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Group tries to care for wounded warriors

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By Stephen Thomas

FORT KNOX - SSG Michael Montgomery, Ret., knows what a soldier faces both during and after combat.

With 17 years military experience, including three years active duty, Montgomery learned the battle doesn’t end for a soldier upon returning home.

The dangers of mental fatigue and post-traumatic stress are common and, in some ways, more difficult to treat than physical wounds. Montgomery and his wife, Tamika, lived through the struggle of post-traumatic stress and its effect on their relationship.

That’s why the couple is spearheading the push for a new family-friendly living facility near Ft. Knox as part of the Military Families Revitalization Project (MFRP).

Residents of Indianapolis, the Montgomery’s learned firsthand the hardships of soldiers and families spending time together during post-combat recovery. With nowhere near the base for Tamika to stay consistently, the couple sustained a number of road trips.

Wounded in Kuwait and Iraq, Michael eventually became a Wounded Warrior, one of many soldiers treated at Ft. Knox’s Warrior Transition Unit.

Michael experienced surgeries on his wrist and foot and was healing from knee injury, but said his worst pains were psychological.

“The most severe injury you can’t see,” he said. “It’s not really an injury but more of a disease.”

The young couple married in November 2007. Returning to Ft. Knox, Michael was closer to home but still more than three hours from Tamika.

“Being (at Ft. Knox) 15 months, we were still separated,” said Michael. “Add another 11 (active duty) and that was 26 months away from each other.”

Tamika tried to visit Michael as often as possible. There were nearby hotels, but even the most inexpensive cost $60 per night. Paying for a rental house was an option, but bills at home still required attention.

“Some of the post-traumatic syndrome could’ve been avoided if we could’ve been together more,” Tamika said.

Michael mentioned a best-case scenario was the couple having 48 free hours, though included travel time made it closer to 36. Combined with Michael driving while taking medication, the scenario became dangerous.

“I should not have been driving,” he admitted. “It’s not a fault of the WTU, I just had to see my wife. There’s nothing but the grace of God that helped me.”

Tamika felt part of Michael’s ongoing stress was due to their time apart. She recalled attending a marriage retreat where another couple needed similar help.

The Montgomery’s understand that similar situations could eventually lead to domestic violence, divorce or even suicide. Michael personally knew soldiers that suffered more than he did.

“From my personal experience... one suicide, one divorce is too many,” he said.

While in the WTU Michael met Shepherdsville resident Vina Leslie, a primary organizer of the facility’s annual Christmas party. Michael shared his belief that something better could be in place for families.

“The WTU is an excellent program,” said Michael. “They’re doing the best they can with what resources they have. But the medication we need most is support. We get that from family. The military can’t necessarily offer that.”

Leslie encouraged the couple to pursue their new dream, a family complex known as the Soldier Families Assistance Center (SFAC), offering a free place to stay for families of Wounded Warriors complete with family counseling and support services.

“There two are a good example of family support,” said Leslie. “They are each other’s strengths.”

The Montgomery’s established EOM, Inc., in Indianapolis, a non-profit organization hoping to provide a 24-hour Christian community center in troubled areas. They have also turned their focus into the SFAC.

“I lost friends (at the WTU), some of them went AWOL, some committed suicide,” said Michael. “Those things hit home. We need to do something about it.”

EOM created SFAC floor plans with assistance from Nett Construction of Elizabethtown. The organization also has volunteers looking for available property in the Radcliff area near the base.

“This is not just an EOM project, but a community project,” said Michael. “It’s for the soldiers fighting for us and their families.”

Tamika said SFAC living facilities would include two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments, along with a living area. Michael said Wounded Warriors soldiers could live with families based upon their physical and mental status.

The SFAC would include administrative offices and counseling offices, along with a computer lab to assist soldiers with life information or homework if attending college-level courses.

Also included would be a swimming pool, basketball court, playground and a commons area for parties and special events. The SFAC would feature a state-of-the-art fitness center.

“We’re dealing with soldiers who have been wounded,” said Tamika. “This would offer more exercise opportunities to compliment their physical therapy.”

Tamika added that the commons area would allow all families to spend time together, allowing for further support.

According to Tamika, the SFAC could potentially assist up to 200 military families annually.

Leslie, who has been planning the Wounded Warriors’ third annual Christmas party since last year’s event, has become the Montgomery’s Kentucky connection, helping to contact local businesses and organizations for assistance.

“We’re looking for people to help with all kinds of assistance, a lot of fundraising assistance,” Leslie said.

The first major fundraising event has been planned, known as Operation Ride for Freedom, a charity ride involving both motorcycles and classic cars.

Operation Ride for Freedom takes place Oct. 10, starting in Indianapolis and ending at Ft. Knox. The ride is dedicated to all those who served in the military, especially SGT Justin Wilkerson, a friend of Michael’s who passed away as a member of the Wounded Warriors.

The event includes raffles for a 2009 Harley Davidson XL883L and a new moped. Prizes will be awarded for best bike, best car, oldest veteran and longest drive to the event.

For information about the Military Families Revitalization Project, the Soldiers Families Assistance Center or Operation Ride for Freedom contact EOM, 1-866-611-1610, or Vina Leslie, 543-2444.

“Our goal is to raise enough money on this ride to break ground on the first wing,” said Michael. “Our goal is to get it up, even if it’s just one wing, immediately, so we don’t lose anyone else. This is for every soldier that puts on a uniform and their families. It takes a community effort and this is where we’re at now.”