Kentucky Life salutes our veterans. USA Cares focuses on supporting military families in need, Beattyville’s pride in its veterans is on display at Three Forks Historical Center and the Lee County Memorial Wall, and the Canine Assisted Therapy program helps Fort Knox veterans with traumatic brain injuries.
USA Cares is a non-profit organization that provides financial assistance to post-9/11 veterans, active military personnel, and military families. Its programs provide relief for housing expenses, utilities, and service-related medical treatment. The organization got its start as a local initiative in Kentucky.
“We started back in 2003 as they were deploying all of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines overseas,” says Hank Patton, Executive Director of USA Cares. “A lot of folks came through Fort Knox.”
A partnership between local Kroger stores and Louisville-based WAVE-3 TV raised funds for members of the military during those early years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars by selling five-dollar “Support the Troops” yard signs. The fundraiser far exceeded expectations, bringing in $122,000. An organization called Kentuckiana Cares was created to disperse the funds.
“We started getting requests for assistance and found that we were getting requests from all over the nation,” says Patton. “They weren’t getting the number of requests from Kentucky that they thought they would. So they incorporated as USA Cares in 2003. Since then we’ve done about $14 million worth of assistance and we’re getting ready to eclipse the 100,000th client that we’ve supported.”
USA Cares works with members and veterans of all branches of the armed forces in all 50 states and serves as a safety net for military families. Mark Miner is a veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan before completing his service in 2012.
“I did everything I was supposed to do transition over to the civilian world,” says Miner. “I landed a job with a company that was a right fit for me. About a week before I separated [from the military], they changed my start date about two months later than what I was expecting. My wife was transitioning jobs at the same time, so money got real tight for a while.”
Miner sought assistance from other organizations and was told he’d have to sell his assets, including his car and his home, before he could get help. He remembered meeting a USA Cares representative at a military job fair.
“I gave him a call, told him the situation, told him what I had,” Miner remembers. “They went out and paid my mortgage, they paid my car insurance, they paid my utility bills for me. All within 24 hours.”
Patton explains that while assistance for wounded soldiers or families of those killed in combat gets a lot of the spotlight, USA Cares helps with some of the other important, but often overlooked, aspects of a military family’s well-being.
“A lot of the things we do are the things that a lot of folks don’t think about—water, lights, cell phone, car payment, keeping the family in the house,” he says. “One of the things that I think makes this organization great is we take care of the families.”
Patton adds that many of their clients live on a service member’s income of between $35,000 and $50,000, which can be a struggle for a family.
In 2004, Emily Chambers was widowed at a young age when her husband, Marine Cpl. Nicholas James Dieruf, was killed in Iraq.
“Through Nich’s death we started a nonprofit called the Cpl. Nicholas J. Dieruf Memorial Fund,” says Chambers. “Our fund joined forces with USA Cares relatively quickly, and so together, [the two organizations] were able to reach not just Army families in the Bluegrass area, which was kind of the focus prior to us coming on, but we very quickly expanded our reach to be a nationwide, multi-military discipline reach across the nation.
“We have these veterans and military families who are so deserving,” Chambers continues. “They do all these selfless things for our nation, the least we can do is give them the basic quality of life that they deserve and need to have. USA Cares, in conjunction with my family and our church, is what kept me alive. When you go through a tragedy like that at 22 years old, there’s not a lot of hope for tomorrow. With those three pillars of support, we were able to make it from one day to the next and eventually one month, and a year, and so on.”
Beattyville Veterans Memorials
For generations, Lee County, Kentucky, has had strong ties to the military. That history is preserved at the Three Forks Historical Center and with the Lee County Memorial Wall in Beattyville.
“Growing up, you were expected to serve in the military,” says Bob Smith, curator of the Three Forks Historical Center. “That was just one of the expectations as young males growing up in this county.”
Fort Knox Therapy Dogs
For veterans and active-duty servicemembers dealing with traumatic brain injury (TBI), a program in Fort Knox enlists dogs as assistants in the healing process. The Canine-Assisted Therapy Program (yes, it’s abbreviated as the CAT Program) is a collaboration between the American Red Cross and occupational therapists.
Dog owners can volunteer themselves and their pets to become part of the program.
“The program involves an eight-week training program where the dog and the handler go through the process of getting their canine good citizenship certification,” says Martha Privett, American Red Cross Pet Therapy Coordinator.
“Once they go through the program, then they can volunteer for the various projects that the American Red Cross sponsors. The dogs in the program go to libraries, they go to welcome homes, they go to wounded warriors, the nursing homes, visit the kids,” says dog trainer Pam Adams. “Through those, we select the ones that will work best one-on-one with the soldiers.”
There’s more to the program than simply having fun with dogs, although the enjoyment of canine companionship is part of it. Through working on obedience tasks with the dogs, veterans with TBI engage their brains and develop memory in therapeutic ways.
“Canine-assisted therapy is teaching soldiers the skills to earn the canine good citizenship,” says Maureen J. O’Brien, TBI Clinic Program Director, Ireland Army Community Hospital at Fort Knox. “It’s repetition, exercises, commands, it’s educating them on dog psychology. Some soldiers that may have mild TBI and post-concussive syndrome are going there to learn to cope with their anxiety and stress. They learn to relax and engage in something different and be with people they don’t know in a setting they don’t know. It’s very challenging for them.
“For others it’s memory techniques,” O’Brien continues. “They’re actually embedding what they learn: Where does the dog stand, how do I hold the leash? Often times soldiers, due to blast injury, have problems with their vision, or they have balance issues. They’re working with a larger dog to help them. It’s a step-by-step process.”
“It’s hard to explain, not being able to connect the dots and make sense out of things,” says Lt. Col. D. Blake Settle, a veteran of the Kentucky Army National Guard. “You know what right looks like, but it’s getting there sometimes. There’s anger associated with it, not at other people, but with yourself.”
Settle learned about the CAT Program when he was a patient at the TBI Clinic. Working with a therapy dog named Delilah helped him in his recovery. “When I first saw Delilah, we were pairing up individuals with the dogs, it was just a certain kind of connection there that sparked our friendship,” he remembers. “She’s a good dog.”
“I came into the military in 2000 and got injured in Afghanistan,” says retired Army Sgt. Sean O’Shea. “I’d been working with the TBI Clinic for a year and they asked me if I wanted to do this program. I love dogs. I have a dog at home. So I said yeah, I’m open to anything that’ll help.”
Veterans in the program get to choose the dog that they want to work with, and O’Shea found a kindred spirit in a dog named Robot. “Robot was the shyest but also the biggest,” he says. “She definitely looks things over, checks everything out, walks around the room and that’s exactly what I do: survey the area. So I went up to her and we started to work together. That was perfect for me because it made me take ownership and really get involved with it and keep my head in the game. Robot’s helped me out a lot.”
Many of the program’s human volunteers are veterans or members of military families.
“When I was on active duty, there weren’t a lot of people helping me, so I wanted to help others and it was a way to give back,” says veteran and volunteer Jackie Ryan. “I’ve seen some of the soldiers out in the city years later and they recognize me. They recognize the dogs. It’s really a pleasure to see them. I never forget them and I really I’m glad that I’ve had an impact on their healing.”