Bastrop-based nonprofit, Soldiers' Angels, helps soldiers and veterans cope.By Jeremy Schwartz
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
BASTROP — Patti Patton-Bader's living room is filled nearly to the ceiling with cardboard boxes containing packages for wounded soldiers. Soon, they will make their way from her Bastrop home to hospitals and bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, where soldiers will find clothing with fabric-fastener flaps to replace flimsy paper hospital gowns, as well as phone cards to call home once they reach Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and a "blanket of hope" — a personalized quilt handmade by a Soldiers' Angels volunteer.
Patton-Bader, the grandniece of Gen. George S. Patton, started the group shortly after her son Brandon deployed to Iraq in 2003. She would send him daily care packages, and when he told her that many soldiers in his unit weren't getting anything from home, she began sending baby wipes, beef jerky and powdered Gatorade to his fellow soldiers.
She tapped friends and family to help and, when that effort reached its limit, started a Web site where volunteers could "adopt" soldiers. Soon, a mushrooming number of volunteers were conducting letter-writing and care package campaigns.
Soldiers' Angels has evolved from that shoestring operation to a $25 million-a-year nonprofit with more than 280,000 volunteers. The group does everything from provide winter jackets to homeless veterans to raise money for voice-activated laptops for wounded service members.
In the wake of last week's mass shooting at Fort Hood, Soldiers' Angels is collecting stuffed animals and encouraging notes for the victims' children and plans to give Christmas gift certificates to affected families and those injured in the attack.
"Patti is very much like General Patton," said her husband, Jeff Bader, who co-founded the group. "She doesn't see defeat in the picture."
As Soldiers' Angels enters its seventh year, Patton-Bader said she's become convinced that the general public has an important role to play in helping the hundreds of thousands of returning veterans heal from the horrors of war. But too many folks, she said, are fearful of engaging with veterans just back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They have 18 months of memory of hell. We have to try to fill their minds with more beauty," she said. "They're not going to kill you, and they're not totally broken. If you give them that inner gratitude, they start to heal. It's not a miracle, but every little bit takes away from the yuck of war."
Patton-Bader also thinks that soldiers who feel supported at home have less of a chance of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, a hypothesis supported by several studies, including a recent University of Texas study looking at risk factors for PTSD.
As deployments stretched ever longer and soldiers were called for multiple tours of duty, the group's attention turned to the impact on the families left behind, and Soldiers' Angels began organizing mass baby showers for expectant mothers whose husbands were deployed abroad. Lately, as more soldiers return home, the group is helping service members transition to civilian life. Soldiers' Angels now helps wounded veterans with traumatic brain injury get access to cutting-edge hyperbaric oxygen treatment and use music therapy to regain lost memories.
"We have that ability to be fluid," Patton-Bader said. "Everyone has a different thing that they can do. If you can sew, sew. If you don't have a lot of money, write a letter. If you have money, send a check."
Toby Nunn, a former U.S. Army sergeant who served two tours in Iraq and now works for Soldiers' Angels, said most people aren't aware of how much even small gestures can help returning soldiers.
"It's simple little things, like if you see some soldier in an airport, give a clap; what does it take? A calorie and a half?" he said. "Some people get scared, like, 'Ooh, there's a soldier.' But that five seconds of acknowledgement, that smile, that moment of eye contact, can have a direct impact."
Nunn said he saw the impact of Soldiers' Angels when he led a squad of the Stryker Brigade into Iraq at the beginning of the war. After hearing about the group, he asked volunteers to adopt his unit. Soon, they were sending care packages and letters to soldiers they hadn't met.
"Their stress level goes down," Nunn said. "When they got a thank-you or letter from the volunteers, even the soldiers without much family support knew 'someone out there loves me.' It wasn't cheesy help; there was no agenda behind it."
Nunn got much more personal help from Patton-Bader and her husband when he returned home. After his second deployment to Iraq last year, Nunn moved to Cedar Park and found himself in a familiar position for many veterans. He struggled to make peace with what he'd seen in combat; his marriage crumbled, and he had no idea what to do with his life.
"It was a very abrupt change," he said. "I went from being one of the more successful military guys to nothing."
That's when a Soldiers' Angels volunteer he had met while serving abroad put him in contact with Patton-Bader and her husband, who had recently moved from California to Bastrop. Eventually, Nunn became the group's director of project development.
Nunn would like to give similar opportunities to other returning veterans. Soldiers' Angels is opening a new healing center and warehouse in San Antonio, next to Brooke Army Medical Center, that will employ service members transitioning from active service to civilian life and help them find veteran mentors.