From early on in my career in higher education, part of my responsibilities was as a Veterans Certifying official. It was my responsibility to certify veterans for their educational benefits at the college that I worked for. You may or may not know that my husband is also a Veteran. Because of both of these connections, I have been passionate about the Veteran community for some time now. About a year ago I started volunteering my time as the Peer Group Leader for the Chicagoland Chapter of Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor organization. Hearts of Valor is a Veteran Caregiver organization whose mission is to honor the service and sacrifice of the people who care for our nation’s wounded, ill or injured warriors by providing a community of support based on a foundation of empathy and mutual understanding. Through this opportunity I get to spend one night per month with some incredible women. We meet, share resources, share our stories, share our strengths and we also share our struggles. Ultimately, we try to support each other however we can. I am truly blessed to have this small yet impactful group of women in my life. I have learned a tremendous amount from each of them. They were a huge part of my support system when I was struggling with “life”. They continue to be a strong part of my support system as I do my best to navigate my own personal journey. I am extremely grateful for them.
A few weeks ago, I had the honor of being selected to attend a caregiver retreat with Operation Homefront’s Hearts of Valor organization. This retreat was being sponsored by USAA. The Friday through Monday retreat was held in San Antonio, TX just as Hurricane Harvey was rearing his ugly head. I was fortunate to get to meet another caregiver headed to the retreat before I even left Chicago. She was coming from Cincinnati and had a connecting flight in Chicago. It turned out that her connecting flight was my direct flight to San Antonio. We found this out ahead of time and exchanged phone numbers. We connected at the airport and although this was the first time we were meeting each other (other than a few simple emails), we both greeted each other with a hug. There was an instant connection. An instant bond. At that moment, we didn’t need to exchange stories with each other. No words needed to be spoken. We were both caregivers of Wounded Warriors. We both knew what that meant. Needless to say, we talked the ENTIRE flight to San Antonio. I can’t tell you how much I learned from her! She was schooling me about so many things that I didn’t even know that I didn’t know about! Caregiver resources that are available, Veteran resources available, organizations that I should have been aware of but wasn’t and the list went on. I hadn’t even been out of Chicago for 4 hours and already I felt like if I got nothing else from this trip it was already SO WORTH it! Not only had I learned about different resources and organizations, but I also had made a new friend (and I don’t use that term lightly). Little did I know there was still so much more to come!
We arrived safely in San Antonio and made it to our hotel around 11:30 am without incident. We were staying at the Westin on the Riverwalk. It was BEAUTIFUL – even with the gray skies and rain. We were the first caregivers to arrive that day. Nothing was really scheduled until 5pm so we decided to hit the streets of San Antonio! We started walking and headed toward the mall. On our way there we came upon a beautiful sculpture garden. We stopped and took our time looking at each one of the sculptures and taking pictures. It wasn’t very big but it was pretty amazing. It was calm and tranquil, a very different feel from my everyday life at home. It was fitting since the theme of the retreat was self-care.
From there we walked to the mall and walked through a few stores. We left the mall and were walking the streets when we came upon a wax museum. We both looked at each other and smiled. Neither one of us had ever been to a wax museum and we were both very intrigued. We decided to purchase a 3 attraction pass to get us into the wax museum, a 4k movie experience and the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum. We were excited! We walked in not really knowing what to expect. We saw some great wax figures and some really bad ones too. There was one of our current president – whoever made that one clearly wasn’t a fan of his. It was terrible. We saw Oprah, Dr. Phil, Morgan Freeman, Michael Jackson, Will Smith, Ellen, Johnny Depp and many others. We took advantage of being the only ones in the museum and decided to be goofy and take a bunch of selfies with the “celebrities”. We had a BLAST! I had not laughed that hard in years. I was definitely channeling my inner child. There was no worry of judgement, no concern of what she was thinking about me, it was only about having fun and enjoying ourselves. And enjoy ourselves we did. From there we went on to the 4K movie experience and the Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum and neither one of them disappointed. I think we laughed for 3 straight hours!
When we finished our museum tours we figured out that we were only a few blocks away from the Alamo so off we went. It was interesting. I was more intrigued by the massive oak trees and landscaping than by the actual buildings. But that was neither here nor there. We were having a great time and honestly that was all that mattered. I wasn’t thinking about my husband or kids. I wasn’t concerned with what we were going to eat for dinner. I wasn’t thinking about what I needed to buy at the grocery store or what household chores needed to be done. It was the first time in a long time that I actually was really focused on me and having a good time. I was living in the moment. After hitting a few souvenir shops we headed back to the hotel.
We got back to the hotel a little after 5 and I went straight to the first session. Our first session was on meditation. Meditation is not something that is new to me. I remember my mother meditating when I was younger and my husband meditates. I seem to go through phases, but recently I have been working with a life coach and she suggested that I meditate so I have been doing more of it in the last several months. There was some discussion of meditation vs relaxation and the differences, but the focus was on self-care. That I appreciated. Self-care is not something that I am particularly good at. I find myself taking care of others and not necessarily thinking about me.
Dinner was next on the agenda. Seats were assigned and I was at a table with 4 other caregivers I had not yet met. The speakers for the evening were also at my table. I sat down and introduced myself to the other ladies and our speakers (a retired veteran who was now a doctor and his wife who was a nurse). Although I was at a table of “strangers” again there was an instant connection. It didn’t matter that some of us were in our 20’s, some in our 30’s and then those of us who were older than that, we had that same connection that I had with the caregiver I met in the airport. There was an instant feeling of family.
We found out at dinner that 4 of our speakers for the week had cancelled because of the hurricane. I however am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. That reason became clear as day to me by the end of the retreat. Dinner was great – but not nearly as good as the conversation. I was making great connections with some amazing people. I felt so blessed. At the end of dinner, we were all given the most beautiful handmade quilts that had been donated to the organization.
There was no better way than to end the night than 20 caregivers sitting in a hotel bar waiting for a hurricane to hit. We weren’t for sure whether it was going to hit us but we had an evacuation plan just in case. Somewhere around this time we decided to name our group Harvey’s Angels. It was fitting in so many ways and everyone agreed that it was nothing less than perfect! We spent the night at the hotel bar talking, joking, laughing and getting to know each other. We were all far from our “real lives”, but we were all exactly where we needed to be.
Saturday started with yoga. Participation in this session wasn’t required so you can imagine my surprise when I got there and there were at least 20 of us there ready to go. Twenty of us at 6am on a Saturday morning. It was awesome. This instructor taught yoga to pop music. I have participated in yoga, but I had never experienced yoga like this. It was amazing. Many people were trying yoga for the first time. Some had more challenges than others but every single one of us was supporting each other. It was truly amazing. A group of strangers supporting each other while we practiced yoga. No judgement. No snickering. Just positive energy from a group of strangers supporting each other.
Since a bunch of our presenters cancelled the HOV (Hearts of Valor) staff were busy rearranging the schedule the best they could. But what happened next was the most impactful for me personally. I’m not sure I was really ready for what was about to take place, but I had no choice. It was going to happen whether I was ready for it or not. Thirty women in a circle with simple directions. Introduce yourself, tell us about what brought you to HOV and what you want to get out of this weekend. Simple instructions, right? Well, those simple instructions opened a flood gate of emotions. What came next truly touched my heart.
One by one we each introduced ourselves. Everyone started off with their name and then it was up to each caregiver what they wanted to share. There were at least 15-20 people before me. As each person told the group about themselves, I found something in common with every single one of them. There was a woman who had a twenty something year old and a six-year-old. Another had teenagers. There were women working in education. Women that had been laid off and were unemployed. Women who sometimes felt isolated. Women who felt like they were losing their identities. Each caregiver told stories of the struggles they face in dealing with their wounded warriors. There were stories of attempted suicide, alcoholism, PTSD, VA issues, medical issues, domestic violence and feelings of isolation. I saw a piece of myself in EVERY SINGLE WOMAN there. Then it was my turn. I told myself I wasn’t going to cry. That didn’t seem to matter. The minute I opened my mouth it was like I flipped the switch for my tears. I took my time. I told my story. I talked about my family. I talked about my struggle with finding a job and the industry change that I had just made. I talked about my new job as a SSVF (supportive services for veteran families) Case Manager. It was so freeing to be able to be open about my feelings and not feel like I was being judged. It didn’t matter that I had met most of these women less than 24 hours prior. The support in that room was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. It was beyond powerful.
After that session ended as I was heading to the room we were going to have lunch in, one of the caregivers called my name. I stopped so she could catch up to me. What she said next was pretty powerful. She started by saying “I know that what you’re doing now for work may not be what you want to be doing, but I want you to know that the work you’re doing IS important.” She went on to tell me that she was familiar with the program I was working for because at some point her and her husband were homeless and utilized the program I am working for to get back on their feet. She simply wanted me to know that the work I am doing is appreciated by those that unfortunately find themselves in a circumstance where they have very little options. I’m not sure I adequately conveyed my appreciation for her words, but they have stuck with me. I remind myself of that brief conversation every time I am struggling with something at work.
That night a group of a group of us decided we wanted to go watch the fight. We hopped in a few cars and set out for Dave and Busters. We were going to make this a lady’s night! We got there and managed to actually find some tables. We rearranged the tables (dragging them through the restaurant) to make one big table. I couldn’t remember the last time I was out with a group of women. We were having the time of our lives. Many of the other caregivers commented on how they really never get to do things like go watch a fight at a bar. Most of their Wounded Warriors didn’t like to be around crowds or noise (common with PTSD). Many Wounded Warriors also struggle with substance abuse (self-medication is common among Wounded Warriors), so a bar is not somewhere most of the caregivers I know frequent. On this night though, this small group of women (including me) were living it up!
The next day brought more information, more lessons and more resources. It was awesome! They even had a Zumba instructor come in and teach a class. I opted out of that one because of my low back issues. I did however stay around long enough to be extremely proud of every woman participating. You had women of all shapes and sizes working out in that room. Again, it was a completely judgement free zone. We also had time to talk in small groups about goals that we wanted to work on. These were specifically goals for ourselves – not goals for our family – not goals for our spouses – not goals for our kids. When you are so wrapped up into making sure everyone else is doing well you often forget about yourself. We laughed with each other as we struggled to focus on ourselves. It’s not something any of us do often.
Just a few weeks before the caregiver retreat, I attended a mental health summit for my new job. I shared the following with the caregivers at the retreat. One of the presenters at the summit made a statement that has stuck with me since I heard it. Seven simple words that struck a chord with me and completely changed my perspective on how I think about self-care. Are you ready for it? Here it is……”Your self-care is not about you”. When I first heard this statement, it took me a minute to grasp the meaning. Initially I was confused but when It clicked, I completely understood. The concept is actually very simple. If you don’t take care of yourself, you will be incapable of taking care of anyone else. When you allow yourself self-care, you are actually making sure that you are capable of taking care of others. Therefore, your self-care is NOT about you. When I think of it that way I don’t feel so guilty about it.
Sunday evening brought our final evening together. I had a wave of emotions going through me. It kind of reminded me of Girl Scout camp when I was a kid. You are nervous before you go since you don’t know anyone, half way through you realize you are having the time of your life and you don’t want it to end, then BAM – it’s over. I felt so blessed to have met these amazing women. The connection and bond we formed that weekend is something that only the select few who are a part of “Harvey’s Angels” understand. I was sad that the retreat was coming to an end. I wasn’t really ready to go back to my reality yet. There were lots of hugs, exchanging of contact info and of course lots of selfies.
The next day many of the caregivers left early in the morning. I did get to see a few people at breakfast that morning. We ate, said our goodbyes and set out for the airport. I shared a ride to the airport with 2 other caregivers. The three of us were all headed to gates next to each other. Just when we thought it was over, we get to the gate only to find 5 of the other caregivers waiting for their flights. It was like a huge (very loud) family reunion! It had only been a few hours since we had seen each other, but we were so thankful to actually get to say goodbye in person to each other. I would be lying if I said that people weren’t staring! We admittedly got a little loud. The TSA K9 unit got a huge kick out of us! They were joking that they may need to search us a few extra times as we were a “rowdy bunch”. A few people in the airport asked us what we were there for. This gave us the perfect opportunity to tell them about Hearts of Valor.
Soon after, flights started boarding. Slowly everyone started leaving. There were again lots of hugs and pictures. This was it. This was the final farewell. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have to hold back a few tears. That weekend for me was such an emotional, uplifting, supportive experience. We are a fierce group of women. So fierce that not even Hurricane Harvey could stop us. I learned so much from each person I met. I learned that I am not alone in my struggles. I learned that there are women out there who understand my unique challenges. I gained a support network of 30 brave and fearless women. I can honestly say it was life-changing.
In the few weeks since the retreat I have been in contact with several of the incredible women I met that weekend in San Antonio. We have continued to share resources with each other. We continue to uplift each other with inspirational messages. We reach out to one another when we are having a bad day or just need a little encouragement. We continue to support each other from afar. Some of us have talked on the phone – others have sent text messages and all of us have stayed in contact on Facebook. Thank you to Operation Homefront, Hearts of Valor and USAA for making the retreat possible. It truly was a life-changing experience filled with love, laughter, hugs, encouragement and support. I am honored and privileged to be one of “Harvey’s Angels”.
A note to my fellow Harvey’s angels:
I want to take this opportunity to publicly thank you. I learned something from every one of you and each of you contributed to my journey in your own way. Thank you for the sacrifices that you so willingly make on a daily basis. Thank you for your continued service to our wounded warriors. Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing your stories with me. Thank you for listening to my story and accepting me with open arms. Thank you for the laughs, the tears and the hugs. What happened that weekend for me was more powerful than any hurricane could ever be. I will be forever grateful for the sisterhood we formed on that stormy weekend in San Antonio. Thank you for being a part of “Harvey’s Angels”
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