Recovering Troops Get Dressed in Style for NASCAR Event

A plane carrying a group of combat-tested service members touched down in the desert on Wednesday morning.

Spc. Cleber Ferreira shows off the tuxedo he’ll wear Friday to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony in Las Vegas. Ferreira is part of a group of recovering troops and their guests who traveled with the USO to Las Vegas for NASCAR’s Champions Week festivities. USO photo by Samuel Zelaya

Then it was time to suit up.

“Oh, man, I want the red one,” said Spc. Cleber Ferreira as he spotted the jacket. “Nah, I’ll go traditional. Like James Bond.”

The desert is Vegas. Suiting up meant getting fitted for tuxedos and gowns.

Ferreira — who suffered back, leg and head injuries when 400 pounds of explosives detonated beneath his Stryker vehicle in Afghanistan in 2010 — is part of a group of more than a dozen wounded warriors and their guests visiting Las Vegas with the USO to take part in NASCAR’s Champions Week celebration. On Thursday, they were to sit atop a double-decker bus and lead a parade of stock cars down Las Vegas Boulevard, better known as The Strip. Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski will perform a celebratory burnout and race teams will conduct pit stops in front of the Bellagio’s famed fountains.

On Friday, it’ll be time to break out the formalwear for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony at the Wynn, a swanky gala where, between performances from celebrity entertainers, NASCAR will honor the top 10 finishers in the points standings.

Marine Sgt. Cory Gritter gets measured Wednesday for a tuxedo to wear to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony on Friday in Las Vegas. USO photo by Samuel Zelaya

The wounded warriors — on a break from recovering at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, or Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland — were looking sharp during their trial run Wednesday at Tuxedo Junction and David’s Bridal in Las Vegas.

Lance Cpl. Nathan Jakubisin, whose right leg was amputated below the knee after an improvised explosive device attack in Afghanistan in June, initially worried that he might have to wear shorts with his tux because the pants wouldn’t fit over the metal fixator holding together his left leg.

“Maybe a kilt,” he quipped. “That’s a good idea.”

But with a pair of scissors, a little extra fabric and a sewing machine, the staff at Tuxedo Junction delivered a pair of custom-made pants.

And Ferreira? Well, he almost did look like James Bond. That is, if 007 wore a camo hat with his tuxedo.

—Story by Derek Turner, USO Senior Editor

Jobs for Our Wounded Troops

Let me put it plainly: We need to pull out all the stops to give our wounded, ill and injured troops returning home the resources and training they need to transition back into the workplace.

That’s why we’ve made tripling our investment in job training for our returning troops a priority in 2013, and one of the key initiatives to our effort is a special drive to raise $150,000 by Veterans Day.

In the months ahead, we’ll be organizing more than 60 USO/Hire Heroes USA Transition Workshops — workshops that are the starting place for reintegration of our brave, wounded troops into the workforce.

Donate now to support this and other critical USO initiatives for our troops — including helping our wounded heroes gain the skills and training they need to find a job and lead a life filled with hope and confidence.

At these workshops, we’ll focus on resume writing and mock interviews guided by human resources professionals from military-friendly companies. At the end of each workshop, our troops will have written an improved resume, practiced effective job interview skills and learned about additional resources and opportunities available for career development.

This hands-on training is just one of the critical types of programs for our troops that you can support by participating in our Veterans Day campaign. You can honor America’s veterans and support our troops by helping provide the resources to help servicemen and women reintegrate into their communities.

Help the USO support our troops and give our wounded heroes the chance to attend a career transition workshop and gain the training they need for their new life ahead.

You’ve been there for our wounded, ill and injured troops before. And I know you’ll support our decision to make meeting their needs for reintegration a major priority among the many programs and services we provide for our troops. I hope I can count on you to step up once again.

For the troops!

- Sloan Gibson, President and CEO, USO

P.S. Our military leaders, who understand the needs of wounded troops firsthand, have directly asked the USO to focus more attention on helping wounded troops find a path to new and rewarding careers after their military service. Help us start answering that need by raising the funds needed to provide these critically important workshops and other USO programs by Veterans Day.

Ride 2 Recovery, Project HERO Hold Training Workshop

Thirty-three representatives from Warrior Transition Units, Wounded Warrior Battalions and Veteran Affairs (VA) medical clinics came to Bethesda, Md., recently to participate in a three-day training camp to build and improve their respective Ride 2 Recovery cycling rehabilitation programs.

Project HERO (Healing Exercise Rehabilitation Opportunities) is designed as a train-the-trainer camp, where vital cycling skills such as organizing and leading rides, bike mechanics, maintenance, adaptations and safety and even bike building and fitting are taught to hospital and military representatives.

Project HERO National Director Barbara Springer said the camp aimed to empower local cycling representatives so they can promote a fuller, quicker rehabilitation for injured servicemen and women.

“These reps will go back to their locations and each will be qualified to start up a Project HERO program at their own hospital or unit,” Springer said. “Each will possess the knowledge and skills required not only to lead a ride, but also to help their unit’s healing heroes reach their highest level of function by using cycling as part of physical and psychological rehabilitation.”

Army veteran Marina Libro is developing a Project HERO cycling program with the McGuire Veterans Hospital in Richmond, Va. For her, learning how to fit riders for a bike and seeing how a maintenance shop was set up was the most useful elements of the training.

“I’ve got the people at the VA behind me now supporting a cycling program, but I didn’t have the technical knowledge or mechanical skills to make it all happen,” she said. “Now I know what I need to set up a bike room and I have the confidence to make it successful.” - Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

Wyakin Warrior Foundation Guides Wounded Veterans through College, Life Transitions

The road ahead can be difficult to navigate for veterans who have suffered battlefield injuries.

While the Department of Veterans Affairs has stepped up G.I. Bill benefits, the logistics of getting into school can stifle even the most determined wounded veteran.

Most veterans struggle with unanswered questions like “What do I want to do now?” Or, more often, “What can I do now?”

They wonder how they’ll sit in a classroom while dealing with post traumatic stress, anxious about the movements of people sitting behind them. Or how they’ll pass midterms after staying up all night dealing with nightmares that linger years after war.

James Donaldson (bottom right) poses for a photo with five fellow inductees at the 2012 Wyakin Warrior Foundation Induction Ceremony held at the Idaho State Capitol Building June 21, 2012.

In Idaho, 10 wounded veterans have been inducted into a new fraternity that intends to assist them during this transition and then to walk with them for life. The Wyakin Warrior Foundation—a proud USO partner—is providing scholarships, mentoring, professional development, networking and career training for severely wounded, injured troops and post-9/11 veterans who are accepted into its program.

According to Native American legend, a wyakin is a spiritual guide that advises and protects a person throughout life. As a rite of passage, young Native Americans were taken to an isolated location where they would fast alone until the wyakin—often an animal like an eagle or a wolf—appeared in a vision or dream. This wyakin guide gave them insight into their next steps in life.

Retired Navy officer Jeff Bacon and his wife, Rebecca, started the Wyakin Warrior Foundation in Boise, Idaho, with the hopes of giving direction to a generation of wounded veterans returning from combat. Inductees receive a full, four-year scholarship—including room, board and tuition—along with job training, mentoring, and a lifetime membership to the fraternity.

“This is just the beginning,” Jeff Bacon said, “and we are so proud to have the support of the USO for this journey.”

The USO provides program support to the Wyakin Warrior Foundation through funding and outreach to eligible candidates at locations near USO centers in the Washington D.C., Metro area and San Antonio. The USO has distributed scholarship applications to the program to generate awareness of this unique and high impact program.

Bacon—who acts as the foundation’s executive director—says the government doesn’t always provide the help veterans need during college. Many returning troops have physical and emotional scars and find it difficult to function outside structured military life. The organization’s on-campus support network is designed to be like a military chain of command that puts veterans in their comfort zone to ease their transition.

The first group of five veterans was inducted into the program in August 2011. Five more—including 27-year-old double-amputee Sgt. James Donaldson, U.S. Army (Ret.), a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom—were inducted in June.

Donaldson lost both his legs in an improvised explosive device blast. Today, he studies information security and digital forensics at the College of Western Idaho. He plans to transfer to Boise State to finish his bachelor’s degree.

“My whole mission is to go to school and to get a degree,” Donaldson said. “Everything else, the Wyakin Warrior Foundation is there to help take care of, and that’s awesome.”

After spending months in a military hospital, Donaldson didn’t know where to begin. He knew he needed to find a job and he wanted to go to school—but that was about the extent of it.

“I didn’t really have my mind set on a career, and that’s where the foundation really helped,” Donaldson said. “[The Wyakin Warrior Foundation] not only helped me prepare for a specific career, but they also helped out with other aspects of life, like issues with the VA, social stigmas, and stuff previous wounded guys have experienced.”

The Wyakin Warrior Foundation even worked with JoS. A. Bank to get Donaldson and the other wounded warriors free suits so they could be prepared for their first job interview.

“It’s also nice to meet regularly with other wounded guys who know what you’re going through,” Donaldson said. “The program has a really personal touch that goes beyond what I expected. I was even connected with a mentor who was a personal friend of Jeff and Rebecca’s, so it felt really comfortable—like I was part of the family.”

Jeff Bacon has unique knowledge of motivation of wounded troops from his 26 years of experience as a naval officer and cartoonist for the Navy Times.

“These first 10 warriors will lead the way for hundreds and even thousands who will follow in the path they have forged,” Bacon said.

—Joseph Andrew Lee, USO Staff Writer

Breathe Some Oxygen Into Your Marriage for a Stronger Family

Noel Meador with Ed and Karen Matayka at the USO Caregivers Conference

USO/Stronger Families Oxygen Seminars are one- or two-day relationship workshops for wounded, ill and injured service members and their significant others. The seminars focus on helping the couple ease common relationship challenges, such as how the dynamics of relationships often change after an injury or illness. Through a non-threatening environment and interactive exercises, couples learn how to respond to and relate to each other, to express appreciation, to increase and improve communication, and to create a relationship plan for the future.

“The Oxygen Seminar… has given me hope that things will work out where I had lost hope and patience. Most of all, it has given me a fresh set of ideas to change things that were stagnant,” said a military spouse who attended an Oxygen Seminar near Fort Drum.

Stronger Families Executive Director Noel Meador recently spoke with the USO about our partnership at the recent 2012 USO Caregivers Conference. “The greatest asset our military has to sustain the past decade of war and the future battle is a strong family. This starts by offering hope and help to couples who are struggling in their relationship. This is what Stronger Families has developed through its Oxygen For Your Relationships program. “

Together The USO & Stronger Families plan to host 30 workshops in 2013, to include the general active duty population as well. We are happy to report that results from a recent surveys showed that 100% of attendees felt that after participation their relationship would be more resilient! Visit StrongerFamilies.org for more info. – Vyque White, USO Director of New Media

At Warrior Open, Competition Only Half the Story

Retired Army Corporal Chad Pfeifer, right, hugs retired Army 1st Lieutenant Brian Donarski after clinching The Bush Center Warrior Open title Tuesday on the 18th green of the Las Colinas Country Club in Irving, Texas. (Photo Credit: Eric Brandner/USO)

Chad Pfeifer was moved.

Backdropped by his peers and clutching the Warrior Open trophy, the Iraq veteran paused for just a second during victory speech to gather himself.

He’d won tournaments before, including this one just last year. Pfeifer is “that guy”: the one who picks up a golf club one day and is regularly flirting with even par a few years later while others spend their lives trying to break 90.

But none of that mattered at this moment. There’s just something different about reaching the mountaintop in front of your peers.

Twenty-two veterans—all of whom suffered severe injuries fighting for their country and lived to tell about it—took the course for two days this week at The Bush Center Warrior Open at the Las Colinas Country Club outside Dallas. The USO played a big support role during the three-day event, hosting a military village and providing free meals for military families.

Pfeifer was indeed the star, taking home the trophy and even carding a hole-in-one in front of former President George W. Bush. But all 22 men left with new bonds that may never be broken.

“All the participants of this year’s tournament and last year’s … continue to be an inspiration for me,” Pfeifer said. “That’s what I take away from the tournament. Getting the win is amazing, but at the same time, seeing these guys do what they do, fighting through the pain and just being able to enjoy golf on this type of level, it’s really special.”

Pfeifer’s golf skills were brought to light by a horrifying turn of events. His vehicle rolled over a pressure-plate improvised explosive device while deployed to Iraq in 2007. His blast injures resulted in the amputation of his left leg above the knee.

The now-retired Army corporal hadn’t played the game seriously before his injury, but his natural hand-eye coordination from his days as a junior college baseball player proved to be a great fit for the golf course.

“[Golf] got me doing stuff outdoors and it provides a great tool for balance and being able to walk with a prosthetic,” he said.

Four-plus years of golf later, Pfeifer holds a job at the Golf Club of Estrella in Goodyear, Arizona, and has two Warrior Open trophies on his mantle.

But that’s only half the story.

Army Corporal Chad Pfeifer, right, talks with Army 1st Lieutenant Brian Donarski after winning his second consecutive Bush Center Warrior Open on Tuesday at Las Colinas Country Club in Irving, Texas. (Photo Credit: Eric Brandner/USO)

The other half is epitomized by the man that put his arm around Pfeifer on the 18th green when the tournament was over, vowing to move to Arizona so he could play with Pfeifer every day.

Retired Army 1st Lieutenant Brian Donarski—known to everyone on the course as just “Ski”—may well have an indomitable spirit. A former Marine, Donarski was medically discharged from the Corps in 1998. He worked to rehabilitate himself and joined the Army in 2004, only to be hurt during Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he suffered a traumatic brain injury along with a host of other serious ailments after hitting an anti-tank mine. Despite his pain, Donarski was a beacon of positivity throughout the event, even in the end when he came up short of his goal of unseating the defending champ.

“Technically all of us probably shouldn’t be here right now,” said Donarski, who finished in second place, 15 strokes behind Pfeifer. “We’re all given a second chance, and we get to choose our own direction, and we’re choosing golf as our therapy to get better.”

Former President George W. Bush, center, and Warrior Open participants stand during the national anthem Monday at Las Colinas Country Club in Irving, Texas. (Photo Credit: Eric Brandner/USO)

The tournament’s host echoed the sentiment.

“If anybody feels self-pity, all they’ve got to do is look at these [men],” Bush said, flanked by all 22 competitors during the trophy presentation. “There’s no self-pity in this crowd.” - Eric Brandner, USO Director of Story Development