Honoring Military Families: The Real Heroes

I want to spend some time this week before Memorial Day Weekend, focusing on military families who have lost a loved one to war.  Yes, they are the parents, spouses, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends who have been left to face a future filled with grief, despair, disbelief, anger and in some cases feelings of shame.  These families are the real heroes.  Each post will be a little different, because I want to include resources and information about a number of support organizations that are available to help families begin to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives. 

I especially wanted to begin  my posts sharing  a very compelling book, Heart of a Hawk, about one family’s sacrifice and journey toward healing,  by Deborah H. Tainsh.   Deborah and David Tainsh’s son, U.S. Army Sergeant Patrick Tanish, died while serving the military in Iraq on Feb. 11, 2004.   Sgt. Tainsh was at the end of his year-long tour making plans to return home to his family and girlfriend, when he was on patrol near the airport in Baghdad that fateful night.  A roadside bomb exploded near the convoy of Humvees.  He remained behind and defended his unit so they could reach safety, while he had taken a fatal bullet.  He received a Silver Star for his heroic efforts.

Early in her book, Deborah comments that many stories are written about the lives of soldiers and the personal battles they fight.  But, not a lot is written about the families at home.  Deborah’s words are so beautifully written, that I want to do them justice by directly quoting her:

 “Little is written about the heroes left at home, those who must smile bravely when they hug or kiss for the last time a loved one deployed to a war thousands of miles away.  These  heroes wake up every morning with a prayer on their lips, say several more during the day, and fall to sleep at night saying another.  They either watch too much news, look for a certain e-mail every morning, wait for the mail carrier, and hope the next ring of the phone is that call they’ve waited on for weeks.  They write letters every day and mail a package once a week.  They stand stoic and smile gratefully when someone asks how things are going.  Then, for some, the day comes when a military chaplain and a casualty officer knock nervously on their door and deliver the worst conceivable message.  These heroes are left with only a folded flag, a cabinet of awards and medals, a last letter, and a bittersweet pride that only military families understand.”  

It is because these stories go untold that Deborah began to chronicle her family’s life beginning with their rebellious, drug-addicted teenager who had overcome his addictions and found his calling in the military.   That transformation in Patrick and his passion for his work, only added to their grief, sacrifice, and journey towards healing.   Dave, a retired Sergeant Major in the U.S. Marines, had the hardest time accepting his son’s death, and wouldn’t talk or share his feelings with Deborah.  The book is candid and raw, portraying the depth of grief, anger and suffering, and the toll it can take on a marriage and family.   I was surprised that Deborah chose to write the book in third person and would love to know why.  Although a  moving story, I felt  it would have been even more powerful if she had told her story in the first person.   On the day of Patrick’s memorial service,  a red-tailed hawk appeared on an oak tree.  It  filled her with the memory of the spirit hawk legend and its great healing powers.  For Deborah, the hawk symbolized that Patrick had embraced his spirit hawk with all of his soul.  Thus, the title of the book.    

A year after Patrick’s death, Deborah and Dave became aware of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a nonprofit organization that provides  support for grieving military  families.  A portion of the proceeds of her book, go to TAPS.  She also has written another book, Surviving the Folded Flag, where parents of war share stories of coping, courage and faith.   Both she and Dave are active with TAPS and mentor many military families.   In an upcoming blog, I will focus on TAPS and other support organizations.

Wendi’s Magical Voice — Stuttering Awareness Week

Wendi’s Magical Voice, is written and illustrated by Brit Kohls.  It is available to all kids who stutter through the Stuttering Foundation of America.

This imaginative and  fun story is about a good little witch who stutters and does everything within her magical powers to disappear at school so that she won’t have to speak.  Wendi experiences fear, embarrassment,  anger, frustration and shame when she’s asked to introduce herself at school.    While the other children are practicing their tricks for the Magic Fair, Wendi hides under her desk, hoping to be  invisible.  It isn’t until she meets Peter the  Troll, who befriends her  and invites her to be his partner for the Magic Fair, that Wendi  finally finds a creative way to move beyond her fear.

Children will delight in this magical book, as Kohls has portrayed each child as a different storybook character, thus emphasizing the fact we are all unique in our own special way.

May 9-15 has been designated as National Stuttering Awareness Week, with Colin Firth as honorary chairman.   The Stuttering Foundation of America is the largest nonprofit charitable organization in the world working toward prevention and improved treatment of stuttering.  They reach over 1  million people annually.  According to Jane Fraser, president, “Since the King’s Speech was released last December, the movie has brought a lot of attention to the world of stutterers.”  The foundation also provides a wealth of educational  information on stuttering, referrals to therapists nationwide, myths about stuttering, a page where kids and teens can share their stories and a book, Trouble at Recess, that can be downloaded to  your computer.

Some interesting facts from the foundation:  More than 68 million people worldwide stutter;  3 million Americans stutter.  Stuttering affects four times as many males as females.   Approximately 5 percent of all children go through a period of stuttering that lasts six months or more.  That is why early intervention is so important.  Three-quarters of those will recover by late childhood, leaving 1 percent with long-term problems.

Famous people who stuttered include King George VI, Winston Churchill, Nicole Kidman, James Earl Jones, Marilyn Monroe, Tiger Woods, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Jane Seymour.

Incredible You!

Dr. Wayne Dyer’s picture book “Incredible You,” is an uplifting, feel good about yourself picture book that helps children explore the 10 ways to let your greatness shine through. The book illustrations by Melanie Siegel, are bold and colorful.

Everything is possible in the hearts and minds of a child. That is what makes this the perfect book to boost a child’s self-esteem. Dr. Dyer, “believes that you cannot start early enough to teach the essential lessons for living a successful and peaceful life.”

Parents can introduce their children to 10 concepts that include: share the good, find what you love, find a quiet place inside, make today great, take care of yourself, everyone is special, especially you and many more. Each idea is presented very simply and is numbered. At the end, Dr. Dyer, has a list of questions related to each idea, where parents and teachers can help the child relate in his//her own special way.

This is a beautiful book filled with love, insight and purpose. It’s a simple message that kids will get.

It is Dr. Dyer’s wish that “these precious souls close the book and feel that nothing is impossible for them.” “It would be even more thrilling for me if this becomes the book they choose each night.”

The first week of May is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, declared by the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health. This week emphasized the importance of family and youth involvement in the children’s mental health movement.  National Mental Health Month will run through May.

You Can Be a Friend

By:  Tony & Lauren Dungy
Illustrator:  Ron Mazellan
Publisher:  Little Simon Inspirations
Ages: 4-8 yrs.                                                
I purchased You Can Be a Friend,  for my granddaughter before she starts kindergarten next fall.  I am grateful to authors  Tony and Lauren Dungy, for writing this inspirational and important book about family values and friendships.   Having friends is one of the most beneficial aspects of a child’s life.  But what if the child has a disability?   The Dungys artfully show  that “having limitations can never limit the boundaries of friendship.”   The Mazellan’s illustrations are simply beautiful.
Jade is over-the-hill excited when she discovers  a new girl moving into the house across the street.  Her wish has come true.  She has grown up in a family of all boys and there are no other girls living nearby.   She will have a friend at last.  The Dungy family bakes cookies for the new family, and they go welcome their new neighbors.   When Jade meets  Hannah, she’s not ready to find her in a wheel chair.   She assumes that Hannah can’t do any of the things that she does.  Jade’s not sure if she can be friends with Hannah.  Over time Jade gets to know Hannah and they become good friends.  Hannah teaches Jade to bowl, they share secrets and   play games.  She also realizes that there are things Hannah can’t do.   Jade’s birthday is approaching and she wants to invite Hannah to her party.  But, the party site will cause problems for her friend.  Jade has some important decisions to make.       
You Can Be a Friend is an excellent book for parents to introduce children to disabilities, and a great class room discussion book.  All children want to play and interact with other children.  Children with disabilities want to share similar experiences with their siblings and friends.   Having a good friend means sharing both the good and difficult times.   

Rules — Autism Awareness Month

 In wrapping up Worldwide Autism Awareness Month, I wanted to end my children’s book reviews with Rules, by Cynthia Lord.   This is a chapter book for children in grades 4-7, published by Scholastic Press.  The author won the Newberry Honor and the Schneider Family Book Awards in 2009.   Lord, is the mother of two children, one of whom has autism.  She is also a former teacher and behavioral specialist.

The book cover says it all, “No toys in the fish tank!”   It is one of many rules, that 12-year-old, Catherine has made up to help her autistic brother, David, understand his  world.  There are others too:  Flush!   A boy can’t  take off his pants in public.  This is Catherine’s room.  David must knock!  It’s okay to hug Mom, but not the clerk at the video store.  Don’t chew your food with your mouth open.

Rules, is a very convincing story about the challenges for siblings living with a brother/sister with autism.  For Catherine, it’s about wanting to live a normal life, which is not possible when life revolves around David.  Catherine is an endearing character, struggling with her own identity and wanting to have friends.  She has all the normal feelings of resentment, anger, embarrassment, frustration and jealousy that siblings share.   A diagnosis of autism is very hard on siblings.

Yet for  Catherine, it becomes a fine balancing act.   She loves and fiercely protects her brother, but she also has wants and dreams for herself.    A lot for a 12-year-old girl to handle, as she is attempting to come into her own.  The  rules begin to blur for Catherine as she becomes involved in other friendships.  You begin to wonder who she has really written the rules for — David or herself.   In the end, what is important to Catherine is that everyone is different in their own way.  And, that is okay.

This book is an inspirational read for siblings and their parents, and an exceptional  discussion book for  teachers and students.

A Friend Like Henry — Austism Awareness Month

When I began reviewing books in honor of Autism Awareness Month, I never imagined how much I would grow in my understanding of the complexities of the autism spectrum, and the level of respect I have for those with autism and their families.   One of the things I have discovered is that no children are alike and their methods of learning may vary.  I found that in this wonderful story A Friend Like Henry, by Nuala Gardner.   An international bestseller by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Nuala  bravely invites us into her world sharing with great authenticity the pain, agony and despair  a  family with a severely autistic child copes with daily.   A nurse, Nuala recognized very early that her son Dale’s infant behavior didn’t seem right.  He was simply “the perfect baby.”    He was passive and rarely cried and slept through the night without a peep.  Everyone commented how good he was.  When she shared her concerns with her physician, she was dismissed.   As the months passed Nuala, began to see that Dale was addicted to motion.  When he was with other babies, he was unresponsive.  He learned to crawl quickly and when he discovered his legs he ran on his tiptoes.   One day at a play group, he sat next to a little girl, studied her and then wacked her in the face with a toy.   By the time he was two and three, severe tantrums began when something wasn’t on Dale’s terms.   And, his sleeping patterns changed — he would only sleep two hours at night.  Dale didn’t speak for a long time.  Nuala and her husband, Jamie, were exhausted.   Finally a friend recognized his behavior and recommended a doctor and he was diagnosed with severe autism.

After years of working with Dale, a small breakthrough occurred.   At a family outing, Dale met two dogs and began playing and laughing.   The Gardners had never seen their son so happy.  They took Dale to visit a litter of Golden Retriever puppies, and one dog in particular chose Dale.   The bond between Dale and his new puppy, Henry, literally changed his world.   Within three weeks of having Henry, teachers were reporting significant changes in Dale.   Through his unconditional love, Henry helped unlock Dale’s world and him how to feel, communicate and care for himself.   Henry helped Dale navigate in the world.

Although this book was written from his mother’s perspective, we gain some insight into Dale’s life through his recollections at the end.   There are a number of videos on the web about Dale and Henry.  Just click on:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJSu3G0U5SY

“Not My Boy!” — Autism Awareness Month

Yesterday I reviewed My Brother Charlie, and talked about the HollyRod Foundation, launched by Holly Robinson Peete and Rodney Peete.   On Friday,  the weekday CBS Show, The Talk, focused on fathers with autistic children.  Rodney,  actor Joe Mantegna, and single dad Jimmy Smith,  shared their experiences in a roundtable discussion led by Holly.  After watching the program, and reading Rodney’s book, Not My Boy!,  it felt significant to discuss the impact on dads, who sometimes feel left out of the equation.

Joe Mantegna has a 23-year-old daughter, Mia, who graduated with honors.  Joe said “he was relieved the first day of school when Mia’s teacher, who had an autistic child, welcomed her with love and talked to the classroom about how they all would help her.”   Jimmy Smith said he woke up one day when he realized that his son had an excellent memory and wanted to learn.  All three men said they were just glad to talk with other dads!

Rodney, a former NFL quarterback, was candid about how his son’s autism affected him.  “I had dreams for R.J. and wanted to do all the things that father’s do with their sons,”  said Rodney.  “I wanted to take him into the locker room, play ball,  but R.J. wanted to watch the water run across the rocks in a stream.  I was in denial, refused to accept R.J.’s diagnosis, would not read any books on the subject,  and wouldn’t talk to other dads.  I decided I am going to fix this.   That’s what dads do.”

One day Rodney had a pivotal moment when he took R.J. to the therapist.  “I got down on the floor and tried to play with R.J.,  and there was no connection,”  he said.  “The therapist showed me how he connected with R.J., and within minutes I saw my son laughing and talking.   It broke my heart — a stranger was connecting with my son.  In that moment I knew I had to turn things around.”    He realized that the entire family needed to be on the same page. Today R.J. has gone beyond expectations and plays soccer, with his dad there cheering him on.

Not My Boy!  should be required reading for all father’s who have children who fall under the autism spectrum.   It is a powerful look at Rodney’s own inner journey with his son’s autism.  It offers a message of hope and inspiration for families.

Next Friday, Apr. 15, at 2 p.m. EDT, The Talk, will feature inspirational teenagers who are autistic.

Visit elizabethannewrites  and read reviews of two excellent young adult books that honor Autism Awareness Month.