Heroes wanted: Colorado city makes a bet on wounded veterans
By Donna Bryson | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: March 4, 2014
MONTROSE, Colo. — Edward Joseph Lyons fought for America in World War I. His son fought in World War II.
“And I’m Edward Joseph Lyons, too, and I fought in Afghanistan," said the youngest of the fighting Lyons. He was 20 years old when he stepped on an IED trigger on Nov. 13, 2009, setting off a storm of shrapnel that severed an arm and sent a shard of metal through his armor into his stomach.
Lyons didn’t eat solid food for more than a year. Surgeons rearranged his pancreas, and he jokes that scars on his stomach outline a six-pack he’ll never lose, no matter how out of shape he might be. But his wounds ended his Marine career, and Lyons thought his future was over, too.
Until a small town in southern Colorado offered him a chance to serve again.
Lyons, who grew up in Iowa, is one of four young people whose military careers were ended by battlefield injury or by illness who came to Montrose, a town of 20,000 that bills itself as a “no-barriers” place where wounded veterans can thrive.
A grassroots effort called Welcome Home Montrose has hit on a key strategy for wounded veterans: helping them understand their lives can still have meaning and a purpose. It expands on the military concept of service before self that the young veterans from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t leave behind when they are injured.
The project grew from an idea that Melanie Kline had while watching a TV show one Sunday morning about wounded warriors from the current wars. The segment featured Jared Bolhuis, a former Marine who returned from Afghanistan with traumatic brain injury, and Todd Love, a former Marine who returned from Afghanistan without his legs and one of his arms.
“There’s something about watching that and seeing Jared’s face and seeing Todd’s face that just got me thinking about how young these guys are, and how many were going to be coming home,” said Kline, a local businesswoman. She said she's seen the video countless times since November 2011, and it still brings her to tears.
Kline, a silversmith, has shown it to her neighbors, students, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, civil servants and government officials in an effort to galvanize the community. She also uses the video to raise awareness that while the fighting is far away and American military engagement is winding down, the wars have had and will continue to have a profound effect on towns such as Montrose.
The volunteer-run project has many forms: discounts for vets from businesses; a drop-in Warrior Resource Center where vets can get counseling and advice on jobs, housing and education; a database that helps volunteers link vets to community resources; and a fledgling internship program.
For Lyons, 23, the programs at Montrose gave him something other than the military to be passionate about.
“Stepping into a community and seeing how welcoming the community is and how willing everyone was to help, it just made it possible for me to come out of the shell that I had been in since my injury," he said. “I honestly believe that was the best form of therapy I’d ever received.”
As she built Welcome Home Montrose, Kline found that veterans were among the first to step up to help other veterans.
Often, though, Kline was met with skepticism. Was she trying to exploit those who had sacrificed for their country?
“I ended up getting vetted by a lot of vets," Kline said with a smile.
She passed the inspection of Tim Kenney, a rancher, outdoors guide and father of four who at 46 is an older veteran of Afghanistan. After the Wisconsin-born Kenney returned from war to Montrose, where he had settled with his wife a decade ago, he organized fishing and hunting trips for his wounded buddies. Now, he’s working with Welcome Home Montrose on its outdoor sports festival for disabled vets.
When Kenney found himself struggling with PTSD, he said Kline “hooked me up with a Vietnam vet who had some PTSD issues," he said. “Now, he and I are talking."
Tom Ziemann, a social worker at the Veterans Affairs hospital in nearby Grand Junction, Colo., said he had seen many grass-roots initiatives to help vets — projects that help them find jobs or financial assistance, or send them on vacations. But he said he had never seen anything quite like Kline’s vision.
“This particular project is unique in that you have this community that is coming together and saying, ‘Hey, come live with us,’” he said. “I was skeptical at first. But they’ve really come through.”
Kline is the first to admit that the programs are in their infancy. “We’re definitely not ready to say, ‘This is how you do it.’”
But she calls Lyons and his three comrades key to the project — “lab rats” who have helped her and others in Montrose learn what wounded warriors need.
‘Kick in the gut’
Lyons joined the Marines straight out of high school. The IED ended the only career he’d ever imagined, and he doubted his infantry experience had prepared him for a civilian job.
Then, he got a call from Jared Bolhuis, a former Marine from Michigan who returned from Afghanistan with traumatic brain injury. The two met while both were hospitalized at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. During his recovery, Bolhuis, who has been a kayaker since he was 5, joined Team River Runner, which introduces wounded active-duty servicemembers and veterans to white-water kayaking and other river sports.
Bolhuis was 24 when he was medically retired from the Marines.
“A 24-year-old with a pension," Bolhuis said, shaking his head. “When they finally told me I was done, it was the biggest kick in the gut I’d ever had."
Bolhuis caught Kline’s attention during that interview, when he said Team River Runner “gave me my life back." It inspired her to start Welcome Home Montrose and rally her community to support those who served.
After reading about the new program, the father of a wounded Marine suggested Bolhuis call Kline to learn more.
He remembers calling her, and her saying: “You inspired us. Come out and see what we’re doing."
He came to Montrose in April 2012, to help Montrose set up a city-county kayak park. In June, he moved to the town after Kline made him a co-executive director of Welcome Home Montrose. Management duties were a challenge for him — he has memory loss and other symptoms of a brain injury that he suffered after being too close to two explosions while riding in the gunner’s turret of a tank. He learned to make jewelry with Kline’s sons, but remains a passionate and compelling spokesman for Welcome Home Montrose and the river park project.
Bolhuis described his dream job as one in which he could work with vets. And he believed that if he found his dream job in Montrose, others might too. His idea became Dream Job, which brings other wounded vets to Montrose for unpaid, six-month internships to help them recast their future. Bolhuis reached out to his friends to be the first interns.
Lyons, pressed by Bolhuis to define his dream job, thought back to his experience teaching tactics to junior Marines. One of 10 siblings, he also thought he might have a knack for working with young people. And he remembered a favorite high school history teacher that he never thanked for his advice and guidance. Now, maybe, he could pay it forward by exploring a teaching career.
“If I couldn’t make a difference for somebody fighting with a gun, maybe I could do it in another way, with a book," he said.
School officials were among the supporters of Welcome Home Montrose. Lyons was paired with Bill Hamm, a history teacher at Olathe High School in a nearby town. Lyons said Hamm, a Colorado National Guard member who had done a tour in Iraq, was the perfect mentor.
"After being injured, I was so locked in a shell of not wanting anything to do with anyone who was not in the military, had not been in combat," Lyons said, adding he was wary that civilians would be thinking: "This guy’s gone to war, we don’t know what he’s going to do, what he’s capable of."
Lyons said Hamm also reminded him of that favorite high school history teacher. Both "really love history and understand it and learned from it."
For months, Lyons was an observer in Hamm’s class of 15- and 16-year-olds. Then, Hamm gave Lyons a chance to stand in front of the class and teach a unit on Iwo Jima.
Lyons admitted that he overprepared for his hourlong class. He consulted Department of Defense archives, watched documentaries and interviewed Iwo Jima survivors he met in Montrose. He brought maps and medals to class, and his own Purple Heart citation.
He wanted the students to find purpose in history.
"It’s not just killing people because they made us angry. It was actually for a bigger reason, for freedom and liberty, to stop tyranny. If it goes unappreciated, it won’t be long before we don’t have freedoms."
Lyons’ commitment to history grew in Montrose. But as his six months drew to a close last year, Lyons was uncertain that working with young people was for him. He needed more time to decide, and Welcome Home Montrose decided to extend the internships. Hamm was being deployed to Afghanistan, so Lyons was paired with another high school teacher.
Earlier this year, Lyons moved to Fort Collins, Colo., to study political science at Colorado State University.
He says he learned a lot about himself in Montrose.
"I was in a whirlwind of a mess when I first got here. I wasn’t ready to accept that I was out of the military," he said. "I learned that things can change."
Life in Montrose, he said, "helped bring me into my own."
No fear of failure
Judi Boyce, another friend that Bolhuis made in the hospital and persuaded to come to Montrose, says the program gave her a chance to think about herself in new ways, "without being scared of failure."
"You’re a volunteer. They can’t fire you,” she said. “It can help you truly realize where your strengths and weaknesses are."
Boyce, a New Jersey native, joined the Navy after graduating from high school, in part to get training to become a personal chef. She had other reasons to join. Placed in foster care at 7 and adopted at 14, she said she never really felt nurtured. Boyce said she remembered filling out forms that included a question about why she had enlisted.
"I wrote: 'To have a sense of family.'"
Two years after joining, she suffered a stroke, the result of an until-then undetected disorder that had constricted arteries in her brain. After two surgeries, she had to relearn to walk. She retired from the Navy at 24, with impaired vision, memory loss and periodic severe headaches. She is unable to drive and has a service dog.
"I’m 24 and I have all these things that I can’t do normally anymore," she said. "But it’s just one of those things you have to overcome. Wounded warriors all have their injuries. But what happened to them isn’t who they are."
Boyce hadn’t thought much about her future as she ended her Navy career. But when Bolhuis asked, she quickly thought about event planning. Her memory problems make it hard for her to keep track of a recipe, particularly in a high pressure professional kitchen. But she thought she could bring some of her cooking experience to planning events and parties.
Her first stop in Montrose was living and working at an assisted living facility. Boyce found the setting too much like the hospitals where she’d spent years, and found living with patients with memory problems only made her more sensitive about her own. She started working at city hall, a better fit, where she helped organize staff picnics, children’s parties and a dodge ball tournament as a fundraiser for foster children.
Boyce didn’t stay in Montrose beyond her six months. Soon after arriving, her boyfriend, a fellow archer she met at a sports tournament for wounded warriors, asked her to marry him. In her last weeks in Montrose, the main event she was planning was her wedding. Boyce moved to her fiance’s home in Wisconsin and keeps in touch with the project through Facebook.
"I’m taking away the ability to help other wounded warriors," she said before she left.
Joshua Heck, 25, the fourth veteran recruited to come to Welcome Home Montrose, smiles now at the skepticism he had when Bolhuis called and asked: "What would you do if I told you I wanted to move you to Colorado in six months and set you up in whatever dream job you want?"
"I was smartass," recalled the former Marine, who also became friends with Bolhuis in the hospital.
"I said, 'Sure, you let me know when you have that all set up.' I ate my words, obviously. And still am, every day."
By the time Bolhuis presented him with the dream job possibility, Heck had been released after 3½ years in military hospitals. He had suffered a stroke soon after finishing Marine basic training. Doctors don’t know why someone so young had suffered a stroke, which was followed by grand mal seizures. Among the lingering effects for Heck, now retired, is memory loss.
Heck had tried college before the Marines. He left graphic design studies to join the military in hopes that would give him purpose. After the stroke narrowed his options, he’d decided his wish was to live independently and be in charge of his own time. Farming or gardening made sense: "You can’t eat money. And it (money) doesn’t make up for lost time with friends."
Bolhuis sent him a list of organic farms in the Montrose area. Heck settled on a vegetable operation that sells its wares at local markets and encourages sharing produce and ideas with other small farmers. His internship turned into a full-time job.
Heck has married since coming to Montrose. His wife, a graphic designer he met in Pennsylvania after his stroke, has joined him, finding work in a local gallery. Heck wants to build a house and grow mushrooms to sell at markets and to local chefs.
Farming can be a mission, a channel for what Heck describes as a "fierce, almost manic motivation that never goes away for a lot of servicemen. With a garden, trying to produce food all year long, you’re never done."
"Healing is painful. You can’t heal in a concrete building with windows with chicken wire in them,” Heck said. “You can’t develop as a human being unless you’re treated as one.”
Kline says the four first interns stressed to her that Montrose was a safe place for them to re-enter civilian life. She wants to recreate that for the next crop, and do better. She knows now, for example, that the interns should be checking in regularly with a mental health professional. Montrose, like small towns across America, lacks mental health services, and the nearest VA medical center is an hour’s drive away.
"When we first started, we were pretty naïve. We were enthusiastic, but we were naïve," she said. "We’ve learned a lot about the services that we need here."
She’s also learned a lot about her community’s willingness to help. In 2013, 225 individuals and companies made donations to the project, and 33 businesses were offering discounts to vets under a Welcome Home Montrose program. More than 500 vets were registered at the drop-in center last year. They participated in PTSD and other support groups, held tai chi classes, sat down with counselors at the center, checked out all-terrain wheelchairs for hunting or fishing, took advantage of a job board and resume file that connect local businesses with potential employees - or they could join together once a week for coffee and homemade pastries donated by townspeople. A weekly coffee meetup for military spouses was launched last year, and 70 people signed up.
Last year, Montrose put on an outdoor sports festival for 20 medically retired vets. More than 210 people and more than 100 business, service groups and churches volunteered to help. Montrose offered so many activities, from tai chi at sunrise to drum circles in the evening, that the vets couldn’t get to them all.
"It was mind-boggling to manage, but it was so amazing to see the community coming together for the veterans," Kline said.
Another outdoor festival is scheduled this summer. Also this year, Kline will erect a memorial wall at the center and finalize plans for recruiting and hosting a second group of interns.
"Everybody wants to do something," she said of the community. "You just have to give them something to do."
Tim Kenney sticks a Welcome Home Montrose sticker on the front window of his business signifying that Toad's Guide Shop is a part of the Welcome Home Montrose Business Window sticker program, Thursday, September 27, 2012. Veterans who are registered at the Warrior Resource Center in Montrose can receive something special, like a discount, from all member businesses.
Mahala Gaylord/The Denver Post