Tag Archives: Omaha Press Club

Farewell to One of Our Own

March 2, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha Magazine lost a member of our family yesterday with the passing of freelance writer Judy Horan. Judy had written for the magazine for more than 30 years, and her careful reporting, willingness to tackle nearly any subject, and overall great journalism skills will be missed.

“Judy was our longest continuous freelance writer for Omaha Magazine,” says publisher Todd Lemke. “She always met deadlines and provided great stories, always with a very pleasant demeanor.”

That certainly is not all we will miss about Judy. More than a freelance writer, Judy was a personal friend to several of us here.

In 2013, we produced an article titled “Pioneers in Media,” a spotlight on several noteworthy local women journalists, from WOWT’s Ann Pedersen to Creighton University journalism professor Eileen Wirth. This article started out as an editor’s idea for a piece about her being the first woman in television management in Omaha. When approached with the idea, she demurred, instead suggesting an article about local women in media, saying she’d be happy to write it.

The women showcased in the article were likewise happy to be written about by Judy, as they knew their kind and attentive friend would produce a great work of writing. Judy possessed a rare quality of being able to stay neutral even when writing about her friends—and all the women in the article were friends of hers, whether through media relations or the Omaha Press Club.

The OPC was Judy’s home away from home, and she could be found there about once a week, quietly taking notes or participating in one of the many committees on which she served.

My personal experience with Judy started with the Omaha Press Club. Judy delighted in coming up with new ideas, especially if they helped other people. When the 2007 Excellence in Journalism awards ceremony failed to sell out, she saw possibility. The next year, she organized the Journalists of Excellence Hall of Fame awards as a way to fill the club on a night we both deemed important for the journalism community.

An important side to Judy’s OPC legacy is the Face on the Barroom Floor, a caricature series illustrated by her husband, Jim Horan. They worked with a large committee to honor “Faces,” local personalities that vary from film director Alexander Payne to astronaut Clayton Anderson to billionaire Warren Buffett.

Tom O’Connor, chairman of the Face on the Barroom Floor committee for 15 years, worked with Judy on the past 66 Face events. As senior associate director of public relations for the University of Nebraska Medical Center, O’Connor also worked frequently with Judy to arrange interviews for her coverage of UNMC.

“Judy was truly one of the unsung heroes of our community,” O’Connor says. “She embodied what Nebraskans are all about. She knew how to get the job done. You always knew that Judy would come through for you—whether she was freelancing or volunteering—and produce a quality product. I would bet she never missed a deadline.”

Susan Eustice, director of PR & Communications for The Salvation Army Western Division, says, “Judy was my Omaha Press Club co-chair, my co-pilot, mentor, and dear friend. She was an exceptional volunteer with a true love for the OPC, where her legacy will live on forever.”

OPC executive director Steve Villamonte says Judy was an invaluable asset to the club, as well as a personal friend.

“She made me feel as though I had job security,” Villamonte says. “We work hard to make our bottom line, and Judy was always willing to help make that happen.”

Villamonte says he learned a lot from Judy, including a lot about the running of a publication. Judy co-chaired the publications committee, and as always (pleasantly) made sure everyone adhered to deadlines. Along the way, Judy befriended Villamonte. He recalls how the ever-affable Judy never forgot to inquire about his health.

When I began working at Omaha Magazine, one of the many things I was excited for was the chance to work with Judy. I ate lunch with Judy about once a month, or as often as possible. I delighted in our discussions and her ability to provide quiet wisdom. 

Although I will miss her in many ways, her sage advice is one of the things I will miss most.  One of my favorite quotes from Judy is, “I never write anything unless it is fun … but fortunately, I think a lot of things are fun.”

Judy Horan

Newsmaker Becomes Newsgatherer

August 23, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Our committee at the Omaha Press Club meets several times a year to discuss who will next be honored as the club’s “Face on the Barroom Floor.” When the committee’s chairman, Tom O’Connor, was nominated this year, only one committee member voted “no.” It was O’Connor.

O’Connor argued that the honor is meant for people who have made a difference in the community. It’s how people who cover the news give recognition to those who make the news.

For 14 years, he has chaired the committee that selects the Faces, the people whose illustrated caricatures end up on the walls of the Press Club. Everyone agrees he’s done a stellar job.

“Tom, over the years, helped make the Face an icon for Omaha,” says OPC Executive Director Steve Villamonte, who nominated the longtime member.

Tom-OConnor1Over his protests, O’Connor was roasted and toasted in February in front of a sold-out crowd. His was the 148th Face since the ritual began 45 years ago with Mayor Gene Leahy as the first honoree.

“One of the ways he has helped with awareness is with his contacts in the media world,” notes Villamonte.

O’Connor, who is senior associate director of public relations at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, says knowing the community’s newsmakers is right up his alley.

“The Faces are the who’s who of Omaha,” he says. “It’s like winning the Heisman Trophy.”

Another recognizable Face is movie producer and Omaha native Alexander Payne, whose roasters included actor Will Forte. “It was one of the funniest roasts we‘ve had,” says Villamonte. “And to get someone of Forte’s stature as a roaster, well…”

The largest crowd during the Faces’ 45-year history came to salute Creighton basketball coach Greg McDermott and three-time All-American Doug McDermott who at the time played on his father’s team. The crowd was so large that O’Connor moved the dinner and roast to another venue. And the second largest was for…Tom O’Connor.

The third largest “Face” event was held in 2007 for Husker fan Dan Whitney, also known as comedian Larry the Cable Guy. I remember “Larry” dressed up for the occasion by adding sparkle to his trademark sleeveless plaid shirt.

Another Tom—Osborne—was a Face on the Barroom Floor in 1979. Since then he has returned to roast other newsmakers such as NFL greats Gale Sayers and Ahman Green. The former UNL football coach and athletic director was a roaster in May for UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts.

An Omaha Press Club member for 38 years, O’Connor is a past president (2001), past board member, a member of the marketing and newsletter committees, and he heads the Shatel Sports Lunch series.

“Tom has made the Face on the Barroom Floor a premier event,” says Jim Horan, the artist who has drawn the illustrated caricatures since the first one in 1971 (the artist is also my husband). “He took the roast concept to a new level, which has turned the night into 100 percent fun.”

O’Connor explains: “I tell people we’re the club with a sense of humor, the Face event is all about having fun and entertaining people. You’re always going to leave laughing.”

His quest for fun continues, as does his enthusiasm for honoring Omaha’s best. He has invited Bill and Ruth Scott to be Face No. 150 on Sept. 22. “They are unsung heroes who have transformed the city and the state with their incredible generosity. Being able to recognize great people like the Scotts, that’s what the Face on the Barroom Floor is
all about.”

He jokes that his wish list for future Face on the Barroom Floor honorees includes Pope Francis and Michael Jordan. Knowing O’Connor, I think it just might happen.

Visit omahapressclub.com/faces for more information.

Chuck Roberts

October 1, 2015 by

Chuck Roberts blew into Omaha the same day as the May 6, 1975, tornado that spread death and destruction. Covering the infamous storm was the newsman’s introduction to his new job as a KMTV reporter/anchor.

“We were wall to wall on that story for a couple of weeks working 12 hours a day,” he recalls.

Viewers may remember Roberts anchoring Today Show cut-ins and noon news. Later he was promoted to weeknight news co-anchoring with Jeff Jordan.

KMTV news director Mark Gautier, who hired him, had a good eye for talent.  Gautier also hired Tom Brokaw, who went on to a national stage with NBC News.  Roberts also ended up with a much wider audience after seven years in Omaha.

It started when Ted Turner took a liking to Roberts. The media mogul was launching the country’s first 24-hour cable news station, CNN2, which was renamed CNN Headline News one year later.

Turner sent scouts across the country to find talent to anchor his news. They found Roberts in Omaha. “They told me ‘Ted fancies you,’” Roberts explains, “and that I was a finalist. They said: ‘Can’t offer you a contract. Can’t pay what you’re making now,’” says Roberts of his soon-to-be pay cut.

He packed up a U-Haul and drove 1,000 miles to Atlanta and a new life.

Roberts became the first anchor on the first 24-hour national news network and his was the first face seen on camera when the station went live. The paint was still wet on the CNN set when the cameras rolled.

“We were told our job was threefold: look plausible, stay sober, and read the lines you’re given. Those were our marching orders.”

Roberts anchored four-hour weekday newscasts on CNN Headline News. He also was CNN’s election anchor. “I would drive to the Birmingham (Alabama) library and isolate myself and prep for election night. Election night 2000 was the most memorable. Went on the air at 6 p.m. and off air at 7 a.m.” the following morning.

In 2010, Roberts left CNN and an international television audience of 160 million viewers. After 28 years, he was the longest-serving anchor among all the CNN networks. He then spent three years carrying out media training sessions in eight provinces in China for his alma mater, the Missouri School of Journalism.

“We so-called experts were sent to teach media training to start up provincial-level news operations,” says Roberts. “It was a slow process. Everything had to be translated.”

The newsman’s enthusiasm for a broadcast career began near a Nebraska farm his family owned. “There was a radio station in the basement of a hotel in Falls City. I was fascinated by that as a 9-year-old.”

Roberts has high praise for the quality of broadcast news in this city. “Omaha is so much better than its market size and a great place to start a career. I learned my craft in Omaha.”

Because of his many acheivements, Roberts was inducted into the Omaha Press Club Journalists of Excellence Hall of Fame in June.

Chuck-Roberts

Thunder-bird’s Eye View

July 17, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.

It’s lunchtime in the Omaha Press Club’s spectacular Spiro Agnew Oak Room and Steve Villamonte is humbly puzzled as to why anyone wants to interview him.

“Christine’s the backbone of the Press Club,” he says of Christine Jones, his wife and OPC planning & event coordinator. “She does all the work. She’s a big part of our success here the past 15 years.”

“Well, we’re all important here,” says Jones, with a warm, conspiratorial wink before exiting.

She comes up often in conversation with Villamonte, consistently attached to the adjective “beautiful”—just as in the May 2015 OPC newsletter, where he writes that “the best part [of working] at the Press Club is that I get to see my beautiful Christine every day.”

Villamonte’s succeeded in seamlessly combining his three chief interests—family, food, and work—through roles including husband, father, coach, mentor, certified executive chef, Omaha Press Club Executive Director, and entrepreneur behind Villamonte’s Cuisine and his trademarked Thunderbird Salad Dressing.

But the family-food-work connection is nothing new to Villamonte. At age 53, he’s been in the kitchen 48 years.

“One of my first memories was making Thunderbird salads for my dad,” says Villamonte, recollecting his “job” dressing the iconic salad at Omaha’s Happy Hollow Club. He recalls the plastic deli gloves dwarfing his scant 5-year-old hands, the stepstool he stood on, the kitchen’s layout.

Villamonte’s father, Peruvian-born chef Luis Villamonte, established the Thunderbird as house salad at various country clubs in which he worked throughout the Midwest. While it still remains as such at many, the famous Thunderbird dressing, which the Villamontes now sell commercially and retail, truly reaches its peak as served on the First National Bank building’s 22nd floor, with mixed greens, bacon, bleu cheese, shredded mozzarella, chives, tomatoes, and homemade croutons.

“I still have the old Thunderbird recipe card he gave me,” says Villamonte. “Going to culinary school was one thing, but you couldn’t learn more than I did working with my father.”

Now the teacher his late father was, Villamonte enjoys working with his team, including OPC Executive Chef Barry Brewer, who handles day-to-day kitchen operations while Villamonte continues to steer creative direction, mentor staff, write banquet menus and menu items, and collaborate with clients who’ve commissioned his expertise in achieving the right note for special dinners and events. Villamonte relishes mentoring other chefs, teaching them tricks of the trade, but also to have “a lot of pride and dignity” in their craft.

“I realized I can work through other people and get things done with a lot of culinary flair,” he says.

Villamonte urges chefs to seek ample education.

“It’s one thing to be a good chef, but you must also be a good manager,” he says. “My first manager reminded me [often] that there’s an abundance of skilled chefs, but you also have to be able to work with people. I’ve never forgotten that. So, the more education you get in both business and culinary skills, the better. You also need hard knocks; that’s the best teacher sometimes.”

Villamonte says he enjoys being in the kitchen with his culinary crew.

“You know, Paul McCartney always stays relevant. Here he is, in his mid-70s, with a number one song. I think that’s amazing. And my business is the same; you have to constantly look at what’s out, what’s new, what haven’t I tried yet, what do I want to try … ”

Villamonte’s keen on exploring the culinary world’s cutting edge. He researches extensively for menus and likes to put an updated spin on classics, teaching his staff to fabricate meat and create grand food arts like chaud froid.

“You tweak it so that things still fit to today, to today’s standards, today’s nouveau,” he says. “I want to be classic but current—you know, I want to be like Paul McCartney.”

Starting in January 2014 Villamonte faced the “toughest fight I’ve ever had”—a prolonged health scare resulting in an Autoimmune Liver Disease diagnosis, which his doctor believes was caused by statins. By April 2015, the Villamontes were in “celebration mode” with news that the ALD, although incurable, was not progressing.

“We’re a really close-knit family,” says Villamonte, who has two grown sons and two kids under 10, about whom he boasts freely.

His oldest, “Junior,” is a “very skilled, very talented” third-generation chef. “People person” Joe is a police officer. Nine-year-old Gabe is a master athlete, ambidextrous pitcher, and “the nicest kid ever—he’s Christine all over again.” Six-year-old Justine is “a pistol” who enjoys dance and tee-ball. Both
youngsters love school.

“That’s my passion: my family,” says Villamonte.

A visit to the OPC kitchen reveals a smiling Brewer and his team prepping fruit and other provisions against the backdrop of the club’s famously striking windows on a cloudless May afternoon. It’s an exceptional view,  unlike other kitchens.

“To me, it’s the best kitchen in town,” says Villamonte.

SteveV1

Omaha Press Club

October 29, 2013 by
Illustration by Jim Horan

While other city clubs have closed in defeat, the Omaha Press Club marks its 42nd anniversary on the 22nd floor of the First National Center in Downtown Omaha.

Does the club stay open because of the spectacular view from windows stretching to the ceiling? The glowing copper fireplace? The food?

Executive Director Steve Villamonte explains the club’s durability, even through a recession: “There is something going on all the time. The club offers events from lunch-and-learn opportunities to wine dinners to holiday buffets.”

Retired WOWT newscaster Gary Kerr and his committee hold monthly educational events. Sports forums at noon feature such topics as Nebraska football and 
Creighton basketball.

Each year, journalists are inducted into the OPC Hall of Fame. Their names are engraved on a plaque in the club’s Hall of History. Among the first inducted in 2008 were Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown (read more on Brown), NBC-TV’s Floyd Kalber, and legendary radio sportscaster Lyell Bremser.

The OPC Foundation’s annual Omaha Press Club Show, which raises funds for journalism scholarships, will be held next year on April 3.

The space’s premier event is the ‘Face on the Barroom Floor’ dinner. When the club’s restaurant opened in 1971, members decided to celebrate the people who give journalists something to write about. Walls are now covered with caricature drawings of 
newsmakers’ faces.

The satirical artwork by artist Jim Horan (full disclosure…yes, the author is Jim’s wife, and she also serves on the organization’s board) is presented in fun as friends roast the subject. A zinger directed to Larry the Cable Guy is a sample of the teasing that honorees endure: “I’m happy to say fame has not gone to his [Larry’s] head, only to his waistline.”

The most recent honoree was Omaha Magazine publisher Todd Lemke.

The first caricature was that of fun-loving Omaha Mayor Gene Leahy. Nebraska football coach Bob Devaney followed him in 1972. Also that year, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew dropped by the club to see his ‘Face.’

Agnew had a love-hate relationship with the press, whom he once famously described as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” So it was with tongues in cheek that Omaha Press Club officers named a private room at the club the “Spiro Agnew Room.”

Among other well-known ‘Faces’ hanging on the club’s walls are Bob Gibson, Chuck Hagel, Tom Osborne, and Johnny Carson.

Horan said that his drawing of Warren Buffett is his favorite because of the billionaire’s unruly hair: “Warren looked at his caricature the night he roasted Walter Scott at a ‘Face’ event and quipped, ‘I’ve got to rethink that 25 cent tip for my barber.’”

The disappearance of Buffett’s ‘Face on the Barroom Floor’ became national news in 2008. The New York Times and Forbes magazine were among media that published stories about the missing artwork. Omaha heaved a sigh of relief when the drawing was finally found.

On Sept. 9, the Lauritzen Room was dedicated to honor the First National Bank family that helped open the club 42 years ago.

“Without their continuing support,” Villamonte says, “it would have been difficult for us to succeed.”

Joe Shearer

August 28, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“I don’t hate on Nikon users,” photographer Joe Shearer declares. “I hope we can all get along. I’m pretty open-minded, but I’m going to blindly put my bias towards Canon because that’s all I’ve ever known.”

Shearer, 27, laughs easily, but at the core he’s extremely serious about his job. As photo editor of the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Gateway newspaper since 2010, he knows the meaning of hard work. He graduated from Gross Catholic High School in 2002 and went to UNO the following semester. He wasn’t sure what he really wanted to do, but he knew from his experience in yearbook class that he liked photography.

“It all started in my sophomore year of high school,” he explains. “I didn’t really have any extracurricular activities or athletics I was into at the time, but yearbook stood out. I did design, writing, and photography and ended up enjoying photography the most.”

Armed with his first professional camera, the Canon 10D (of course), Shearer started snapping photos of concerts he attended, sporting events, and everyday life. Then he hit a few bumps in the road.

“Whatever I contribute and turn in, I don’t want it to be sloppily put together. It should be award-winning journalism every day.”

“Life is weird sometimes. I was out of school for a couple years,” he says. “I just worked and traveled while learning life lessons and seeing the real world on my own. The whole time I did continue shooting photography. I did a few things for The Reader and Gateway before I went back to school. I never stopped shooting photos. I was just trying to grow up.”

Once back in school as photo editor, Shearer forged ahead with his career. For the past three years, he’s won several first place trophies at Omaha Press Club’s Excellence in Journalism Awards. This year, he won Best Feature Story (video), Best Feature Story (print), Best Sports Photo, and Best Feature Photo in the student category, as well as the Best Photo Essay award in the professional category. He also landed an internship at KETV News, where he’s preparing for a career in photojournalism. His dream job would have something to do with ESPN, music, or traveling, although he insists he’s “not a sports nerd.”

“Whatever I contribute and turn in, I don’t want it to be sloppily put together,” he says. “It should be award-winning journalism every day. There are a lot of talented journalists and artists in the Omaha area. We have a lot of incredible television, radio, and print. It’s a very creative city. If I could be associated with all of the greats in town, that would great.”

Iraq War Vet Jacob Hausman Battles PTSD and Finds Peace

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Scott Drickey

Growing up in Beatrice, Neb., Jacob “Jake” Hausman harbored a childhood dream of serving in the U.S. military. Both his grandfathers and an uncle served. He volunteered for the Army in 2002 and upon completing the rite of passage known as basic training, he finally realized his long-held dream. He made it as an infantryman, too, meaning he’d joined the “hardcore” ranks of the all-guts-and-no-glory grunts who do the dirty work of war on the ground.

By the time his enlistment ended three years later, Hausman earned a combat service badge during a year’s deployment in Iraq. He participated in scores of successful missions targeting enemy forces. He saw comrades in arms, some of them close friends, die or incur life-threatening wounds. He survived, but there were things he saw and did he couldn’t get out of his mind. Physical and emotional battle scars began negatively impacting his quality of life back home.

Headaches. Ringing in the ears. Dizziness. Nightmares. Panic attacks. Irritability. Depression. Anxiety. Certain sounds bothered him. He felt perpetually on edge and on high alert, as if still patrolling the hostile streets of Mosul or Fallujah. With his fight-or-flight response system stuck in overdrive, he slept only fitfully.

A relationship he started with a woman ended badly. He lived in his parents’ basement, unemployed, isolating himself except for beer-soaked nights out that saw him drink to oblivion in order to escape or numb the anguish he felt inside. No one but his fellow vets knew the full extent of his misery.

With things careening out of control, Hausman sought professional help. Hardly to his own surprise, he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Anyone who’s endured trauma is prone to develop it. Sustained exposure to combat makes soldiers particularly vulnerable. Not all combat veterans are diagnosed with PTSD, but nearly one-third are.

What did surprise Hausman was learning he’d suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). In retrospect, it made sense because the Stryker combat vehicle he was in absorbed an IED (improvised explosive device) blast that knocked him unconscious. Studies confirm ever-stronger charges like that one caused many more such injuries as the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts wore on. Injuries of this type often went undetected or unreported in the past.

“In combat and war, no one’s playing music in the background. It’s not passionate; it’s pure survival instincts.” – Jacob Hausman

It was because of these diagnoses that Hausman became a casualty among returning veterans. Some estimates put their numbers with PTSD and/or TBI at a quarter of a million. Statistics alone don’t tell the story. In each case, an individual experiences disruptive symptoms that make adjusting to civilian life difficult. The suicide rate among this group is high.

The scope of this health care crisis has strained U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ resources. In some locales, benefit claims are months behind schedule. Nebraska’s VA system has largely kept pace with demand. Hausman’s own claim was expedited quickly. He was found to be 90 percent disabled.

Six years after starting a VA treatment regimen of counseling and medication to address his PTSD issues, along with physical therapy to mitigate his TBI symptoms, his life has turned around. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Bellevue University. He’s gainfully employed today as a veterans service representative at the Lincoln VA. He also does outreach work with vets. He recently married the former Kendra Koch of Beatrice, and the couple reside in a home in Papillion.

They adopted a Lab-Golden Retriever mix dog, Lucy, from a rescue animal shelter. Kendra’s an animal lover like Jacob, who with his mother, Gayla Hausman, and his friend, Matthew Brase, own and operate the foundation Voice for Companion Animals.

Throughout his active duty Army tenure, Jake carried inside his Kevlar helmet a photo of his favorite adolescent companion, a Chihuahua named Pepe. Not long after Jake’s return from Iraq, the dog took sick and had to be put down.

Jacob and Kendra are seriously considering starting a family.

Emotional and physical challenges persist for him, but he now has tools to manage them. No longer stuck in the past, he lives one day at a time to the fullest and looks ahead to realizing some dreams. Contentment seemed impossible when he was in the depths of his malaise. His is only one man’s story, but his recovery illustrates PTSD and TBI need not permanently debilitate someone.

He’s certainly not the same Jake Hausman who joined the Army a decade ago. “I came back a completely different person. I had so much life experience,” he says. Good and bad. If nothing else, it matured him. His views on the military and war have changed. He’s not bitter, but he is wizened beyond his 28 years, and he wants people to know just how personal and final the cost of waging war is. He also wants fellow vets to know the VA is their friend.

Jacob, age 7, playing soldier at his childhood home in Beatrice, Neb. Photo provided by Jacob Hausman.

Jacob, age 7, playing soldier at his childhood home in Beatrice, Neb. Photo provided by Jacob Hausman.

Soldier Boy

Like a lot of young people, Hausman had a romantic view of soldiering. He saw it as a ticket out of his small town to find thrills and see the world.

“People live in Beatrice for a 100 years. It’s like my grandpa lived here, my mom lived here, and I’m going to live here, and I didn’t want that for myself. I struggled at school, I didn’t succeed, I was in trouble with the law, I didn’t have a bright future. And the Army at least promised adventure, intrigue. I just thought, Gosh, I want to be part of a story that can be told from generation to generation. I want to be part of something greater than myself.

“I didn’t feel connected [before]. I mean, I was social, I had friends and so forth, but I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere and I really craved that. I craved being a part of something bigger than what I was, and [the infantry] really gave it to me.”

You might assume the catalyst for his enlistment was the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but you’d be wrong. Long before then he’d made up his mind, he would enlist as soon as he could. He wanted it so badly that he was only 17 when the Army took him with his parents’ written consent. He completed high school early.

“I craved being a part of something bigger than what I was, and [the infantry] really gave it to me.” – Hausman

“Since I was like 5 years old, I wanted to be a part of the infantry. My mom’s father was in the infantry during the Korean War, and that’s why I ultimately joined. So I was always allured by the infantry because they’re the hardest, the best, the whole thing. I was beyond motivated.

“The struggle, the fight, well, that’s all true. You actually get to experience those things, and it’s not pretty and glorified. What I always tell people is that in combat and war, no one’s playing music in the background. It’s not passionate; it’s pure survival instincts. And when you’re in those situations, you’re not doing it for the flag. You’re doing it for your friend to the left and right of you.”

He couldn’t know the hard realities of war before experiencing it. He only thought about the excitement, the camaraderie, the tradition.

“Well, I got all those things, and I got a little bit more than I bargained for.”

Jacob, age 20, ready for action in Fallujah, Iraq, 2004. Photo provided by Jacob Hausman.

Jacob, age 20, ready for action in Fallujah, Iraq, 2004. Photo provided by Jacob Hausman.

You’re in the Army Now

His service almost got shelved before getting started. Weeks before leaving for basic training, he and some friends were out cruising Beatrice in his car. Open alcohol containers were within plain view when they got pulled over by local police. Jake was behind the wheel. Already on probation for underage-drinking violations, Hausman “freaked out” and fled the scene. He later turned himself in. Authorities could have used the pending charges to prevent him from going into the Army. A probation officer became his advocate.

“She went above and beyond for me,” he says. “She saw something in me and just really pushed for me and got it dropped. Two weeks later, I left [for basic]. About three years later when I came back, I told her what that meant to me and who I am now because of it. If it wasn’t for her, this story would have never happened.”

So off he went for the adventure of his life. Rude awakenings came early and often at Fort Benning, Ga., for this “spoiled only-child” who’d never done his own laundry.

“You grow into a man really fast. It kicked my ass.” Mental and physical toughness are required of infantrymen, and he had no choice but to steel himself for its rigors.

“You adapt fast or you suffer,” he says, “and I was one who adapted fast. The infantry is so hard. There’s a lot of hazing. It’s survival of the fittest.”

Hazing and all, he says, “I thought basic training was the best thing I’ve ever done. The reason why it was powerful for me is that it was all about the mission. There was no individualism; we were all a team. I really loved that.

“You grow into a man really fast. It kicked my ass.” – Hausman

“My master’s is in leadership, where the focus is on what can you do for the team, and that’s what the infantry is. No matter if you show up with a shaved head or dreadlocks, you get your head shaved. No matter if you’re clean-shaven or you have a beard, you get your face shaved. It’s just part of it. They strip you down to your very bare minimum, and it’s all about coming together as a team, being a man, learning how to get along with others, and learning different cultures.

“You’re talking about someone who, as a kid, had one black person in his class and now I had blacks, Hispanics, [and] Jamaicans in my barracks. I’d never dealt with that. I learned so much from other people; it was fantastic. They treated me like everyone else, I treated them like everyone else.”

Infantry training is largely about endurance. “The whole infantry thing is walking and running while carrying a 50- to 75-pound rucksack,” he says. “Can you walk a long ways with all that weight?”

Before making it into the infantry, one must pass a final crucible. Hausman recalls it this way: “They have this legendary walk that’s like 25 miles of water, hills, and so forth. It’s like your final capstone test at the very end. You know you’re an infantryman if you pass this thing. It’s hell on earth. I had to duct tape my thighs so they wouldn’t rub together. You walk through a river, and your feet are wet. One entire foot was rubbed raw. I mean, it was the most painful thing I’ve ever done.

“It’s just a whole mental thing—Can you get through the pain? It was so great getting that done. I was so proud.”

He then joined his unit in Fort Lewis, Wash., to await deployment. He says everything there was even more intense than at Fort Benning—the training, the hazing, the brotherhood, the partying. He felt he’d truly found his calling. “I became very good at being an infantryman. You really felt a part of the team; you bonded. I mean, you just had a lot of brothers.”

He says the drills he and his mates did in the field, including playing realistic war games, made them into a cohesive fighting force.

“We were a killing machine.”

Jacob, right, receiving his Combat Infantry Badge from Lieutenant Blanton in Mosul, Iraq, 2004. Photo provided by Jacob Hausman.

Jacob, right, receiving his Combat Infantry Badge from Lieutenant Blanton in Mosul, Iraq, 2004. Photo provided by Jacob Hausman.

Desert War

A downside to barracks life, he says, is all the alcohol consumption. “Drinking is the culture—I’m talking excessively. In the military, you’re drinking hard liquor, and you’re just drinking till you curl up. That’s the path that started going bad for me there.” But a substance abuse problem was the least of his worries once in Iraq in 2003.

His company was assigned to the new Stryker Brigade, which took its name from the 8-wheel Stryker combat vehicle. “Something in-between a Humvee and a tank,” Hausman describes it. “After Somalia, our brass decided we needed a vehicle that could put infantry in the city, let us do our thing, and get us out fast.”

It carried a crew of six.

“We built cages [of slat armor] on the outside to stop RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades).” The cages proved quite effective. However, Strykers had a problem with rollovers, a defect Hausman would soon experience to his horror.

“We had a lot of good intelligence from special forces initially. Every day, we would kick someone’s door down and take out a terrorist. We’d either arrest him, kill him, do whatever. We killed a lot of bad guys.

“Once the intelligence stopped, we kind of ran out of operations to do.” Then his squad’s duty consisted of doing presence patrols. “It basically was to show the Iraqis we were around, but in all reality, it was walk around until we got shot at so we could kill [the shooters].”

Draw fire, identify target, engage.

“You’re still seeing a human being face-to-face; you’re still pulling a trigger on someone; you still have that you’re-dead-or-I’m-dead reality. You cannot shake that experience.” – Hausman

Hausman was a specialist as the squad’s designated marksman. “I had an extra weapon—a snipe rifle. I’d go out with the snipers, and we’d do recon on special missions,” he explains. “We’d take fire here and there, but we’d maybe only get in a firefight every three weeks.”

He was part of a Quick Reaction Force unit that responded within minutes to crises in the field. That sometimes meant coming back from a long operation only to have to go right back out without any sleep.

“Once, we got into an 18-hour firefight when we were called to secure two HET (Heavy Equipment Transporters) vehicles hit by RPGs and abandoned by their transportation team. It was a residential district in Mosul. We got there and RPGs start blasting and IEDs started popping. It was just an ambush. The enemy had us surrounded 360 degrees. We were pinned down taking gunfire. This was life or death. At a certain point, you’re not thinking; it’s pure survival animal instinct.

“I turned the corner at a T-intersection, and there were muzzle flashes from windows. There were four of us versus about six muzzle flashes. It was just who could kill who fastest. A guy came across the roof, and I fired my 203 grenade launcher, BOOM, dead. A squad member got shot and paralyzed. Another got wounded by an RPG, his intestines spilling out. He was EVAC’d out.”

He says in situations like these you confront the question: “Are you really committed to killing another human being? And I have killed another person.” Despite today’s automatic weapons, he says, “You’re still seeing a human being face-to-face; you’re still pulling a trigger on someone; you still have that you’re-dead-or-I’m-dead reality. You cannot shake that experience.”

In the aftermath of such intense action, he says, “You’re hiked up; you can’t sleep.” Indeed, he “couldn’t let down” for his entire nine months in Iraq. “You just can’t let your guard down.” Even on leave back home, he was so conditioned by threats that “driving back from the airport,” he recalls, “I was looking for IEDs on the road, scanning the roofs for snipers.” When he could finally release the pent-up stress, he slept three straight days.

From left: Specialist Mower, Specialist Crumpacker, and Specialist Hausman, 19, in Samarra, Iraq, 2003. The photo was taken the day after the horrific Stryker accident that killed three soldiers. Photo provided by Jacob Hausman.

From left: Specialist Mower, Specialist Crumpacker, and Specialist Hausman, 19, in Samarra, Iraq, 2003. The photo was taken the day after the horrific Stryker accident. Photo provided by Jacob Hausman.

A Tragic Accident

As bad as firefights got, Hausman says, “The worst thing I’ve experienced in my life occurred about a month after I got to Iraq.” It didn’t involve a single gunshot or explosion either. It was his turn operating the Stryker. His team, followed by another in a second Stryker, were on a muddy backroad near Samarra heading to do recon. A ravine on their side of the road led to a canal. Suddenly, the road gave way and both Strykers overturned into the canal. The ensuing struggle haunts him still.

“We’re upside down, water starts running in, it’s miserable cold. I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, it’s over.’”

He recalls hearing his father’s voice telling him not to panic.

“I don’t know how I got the hatch open, I just muscled it, and the water rushed in. I took a deep breath and went down in it. My body got pinned between the ground and the vehicle. I’m struggling, I’m drowning. I thought, ‘Is this how I’m going to die?’ I escaped from the bottom somehow and got on the side,”…only to find himself trapped again. He began swallowing water.

“My body got pinned between the ground and the vehicle. I’m struggling, I’m drowning. I thought, ‘Is this how I’m going to die?’” – Hausman

“I looked up and I could kind of see the moon. I started clawing, clawing, clawing, and gasping for air. I made it. I gathered my thoughts, climbed on the vehicle, and saw one of my buddies had gotten flung out. We went to the back,” where they found their mates trapped below, desperate for escape. “We were all fighting to get the hatch open. It was just terrible. We get the hatch open, and everyone’s there.”

A roll call accounted for all hands. Except in the rush to get out, a team member got “trampled over” and drowned. “We got his body out and did CPR, but it was five minutes too late.”

Hausman was “really good friends” with the lost squad member, Joseph Blickenstaff.

The driver and the squad leader in the second vehicle also died. Hausman was friends with the driver, J. Riverea Wesley. Staff Sergeant Steven H. Bridges was the squad leader lost that day.

Assessing what happened, Hausman says, “It was chaos; it was tragedy. That really shattered me for a while. I won’t let it ruin my life—I’ll go swimming and stuff—but it was just traumatic. It is hard to deal with—getting over it. There’s some parts of it I will never get over.”

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The Aftermath Comes Home

War being war, there’s no time or support for processing tragedy and trauma. “It was shove everything inside, shut up, move forward,” says Jake. Those unresolved feelings came tumbling out like an “avalanche” when he got back home in 2004.

“I was just a trainwreck. I was miserable, destroyed. My emotions ran wild. I couldn’t sleep. I was just so anxious. I couldn’t take deep breaths, I would sniff, just like a dog panting. Like a 24-hour panic attack. You’re uncomfortable being you every second of the day. You’re not in control, and that’s what you’re afraid of. Just freaking out about stuff. I was so afraid at night I would get up nine or 10 times and check the lock on my door. The nightmares are incredible.”

Excessive drinking became his coping mechanism. The more he drank, the more he needed to drink to keep his demons at bay. “You’re in a vicious cycle, and you can’t get out of it,” he says.

“At one point, I contemplated suicide because I was like, ‘What is the point of living when I am this bad, this miserable? Is it ever going to get better than this?’”

His family saw him unraveling.

“Mom and Dad were worried, deathly worried, but they didn’t know how to handle it. They didn’t know if it was a stage or my turning 21. They didn’t know what to do with me.”

“Usually in this population, patients turn to drinking or to other substance abuse and the number one reason they tell me they do it is because they can’t sleep or to fight off nightmares,” says Omaha VA social worker Heather Bojanski. “They don’t want to come in for help, they don’t want medication, and drugs and alcohol are easy to get a hold of. They’d rather try to cope themselves before they come in for help or actually have to face [that] there is a problem.”

Omaha VA Hospital counselor Heather Bojanski.

Omaha VA Hospital social worker Heather Bojanski.

Jim Rose, a mental health physician’s assistant with the Lincoln VA, says recovery has to start with someone recognizing they have a problem and wanting to deal with it. “If they’re still reluctant to accept that as a problem, then it makes it very difficult. Help’s out there, but it is difficult with this group who by nature tend to be more self-reliant and have the world by the shoulders, and then to have something like this happen kind of turns things upside down.”

There’s no set timetable for when PTSD might present in someone.

“They’re all on a continuum,” says Bojanski. “Two veterans can come back who have seen and been through the same exact thing, and one will seem perfectly fine and the other may immediately start struggling. That all depends on a few things—what was going on in their life when they came back, and how much family support they have. It’s all going to depend on them and their family and what’s going on and how honest they are with themselves.

“If they come back and they have great family support and their family’s in tune and really watching them, then they’ll do well. But if nobody’s really paying attention and they’re just doing their own thing and they start isolating and drinking, then those are big issues to look at and people really need to encourage them to come in.”

Hausman says, “There’s a threshold of stress. It’s going to come out eventually if you don’t take care of it. For me, it came out real early. I was a boy; I was not equipped for getting used up in the war machine.”

“[Some veterans] would rather try to cope themselves before they come in for help or actually have to face [that] there is a problem.” – Heather Bojanski, social worker

Rose says PTSD tends to be suppressed among active duty military because they’re in a protective environment around people with similar experiences. But once separated from the military, it becomes a different matter.

“They feel isolated, and the symptoms will probably intensify,” he says. “It’s usually a couple years after discharge people reach a point where they just can’t cope with it anymore and something’s going to happen—they’re going to get in trouble or they’re going to ask for help, and that’s when we see them.”

That’s how it was for Hausman, who concealed the extent of his problems from family and friends and tried coping alone.

“I didn’t want to burden them with that…My friends, they thought it was just old Jake because I’m a partier, I’m gregarious, so they enjoyed it. But they didn’t see the dark side of it. They didn’t understand the mega-depression and anxiety. When I was drunk, I could shield it.

“But there’s usually one or two people in your life that know you. Robert Engel is probably my best friend to this today. He was in my unit. He lives in Kansas City, Mo. He recognizes when I’m down; I recognize when he’s down. We kind of pick each other up. He’s seen me at my lowest point but he accepts me for who I am, and I accept him for who he is, and we sincerely care about each other.”

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Getting Help

“When I decided I wasn’t going to kill myself, I resolved to figure this out,” says Jake. “I started reading spirituality, I started studying psychology.”

Most importantly, he sought help from the Veterans Administration. He and a fellow vet in Lincoln, Mike Krause, talked straight about what he needed to do. Like any vet seeking services, Hausman underwent screenings. He had all the classic symptoms of PTSD.

The intake process works the same for all vets. Bojanski says, “We sit down with each of them individually and decide what level of care they need.” In the case of Hausman, she says, “He came to the VA, and we started to treat him. Then when he started to take medication, he stopped drinking, and it was like an eye-opening experience to him that, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been suffering all this time.’ He started to go to groups, he talked to other people and realized, ‘Wow, I’m not the only one suffering.’ Other people he knew from his unit were going.”

Rose says the medications commonly prescribed for PTSD are “a mixed bag” in terms of effectiveness. He emphasizes, “There is no medication that cures these symptoms, but we have got things that can help people lead better lives, including anti-depressants and anti-psychotics.” To supplement the meds, he says, “We try to steer people to cognitive-therapy counseling.”

A holistic mind-body-spirit approach has worked for Hausman.

“That’s why exercise is important, counseling is important, and you have to supplement it with medication,” he says. “It’s not just a one trick pony. You can’t just throw some meds at someone and expect them to get better, you have to do all those things.”

Rose salutes Hausman and anyone who embraces recovery. “It’s a fairly lengthy process, and it involves commitment. It’s not a passive act. Jake’s a testament to people that, if you really want to get through it you can.”

Lincoln VA substance abuse counselor Mary Ann Thompson admires him for getting sober and “remaining clean and sober and productive.”

“He easily could have succumbed to all those issues and who knows where he’d be at now, but I’m so proud of him for moving forward.” – Kendra Hausman, Jacob’s wife

Bojanski sees a new Jake, saying, “He has a much better outlook on life. He’s very proactive.”

More than most, Kendra Hausman appreciates how far her husband’s come: “I’ve seen a lot less anxiety. Overall, he’s more calm, more level-headed, he’s able to handle situations better. He doesn’t get as angry or as worked up about small things like he used to. He easily could have succumbed to all those issues and who knows where he’d be at now, but I’m so proud of him for moving forward. He’s very determined. Once he puts his mind to doing something, he’ll get it done no matter what. He’ll figure out what he needs to do, just like he did with his school and career.”

Jacob, himself, says, “I’ve come a long ways. Life is so much better.” What he’s realized, he says, is “There are just some things you cannot [do with] will power; you just have to get help from people. I’ve had a lot of good people in my life that have helped me. And that’s what I’ve learned—you have to ask for help, you have to be willing to get help. The VA is there to help people. They’ve helped me so many times.”

Bojanski says the VA’s more responsive to veterans’ needs today. “The VA realized we did a lousy job welcoming Vietnam veterans back home, so when this war started, we wanted to be proactive and make sure we welcomed our veterans home. We didn’t want them to have a stigma with mental health, we wanted to make sure everything was in place. So we created these clinics (OEF or Operation Enduring Freedom and OIF or Operation Iraqi Freedom), where we work very hard with veterans. It’s very confidential, so not everybody in their unit is going to find out. We have an ER open 24 hours a day.

“It’s not like it used to be when you just had to soldier on, or if you reached out for help it wasn’t confidential.”

She says there isn’t as much stigma now about seeking mental health care.

“It’s getting better; we’re still not where we need to be, but I will say the armed forces, the Department of Defense, and our population in general are changing their views about that. We also do a lot of outreach, a lot of speaking to communities to make sure people are aware it’s okay to get help.”

Hausman does outreach himself as a way of giving back. He says when he addresses audiences of freshly returned vets, he commands their attention.

“They believe in me because I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, and I’m working for the VA. I’m 90 percent service-connected; I’ve got a combat infantry badge. Seeing them is like seeing my reflection. I’m motivated to get them right before they take the wrong path. Someone got me over the hump, and I want to get them to that point, too. I want to help veterans get the services they need. It’s just so rewarding.”

Hausman with wife Kendra and dog Lucy.

The War that Never Ends, Moving on with Life

His PTSD still flare-ups now and then. “Recently, I had a little struggle for a while, but I didn’t fall back into the past because I’ve got good people in my life today.” He says he has combat veteran friends who still struggle because “they don’t have the support system.”

He accepts the fact he’ll always be dealing with the effects of war.

“There are some things I would change, but it’s made me who I am even with all the disabilities and struggles and everything I face. I think through all the suffering I’ve come to know peace. There’s some breaking points where you feel sorry for yourself and you have little pity parties, but then again I look around me and see what I have—a great support system, a wonderful wife.
It’s made me stronger.”

“I think through all the suffering I’ve come to know peace.” – Hausman

Finding Kendra, who works as a speech pathologist with the Omaha Public Schools, has been a gift. “She is the light of my life; she changed my life. Her enthusiasm for life is just breathtaking. She’s smart, beautiful, loving. She’s the greatest teacher in my life. She doesn’t need to understand everything I go through, but sometimes I need her to help me get through it.

“I was going through a low point, and she said something to me that no one else could say to me without offending me: ‘You got through war, now you can get through this, so suck it up.’ From her, that meant a lot. She knows me at that fundamental level to tell me what I need to hear sometimes. We’re really good together.”

Flareups or not, Jake’s moving on with life and not looking back.

If you have a concern about a veteran or want more information, call 402-995-4149. The VA’s local crisis hotline is 1-800-273-8255. For the latest findings on PTSD, visit ptsd.va.gov/aboutface.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.