Friday, July 16, 2010

The Oprah Winfrey Show

Wednesday, May 1, 2009, I had one of the most interesting and exciting phone calls of my life.  Kate, from Puppies Behind Bars called me to ask if we would be interested in flying to NY to film a segment for the Oprah Winfrey Show.  I was giddy with excitement and wanted to tell her yes immediately, but knew I had better talk to Allen about it first.  After all, the segment would feature him and Frankie reuniting with Roberto, the inmate who had raised and trained Frankie to be a service dog. 

The decision had to be made quickly.  If we accepted, we would fly to New York the following Tuesday, May 7.  As soon as I was off the phone with Kate, I called Allen.  His reaction was great and just what I had hoped for.  He simply asked me why I hadn't told her yes already!!  Of course though, since Allen is still on active duty, we had to get permission from his command for all of this, which ended up being the toughest part.  

The decision from Allen's command did not come quickly.  While we were waiting for this decision, Kate went ahead with preliminary plans for us to make the trip.  Finally, it came down to the last day and if we couldn't get approval, PBB would have to choose someone else to represent them.  Allen and I prayed that the right thing would happen and whatever that was, we would accept the answer.  Shortly after that, we had the call we had hoped for.  We were free to go and to do the interview.

On Tuesday, May 7th, Allen, Frankie, and I left for the airport to board our plane that would take us to Fishkill, New York.  We had a good day of travel and were met at the airport by Carl Rotans, the lead instructor for PBB.  We had first met Carl in Colorado when we were doing the initial training with Frankie.  He drove us to our hotel and we went to dinner with him and Gloria, the founder of PBB.  She explained the schedule for the next day.

Our day started at 8:00 am when we met with Gloria to drive to the Fishkill Correctional Facility.  We were both excited and nervous and could not wait to meet Roberto.  The filming part of it was just a bonus for us.  It was cool to be on the Oprah show and all, but the highlight for us was definitely getting to meet the inmates who put so much into these dogs that truly change the lives of wounded warriors.  

When we arrived at the prison, the film crew was outside waiting.  They wanted to film Allen and Frankie's arrival at the prison.  Frankie knew where she was the instant she exited the car.  She started forging ahead and was wagging her tail.  She was obviously very happy to be back.  Next, we went through security and were introduced to everyone involved in the day, including Glenn Close.  Glenn spent the entire day with us and conducted the interviews for the show.  She is an amazing woman, who is full of compassion and truly cares about this program and the impact it has on wounded warriors and the inmates. 
After security and the introductions, we were going to get to meet Roberto.  There was a long walkway outside and he was waiting at the other end of it.  Allen and Frankie proceeded to move closer to Roberto.  About half way there, Allen released Frankie's leash and let her run to him.  It was a very moving moment.  Frankie hesitated twice.  Roberto began calling her and she turned to Allen to see if it was okay for her to go.  This was a difficult thing for Allen.  He wanted to let her go, but it was hard for him to do so.  His anxiety levels rose, but he was able to stay strong and encourage her to go.  It was amazing.  

Throughout the day we had many opportunities to share stories with the inmates in the program and to hear their stories.  We went to their recreation yard and Frankie went to each inmate and greeted them and their puppies.  She definitely remembered!  We went to their pod and Roberto showed us his cell and where Frankie spent so much of her time.  He was very proud of what he has accomplished since entering the PBB program.  The program pays for the inmates to do correspondence classes that allows them to become certified in several programs.  Roberto has completed four programs and has the certificates proudly displayed on the wall of his cell.  He also had a letter that Allen had written to him on his wall.  He told us that it was one of his most prized possessions in all the world.  This means a lot to both of us.

After lunch, we went down to the PBB classroom.  Here, each inmate had the opportunity to speak to us.  They told us their name, how long they had been incarcerated, and what PBB means to them.  Many of them also told us how much they appreciated us coming back so that they had the chance to see for themselves what they were doing for people.  It gave them a face to put with all of their hard work.  At one point during this classroom time, I think everyone in the room was brought to tears.  It was very emotional and wonderful all at the same time.  These inmates have had their lives completely changed by the love and dedication of a puppy.  Allen has this same experience!  It is amazing to me, the similarities these men have with Allen.  They have lost their freedom he fought so hard to protect.  He fought for the safety of their family when they couldn't.  They are thankful to him while he is grateful to them.  They all have a scarlet letter, the inmates for their crimes, and Allen for the stigmas associated with the invisible wounds he bears.  The mirror of this entire experience was truly amazing!

As the end of the day drew near, we began to dread saying goodbye.  The inmates had to get back to their cells for count and they began slowly filing out.  Each one passed by us and said goodbye and a few final words.  This was by far, the hardest part of the day.  I didn't want to leave.  Allen and I still talk about this part of the day, and as I write this, it was over a month ago.  These men have truly changed their lives, or are on the path to turning them around.  Finally, Roberto was the last to leave.  While all of the inmates had a part in raising Frankie, Roberto was her primary raiser.  It was hard leaving him when he put so much into Frankie.  He helped give Allen his life back.  He helped bring my son's their daddy home.  He is amazing and we will forever be grateful to him for all he gave to us.   

Around 4:00 pm we walked back out the front doors of Fishkill Correctional Facility.  We then said our goodbyes to Glenn Close, who is absolutely amazing.  She is compassionate and truly cares for people.  We have so much respect and love for her after this moving day.  Thanks Glenn for all you do.  She even had her driver take some pictures of us with her with her iphone.  She emailed them to us the next day.  These are the only pics we have from that day as we were not allowed to take any electronics into the prison with us.  

Gloria took us back to the hotel and we were exhausted.  We did nothing that evening other than grab something to eat in our hotel.  The next morning, Carl drove us back to the airport and we flew home.  It was an amazing trip and we are so thankful that Puppies Behind Bars chose us to represent them.  

To check out some blogs that Glenn wrote about this day go to .  You can also purchase things from this site and have a portion of the proceeds donated back to PBB.  Purchasing the Chewy shoe gives the Dog Tags program $2.00 for every toy purchased.  Please visit this site.  In order to learn more about the Dog Tags program, go to .  

Even Now........Gina


Sunday, July 4, 2010

Speech from AW2 Symposium June 2010

Previously I have tried to always write and post in the order things have happened.  So, I am always behind and trying to catch up with our life.  Then I get discouraged and decide not to write and then I have large gaps in time and get further and further behind.  Therefore, I am going to start to write whatever hits me!!

Last week we had the privilege of attending the Army Wounded Warrior Symposium.  We were asked to serve on the media panel and I had to write and give a speech for the media.  It was a great experience for me and is awesome to be able to share my side of our story.  Below is a copy of what I said.

I am Gina Hill and I am the wife of a severely injured soldier. While the majority of his physical, or visible, wounds have healed, our family still struggles daily with the psychological wounds.  Often times, these are called the invisible wounds, but I have a hard time calling them that, for they are very visible to anyone who spends any amount of time with him.            

These psychological wounds greatly affect not only the soldier, but the entire family.  My husband’s triggers are now triggers for myself as well as our children.  In the rare times we are away from my husband, we are constantly on high alert for his triggers.  It is next to impossible for us to turn that off.  Our kids have had to become caregiver’s for their dad instead of just being kids.  They are well rehearsed in PTSD, calling 911, and explaining why their dad has a service dog, why he isn’t at many of their events, and why he sometimes acts really weird.  They also have to understand that plans are NEVER set in stone and are always contingent on their dad’s current mental state.  Even things they have their heart set on, sometimes doesn’t happen when they expect or want it to.  Any friends they want to have over to our house also have to know the deal with their dad and that sometimes things quickly get very chaotic at our house.  They never really know what to expect next and have to be very flexible with their needs and desires.  These aren’t things most kids have to worry about.  But, our kids are resilient and handle it very well.  I just wish that they received more recognition for the sacrifices they have made and continue to make everyday.              

Although I used to teach full time, I now am a full time caregiver for my husband.   One of our biggest fears is that my soldier will not be considered “injured” enough to qualify for the benefits of the newly passed “caregiver’s bill.”  While my husband is physically capable of dressing, transferring, toileting, and bathing independently, he still requires supervision and reminders to perform these daily tasks.  Without these reminders and assistance, most of these tasks are left undone.  Due to the severity of his dissociations, my husband is unable to drive or to be left alone.  Even within our own home there are many external, environmental triggers that can send him running to the middle of the street completely unresponsive to anything outside of his head, or ducked in a corner taking cover for hours.  Many, many of these instances have ended with me having to call 911 for assistance.  Yet, he is not injured severely enough to qualify for much of the assistance available to the more physically injured warriors.   We do not qualify for housing assistance that would allow us to move away from the rock quarry a mile from our house that blasts everyday and makes him think there are incoming mortars or the railroad tracks 100 meters from our house that cause a lot of loud noise and vibrations that he interprets as some type of danger.  We also do not qualify for any type of respite care that would allow me to leave the house for errands or a job.  All of these things we get denied for because they can’t see his wounds and this just fuels his PTSD and the depression and self harm feelings that go along with it.               

Struggles I face specifically as a spouse of a warrior suffering with PTSD are many as well.  It is difficult watching the person you love fighting to get back to the person they were before war because they do remember what they used to be like, they just can’t figure out how to get back to that person.  We have worked very hard to focus on the best he can be now, not who he was.  Every part of him is different and when I say every, I mean every.  With that being said, it is extremely difficult being married to someone who is completely different than when you married him.  There are times that I see glimpses of the man I married, but they are few and far between.  I’m not sure whether these glimpses are a blessing or a curse!  As a spouse, we have to make a choice as to whether we are going to learn to love them with their PTSD/TBI or whether we can handle that task.  Some of us just aren’t able to handle that, but I am absolutely thankful that I am one that can.  Our worries are great and can be as simple as dealing with going out in public as a family in any situation.  Just going to a restaurant or the grocery store can turn into a huge ordeal.  We have to be constantly prepared for anything and be able to stay calm and handle the situation for our spouse, our family, and many times the public.  It is not an easy road.            

While we do have many day to day struggles, we have had plenty of blessings along this journey as well.  One of these came to us from an organization called Puppies Behind Bars.  They provided Allen with a service dog specifically trained to help him manage his PTSD and TBI.  There are many tasks she assists him with, but one of the biggest is her ability to bring him back from his dissociations.  What used to end in a call to 911 now ends with him coming back to reality with her kissing his face.  She has given all of us much more confidence to go out in public and be more active in life.  She is a comfort to all of us because we know she has his back!  Another blessing Allen has received is Emma, his electronic medication management assistant, he calls his pill ATM.  This system alerts him when it is time to take his medications, all 16 of them!  It then dispenses the medications he needs at that time and communicates with the monitoring company In Range that tracks his refills, inventory, and his compliance with taking his meds.  Emma has made him more capable of managing his medications without as much of my assistance which helps him feel a little more in control of his own life.  Currently this system is only available for active duty service members, but In Range is working diligently to get it approved through the VA.              

Through all of this, our AW2 rep has been there for us.  Not only does he support us, he gives us lots of information or advocates for us when the need arises.  If he hasn’t heard from us for a while, he is always sure to check in and if we ever need him, he is just a phone call away.  That is very comforting for us, knowing that we have that support and assistance available at all times.            

Lastly, participating in the AW2 Symposium is very important to us for many reasons.  It helps us heal by sharing our story, as well as giving us the sense of helping make this road better for other families facing similar situations.  Allen and I both feel that if we don’t share our own story we can’t expect for things to get fixed that we have struggled with throughout this journey.  We hope that by sharing our personal struggles and accomplishments, we will shed some light on things that need fixed and share the blessings we have received that others may not know about.  It is our honor to be a part of the symposium.