Tag Archives: military

The Right Stuff

October 2, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Raymond Page can trace his family’s military history to the Civil War and the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment. Family members fought in World War I. His namesake grandfather survived a bullet wound after being shot on the beaches of Normandy during World War II.

Such a deep legacy of service may explain why, shortly after entering a university close to his rural northern Pennsylvania home, Page decided he wasn’t cut out for college. 

In 1988, at age 18, Page opted to follow his father and two older brothers into the U.S. Air Force. Another kind of education kicked in immediately at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue. 

“My first career was a radio operator, because I’ve always been into electronics,” says Page, 49. “Eventually I transitioned into meteorology and went to forecasting school. Offutt has the [Air Force Weather Agency] here, so it’s a job-rich environment.”

After ending his Air Force career as a major in 2014 after 26 years in the service, Page contemplated life as a civilian.

As he fielded several opportunities before accepting a position at Mutual of Omaha, Page discovered the reason transitions to the private sector run smoothly here: Omaha businesses need, actively recruit, and above all value veterans. 


“A better question is, why wouldn’t they want to hire a veteran?” observes Jeffrey Owens, vice president of Security Operations at First Data in Omaha and a Marine Corps veteran who enlisted during the Gulf War. “These young people trained, at a very young age, how to be leader[s], how to make decisions under high stress situations.”

The unemployment rate of post-9/11 veterans keeps trending down.  According to the latest numbers from the U.S. Labor Department, it stands at 3.3 percent nationwide. Still, many companies wonder why the number of employees with military experience isn’t higher, considering all the recruitment programs in place. 

The glitch may lie at the other end of the equation. 

“One of the scariest things for military people transitioning is there’s not a direct correlation of jobs [in the private sector],” says Page, echoing the thoughts of many veterans who may wonder, “Where do my skills fit in?” 

Page put his skills to the test in two war zones, Afghanistan and Iraq. During the Iraqi invasion in 2003, his weather detachment forecasted a monster three-day sandstorm, putting Army leaders in a position to keep their troops safe and hunkered down. 

“Even though I was a weather officer, I had a lot of experience in computer programming,” says Page, who lives in Bellevue with his wife and two children. “Military people, especially Air Force people, are wired to adapt quickly as we move from job to job. We show initiative.”

Owens, who also spent 14 years as a detective with the Atlanta Police Department, can’t speak highly enough of the qualities he observes every day in his employees. ”All the veterans I’ve had the opportunity to manage have exhibited loyalty, hard work, and they have a history and tradition built into them. Why wouldn’t you want those assets?”

Along with a lack of a business network, self-marketing may be a problem with many veterans. Military service focuses on the collective, making it difficult for a veteran to distinguish him-or-herself from the group, which is often an essential part of interviewing.

But that emphasis on the collective means many former service members will appreciate company values, missions, and visions.

First Data, founded in Omaha 47 years ago and now the world’s largest payment processor, reaches out to veterans through its First Data Salutes program. The company offers career opportunities and education resources for military personnel and their spouses; provides point-of-sale and business application technology free of charge to veteran-owned small businesses; and, like many local businesses, grants flex time to members of the National Guard or Reserves.

“What the company says to them is, ‘Hey, your job will be here when you get back.’ That gives them comfort and security while they’re [deployed],” says Owens.

First Data’s efforts on behalf of veterans, who made up 14.4 percent of the company’s Omaha hires last year, have won accolades. Military Times magazine has ranked the company No. 1 on its annual “Best for Vets: Employers” list the past two years, an honor “that cannot be bought, only earned,” according to the magazine’s editor. The rigorous survey, sent to 2,300 companies nationwide, contains 90 questions that companies must fill out and return. 

Page’s computer and leadership abilities caught the interest of Mutual of Omaha when the company hosted meet-up groups of software developers. Since joining the insurance company four years ago, he has thrived as an information systems manager. 

He has also positioned himself as a trusted adviser for Mutual’s military initiative, the Veterans Employee Resource Board. The group, in conjunction with the HR department, provides mentoring and assistance to people coming out of the service. Quarterly meetings focus on developing business knowledge and honing leadership skills. Members join their fellow Mutual employees in volunteering for community projects several times a year.

Page and other VERB members offer a bridge of understanding when it comes to the language of a veteran recruit’s skill set. 

“We also work with managers to help them decipher resumes,” Page points out. “What military people put on a resume is different from a civilian’s resume. I help interpret.”

Page realizes a lack of connections forms the biggest roadblock to people exiting the military. “I tell people to start networking, start visiting companies before they leave the service. Companies love talking to military men and women.”

Here in the Midlands, that’s sound advice.

Visit firstdata.com or mutualofomaha.com for more information.

This article was printed in the October/November 2018 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Jeffrey Owens

Making Their Own Way

September 18, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The military teaches people to work as a collective. In some ways, it can be called the ultimate team. It also teaches many how to work as individuals.

James E. Walker was one who learned how to work as an individual. Joining the U.S. Army was an easy decision for him.

“I just had no sense of direction,” he says.

It was 1979, and Walker—who had dropped out of high school two years earlier—saw a lot of merit to the idea of getting three hot meals daily, a place to stay, and a monthly paycheck.

“It was a no-brainer to me,” says Walker, now 57 and owner of Custom Diesel Drivers Training, an Omaha truck-driving school that trains about 300 students a year.

He served in the Army just after the Vietnam War, and was a recovery specialist whose job was to retrieve broken equipment from the front lines and bring it in for repair. Among his tools were a 28-wheel tractor/trailer and a 5-ton wrecker.

The work suited him. 

“I was around trucks quite a bit growing up,” says Walker, clarifying the age he started working with trucks was about 9.

While growing up in southwest Iowa, he lived across the street from a man who had a couple of semi-trailer trucks, and young Walker sometimes drove them.

“That wasn’t too legal,” he says. “I couldn’t even touch the pedals. Just turn on the key, shove it into gear, and get rolling.” 

Walker enjoyed his time in the Army, and considering re-enlisting as his hitch was coming to an end in 1982. But he had recently married Bonnie (now his wife of 37 years), and his next posting would have been in Germany. The couple had a baby on the way, and she didn’t want to go overseas. Instead, the couple moved to Colorado.

After James left the military, the transition to civilian employment wasn’t easy. Much of the problem had to do with the difference between military and civilian management styles.

“When you’re in the military, they pretty much give you a mission, and you go and do the mission,” he says. “It just doesn’t work that way in the real world, because too many people are breathing down your neck, watching what you’re doing all day. It’s a real pain.”

Supervisors’ training also differed between military and civilian life. In the Army, he says, those who tell others what to do are already skilled in those tasks. That isn’t always the case in the civilian world, as Walker discovered in some of his post-military jobs in construction and manufacturing.

“You’ve got people who are telling you what to do when they don’t even know how to do it themselves,” he says.

He eventually worked for a plastics injection-molding company—an opportunity that would put his career path on a new road.

“I was able to work my way into driving the truck for them, which really worked out well for me,” Walker says. The job lasted four years, with two years spent driving the truck and the rest managing the company’s warehouse. 

What followed were 22 years of over-the-road semi-trailer truck driving, “hauling swinging beef out to Hunt’s Point, New York—stuff like that,” he says. Walker also drove grain trucks and flatbeds.

He and Bonnie eventually moved to Omaha, near her hometown of Gretna. As their two children headed toward their teen years, Walker began driving trucks locally, which went on for a decade.

He then became an instructor at Custom Diesel Drivers Training, and after a year was offered the opportunity to purchase the then-nearly bankrupt school. 

“They sold it to me for a ridiculous low price,” he says. “I couldn’t turn it down. I had nothing to lose by buying it.”

Since Walker purchased it, the school has grown, going from one truck, one trailer, and one office employee to six trailers, six trucks, and nine office employees. The office, formerly in a 700-square-foot space near Sapp Bros., recently moved to a 10,000-square-foot office at 5020 L St.

Many of the school’s students are veterans. Walker says the trucking industry offers them
an opportunity to—as in the military—work without interference.

“That’s the freedom of driving a truck and being your own boss,” he says.

For veteran Dario Dulovic, 43, being in a wartime environment was nothing new.

Born in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina (formerly Yugoslavia), Dulovic’s first experience with war happened at age 18, when an early 1990s religious conflict between Orthodox Christians and Muslims tore his country apart.

His father owned a pizza restaurant, but that ended when the war broke out.

“We lost everything in about 10 days,” he says. “So we had to run to Montenegro.”

Dulovic’s family—including his father, mother, and sister—lived in that small southeast Europe country for about four years, then emigrated to America.

With help from the U.S. government, they settled in Danville, Kentucky. The family received a month’s rent and three months of food stamps. 

Dulovic’s knowledge of America had come through the movies, most of which were set in large cities such as New York and Chicago. Danville, with a population of about 16,500, was not one of those. 

“It was an experience,” Dulovic says.

As the only family member who could speak English, Dulovic found himself bearing a lot of responsibility. He found a factory job and went to work.

“I was supporting everyone for three or four months,” he says.

Six months later, he joined the Kentucky National Guard as a way of paying for college while remaining near his family.

Training happened on weekends and during the summer.

Then came 9/11. 

“After Sept. 11, everything changed. It was like the regular Army,” he says. Training became constant.

In 2006 and 2007, his unit deployed to Iraq, where it was situated on a former Iraqi airbase.

Though Dulovic had been trained as a vehicle mechanic, in Iraq he was a base security guard.

It wasn’t a cushy desk job. He had to help defend the base, which came under sniper fire. Improvised Explosive Devices, also known as IEDs, were a hazard on area roads.

“That was my second war,” Dulovic says.

As for transitioning back to civilian life, it wasn’t a problem.

“I can adapt anywhere,” he says. “It’s like that survival instinct.” 

Though he didn’t have a problem with getting back to civilian life, he acknowledged that others do. He also says it’s important to think “out of the box” and stay positive.

“Use your energy to work on things you can change,” he says, “And never give up.” 

After coming back to the U.S., he enrolled at Eastern Kentucky University to study computer information systems. 

His involvement with computing had begun decades before, when he got his first computer—a Commodore 64—in 1987 at age 11.

Eventually he got a job working for the Department of Defense. In 2011, he moved to Bellevue for a job at Offutt as a software developer for the Air Force Weather Agency.

Three years later, he started a side business fixing residential computers.

“It was just more for fun, really,” he says.

He didn’t expect it to grow, but grow it did. 

A year ago, he quit his software development job to concentrate on the business, called DME Computer Services, which provides information technology support for small- and medium-size companies in metro Omaha. DME is based in the home Dulovic shares with his wife of three years, Mirela, and their children, Emma and Oliver.

Dulovic is planning to spend another year as a one-person operation, then will consider adding staff. 

“I don’t want to rush anything,” he says.

Visit cddt.us and dmeomaha.com for more information.

This article was printed in the October/November 2018 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

This online version has been changed from the print edition to reflect updated information.

Dario Dulovic

Memorial Day Tribute

May 8, 2017 by

Memorial Day is a federal holiday—a day of remembrance for those who have died while serving in our country’s armed forces.

The May/June issue of Omaha Magazine features the stories of several Nebraska veterans and their war experiences. My husband, Raymond Lemke, was drafted to serve in the Korean War. He was somewhat reluctant to talk about his experiences, but he wrote about his service in a memoir. I’ll share some of those experiences here.

His basic training was in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, which had been closed since World War II. When he first got there, it wasn’t even completely open. Today, it remains open and is known by the nickname “Fort Lost In The Woods.”

He trained in engineering—which consisted mainly of building Bailey bridges—and also trained with dynamite, TNT, and other explosives to blow up bridges. After training, he was sent straight to Korea. He was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division’s M114 155 Howitzers, which had nothing to do with his basic training.

He said that Korea was very difficult for him, and he felt that it was a controlled war. He said they would take a hill, back off, then take it again the next day. The loss of life was tremendous.

The winter weather in North Korea was nearly identical to the winter in Nebraska. Growing up dirt poor in rural Nebraska provided the right experience for dealing with Korean winters. By layering newspapers inside his clothes, he was able to stay warmer while so many U.S. troops froze to death.

On top of the constant cold, he was always hungry. He fondly remembered taking a big jar of peanut butter from a resupply group.

After 11 months in the service, he became a staff sergeant. He believed the promotion was because he was still standing.

The American and North Korean forces would shell each other continuously until one knocked the other out. They never thought about ear protection, and the battery fire took its toll. Despite suffering tinnitus since the war, he didn’t complain. “I’m the lucky one—I am still here,” he said. He was discharged on Nov. 6, 1953.

Later, living in Papillion, he was on the Papillion Draft Board. As a protest against the escalation of the Vietnam War, he resigned from the board, refusing to send more boys there.

I am proud of my husband’s service, and I have deep respect for all who have served and sacrificed for our great country—they are truly heroes!

Raymond Lemke

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition Sixty-Plus, a publication within Omaha Magazine.

The Holtzlanders

July 11, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Many parents understand the drive to and from activities, the shuttling of kids back and forth from one place to another, sometimes trying to be in two places at once. Parents in this country spend between 10 and 50 hours a month taking kids to extracurriculars.

Melissa Holtzlander, who, with her husband Gerald, is raising five children from the ages of 5 to 17, understands this concept well.

Daughter Michelle, 8, has soccer practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the same time as son Ryan, 7, practices football. Unfortunately, the practices are in different locations.

Holtzlanders2“Usually I go with Michelle and Gerald will take Ryan to his practices,” Melissa says. Then there’s Alexis, 17, who is the football manager and plays soccer; Caitlin, 15, who participates in show choir; and Samuel, 5, who plays soccer and tee ball. Michelle and Ryan also participate in bowling leagues, and Michelle plays softball while Ryan plays baseball and is a Boy Scout.  Everyone except Samuel takes dance lessons on Wednesdays. (“He didn’t want to for some reason,” Melissa says.)

This juggling act intensifies at the end of the week.

“Saturdays are the crazy days, ’cause that’s when the games happen.”

If you see one, you generally see them all.  Melissa is a big believer in family supporting family. If one child has a sporting event, everyone comes to cheer on that child, and their team.

Sunny Brazda of Bellevue Dance Academy says, “Melissa and Gerald live a very busy life…throughout each busy day, they choose family first.”

Far from going crazy, however, Melissa handles the timetable with ease, even admitting to be in her element when no one is without a task.

Melissa wakes at 4:30 a.m. and performs an hour of cardio training before taking the children to school. She then works at her job until 6 p.m. That’s when she and Gerald shuttle the kids to various activities. When they family activities are done, Melissa and Gerald go to the gym and lift weights for about an hour.

Did I mention that Melissa is a competitive bodybuilder?

One might think the family has lived in Omaha for a long time. In reality, they have been in Omaha since December 2014, when Melissa was given orders to serve at Offutt Air Force Base. They were previously at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where she was a paralegal and Gerald was a master chief cryptologic technician with the Navy. Gerald retired from the Navy and is employed at VTI Security.

The family enjoys their relaxed (if one can call it that) life here in Omaha.

“Nebraska has much nicer people, it’s a friendlier environment (than Washington D.C.),” says Melissa. “I know Omaha is a city, but it’s not the hustle and bustle of D.C.”

She has a hard time sitting still for too long, but she puts much of her extra energy into good deeds. She volunteers with Habitat for Humanity at every base at which she and her family have lived.

“It’s something that’s easy to volunteer for, but it’s a good way to give back to the community,” Melissa says. “We usually take part in the actual construction. I’ve painted, put on a roof, sometimes we’ve done demo.”

Easy, right?

“I actually feel like I’m doing something useful, not just lifting one finger, you know,” Melissa continues.

Holtzlanders3She participates with Habitat for Humanity even when she isn’t able to work construction. Six years ago, while pregnant with Samuel, she collected money from her fellow servicemen at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, where they were stationed, and bought lunch for the crew working on a home. She is a representative for CASA in Cass County and recently participated in her first court case. She voluntarily helps with physical training for other service people.

The idea of service is rubbing off on the other family members. Brazda said each of the Holtzlader children are hard workers, just like their parents.

Oldest daughter Alexis started participating in Habitat for Humanity projects this past year. (The minimum age for volunteering at Habitat is 16.)

“I had to carry a bunch of wood. I got to saw it all,” Alexis says. “Another lady would measure it and I just sawed it.”

The drive to serve their country is also a trait being passed to the next generation. Alexis is a leader in her Air Force ROTC group at school, an honor for which she was hand-selected. She also plans to apply to the military academies.

“When I see them do stuff, it makes me want to do stuff because they are so much busier than I am,” Alexis says.

Melissa’s goal? To keep her kids engaged in positive activities in order to keep them out of trouble.

“I truly believe that if you keep kids busy, they won’t get into drugs,” she says..”

War and Peace

July 10, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann,

On March 8, 2013, a young man biked to the gates of the Afghan Defense Ministry and detonated a bomb strapped to his chest. The massive explosion, which killed nine civilians, shook a nearby building in which then-new U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was meeting with military officials.

“This attack was a message to him,” a Taliban spokesman emailed to reporters soon afterwards.
Hagel wasn’t listening. Inside a briefing room, the twice-wounded Vietnam vet appeared more curious than concerned as the building rocked. Within seconds, he was back on task, discussing the intricacies of winding down the longest war in U.S. history.

“No kidding — he barely flinched,” says Hagel’s former press secretary, George Little, who was in the room at the time. “That’s just who he is. He’s so focused on goals that nothing fazes him.”
Those goals, if attained, will make history. The former U.S. Senator from Nebraska will guide the U.S. Armed Forces through the transition from an unpopular two-front war he famously opposed into a lean, nimble, cutting-edge force poised for 21st century challenges. High-tech weaponry and cyber defenses designed to defend against more advanced foes will be increased. The Pacific Rim will receive more focus. Aging, cumbersome machines of war will be mothballed.

But Hagel hopes to leave more than a legacy of hardware, strategy, and efficient power projection. He wants his legacy to be a sort of antithesis to Vietnam. Empathetic leadership. Conflict seen as only a wicked necessity. A fighting force that can skirt quagmires, disrupt and disable from a distance, and better armor flesh and blood.

All this amid constant criticism, political dysfunction, and ever-shapeshifting crises. An unstable Ukraine. Putin. Syria. Mosul. The screwball menace of Kim Jong-un. “The Middle East in flames,” Hagel adds. Domestically: The VA scandal. The Bergdahl controversy. The sexual assault scandal. Controversy after controversy.

And he also runs a department with more than three million employees. “You’ll never know all of it, you can never know all of it,” he says from his office at the Pentagon. “What you must do is not get dragged down into the underbrush with stuff that’s not a top priority to know.”

You must remain calm. Keep studying, he says. Know your history. Learn from the mistakes of history and the lessons of your own history. Talk candidly with everyone from generals to privates, warriors to desk jockeys. Always listen, he says. Always be empathetic.

And somehow, remain unbowed by the bombs exploding around you.

“Chuck is singularly prepared for a job like this,” says former U.S. Senator and Nebraska Gov. Bob Kerrey, a fellow decorated Vietnam vet. “He’s focused, he believes in what he’s doing, he has an amazing ability to stay positive through tough times. Add to all that his life experience. He was an enlisted man, he’s seen it all. He knows what it’s like, and what it means, to actually be there.”

Two photos hang on the family room wall in Tom Hagel’s home in Dayton, Ohio. One shows Tom and his older brother Chuck dressed in their altar boy gowns standing in front of a modest Catholic church in Ainsworth, Neb. (“That brick you see was just a façade on a Quonset Hut,” Tom says). The irony of the photo isn’t lost on the brothers. “I was not a choir boy,” Tom says. “We were very different people,” says Chuck.

The Hagel Brothers as Altar Boys

The second photo shows Tom and Chuck with arms around each other, drinks in hand, at a party held at their rental house in North Omaha not long after they returned from Vietnam. Tom still keeps the photo close, both because of what it shows and what it doesn’t.

“All buddy-buddy, right?” explains Tom, an attorney, law professor, and judge in Dayton. “Oh man. In a flash, we’d be after each other. Couple words about Vietnam. A minute after that photo we were in a fistfight, smashing beds, knocking doors off.

“Somebody called the cops. Once the cops got there we were immediately all buddy-buddy and we had each other’s back again. That’s how it was in a nutshell.”

Tom and Chuck Hagel

Tom believed Vietnam was a disaster orchestrated for all the wrong reasons. Chuck believed Vietnam was a geopolitical necessity.

Chuck was also the proverbial Good Son. He was a quarterback and class president at St. Bonaventure High School in Columbus (now Columbus Central Catholic). He was driven. He always dressed for success in his still-beloved pleated khakis. “He’s been running for president since he was 16,” Tom says.

In some ways, Chuck’s ship-shape persona was a cover. As he advanced in high school, his father’s alcoholism and downward spiral advanced. Before settling in Columbus, Charlie Hagel bounced his family through numerous towns in western Nebraska. Ainsworth, Rushville, Scottsbluff, Terrytown, York. The jobs got smaller. The houses got smaller—if there was a house. One summer the four Hagel brothers slept in a chicken dormer. Life got more and more unstable. Chuck picked up the slack, stayed focused on goals. Tom rebelled. But Tom still views his father more as a tragic figure than anything else.

“I talked to some of his old buddies in Ainsworth, people who knew him before he went off to World War II,” Tom says. “They said the war changed him—he was a different person when he came back. I think he was a beat-up manic-depressive who was self-medicating. But back then there wasn’t any help. There was just the stigma.”

Charlie died suddenly at age 39 on Christmas morning, 1962. Chuck was 16. So, Chuck became the man of the house, helping his mother watch over the five younger Hagel children. It was hard, but the family always found a way to make do. Chuck says he learned leadership skills at a very young age.

“When my dad died, my youngest brother, Jim, was only in second grade,” Chuck says. “I started coaching his little league teams. I basically became a surrogate father to him.”

After high school, Chuck went off to try his hand at college. Things didn’t work out. He enlisted. Around that time, Tom graduated high school—somehow. “I mean, (Tom) may have gotten enough C’s to graduate,” Chuck says. “But it was probably just a good arrangement for everyone involved to let him out of high school.”

Like Chuck, Tom chose to enlist instead of wait for the draft. “You’re going anyway,” Tom says. “Just as well volunteer and get it over with.”

After training, Chuck was sent to Vietnam. At the time, Tom was stationed in Germany waiting for his orders. Then Tom came up with a plan. Knowing that the U.S. military didn’t allow brothers to serve beside each other in battle (termed the “Sole Survivor Policy”), Tom volunteered to go to Vietnam. He knew he was going anyway. Why not help out his big brother in the process. Chuck, he thought, would get sent home early.

But, SNAFU. “I got there and nobody knew what I was talking about,”

Tom says. Then, in a chain of events that still baffle the brothers, Tom, apparently by coincidence, ended up northwest of Saigon, not only in the same division as Chuck, but in the same squad of the same platoon of the same company. In time, they literally were walking point together.

So the Hagel brothers, it is widely believed, became the only brothers to serve side-by-side in combat in the Vietnam War.

Tom, a scrappy 160-pound teen who liked the outdoors, was better built for jungle warfare than Chuck. “His size worked against him,” Tom says. “I was a wimpy little burnout, but I could move in the mud—I was more comfortable in that environment than he was. I really felt sorry for him. He was a fish out of water.”

The brothers began to lose friends, witnessing horrific scenes that scar both of them still.
While on patrol one morning in 1968, a soldier walking point in front of the Hagels stepped on a landmine. Shrapnel hit Tom’s arm. A larger piece lodged in Chuck’s chest. Tom dropped to his brother’s side and bound him with compression bandages to stop the bleeding.

A month later, Chuck dragged Tom from a burning armored personnel carrier. Blood poured from Tom’s ears. Chuck’s face was severely burned.

The Hagels returned home to Nebraska with five Purple Hearts between them (Chuck received two, Tom received three). They returned having had nearly identical experiences. Yet, the two men viewed life and their experiences through very different lenses.

They, did, however, have something very much in common, Chuck Hagel says.
“We both still had no idea what we wanted to do.”

The University of Nebraska—Omaha has provided college educations to thousands of veterans through the G.I. Bill. The school, Chuck Hagel notes, has a long history and strong reputation for helping vets not only get degrees, but also find their way in life. “It really is one of the premier bootstrap universities in the country,” Chuck says. Both Chuck and Tom found professors who inspired and guided them.

Both brothers flourished. Tom angled toward law. “I wanted to save the world,” he says. Chuck moved toward government and politics. He went to Washington, D.C., knocked on doors throughout the city, and finally landed a part-time job on the staff of Nebraska Rep. John McCollister. McCollister, an old-school Nebraska conservative who served from 1971 to 1977, may have influenced Chuck Hagel’s politics, and honed his political acumen, more than any other person in his life. Hagel called McCollister, who died last year at age 92, “the finest public servant I have ever known.”

Through the 1970s, thanks to McCollister, Hagel increasingly found himself in close proximity to the Republican Party elite. In 1980, Hagel campaigned for the Ronald Reagan. Once elected, Reagan decided Hagel was a natural for a veterans-related post. He was nominated for the job of deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration.

Before taking that post, though, Hagel was asked to take over the planning and construction of the 1982 World’s Fair, which, at the time, was on a path to disaster. “I told them I’d never even been to a World’s Fair,” Hagel says. “I had been to a carnival in Beaver Crossing. That’s it.” But, no matter. Hagel went and lived in Knoxville, Tenn., and worked day and night for six months. In the end, the World’s Fair was a success, and Hagel had made a name for himself in the Republican Party. Hagel remembers well flying to the opening event on Air Force One with Reagan. It was May 1, 1982. Hagel rattles off the date without pause. To be sure, Reagan also was a major influence on the future senator’s brand of conservatism.

Besides building his party cred, Hagel learned he could successfully run a large operation. “It was the first big organizational job I had in my life,” he says.

And so, the education of Chuck Hagel continued. After the World’s Fair stint, he took that job with the Veteran’s Administration. Soon, though, he found himself embroiled in controversy. Also, he found himself, for the first time, having to put his career on the line for his beliefs.

In 1982, VA administrator Robert Nimmo made several inflammatory comments about veterans during his push to cut funding for VA programs. Nimmo called veterans groups “greedy” and described the effects of Agent Orange as not much worse than “a little teenage acne.”

Both Hagel brothers had suffered breathing problems after significant contact with Agent Orange. Tom’s current heart problems are blamed on Agent Orange. (“We walked together through areas that looked like moonscapes because of the stuff,” Tom says). Later in the 1980s, the brothers sat on a congressional commission that investigated Agent Orange use in Vietnam.

Chuck resigned amid the flap. He was finished with politics…at least for a while.

From 1982 to 1996, Chuck Hagel was a businessman. A few friends who were in the cable TV business asked Hagel to join them in a new business venture based on a strange new technology—“cellular telephony.” Hagel was asked to invest $5,000. He had little money to show for those seemingly fancy government titles he had held. To raise the money, he cashed in his life insurance policy and sold his 1978 Buick Skylark.

Three years later, Vanguard Cellular Systems was one of the largest cell phone companies in the country. He was quickly a multi-millionaire.

Then: President and CEO of the United Service Organizations. Deputy director of the Private Sector Council. COO of the 1990 G7 Summit. On the board of directors of the American Red Cross.
Although some pushed for Hagel to seek to become Governor of Virginia, he moved back to Nebraska in 1992 to become president of the investment-banking firm, The McCarthy Group, LLC. He also served as CEO of what became Election Systems & Software.

In what Tom describes as a move “that was a long time coming,” Chuck finally ran for office. In 1996, he started as a mostly-unknown underdog to replace Jim Exon in the U.S. Senate. But he rose quickly to win in a landslide in the Republican primary, and then upset Ben Nelson in the general election. He quickly became a darling of the Republican Party, amassing one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate. In 2000, he was on the short list of George W. Bush’s picks to be his running mate.

Then, once again, war.

But by 2003, Hagel had, in part thanks to being privy for two decades to countless previously-classified documents related to the Vietnam War, was much more leery of using force—and much less trusting of intelligence sources— than most of his Republican colleagues.

As the country ramped up for an invasion of Iraq, Tom says, he and his brother were no longer diametrically opposed on many issues. “I had moderated, I think he had, too,” Tom says. “Chuck has always been thoughtful, don’t get me wrong. But he learned more about the mistakes of the past through the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. He’s very careful now and nuanced in his thinking when others often aren’t.”

Kerrey, who served alongside Chuck in the Senate in the late ‘90s, agrees with Tom Hagel’s assessment of his brother’s mindset at the point Chuck went to battle with his own party over Iraq. “Chuck has experienced so much, he knew the issues inside and out,” Kerrey says. “He knew that people were being fed complete inaccuracies. He knew that things on the ground in Iraq were much more complicated than what people were being told. “When people get wildly enthusiastic about war—which was the case then— there has to be someone like Chuck who is willing to stand up and say, ‘Are you sure?’ He took an immense amount of criticism from Republicans during that time. It took real courage to do what he did.”

Hagel still bristles at the idea he somehow turned traitor on his party. “I am the guy who brought then-President Bush to Omaha to kick off his Immigration Reform effort. I’m the guy who brought President Bush to Omaha to kick off his Social Security reform effort. I was as much of a leader in the Senate on both of those Bush initiatives, but yet, at the same time, I was seriously questioning his policies on Iraq and…why we went to Iraq.”

In 2004, Hagel said he was considering a run at the presidency. But, in 2007, he seemed to run out of patience with the political sphere. His continued verbal lashings of the Bush administration made him fiercely unpopular with many Republicans. Many, most notably John McCain, who had long been a fan of Hagel, fired back. The war of words escalated. In November of 2007, Hagel gave this famous assessment of the Bush administration when he ranked it “the lowest in capacity, in capability, in policy, in consensus—almost every area” of any presidency in the previous 40 years.
That same year, Hagel declined to run for a third term in the Senate. He stepped into academia, joining the staff of Georgetown University. To those watching from the outside, it looked like Hagel was retiring into the role of wise old sage.

But he quickly found himself on the board of a dizzying array of private and governmental advisory committees. Among his nine commitments, he was co-chairman of President Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

George Little, Hagel’s former press secretary, says that Obama has long been influenced by Hagel’s opinions in military and foreign policy matters. For one, Hagel accompanied Obama during the then-senator’s first trip to the Middle East. Hagel, Little suggests, has likely shaped Obama’s views on foreign policy matters “as much as anyone.”

Kerrey agrees. “Obama and Chuck have significant overlap in how they think and what their values are. Beyond their policy views, they are both clearly men who care deeply about people and care deeply about their country. I can see why they want to work together and why they would work very well together.”

In January of last year, President Obama nominated Hagel to succeed Leon Panetta as U.S. Secretary of Defense. Over thenext several weeks, Hagel would slog through some of the most outrageous accusations and insults he had faced in his entire career in politics.

Tom was there for one of the hearings.

Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz “was suggesting that Chuck was somehow receiving money from terrorists,” he recounts. “It was just crazy hatred. Unbelievable.”

“There was a lot of ugliness,” Kerrey says. “Chuck never should have had to go through that.”

But Hagel powered through the process. Once he was asked to take the job, he says, he was determined to do the job. He believed he had a unique mix of experiences—battle, VA work, running major projects and companies, 12 years as a senator—to do the job uniquely well. He says he believed it was his duty to his country, and particularly those serving their country, to help mold an efficient, effective, and enlightened modern fighting force.

The details of the job are dizzying in scope. To run a department so massive, to deal with so many issues from so many directions, you must try to quickly corral a broad understanding of the issues while not being dragged down by minutia, Hagel says.

As Hagel has worked to gain an understanding of all he could possibly hope to understand, he’s also tried to maintain a strategic mindset. Remember the past; focus on the future, he says.
When it comes to strategy, Hagel can’t help but point to Husker football and one of his heroes of strategic planning, Tom Osborne.

“Tom Osborne is one of the best thinkers I’ve ever dealt with,” Hagel says. “You have to think through those four quarters. Where do you want to be in the fourth quarter? Where do I want to be after four years in the Pentagon?

“The other part of what Tom Osborne always talked about is making adjustments. You’ve got to be prepared and build yourself some margin to always adjust to the realities that are going to be confronting you.”

The Secretary of Defense job, done well or done poorly, is surely one of the most taxing in the country, particularly under current conditions. It takes a special personality to thrive in the position. Kerrey says that Hagel is built as well as anyone for such a task.

“I do think it matters that he has that sort of Midwestern, good-natured, can-do attitude,” Kerrey says. “I’m quite sure he’s not necessarily enjoying the job, but I think he has the attitude to keep going and keep doing a good job.”

Hagel plays down any idea that the relentless, pressing, messy issues with which he is tasked daily take a toll on him. His staff says he is generally relaxed and good-natured through tense times. “He definitely has a sense of humor,” one of his assistants says. He keeps his stress down by swimming every day “no matter where he is,” his brother says. Hagel himself says he tries to make sure he gets enough sleep and eats right.

That said, although Chuck denies it, his brother wonders if, in fact, the job is taking a toll. It’s difficult not to agree with Tom’s assessment. There’s visual confirmation.

“My God, compare a picture from December of last year to now,” Tom says. “His hair is white, his eyes are tired. I worry about him. He’ll tell you all day that he’s fine. I just hope he’s telling the truth.”
The concern of those around him is that, driven toward such lofty goals through such intense fires, he might not be aware of the dangers to his own health.

Hagel himself brushes off the idea that the rigors of the job have worn him down. But, he doesn’t deny that he may push himself too hard sometimes toward the goals he has established. After all, the goals are monumental. And they are goals forged from grave national mistakes that personally wounded him and took the lives of many friends. For Hagel, the job of Secretary of Defense is much more than just eye-candy on a resume.

“Somebody could go through the motions,” Hagel says. “But (that attitude) would fail your people; fail your country. I do not want to do that. There’s too much at stake. This is much, much too important.”

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.

Corianna Kubasta

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Second-year Creighton University Law student Corianna Kubasta may not be a bonafide attorney just yet, but she’s already got a cause she’s fighting for—the Wounded Warrior Project and its mission to honor and empower those who’ve served and sacrificed for our country.

After graduating from University of North Dakota, Kubasta decided on Creighton Law because of the school’s focus on “the student as a whole.” She says the sense of community offered by the university and Omaha made her decision to move here an easy one.

According to Kubasta, student law groups at Creighton have a longstanding tradition of charity and service. As a member of CU’s newly founded Military Law Society, Kubasta is involved with an innovative group of students that seeks to support military affiliates within the Creighton and Greater Omaha communities.

In beginning their effort, the Law Society has become a registered sponsor of the Wounded Warrior Project. Founded in 2002, the nonprofit WWP states its purpose as three-fold: to raise awareness and enlist the public’s aid for the needs of injured service members; to help injured service members aid and assist each other; and to provide unique, direct programs and services to meet the needs of injured service members. As a proud supporter of the WWP, the student group is focused on raising awareness and funds for the organization.

“We really want to reach out to vets in the Omaha community. It’s nice to know you have someone to go to [for help].”

Most students involved with CU’s Military Law Society have been active military members themselves (although there are family and friends of military who join, too). Kubasta is herself a veteran, having served a yearlong tour in Iraq with an Army National Guard unit from North Dakota in 2008. While on active duty, she trained with the military police, as well as worked in prisons.

Kubasta said her tour overseas further strengthened and guided her passion for justice. “It was interesting to see how [Iraqis] dealt with criminals without a structured system. There is just not as much due process over there.” Witnessing many injustices during her tour simply reinforced her desire to go into law, she says.

In April, the Military Law Society hosted their first big WWP fundraiser, a poker tournament. The event “couldn’t have been made possible without Connor McCarthy’s time and energy,” says Kubasta, praising her fellow CU student and MLS’s founder. Although the tournament was a monetary success, Kubasta says the bigger achievement was in helping attendees develop a deeper appreciation for what soldiers have sacrificed.

The Military Law Society has already agreed to host another tournament next year and will be inviting both old and new friends. The group is looking at other ways to aid the organization as well. “We really want to reach out to vets in the Omaha community,” Kubasta says. “It’s nice to know you have someone to go to [for help].”

It seems Kubasta and fellow CU students are happy to offer that helping hand, and Omaha will be a better community for it.

To learn more about the Wounded Warrior Project and what you can do to help, vsit

Joe Wherry

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha resident Joe Wherry was a child who slipped through the cracks. As a toddler, he lived on the streets of his native Chicago under the loose supervision of skid row residents. He slept on a heating grate in front of a hotel for warmth. Now 64, Wherry spends his life making sure no one else slips through the cracks. “Everybody deserves someone to help them,” he says.

Despite some health challenges, Wherry remains cheery and lives on his own in West Omaha. The memorabilia in his apartment attests to that. For example, take the portrait of a 20-something Wherry in a flight jacket on the wall of his bedroom. Wherry served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969. A “river rat,” in his words, he served as a boatswain’s mate in the Mekong Delta.20130312_bs_8969_web

Wherry sustained multiple injuries in the line of duty. “I was medevaced three times before they sent me home,” he says. Eventually, he won the Purple Heart.

In the 1980s, he began volunteering as an advocate for fellow veterans, even as he himself fought for disability benefits related to post-traumatic stress disorder. Wherry also suffered ailments related to exposure to Agent Orange.

Tucked behind his military portrait there is a palm frond—the kind that gets handed out around Easter in Catholic churches. Wherry is an active member of St. Patrick Parish in Elkhorn, serving as a greeter and an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. Wherry was exposed to Catholicism while a student at Boys Town, where he graduated high school in 1966.20130312_bs_8981_web

“It was the first place where I could make something of myself,” he says of the home for wayward children. He was inducted into the Boys Town Hall of Fame in 2004.

Family portraits line Wherry’s walls along with his own. He met his wife, Marcia, when he was running a singles’ bar in Cicero, Ill., in 1972. She was a former Miss Tall Chicago. Two months later, they were engaged. Wherry has four children and six grandkids; Marcia succumbed to cancer in 1991.

Boy Scout mementos pack Wherry’s home. He thanks Boys Town for exposing him to the Boy Scouts as well, but it was not until after he returned from Vietnam that Wherry wanted to be an adult leader.20130312_bs_8955_web

While volunteering at a church school, Wherry saw a scoutmaster tell a boy to do a task “because I said so.” Wherry volunteered in order to be a different kind of leader. Decades later, his Boy Scout uniform is covered in patches awarded for services and accomplishments. If I can change it just by being there, I want to be there,” he says.

Wherry suffers frequent health problems, but that will not stop him helping others. “I’m going to keep doing it until I get it right,” he says with a laugh.

The French Bulldog

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For Bryce Coulton, part-owner of Dundee’s The French Bulldog, life is not a bowl of cherries. It’s two wedges of roasted acorn squash, roasted balsamic onions and tomatoes, house-made ricotta, and a drizzle of mint oil, otherwise known as the eatery’s Acorn Squash Salad. But a little background on the chef first…20130312_bs_9071_Web

After traveling the world while serving in the U.S. military for 20 years, Coulton went to culinary school in Ireland, then spent time in London cooking before coming back to this side of the pond. He, along with partners Anne Cavanaugh and Phil Anania, opened The French Bulldog last September in what used to be a Subway.  Now in its place, cured meats hang and a rustic décor represent one of Omaha’s few charcuteries. “We wanted to establish ourselves as a place where people can find what they want,” he says, “Dundee has all walks of life and we aim to please everyone.”20130312_bs_8983_Web

The inspiration for The French Bulldog came from Bryce Coulton’s time in Europe and the idea of creating a simplistic space with a casual atmosphere. Customers are able to interact with the bartender and waitstaff as the bar also doubles as the prep area for the food. The French Bulldog specializes in cut meats, cheeses, and even a homemade pork pie (also London-inspired). In fact, everything is done in-house, down to Coulton’s personal mustard recipe. The New Jersey native explains, “I’m not big on side salads. The salad should be the star of the plate.”20130312_bs_9116_Web

He then reminisces on his favorite memory working at a café in London. “The café was in a greenhouse, a long, 30-foot shed. There was a path down to the garden where, if we ran out, we could pick fresh herbs or chard.”20130312_bs_8989_Web

Coulton met Cavanaugh and Anania, owners of another successful Dundee restaurant, Amsterdam Falafel, two and half years ago while working at The Boiler Room. Space in the Dundee area rarely opens, so when one did, the three jumped at the chance to create a place where people can get together for lunch, dinner, and everything in between. It’s a place of comfort and simple, unique dishes, where the specials are written on a chalkboard. When asked what the best thing he’s ever eaten is, Coulton thinks for a minute, then talks of a Jerusalem artichoke purée: “It was flavorful, unique, and simple.” It seems as though his favorite dish mimics his new and already successful Dundee restaurant.