Coping with war on the homefront
It’s 5:30 a.m., and Phyllis Derby has had only a few hours of sleep. But she pries her tired body out of bed, ignoring her own exhaustion, because other people need her.Every day, from all over the country, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, and wives and husbands of troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan are turning to her for help and guidance. The Grand Junction resident will have over 50 new e-mail messages by the end of the day, and she won’t let herself go back to sleep until she’s replied to every one of them.A year and a half ago, she was a mother with a full-time job. Now, as the founder and president of one of the largest and fastest growing military support groups in the country – Homefront Heroes – Derby spends her free time helping people cope with the war.Derby has 10 relatives serving in the military, including her 20-year-old son, David Howerton, who is in the U.S. Army’s 18th Airborne Division. He has served two classified tours overseas and has orders to be redeployed again soon. Derby’s own mission began when her son was first deployed in January 2003. A month after he left, she started Homefront Heroes.”Anything he’s done I’ve supported, but there wasn’t a support system on the Western Slope,” she said. “I knew how I was feeling and I thought ‘I’m going to do something about this.'”Since the start of the Iraq war in March 2003, three service members with connections to Homefront Heroes have died, the latest being 21-year-old Mark E. Engel, a Marine from Grand Junction who died in combat in late July.
“Its probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my entire life,” Derby said of consoling families of dead soldiers. “There’s nothing you can tell them, you just listen and be there for them. When they need a helping hand you stretch out yours and hold theirs.”
The organization Derby started from scratch now has close to 500 members on the Western Slope and more than 1,000 in Colorado. They send care packages to troops stationed all over the world and attempt to support families at home – many of whom are young women suddenly raising their children without their fathers.”We really try to cover everything,” said Jo Weber, a member of Homefront Heroes whose son is a Marine.One of those women the group has worked with is Carrie, who wished to have her last name withheld. She’s a little worried about living at home alone with her two children while her husband serves an 18-month tour in Iraq.”I had a really hard time at first, until I found Homefront Heroes,” Carrie said. “I can’t explain the support – it’s kind of like one big family. It’s really helped me.”Weber said when troops from the Western Slope were deployed to Iraq early in the war, when Homefront Heroes was less well known, the community suffered.”Each time a group was deployed, families would spend the first month crying,” she said. “But now they know the support is there.”
The troops who have returned, like Grand Junction’s Marcus Kissner – who spent over 15 months in Iraq in a medical unit – said it would have been a lot tougher on his family without Homefront Heroes.”There would have been so much more pressure on my family with no one to turn to,” said Kissner, who has a 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. “Homefront Heroes is a group of people that they can relate to and it makes it so much easier. The family support is just awesome.”Kissner said that knowing his family was taken care of at home allowed him to focus on his job and on surviving.”When you don’t have to worry about your wife and your kids and your house, it frees up your mind to worry about other things,” he said.Phil Hindson, a friend of Kissner’s who also served as a medic in Iraq, said the support coming from back home – like the picture of his house covered with snow – was “phenomenal.””We just try to give them a taste of home, no matter where they are,” Weber explained.When the troops return from overseas, Homefront Heroes is there to greet them at the airport and honor them with a parade through town.”They are met with firetrucks and over a hundred motorcycle riders,” said Homefront Heroes vice president Tom Logsdon, a Vietnam Veteran whose son is in the Army and will probably be sent to Iraq by the end of the year. “All the way up town there are cars welcoming them home.”For Logsdon, the welcome home holds an even deeper meaning.”That would have meant so much to us (Vietnam Veterans),” Logsdon said. “That’s why we do it.”The success of Homefront Heroes has drawn national recognition and has led to the creation of a new state holiday to honor all current service members.The success of Homefront Heroes has not just been recognized by Congress, but by citizens all over the country. There are now similar support groups in seven other states that are modeled after Homefront Heroes.”It’s very helpful for me, it gives me something to focus on,” Derby said. “It’s a way for me to help other people who I know are feeling the exact same thing I am.”