Local organizations honor veterans every day

Eddie Bowers, far right, and others salute while “Taps” is played during last year’s Memorial Day celebration at the War Memorial in downtown. – Morgan Hill Life file photo

By Donna Lane

A century ago, President Woodrow Wilson asked Americans to reflect and express gratitude for those who have served. Now, every Nov. 11, Americans pause to remember our veterans. For many, it’s a day to wax poetic about noble sacrifice, attend a parade, or raise the flag. But when dusk falls on Veterans Day, streets are cleared, and flags folded, many forget about those who have donned a uniform to fulfill their commitment to our nation. Instead, they resume their daily lives and turn their attention to other priorities.

The soldiers returning from World Wars I and II were welcomed as heroes, though they were prone to tinnitus and the effects of exposure to mustard gas and radiation. Those who came back from Vietnam were shunned and isolated. Many had been exposed to Agent Orange, a harmful herbicide linked to multiple illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and several types of cancer. The men and women who served in more recent conflicts such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria faced challenges such as post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health challenges, as well as physical ailments. The uncomfortable truth is many veterans languish in a holding pattern without support and services to help them overcome a battle they continue to fight, long after demobilization from enemy soil.

A single day and a simple “thank you for your service” are not enough to recognize and appreciate all these brave men and women have done to defend and preserve our precious freedoms. Fortunately, several organizations throughout South County make it their mission to provide veterans with critical services and support, 365 days of the year. Here’s a look at some of them.

Operation Freedom Paws

One of the most well-known veteran service organizations in South County is headquartered in San Martin. Operation Freedom Paws (OFP) empowers veterans and other individuals with disabilities to restore their freedom to live life by matching them with a rescued shelter dog and teaching them to train the dog for their specific needs. After a 48-week program, at no cost to the veteran, they are certified as a service dog team. Training costs, dog food, veterinary care, emotional support, and family integration are all included in the program.

Founder Mary Cortani, an Army veteran, was one of the last WACs (Women’s Army Corps), serving from 1975 to 1984. She became a certified Army Master Instructor of Canine Education while serving in the military. In 2007, she started a full-time dog training business. Three years later, she was contacted by her first veteran, who had been on another organization’s service dog waiting list for three years. With that, OFP was born. Since then OFP has accepted more than 407 clients and their families into the program and rescued over 300 dogs who needed jobs.

The unique program combines training the client and rescued dog to become a service dog team to support the client’s specific needs while at the same time providing therapeutic support for the client and family as a unit, including the availability of 24-hour crisis management. One of the most challenging aspects of transitioning back to civilian life is the feeling of isolation. Training includes visits to stores and restaurants, as well as excursions to theme parks and other busy environments. This encourages veterans who may have struggled with seclusion to get back to everyday activities.

One Step Closer

Therapeutic Riding

In 2012, One Step Closer Therapeutic Riding (OSC), an adaptive horseback riding program in Morgan Hill for children and adults with special needs, expanded its services to the military community. OSC’s Military Outreach Program includes equine-assisted therapy for veterans in partnership with Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System. OSC partners with nine VA departments, serving an average of 250 veterans per year. The Veterans Program operates year-round and is free-of-charge to veterans. Operational expenses are covered by private donations and grants. The veterans’ sessions are also supported by an exceptional team of trained volunteers.

In additional the Veterans Program, OSC provides outreach to families of fallen soldiers (Gold Star families).  The annual event is a Fall Pumpkin Fun-Fest, held the weekend before Halloween, where the ranch is open to these families that have lost a son or daughter, brother/sister, father/mother in military service. The day at includes a BBQ lunch, live band, pumpkin patch, and equine activities.

An Army veteran who requested anonymity but has participated in OSC’s program said, “One Step Closer is truly a place of healing. As a veteran with mental health issues, I know firsthand the challenges that veterans with these issues face. The military prides itself on mental toughness and to admit a mental health issue is a huge blow to a veteran’s psyche. Often, we withdraw and lose hope for a brighter future.”

He continued, “Thankfully, the horses and staff at OSC are only interested in providing support, compassion, a helping hand (or hoof), and education. Program Director Landa Keirstead teaches brilliantly, with love and compassion for both the veteran and the horse. I have learned communication, patience, trust, mindfulness, respect, and boundaries. These are common themes at the VA’s mental health programs. But at OSC, veterans are able to put them into practice in a nonjudgmental atmosphere where you are never made to feel wrong.”

Veterans who would like to participate in equine-assisted therapy should contact their local VA.

Morgan Hill Veterans Day Run

Charles Weston is a Vietnam veteran and an avid runner. He organizes the Freedom Fest annual Independence Day Run in Morgan Hill. In 2015, he created the Veterans Day Run to show solidarity with his fellow veterans from all eras and give the community a chance to show their appreciation for those who have served.

The Veterans Day Run, which will be held on Sunday, November 10, this year, features a choice of 5K or 10K distances through the streets of Morgan Hill. Participants can run or walk. New this year is a kids’ 1-mile run for ages 11 and younger.

The event follows the Veterans Day ceremony, held at the Veterans Memorial, in the median of Monterey Road at First Street. The run’s starting line is located at in the middle of East First Street, between Monterey and Depot Street. As always, veterans receive a discount on registration fees.

A unique feature of this event is that all proceeds benefit a variety of veterans’ organizations. Those include Operation Freedom Paws, the Gilroy Veterans Memorial Hall, Project Hired, DreamPower Horsemanship, and 22 Too Many, as well as the Freedom Fest.

Operation Interdependence

Deployment can be lonely, even while living with a large group of fellow soldiers. Little things to remind a servicemember of life stateside can boost morale. Providing care packages to those deployed and support to veterans at home, Operation Interdependence (OI) helps service members feel connected to the comforts that home can provide. Every week, volunteers stuff boxes that include a variety of foods, toiletries, and entertainment in quart-sized zipper bags.

Each box is packed by hand. Some include beef jerky, mints, oatmeal, powdered drink mixes, trail mix, or cocoa packets. Other popular items include foot powder, lip balm, tissues, hand lotion, decks of cards, pens, and notebook paper. But perhaps the most anticipated item inside is a handwritten note or letter. For those far from home, that brief interaction, even from a stranger, can provide a moment’s peace.

Area manager Suzi Kugler said, “I have been a volunteer with Operation Interdependence for more than 10 years. The OI mission to support our deployed military is vitally important to me.”

The group appreciates donations and volunteers. Kugler added, “OI needs money for shipping expenses ($5000 a year) and goodie items. We have an outstanding group of volunteers that meet every Tuesday at 7877 Wren Ave. #D, in Gilroy, from 3 to 5 p.m. and welcome all.

Dream Power Horsemanship

DreamPower Horsemanship, located in Gilroy, offers its Horses for Warriors program, designed for veterans, active military, and their families. Their equine-assisted activities include psychotherapy, learning, and therapeutic horsemanship. A variety of program categories include anger management workshops for veterans, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy for trauma, combat veteran family support group, and HERd, which is geared toward women who have served in the military.

Equine-facilitated psychotherapy sessions are led by California licensed or pre-licensed psychotherapists. Therapeutic horsemanship sessions are led by PATH International Registered Therapeutic Riding Instructors. Equine-facilitated learning programs are led by educators or therapists, depending on the program and client goals. All groups are offered at no cost to the veteran or their family.

Donna Lane