By Mr. Arthur Mcqueen (IMCOM)December 15, 2009
HIALEAH, Fla. - Five military families are enjoying a better holiday season this year thanks to Walmart and Operation Homefront.
The families took part in the "Walmart Gives Back" holiday giving campaign and received $1,000 gift cards Dec. 13, at the Hialeah Walmart Supercenter.
The recipients were as different as the gift cards were identical and all were grateful for the help over the holidays.
"This is the difference between heaven and earth for my family," said Hugo Gonzalez, formerly assigned to the 1st Infantry Division.
"We were expecting a modest Christmas," he said, looking at his 3-year-old twin girls and their 2-year-old sister, who were bouncing exuberantly in the shopping cart. "The kids just know what they want; we don't bother them with big people problems."
Big people problems is Gonzalez' code for his continuing recovery, after two and one-half years in Walter Reed, from the effects of an improvised explosive device attack in the early phase of the Iraq war. Gonzalez' exposed position manning a Mk 19 grenade launcher cost him half of his vision and not fully-determined brain injuries.
Having staked out his home in Miami because of the proximity to the Veterans Affairs hospital here, the former infantryman arrived two hours early to Walmart and carefully planned out his shopping expedition.
Another wounded warrior was Anthony Kirsh, who works in U.S. Southern Command.
Temporarily confined to a wheelchair, Kirsh is a single parent with three children, who used the card to purchase clothes, school items and presents.
"I didn't expect to get selected for this," he said, "but it takes so much pressure off getting things for the kids."
Getting selected was the responsibility of Walmart, through Operation Homefront, but that process was aided in large part by the Army Community Service of U.S. Army Garrison-Miami which serves members of all branches of the Armed Forces.
"[Servicemembers] are doing it for their country, not for the pay, which covers food, shelter, clothing and such," said Tonya Templeton, Information and Referral specialist for the Garrison Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation office. "It may not cover the niceties that everyone else has."
"We don't use the word needy when referring to military families," she said. Templeton reviews her records for those who have requested emergency relief.
"With this type of program, we're looking for people who not only aren't getting toys, but may not be getting diapers and food too."
Child and Youth Services has helped her identify families where the deployment of one parent leads to a loss of second income where the other parent must stay home. Two of these families she identified were part of the Walmart event.
One, Spec. Cliff Flambert, is getting ready to deploy to Iraq, while his wife is home with a brand-new baby.
"This is a big shock for them, it's a first deployment," Templeton said.
Another non-traditional situation has placed Isabelle Joiner back in the job of motherhood after a long break. She is a grandmother taking care of 4-year-old twin boys, while her son and her daughter-in-law are deployed for more than a year.
With the assistance of some other family members, she managed to make a large dent in her Christmas needs.
"They are rambunctious, busy twins, and she is financially and emotionally strapped." Templeton said. "It's asking the families to do a lot to provide for [the security] of the country."
Templeton emphasized that different charities want to specifically help wounded warriors, or those that have been deployed, or other criteria. Operation Home Front and Walmart partnered nationally for the gift card project.
Keith Seago, member of the board of directors for Operation Home Front, Florida, went to commands all over the state. "I can't take credit, but I can enjoy participating in this gift and the season of giving," he said with a smile. "We asked for families they believed represented the kind of need we were looking for, and Walmart sponsored more than 1,000 military families nationwide."
Templeton emphasizes her role as strictly that of identifying. "It's not a matter of us selecting anybody, we screen for what the organizations are asking for, and then those names are thrown in and drawn out by them, not us."
This requires a lot of coordination and sensitivity to the feelings of those involved. "We are very careful, so that there are no misunderstandings or hurt feelings," she said.
"Typically we try to submit names of lower ranks, we don't try to exclude anyone, we just try to focus on those who need it most," she said. "I call every family first, not everyone wants to be involved with a media event; other wounded warriors have no issues telling their story."
"There's no guarantees, just different programs I ask permission to submit their names for," she said. "[In this way] they are not counting on it; if it happens it's a nice surprise, but that they are not disappointed and replacing Christmas with a dream that may not come true."
Other businesses who want to help the military will find a knowledgable partner at USAG-Miami.
"If someone is generous enough to offer help, you're going to try to find a way," Templeton said. Something that may not be appropriate for the military may be appropriate for Big Brothers/Big Sisters, or a school. "I try to make sure they have a referral to someone else."
Walmart gift cards will be given to more than 1,500 military families in 30 cities and 1,000 gift packages will be given to the caregivers of wounded military - all made possible through Walmart's donation to Operation Homefront.
Operation Homefront provides emergency assistance for our troops, the families they leave behind and for wounded warriors when they return home. A national nonprofit based in San Diego, Operation Homefront leads more than 4,500 volunteers in 30 chapters nationwide, and has met more than 105,000 military family needs since 2002. http://www.operationhomefront.net/aboutus.asp and http://www.homefrontonline.com/