WRNMMC - Where the Extraordinary is Pretty Much the Norm

I will never forget our first visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in May 2012. Vickie and I were in DC for a Joining Forces event and had some extra time - and a few extra gifts -and decided to help some wounded warriors honor their wives and moms on Mother's Day. After clearing security and entering the 58-acre, $2.8 billion base, we immediately noticed a young woman pushing a young man in a wheelchair who, in turn, was pushing a double stroller with a toddler and infant inside. Slung across the women's shoulder was a prosthetic leg with a very stylish running shoe at the end. Each corner, each crosswalk, each stop sign offered another glimpse of the magic that happens here! By the time we reached the hospital, it was clear that our hearts and our mission were forever changed. 

By our 4th visit in December 2013, we were old pros and almost never had tears running down our faces when we left a warrior's room. (lie*) Most often we found that the service members wanted to talk, show us photos, show us scars (!) and were just so grateful for the opportunity to show their love and appreciation to their families. Sometimes, our escort would skip a room, either the patient was too ill or just didn't want company and it broke our hearts not to be able to help, but we understood.  Our last patient that day was something we were definitely not prepared for!  There in the bed was an adorable young soldier named Andi. She was as big as a minute, bound up in some traction device, and about all she could move was her mouth. Boy, did she talk -  about her parachute malfunction and her 70 foot fall, her numerous broken bones and severe internal injuries. But she never complained, she didn't feel sorry for herself, she spoke only of the future and what she was going to accomplish. There wasn't a doubt in her mind - or ours. After a delightful visit, we left her with a box of gifts for her very deserving Mom.

Fast forward to December 2014. Imagine our surprise as we drove to the Warrior Cafe to set up our gift station and saw a young woman cruising the sidewalk in her wheelchair, smiling and chatting with the woman walking next to her. It was our Andi - a much improved version after 30 surgeries! She greeted us excitedly and told us that she had just that day taken 3 steps - her first since the accident. Andi would be not able to leave WRNMMC until after the holidays, but she was looking forward to her Dad coming to visit. Then WE surprised HER - we now had Gift Boxes for Dads! Talk about Full Circle!! 

Another remarkable twist to the story: the beautiful and talented young Occupational Therapist on the far left is my cousin's daughter, whom I had never met before! 

Though the Holidays seem far away as we relish this late summer heatwave, our seventh visit to WRNMMC is already scheduled.  Your donation of $75 can help us restore a sense of dignity to our injured heroes by providing them with gifts for their loved ones. We can't imagine what stories will unfold this season, but we are certain they we will inspire us to return again and again.

"WARRIOR QUEENS"

Vickie and I always tell people, "Being a military mom was hard enough, but we can't IMAGINE being a military spouse!"  It's true. We've been doing that whole sleepless night routine since our sons were born!  But a wife?....how do they do it?? Most work or go to school, take care of their homes, sometimes their parents, and at the end of an exhausting day, tuck their children in to bed and somehow find the strength to assure them that Daddy will be home soon. Whew! I wouldn't last a week.

FROM HUSBANDS:

"My wife is one of the strongest women in the world. This is our 9th deployment together and she is the rock that keeps us together!"

"I am currently deployed to Afghanistan while my wife has the harder job of staying home and raising three kids alone."

FROM WIVES:

"My Dad died last year and then Mom had a stroke so now I care for her. With two kids, pets, Mom and a husband who has been deployed for much of the last 5 years, I am dreaming of a day off!"

"I am an Iraqi War Veteran myself, but being on the other side as a military spouse has been twice as hard- especially around our baby's birthday and Christmas."

"My husband was brought home in the middle of his deployment because I went into labor at 35 weeks. Our daughter was stillborn and he is going back to his ship next week."

The hundreds of notes we receive each year are both heart warming and heart wrenching. Each one inspires us to try harder, to do more! These women ARE the rocks,  the "she-roes", and we feel a personal connection to each one. To us, they are "The Warrior Queens" with all thanks to Marcus Luttrell for the very fitting moniker.


My Side of the Story

by Lisa Miller

I have struggled with this blog for a couple of weeks, but I woke up this morning with a renewed will to "get 'er done!” Okay, so I am a little afraid of Vickie...

Sitting at my kitchen table, I decided to scrap all the woe-is-me lines I had written - yes I still use pen and paper - and focus instead on my incredible good fortune.

My original working titles ranged from, "If 2.6 Million Mothers Watched Their Kids Go To War In The Last Decade, Why Did I Feel So Alone?" to the more succinct, "Being An Army Mom Sucked.”  Don't get me wrong, both of those statements are true. But I will take my cue from millions of veterans, my son included, and keep my war stories to myself for now. So let's talk about some good things...

I expected, even embraced, that my life would change when my three kids left home.  All their lives I was the costume maker, Cub Scout leader, field trip driver, “professional volunteer"... But now I would travel, read more, learn to knit, do more for ME!  Then, quite by happenstance , I met Vickie Durfee....(insert sound of screeching brakes here*) and my life took a new direction as Full Circle Home was born.

Well, I HAVE NOT visited all 50 states, but I HAVE sent gifts to Moms and wives in each one. I HAVE read volumes.... thousands of emails, love notes and thank-yous from troops and their loved ones. I still CAN'T knit, but I CAN wrap hundreds of beautiful packages at breakneck speed. I DON'T have a lot of time for manicures, but I DID have a  girl-chat with Michele Obama and Jill Biden about the merits of gel polish!  (And other headier topics!)  I realized that doing more for ME meant doing more for OTHERS, that to survive those deployments when I was PARALYZED by fear, I needed to MOVE. 

And in the process, I found all these good things I didn't know I was looking for - strength, compassion, creativity, humor, determination, more humor! I found them in myself and in my dear friend Vickie and the many friends we've met along the way. Laverne and Shirley, Thelma and Louise, Wilma and Betty, Lucy and whatshername... They've got nothin' on us...

Stay tuned.

The night he left for Iraq...

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You'll find most military wives and moms are pretty stoic - on the outside.  While Gil was deployed, people said, "I don't know how you do it!"  I thought I would share what I was feeling inside.  I wrote this the night Gil left for Iraq.

"You can capture someone's smile in a picture.  You can record someone's laugh or gentle voice on a tape recorder.  You can save their mannerisms on a video.  You can, even for a while, retain their personal scent on a t-shirt.  But touch, touch is something that is exclusively in the present.

Gil left for Iraq today.  Ashley and I compared pictures, laughing, ooo-ing and ahhh-ing.  We watched the videos of the guys hanging out playing "hat frisbee", playing imaginary dice for a found pair of sunglasses or most special of all, Gil, singing to Ashley - well, lip-syncing.  I'm wearing one of Gil's t-shirts as I write this, but his hug, the feel of my arms holding on to my oldest son, I can only find it in my memory.  But I can feel it in the muscles in my arms that gripped him so tight.  And the muscles in my fingers that pressed into his back.  And I can feel it inside of me in the pain that he's gone to Iraq.  But you can't capture the touch.  I can't feel him.  But I can only hope that he can feel it as I felt it and remember how much I love him.  That when I told him I loved him, he heard all the other things:  that I'm so proud of him, proud that he's courageous and brave, that he's gentle and kind, that he's considerate and loving, that he's a silly and romantic fool with Ashley, that he commands respect from his men, that he is respected by so many, that he's my son and you can love someone so much that it hurts.  I hope he heard what I really said.  I believe he did.  

Seven months.  I can do this because he can.  I am strong because he is.  I will sometime cry because I need to catch my breath so I can be strong again.  I know that sometimes I'll be broad sided by emotion.  Oh, I hate that.  But there it is, like something that's alive that gets away from you when you're not paying attention.  But in the end, it's fine, because it's real."

Summer Newsletter

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Full Circle Home

Honoring Celebrating and Connecting our Troops and their Heroes at Home


15,000 boxes, 15,000 stories

As of Father’s Day, Full Circle Home has sent out almost 15,000 gift sets!  They’ve gone to every state in the nation and to bases around the world.  We’ve helped troops deployed to 27 countries, on 21 ships, 6 cutters and 1 submarine.  We’ve sent gifts in their names to moms and dads, wives and husbands, fiances, girlfriends and boyfriends, aunts and uncles, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, teachers, a nanny and a gold star mom.  There are so many stories behind why they want to send their love home - stories of parents setting an example, or a daughter stepping up to be the adult while her mom is deployed, a wife who has been someone’s “beacon in a storm” or the father who takes care of their special needs children.  There are so many stories of strength under fire, grace in adversity and selfless love.  It’s an honor to serve them.


Walter Reed National Military Medical Center

Once again FCH distributed gifts to the Wounded Warriors at Walter Reed.  94 Mother’s Day and Father’s Day gifts were passed out with the help of 3 from Exelis Corp along with Evie Archer (the recording artist who put her song, “On Christmas Day” to our photos) and her mother - so appropriate for Mother’s Day!   We were excited to see some of our Warriors progressing from the in-patient to the out-patient side!

Wrapping at the Naval Observatory in Washington DC

75 friends came together at the Naval Observatory to wrap Mother’s Day gifts.  Sponsors and supporters, Congressional Spouses, ROTC Hoya Battalion, friends and family prepared 500 boxes (1,500 gifts) in 2 hours!  We then got some help unloading them all at the Post Office.


Christmas Starts in June!

This Christmas holiday Full Circle Home will send out 1,000 gifts boxes.  That means, with the help of an army of volunteers, we will wrap 12,000 individual boxes!  We will be wrapping in Rochester starting in June with Morgan Stanley.  Over the upcoming months, we’ll be in Williamsville, Washington DC, New York City and more!  We’ll be taking our ribbon, shred and gifts on the road.

Many businesses and organizations (from craft groups to fraternities) will set up what is known as a Sponsored Wrapping Event as a team building program.  They let us know how many people will be attending, we bring enough gifts to keep them busy for a couple of hours and the group underwrites those boxes.  We gave been so excited by the popularity of this program!  

Coming together, making a difference, wrapping gifts (yes, there are even things to do for  someone who is all thumbs!), and stories from the troops - all in 2 hours!  People love it!

Contact FCH for more information on our team building Sponsored Wrap Program.


A special thanks to our corporate and organizational sponsors!

Exelis Corp.

Vertex Inc.

Webster Thomas Titans Cheerleading

Paul Miller Family Foundation

Delta Gamma, Zeta Delta Chapter

George Mason University Greek Life 

Morgan Stanley

M&T Charitable Foundation

Louis and Molly Wolk Foundation

Kilian J and Caroline F Schmitt Foundation Inc

Bergmann Associates 

Nimble User

Del Monte Hotel Group

Battle Buddies

I wasn’t looking for a battle buddy, although I now believe everyone is better with one.  I certainly wasn’t looking for a new “job”.  But what we’re looking for and what we need are sometimes very different.

I think most people would think of a Battle Buddy as someone who has your back when you're in the trenches.  And sure enough, that’s part of it.  But it’s the day in and day out that hones how you react in the trenches.  While I won’t insult a soldier by saying it’s the same as an Army’s Battle Buddy, I think Lisa and I certainly fit the basic description - in a civilian kind of way!  

What is a Battle Buddy?  Per Wikipedia, a Battle Buddy is a partner assigned to a soldier. (OK, I’m a Marine mom, so please forgive me!)  A Battle Buddy assists his/her partner both in and out of combat.  A Battle Buddy is intended for company and to maintain morale.  Since each watches his partner's actions, a Battle Buddy can notice negative thoughts and feelings and intervene to provide help.  Battle Buddies keep each other up on important information, problem solve together, boost morale and confidence, help through stressful times, and help to build better leadership skills.

It’s having a Battle Buddy that has made the journey in Full Circle Home not only joyful in helping others, but downright fun!  And I know I could never have accomplished sending 15,000 gift set for the troops to send to their heroes at home and for the Wounded Warriors at Walter Reed to give to their loved ones.  I can’t accept responsibility for the national media exposure, our logo on a LeMans Series Race car, hanging out with Patrick Dempsey (yes he IS that cute!) and the friends we’ve made in DC.  But I will say that I am incredibly fortunate to have stumbled upon a Battle Buddy that makes us so much more that we are individually.  (Ok, forget the stumble upon - there were SO many links that we discovered that we must have been blockheads not to have made a connection years ago!)

 

Lisa and I met in the airport in 2006 when our sons were coming home from different deployments.  Big hugs, congratulations, and a few tears - but I never expected I would see this family again!  (Yet 8 years later, we now have places in the Adirondacks 2 camps down from each other.  Battle Buddies in and out of the trenches!)  However, in 2007, Lisa heard about what I was planning through a mutual friend (Thank you Peggy H.!) and we reconnected.  Our first phone call lasted over an hour and we were off and running, and have never looked back.  

It look more than a few years to fully accept that Lisa was every bit as committed as I was.  She acted that way and was willing to pull long days and EXTREMELY late nighters, multitasking and doing whatever was needed whenever it was needed.  I just couldn’t believe that there was someone that would do that - that believed as completely in Full Circle Home as I did, was willing to work so hard, and pay to do it.  I was afraid she might get tired of having no life and choose to relax on occasion!   I’ve come to realize that there is no more fun that diving into something that helps others, makes you feel good and gets you into situations that are new that stretch you - and through it all, you know that someone not only has your back, but makes you better. 

Full Circle Home is unique and heartfelt and sorely needed.  However, there is a reason no one else does what we do!  It’s labor intensive and has some basic hurdles.   Full Circle Home is free to the troops.  We have to raise rather large amounts of money - a big job for 2 people.  Hurdle #1:  Did I say that I would rather eat worms than to ask for money?  We also need to get sensitive information from troops that are overseas.  Hurdle #2:  No, the military does NOT provide us with a list of who is deploying and how to connect with them!  The good news:  Lisa and I love to prepare gifts!  We love to make things special and beautiful and make people feel loved.  All of the abilities that are necessary to accomplish our goals did not come from skill sets that we possessed!  So we have to figure it out, get out of our own way, and just do it.  Passion and belief are fuel that propels us.

So there are some interesting challenges right out of the box.  But also incredible opportunity!  We are not hampered by how things should be done.  We see what needs doing and do it.  We do it with the expectation that Of Course those we are reaching out to will agree and want to help!  We reach out to people as we would to our friends, and so often, our contacts become friends of a sort, whether it's the president of a company, high ranking military personnel, or high school advisors.  

But it’s this Battle Buddy of mine that gets us in situations that leaves us hooting with laughter, openly shedding tears, and loving the journey.  When you know that you're covered, you’re fearless.  And when you're fearless, you can do anything and expect everything and not get bound up if it doesn’t go your way.  Because if it doesn’t, it’s probably because there is a much better way coming down the pipe!  And oh my, there always is!  

When I tell our story to others, it sometimes feels like I’m telling another person’s story because these crazy things couldn’t have happened to us!  We thought we were all THAT when one of our local news stations did a piece on us the first Christmas.  We were so grateful that they would help us get the word out.  When Family Circle Magazine called, (between screams and jumping around) I asked Lisa, “How did they hear about us?!”  Oh yea, we sent them something the year before!  And when Rhiannan Alley of Better.tv saw the article, she and a cameraman flew to Rochester to do a segment on FCH, airing nationally on Christmas Eve day.  (It’s a good thing she wasn’t made up for the camera because when I was reading the letters from those we’ve touched, I looked up and she was a tearful, soggy mess in the nicest way!)  From there it was working with the USO, the Congressional Spouses Wrap at the Vice President’s residence with Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden, Fox News, a dinner at the Air Force Chief of Staff’s home (the night of a violent storm that put the area in a state of emergency, somehow appropriate for us!) The Today Show and more.  

 

Sometimes when we have to do something that we’re not comfortable with, one of us will say to the other, “It’s ok, you go ahead.” like we’re being polite instead of too big a chicken to do it ourselves!  And so the other steps up and get’s it done.  Somehow we always know who's turn it is!  But in the process, we’ve both become bolder and more efficient - each a better leader.  We know when we have to be the Strong One, and when we can be angry or disappointed or sad.  We can carry the other, or be transparent enough to let the other know that we need help. 

Since Full Circle Home is about connections, and love, and appreciation, I have to admit that we wear our heart on our sleeve, as my mom would say.  And that somehow gives others permission to do the same, or at least to open up and show who they are in a business environment that rarely rewards that.  I think the joy and enthusiasm that Lisa and I share is infectious and contagious.  When we are able to laugh and have fun in an environment like Walter Reed, or be joyful as we talk about the troops’ stories of separation and strength even as tears are spilling over, we remind people that FCH is all about people and families and loved ones.  And that together, we are far stronger, can do far more and can live more fully, and it starts with a Battle Buddy.

 

Stories and Numbers, Tears and Laughter

It's funny how your kids get you into so many different situations.  It's been said that having children changes your life.  And any mom would agree with you.  I just didn't expect a decision that my son made would veer me off in a direction such as this.

What started as a simple request from my Marine son, Gil, to send his girlfriend a box of Christmas presents grew into something I never would have imagined, nor felt qualified to do.  Yet in 8 years, Full Circle Home has sent out gifts to bases around the world and to every state in the nation.  

By the numbers:

15,000 boxes, 124,000 individual gifts, 394,000 pieces of chocolate or 1,230 pounds of chocolate, 5 miles of ribbon, 20,000 volunteer wrapping hours, 5 different donated warehouse spaces, 2 military moms, 30,000 troops and heroes at home celebrating holidays apart.

But the numbers don't tell the story,  They might describe what we have physically done, or used, or participated in.  But they are not the story.  It's the soldier who left to join his unit a few days after his twin newborns' open heart surgeries, or the soldier who's 18 year old daughter stepped up to take care of her 2 younger sisters while her single mom was deployed, or the mom that came home from her chemo treatment to find a box of gifts and a love note from her deployed son.  Those are the stories of Full Circle Home.  They are all so different yet they all ring with a similar tone - that of strength and commitment and tenacity... and love.  Some of the stories are told to us by the troops when they sign up. They tell us how hard their wife works juggling kids, work, volunteering, ill parents, oh, and making sure she sends out care packages and pictures to them while they are overseas.  Yup, they acknowledge that she pretty much wears a cape!  Sometimes they send along a photo so we know who we're sending the gifts to - not unlike what we try to do with out sponsors:  Make It Real.  Oh, it's real.  In 8 years, we've never stopped tearing up ourselves!

After the gifts reach the women, we always get phone calls, emails, handwritten notes and Facebook posts.  We rush to our mailbox every day after the boxes are mailed to see if we got any letters!  You see, we never, or almost never, are able to see them get the boxes!  Oh we would love to be a little fly on the wall.  Because we KNOW how we would react, and from the letters we get back, I think many respond the same... in tears.  And that's how we came to have tissues in a purse size holder in the gift box.  Everyone said "As soon as I saw my son's handwriting I started to cry!"  

A big difference, however, is how they go about opening the gifts!  For some it's a blur of ribbon and shred and wrap as they open all 12 Christmas gifts in the Post Office parking lot!  Others open them one day at a time with their service member on Skype.  Some share the gifts with their teen age daughters, or with their daughter-in-law.  Others say they felt like a little kid - spoiled and fussed over as they opened 12 days of gifts.  Some post each day they open a gift on Facebook and share with the world.  Others can barely speak as they savor the connection that each gift holds.

For us, even the connections to the troops vary from year to year.  We've been able to get in front of units before they deploy and have them sign up right there.  That's good because if they don't write a love note we hand it back (bossy moms) and tell them to go write something!  Many times they just find us on the internet and it's one and done.  We have also gone viral (thanks to a helpful major) and had 700 troops sign up in 3 days.  YIKES!  Yet, for some, we've made some sort of connection across the internet, and after the holiday, they let us know how much she loved her gifts.  We've had some reach out on consecutive deployments and in their request form, they bring us up to date on their families, like we're old friends.  

This year, the loss in one of our units has left me unsettled and pained.  Many Marines of the 15th MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) signed up for Mother's Day, and subsequently, we offered to take care of more of them for Father's Day.  On May 17, they lost 2 men in an Osprey helicopter accident.  While neither of those young men had been part of FCH's programs, I feel a particular loss that catches my breath.  So I can only imagine the impact on the rest of the 15th MEU.  And I see it in their love notes to their Dads.  They aren't quick little "love ya, Dad" or less.  They are writing a note knowing that it has an importance not just for them but for their Dads.  One young Marine sent me 4 edits, each one saying just a little bit more.  By the end, I was in tears.  I'm sure his dad will be.

I was initially relieved that these 2 Marines weren't "one of ours".  That was quickly replaced by a sadness that they were not.  My family always says "I love you" when we're leaving.  We always want that to be what someone is left with.  Maybe the Full Circle Home gifts and love note could have been just that.

So it's just a little box of gifts.  But it's so much more.  It's a part of the deployed service member. Things are sometimes more apt to be written than said out loud.  And now days, who hand writes a note anyway!?  On occasion, we get the requests hardcopy in the mail and they're dirty and stained and crumpled.  You know that paper has traveled with him through who knows what!  Those are our favorites.  Or when they press so hard on the pen as they write that you can feel the writing right through the card stock.  Those are our favorites.  Or the love note that is so long and open hearted that I have to redesign the card.  Those are our favorites.  When they write a love note or simply sign their name so their mom or wife or dad can see and touch it... those, those our our favorites.

So you can see why we just keep going on.  How 2 military moms with their sons now out of the service, volunteer full time (overtime?) and consider themselves lucky and honored to be able to do it.

The story of Vickie and Lisa, however, might also have you in tears ... but laughing!  It's been quite a journey!