Ed. – We sent staff photographer/journalist Jaime Courtney on assignment to cover the 3rd Annual ROC for Veterans Music Festival at the Alrosa Villa on Veterans Day, November 11, 2017. Here’s her report…
By Jaime Courtney
As soon as I walked through the door of the Alrosa Villa, I was immediately slammed with an energy I had never felt before… it surged throughout the venue like electricity, I could tell this was going to be an interesting day! The booths were already set up and the place was abuzz with people talking, sharing, and getting ready for the doors to open so the festival could begin.
This was a huge fellowship of people gathered together for an amazing cause: people describing their experiences in the military, how they felt after they came home, and how the myriad organizations that were present at the venue to pull together to volunteer their time and show their support and get the word out.
I began looking at the tables, just taking pictures of everything before the doors opened and the crowd came in to enjoy a day of music, support and fellowship. The first table I visited was the Military And Service Heroes Pantry (M.A.S.H.) who provide food assistance, clothing, toiletries, and even special personal items such as wheelchairs or walkers. This table, among others I would soon find, really drew my attention: I grew up in a poor household and if we didn’t go to the food pantry… we didn’t eat. We had to rely on the kindness of others just to survive, so as you can imagine, it hit me right where it counts.
I first spoke with Bruce, a veteran himself, who was very warm and friendly, he told me about his time with M.A.S.H. Pantry and how he felt that it was work that needed done, so he was here to help in any way he could. He explained how the organization works in collaboration with the Mid-Ohio Food Bank to provide food for active duty soldiers, National Guard, their families, families of fallen soldiers, as well as veterans and homebound veterans. He told me that the organization will drive the food to those who do not have transportation available to them and M.A.S.H. Pantry even checks on the people who haven’t come through in a while to make sure that they are alright and have everything that they need.
“If 100 people go to an event, and everyone brought just one can of food… that’s 100 cans of food! That can help so many people, and I think a lot of folks just don’t do the math,” said Bruce. After our initial conversation, I promised him that I would return with my pad and pen, so he could tell me more about his experience in the service, and he told me that I should speak with his co-worker for the booth that evening who knew more about the organization itself.
After taking a few more pictures around the venue, I decided it was time to reflect upon my initial reaction to the whole atmosphere. I gathered my notepad and pen and went over to the bar to write down a few notes. I was then approached by Dianna Colasante, the owner of Alrosa Villa, and we had a small conversation (she was a very busy lady!) about how she was approached to have the ROC event at her venue by none other than Mike Fairman (the organizer of this event.)
She explained that her husband was a veteran and that she just immediately knew she had to have the event here and seemed extremely excited about having such wonderful people in her club. She really seemed appreciative of the cause, as well as the wonderful people who donate their time and efforts to put events and organizations like this together. This would eventually end up as the theme of the evening: pure appreciation.
I had been eyeing another table that just seemed to speak to me. It kept calling me to come over and learn more, but I was afraid. You see, this was the Summit for Soldiers (SfS) organization that helps soldiers and veterans with PTSD and other mental illnesses come back from their dark place of isolation among civilians. It makes these heroic men and women feel “at home” or part of a unit again. I learned from Brian, a volunteer for the SfS booth and combat veteran, that the outdoor recreational program helps veterans to improve their state of mind through mountaineering/adventure programs, but more than that, camaraderie and other resources to build a strong support system.
All too often, soldiers are sent home from a war zone and then just thrown back into society and expected to “go back to normal.” The trouble is that society can be cruel, it can make people feel as though they aren’t wanted, that they have no self-worth. This, of course, can lead them down the dark path of destructive behaviors and choices that eventually could lead to suicide if there is no one to step in and help. I totally understood this because I had a grandfather who was in the Navy and had been in the Vietnam War and later committed suicide at his home after his return, my grandmother said he just wasn’t the same when he came back home from the war and that he would often lock himself away in the basement for hours. I also understood because I had felt that way myself.
And then I realized that I was scared for a different reason: I am a survivor of suicide, and that feeling of isolation is exactly what got me to that point in my life. I didn’t have anyone to go to about my problems and was always told to “let it go” or “you’ll be fine.” And even though I was never able to join the service myself (horrific eyesight prevented me from joining the NAVY back in 1998) I had quite a few traumatic experiences both from my childhood and in my adulthood and have been diagnosed with PTSD and moderate anxiety issues. I finally wanted to find out more about SfS, so I slowly walked over to the table, and I am so very glad that I did because I met three very amazing people that touched my heart.
I spoke with a wonderful man named Alexe, an Iraq War Veteran who served during Operation Freedom, and he was kind enough to share his story both before and after he returned home from the overseas warzone. Alexe softly told me that when he came home, he felt so out of place, isolated, and to this day he still struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from his time in Iraq. He explained that if it weren’t for his buddy talking him into seeking help with Summit for Soldiers, he would not be there to talk to me today. He went on to say that he began descending into a destructive path that lost him his wife and nearly lost his children, too. He couldn’t function in society and felt like he was in a deep dark hole: Alexe was ready to end his life.
But his buddy wasn’t having it, and talked to him about the Summit program and how it helps veterans like Alexe get back into that good place, or a “less-deeper hole” as he (Alexe) described it. He portrayed his experience with Summit as “being part of a unit again,” that sense of belonging, not being alone anymore. My heart wept in silence as he told me his story, but it sounds as if he is in a better place in his life now. I’m glad that he has a good support system, and was equally glad to have met him. His explanation of how he felt was so close to my own struggles that I spoke with him several more times throughout the evening.
While Alexe was telling me his story, he seemed to struggle with his words, and Brian was there to help him. Brian explained that Summit finds and helps men and women like Alexe and bring them back from the darkness. He went on to say that the organization takes those in need on various camping trips and other outdoor activities that make the soldiers who feel alone seem like they are part of a team again.
Brian explain it to me as “everyone has a mountain to climb, some have trouble doing that. I can’t help anyone climb their mountain, only they can do that… but I will walk that mile with them, and so would anyone else here.” I felt goosebumps rising as he told me more about the program and how each person has struggled with the darkness at one point in their life, and that Summit helps bring them all together as one to start that healing process. Some soldiers won’t talk about their dark secrets from the warzone to just anyone, they don’t feel comfortable sharing the horrors that they can never “unsee.” When Summit takes them out on a camping trip or other activity, the soldiers can speak their mind, be themselves, because they are surrounded by other soldiers who have been there, too.
At that point, Brian and Alex introduced me to Mike Fairman, a former U.S. Navy Corpsman who was deployed with the USMC in Afghanistan. An avid mountaineer/adventurer who is also a survivor himself, Mike and his climbing partner decided to start SfS when they realized that their adventures helped them through some tough times. He called it a sort of therapy for himself to deal with his darkness.
He went on to explain that every year, 8,000 veterans die to suicide, that’s roughly 22 veterans a day. He said that his goal was to help raise awareness and get rid of the stigma surrounding mental illness so that Summit was no longer needed. What I took away from this conversation was that Mike wanted to stop the senseless deaths of so many of his comrades in uniform by being that someone who cares, who will listen to anyone who just needs someone to talk to. He has his own mountains to climb as his goal is said to be to climb the seven tallest mountains in the world. With Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, and most recently Mt. Everest under his belt already, he carries a flag with his silently fallen friend’s names printed on it whenever he climbs
To further Mike’s attempt at helping other soldiers combat their mental health issues, he began his vision of a music festival three years ago to bring the community together and provide information on other resources and organizations that are available to the Vets. He explained that it was his way of raising awareness to say thank you to those service men and women who put their lives on the line for our country. Mike wanted the festival to grow to larger proportions to raise awareness and funding for Summit for Soldiers so that they could continue their mission of saving soldiers from the brink of destruction.
After speaking with Alexe, Brain, and Mike, I had a better understanding of why so many veterans follow a destructive path after being released back into “normal” civilization. The stigma surrounding mental health issues today is still a huge factor, not only for the Veterans, but for civilians as well. Being a vet just happens to make it harder: here are these brave souls, that have seen horrific and traumatic events, and then are brought home to be spit upon by society. These are our brothers, our sisters, our mothers, our fathers, our spouses, our children… these are our heroes who have fought to make our world a better place and they deserve to be treated with respect. To all three of these wonderful men: I respect and thank you for serving for our country! Keep climbing those mountains!!!
If you know a Veteran who is struggling, please have them call:
VETERANS CRISIS HOTLINE: 1-800-273-8255/TALK (Press 1)
Or if they just need to talk with another Veteran: (877) WAR-VETS
As promised, I went back to the M.A.S.H. table to speak with Bruce, but he had walked away for a moment, so I had the chance to speak with Penny Kilcourse who is the Volunteer Coordinator at M.A.S.H. and a veteran as well. Penny was in the U.S. Army from 1980 to 1986 and worked with intelligence.
When she went into the ARMY, and after being told that she could do whatever she wanted, she remembered that she had always wanted to travel and see the world to help people, so the Army put her through a foreign language school to learn Russian. She then met her late husband who happened to work in the same field as Penny, and they started their family and lived in such places as Japan and Spain (among others) to make her dreams come true. She had a smile on her face the whole time she was telling me this story and I could tell she enjoyed her life.
Then Penny went on to explain her time with M.A.S.H. Pantry and how it is like a big family, and how each person that comes through is greeted like a brother or sister. With compassion in her voice, Penny told me about the families and Veterans that come through the pantry to receive help with such things as food assistance, clothing, toiletries, special personal items such as wheelchairs or walkers, and other services.
The organization’s home is in Grove City, Ohio, but they have been growing to reach Rickenbacker Air Force Base and a few other counties, and soon hope to be able to branch out to Dayton at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.
If you know a veteran or family of a fallen hero that is in need, please contact:
2735 Columbus St. Grove City, Ohio 43123
or call 614-522 1555
By the time I was finished talking with Penny, Bruce had shown back up and he told me a funny story about some training he had received at the age of 25 while he was in the service. Bruce was a lieutenant and had to learn how to drive an Armored Personal Carrier, his instructor was a sergeant and seemed to be in hurry. As this was Bruce’s first time driving a vehicle like this, he was unsure of the controls and so was driving slowly as a safety precaution. The sergeant instructed Bruce to speed up while making several turns, so he could get a feel for the huge tank. Bruce complied with the orders and said they came upon a hill will an 8-percent incline which made him a little nervous because, again, this was his first time.
As he began the accent up the hill and he was told to turn again. Unfortunately, between the speed at which Bruce was traveling, combined with the sharpness of the turn, the tank slowly tipped over onto its side and began sliding down the hill. Bruce frantically called over the radio for everyone to get out of the way, but luckily no one was hurt in the incident… well, except Brice’s pride. As he and the sergeant made their long trek back to the main building on foot, his classmates began laughing and ridiculing him for his mistake. By the time Bruce was finished with his story, I had tears in my eyes from laughing so hard! Great story Bruce, thank you so much!!
As night fell, the venue began buzzing with a renewed energy, the bands were playing their hearts out, dedicating songs to the veterans and portraying their utmost respect for them as well as the fallen heroes who could not be there. A silent auction was being held with a signed guitar, drum head, and a cymbal, and it looked like there were some nice bids going back and forth.
I noticed that most of tables and booths were being torn down and some were leaving, but I had to talk to one more organization before they left for the evening. That would be the Veteran Companion Animal Services (VCAS), a program that puts rescue dogs into a training program, and then matches the dog with the right owner, while also providing financial support so that the owner doesn’t feel burdened with the cost of owning an animal. This program can help veterans get back into a schedule, creating structure for them due to the various needs of the dog, so they depend on each other, thus becoming a unit and creating a bond that can be beneficial for both.
If you know a veteran or military family that would benefit from this service, contact:
P.O. Box 16824
Columbus, Ohio 43216
This was the best event I’ve ever attended, not because of the music, but because of the people that I met, the stories and sharing, the energy throughout the place… it was all amazing and I really enjoyed my time there. All the people who came together to make this event, and all the people who volunteered their own time: you are amazing people.
I want to thank each and every person who shared their stories with me, I know that some of the things we talked about was not easy to do, but together we can fight the stigma of mental health and raise awareness! I got goosebumps several times throughout the day from some of the things that were said, as well as from the outpouring of respect and willingness to help those in need, this was a truly humbling experience.
To all the service men and women out there who are on active duty, and the veterans… Thank you for all that you do, much respect to you!
Credit for all images: J Courtney / Music in Motion Columbus
Ed. – This week’s episode of The Cat Club Podcast was dedicated to honoring our veterans. We hope you enjoy it.
The Cat Club Podcast Honors Our Veterans – Episode 29