What Does it Mean When We Say: “Thank You for Your Service”?
We spoke with military veterans for this installment of The Heroes. Lew Roman, board president of the Broomfield Veterans Museum, defined a hero as someone who saves someone else’s life. A more nuanced definition would include going above and beyond to help others.
Like many heroes we’ve covered up until this point, they were all hesitant to refer to themselves as heroes. In some cases, it’s modesty. In others, their reluctance may be fueled by disappointment with their experience in the service or when they returned home as civilians. Still, they were all quick to acknowledge the heroism that their peers demonstrate in service to our country as well as in their day-to-day lives.
It’s important to remember that, in addition to combat operations, the six branches of the military train young people to become teachers, nurses, firefighters, and police officers, among many other professions. So, the military may be the most productive training ground for heroes.
Even so, there is no monolithic “veteran experience.” While many veterans lead successful lives after their service, they’re also at increased risk of mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness. When those individuals fall through the cracks, their fellow veterans often step up to help. Their service doesn’t end when they trade in their uniforms for street clothes.
Samantha Gehrels: U.S. Army
Samantha Gehrels joined the U.S. Army after she graduated high school. She was trained in military intelligence before joining the National Security Agency where her primary responsibility was to intercept and decode signals. “We’re not just talking about emails and phone calls,” she said. “We got images of a billboard that had encrypted information on it. That information revealed the position of enemy troops and was used to direct American troops away from hazardous locations. We used that information to save lives.”
Gehrels became a military trauma medicine specialist before earning a master’s degree in nursing. Now, she’s a nurse practitioner who specializes in palliative and hospice care. “In the field, we’re trying to stop severe bleeding and get them to the hospital as quickly as possible,” she said. “In hospice, we know the end is near. My job is to help them come to terms with the end.”
When caring for veterans, she feels grateful for her experience in the military. “The military is more than a job,” she said, “it’s a way of life. I connect quickly with veterans because we’ve had similar experiences. They can reflect and reminisce with me in ways they can’t with a civilian,” she continued. “Helping them find peace at the end is very important to me. That’s what keeps me going.”
Josh Gehrels: U.S. Army
Compelled by the events of 9/11, Josh Gehrels joined the U.S. Army as an 18 Delta. “That’s Special Forces, Medical Sergeants,” he said. Josh and Samantha met roughly 12 years ago, when they were leading trauma medicine training in North Carolina. Before long, Josh was helping Samantha fence in her 8-acre horse property in the scorching summer sun. “That’s love right there,” Josh said via phone.
As the Gehrels prepare to celebrate their tenth anniversary, he was somewhere in Africa working as a contractor with the Department of Defense. “We take somebody who is having a very bad day,” he said, “and we try to make it better. We try to get them home to their families.” Josh said that he feels the need to get home to his family too, as the sacrifices — the missed birthdays, sporting events, and graduations — weigh heavily upon him. “A lot of people think we’re afraid of the loss of life or limb, but really, we’re scared of missing our families grow.”
When asked about the heroes in his life, Josh spoke quickly and sincerely. “Samantha is the reason our situation works,” he said. “When she’s not caring for people on their deathbeds, she’s caring for our three children. She’s a strong woman who was made stronger by her military service. It teaches you to be more selfless while rising to numerous and ever-changing challenges.”
Josh appreciates it when strangers thank him for his service, but he wishes there was more awareness about challenges common among veterans. “Many are suffering from mental illness, homelessness, substance abuse,” he said. “For some, it’s harder to go to work every day than it is to live in a combat zone.”
Brian Augustine: U.S. Army
Brian Augustine served in the U.S. Army from 1979 to 1981, when he was discharged. “I had a mental breakdown in Germany after my girlfriend left me,” Augustine said. “I had no American friends, I was so lonely. After that, they said I was ‘unable to adapt to military life.'”
Augustine works as a writer and vendor for the Denver Voice, an independent weekly whose mission is to address the “roots of homelessness by telling stories of people whose lives are impacted by poverty and homelessness….” He became homeless after a house he bought with his brother was repossessed. “My brother took out some loans I didn’t know about,” Augustine said, “and they took our house.”
Up until the pandemic, Augustine earned enough money through writing to rent a room on Capitol Hill, which was no small feat, considering he taught himself to read with a dictionary and a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” But as rent skyrocketed across the nation, Augustine’s savings were quickly depleted. “I can no longer afford that room,” he said.
As he turns 61 in July, he’s preparing to live on the streets again. While there are a number of programs set up to help the 40,000 veterans who face homelessness on any given night in the U.S., Augustine said it’s harder to find a home when contending with mental health challenges, “which affects our self-esteem,” he said. “The Bible says that we ought to love our neighbor as we love ourselves — but what happens if I don’t love myself?”
Augustine dreams of having a home of his own again. “A house,” he said, “with enough land to keep a bunch of dogs. To make them happy makes me happy.”
Leon Bartholomay: U.S. Marine Corps
Leon Bartholomay joined the 1st Marine Division, 11th Marines Regiment, an artillery battalion, in 1968. Before long, he was in Vietnam helping to defend his compound from what he called a mini Tet Offensive. “A group tried to overrun us,” Bartholomay said, “but they tried to run through two posts where machine guns had been set up. That didn’t work out too well.” The following morning, Bartholomay said, “we collected about 20 bodies.”
Today, Bartholomay is the coda master and adjutant of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2601 in Longmont. The VFW is a fraternal organization where veterans can connect with other veterans. “We help them get connected to the Veterans Affairs for medical care,” Bartholomay said, “We help them with their G.I. Bill. When they can’t get mental healthcare, we listen.”
Echoing Josh Gerhels’ concerns, Bartholomay said that 22 veterans die by suicide each day. “That has to stop,” he said. “The World War I veterans helped us. Now, they’re gone. As we go — most of us Vietnam veterans are in our 70s — the next generation will need to take our place.”
Jennifer Parenti: U.S. Air Force
As a young woman, Jennifer Parenti dreamed of becoming an astronaut. To achieve her dream, she needed a degree in engineering, and she’d need to attend flight school. She was accepted into the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs after graduating high school. “They provide you with four years of education and a stipend in exchange for four years of service,” Parenti said. She gave the U.S. Air Force 20 years of service before she retired.
Her dream to become an astronaut was dashed by a medical disqualification, so she became an engineer. Then she joined the International Airmen Program, the diplomatic arm of the Air Force. In that role, Parenti worked to foster collaboration between the U.S. Air Force and other like organizations around the world. “If we go to war,” she said, “we’re able to collaborate with air forces from other countries.” After working at the Pentagon and the U.S. Embassy in Paris, Parenti was hired by NATO to continue the same work.
Parenti returned to Colorado in 2019, where she’s running for a seat in the Colorado House of Representatives. “I’m running on a traditional progressive platform,” she said. “Housing affordability is an issue in the 19th District. Transportation instability is an issue. Environmental conservation is important to me.” All those issues are entwined, she said, and veterans are disproportionately affected. “Whether I’m elected or not,” she said, “I will keep fighting for our veterans.”
Lew Roman: U.S. Navy
Lew Roman said that his path to becoming Board President of the Broomfield Veterans Museum was not a heroic one. “A hero is someone who saves someone else’s life,” Roman said. “I didn’t save anybody. I just kept the shelves stocked.” Roman joined the U.S. Navy in November 1968, because he “didn’t want to get drafted by the Army and sent to Vietnam.” Instead, he was sent to storekeeper school in Rhode Island. “Then I was shipped off to Vietnam to run a store aboard a barge,” he said, laughing. “That’s poetic justice.”
After spending a year there, he returned to the States to earn a degree in accounting. He joined the U.S. Post Office as a clerk in 1986, retiring 20 years later. “Then, I got really bored,” he said. “I had to find something to do.” So, Roman joined the Broomfield Veterans Museum’s collections department and was put in charge of the display and exhibition committee. Today, as the president of the board, he sees his job as preserving the stories of heroes. “If we don’t preserve these stories, they’ll be lost,” he said.