’s supposed to be.
  • When life gave Chuck Norris lemons, he squeezed the lemons and made orange juice.

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

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