'Spirit of Hope' recipient volunteers in memory of son
November 16, 2011
By J.D. Leipold
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Nov. 16, 2011) -- Giving of her talents and spirit defines the life and essence of this year's Army recipient of the Spirit of Hope award.
Janice Bridges, who heads an Adopt-A-Soldier program and provides sports wheelchairs to wounded warriors, received the award in the Pentagon auditorium Tuesday. The award was presented in honor of comedian Bob Hope, who demonstrated a spirit of patriotism and selfless service in performing USO tours from World War II to the Persian Gulf.
Bridges, a computer scientist at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., said she was instilled with the spirit of volunteerism from her youngest days growing up in Tuscaloosa, Ala. She was taught by the example her father set that community involvement was how to live one's life.
ROAD TO COMMUNITY SERVICE
Bridges grew up picking up trash strewn along the roads, volunteering as a candy striper to do whatever was asked at the hospital and tagging along with her dad to give blood and help with families who had been hit by tornadoes or some other crisis. Along the way, her dad, a World War II veteran who only had a middle school education, also stressed to his daughter the importance of an education.
Community service and education, they were messages that stuck in her mind as she moved through high school, college, marriage to a Soldier and into motherhood and as a benefactor to Soldiers.
Throughout the years she's been a school teacher, finished masters' degrees in both math and computer science, taught at different universities, run a computer science department, served as a PTA president, ran a Boy Scout fund-raiser and reared a trio of boys in the same tradition that she herself was raised.
Bridges has always been a self-described people person -- friends tell her she seems to "collect people." She guesses it's because she's a "talker" and projects her excitement and concern pretty well. That gets people motivated.
PROJECTS IN ALASKA
Back in her 30s with the last of her children just born, she found herself stationed with family at Fort Wainwright, Alaska -- a far cry from her southern comfort levels. It was 1989 and the beginning of what would become lifelong commitment to helping Soldiers and their families.
She found out many Soldiers weren't even at a 10th-grade educational level, so she recruited unemployed schoolteachers who were military wives to help Soldiers raise their grades in order to receive tuition assistance.
Bridges then spearheaded a refurbishment program that put donated bicycles in the hands of single Soldiers to repair. The bikes were then given to families who couldn't afford new ones for their kids. She was also instrumental in the drive to get a new gym at the remote post which would later boast racquetball courts and aerobics classes.
The efforts she and her family put in at Fort Wainwright didn't go unnoticed as the family was selected as the 1991 Pacific Family of the Year by then President George W. Bush.
SERVICE OVER SCHOLARSHIP
In 1992, her husband received a medical retirement from the Army for injuries he suffered during Desert Storm, so the family moved to Alexandria, Ala., where she continued to teach and volunteer coach in the local and military communities.
Later the family moved to Anniston, Ala., then Fort Hood, Texas. Then in 2001, she headed west at the urging of her oldest son Paul to take a computer scientist position at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
She said Paul, who had won a full scholarship to the University of Alabama, had decided he wasn't quite ready for college and wanted to serve his country in the wake of 9/11 and follow in the footsteps of his grandfather. The problem was Paul didn't meet the physical criteria, but was working hard with his father and his mother on getting his weight down. Within a year, Paul lost 119 pounds and was accepted into the Army.
"I had told my boys to live their dreams, now Paul was telling me to live mine. I tell everybody he's also the reason why I'm at White Sands," Bridges said.
SUICIDE SHATTERS LIFE
On Nov. 2, 2006, Bridges' world changed forever. Her 23-year-old son, Spc. Michael Paul Bridges, took his life while deployed to Taji, Iraq. Bridges said her eldest had made it as far as Germany and was looking forward to returning home and patching up an argument with his youngest brother and moving on with his life as a future teacher. Instead of heading stateside, his unit was suddenly recalled back to Iraq.
"He had seen a lot of things that we didn't discover until later," she said. "He's seen a lot of his friends lose arms, lose legs, lose their lives and a couple of his friends had also committed suicide, including a high school female friend who wasn't in the Army. He had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but as his mother, I feel a lot of guilt because I should have seen it."
Bridges said when people heard her son had been lost in Iraq, she wouldn't tell them he'd shot himself, she would just say he died.
"That was not my son who shot himself," she explained. "He had plans. He was coming home. I guarantee if I had known, I would have been on an airplane in a heartbeat to get that boy."
"I went into a deep, dark place for a while, for a couple of years I shut down because at that time it was very hard to deal with at that particular point in time -- people didn't talk about suicide in the Army, so you have a tendency to be quiet about it," she said. "At first when people found out it was suicide, they weren't very supportive, but Paul did not dishonor his country; he did not dishonor his uniform and he definitely did not dishonor his family, no matter what happened."
As she dealt with the guilt and pain in the senseless loss of her first-born, she also began to research suicide with her now ex-husband and joined the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Alabama and started doing group walks to make people more aware of how to determine if someone is suicidal and what measures to take.
Bridges said she slowly started to return to her normal "bubbly self" because she realized she needed to start talking about suicide in the Army for one, and two, she had two other wonderful children that I needed to stop and think about.
She said her supervisor would excuse Bridges from the mandatory suicide awareness classes because she felt they were causing more harm than good, but one day she decided to just walk into a class. As she sat there looking at one of the six slides, the one that had the signs of suicide, it occurred to her there wasn't one that showed the Soldier calling family members and saying good-byes. When the moderator asked if anyone wanted to add anything Bridges finally spoke up.
"I was looking at people making faces and then I said, 'yes, roll that back,' and I said when they call you and they're telling you good-bye, that's when you know and you need to realize and that's when I told my story," she said. "People knew me at White Sands because I'd done a lot of fund-raising in the community and started a scholarship in Paul's name here as well as one at Paul's high school in Oxford, Ala."
With the White Sands community behind her and her supervisor's encouragement, she started the Adopt-A-Soldier program when the range's resident unit, the 2nd Engineer Battalion, was readying for deployment.
"I asked the commanders for a list of Soldiers who had no one to send them care packages," she said. "Then I was able to match Soldiers who didn't have any family with people not only at White Sands but from the surrounding area."
"Businesses got involved, the Elk Club, the high school -- it was wonderful because many of the Soldiers they adopted were right out of high school," she said. "It's at a point now that when the manager at Walmart sees me heading toward him, he just says, 'get a cart, get what you need and come see me.'"
She said when Paul was overseas he would ask her to send extra stuff for his buddies who didn't have anyone sending them packages. He also requested candy for the kids and more gender-specific items for the female Soldiers who didn't have anyone.
Bridges has also been heavily involved for the last eight years in the annual "Bataan Death March" at White Sands, an annual marathon event that pays tribute to the prisoners of war who were forced to march and died in the Philippines in 1942.
She volunteers with the Sylvan Learning Center in Las Cruces, N.M., to help youth improve their math grades, and she teaches American College Test and Scholastic Aptitude Test classes anywhere from four to eight hours weekly.
"Helping with the high school kids, the ACT, the SAT -- that's what Paul wanted to do. He wanted to come back and teach and work with kids," Bridges said. "I thought, 'OK, this is my way to be worthy of being his mother by being able to give back to these high school kids.'"
HELPING WOUNDED WARRIORS
Her latest contribution is working with Achilles International to raise money for sports wheelchairs for wounded Soldiers that will have a brass plate attached with the name of a fallen Soldier.
"The military will give them wheelchairs to get around in, but they will not give them wheelchairs to compete in and that's our goal, to get wounded Soldiers back out playing basketball again, cycling again and getting them to feel good about themselves besides just being in a wheelchair that just rolls," she said.
"I'm just trying to do things to be worthy of being Paul's mother now," she said. "When I got the little placard in the mail for the wheelchair that said 'In Memory of Specialist Michael Paul Bridges,' I thought, all right kiddo, I think maybe you're gonna be proud of your mom."