What does it mean when we say, “Thank you for your service”?
For this episode of The Heroes, we spoke to military veterans. Lew Roman, executive chairman of the Broomfield Veterans Museum, defined a hero as someone who saves someone else’s life. A more nuanced definition would include doing everything possible to help others.
Like many heroes we’ve covered up to this point, they were all reluctant to call themselves heroes. In some cases it is modesty. For others, their reluctance may be fueled by disappointment at their experience on duty or when they returned home as civilians. Yet they were all quick to recognize the heroism shown by their colleagues in service to our country and in their daily 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, police officers, among others. So the military is possibly the most productive training ground for heroes.
Still, there is no such thing as a monolithic “veteran’s experience.” While many veterans lead successful lives after their service, they also face an increased risk of mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness. When these individuals fall through the cracks, their fellow veterans often step up to help. Their service doesn’t end when they trade their uniforms for street clothes.
Samantha Gehrels: US Army
Samantha Gehrels enlisted in the US Army after graduating from high school. She was trained in military intelligence before joining the National Security Agency, where her main job was intercepting and decoding signals. “We don’t just talk about emails and phone calls,” she said. “We received images of a billboard with encrypted information. This information revealed the position of enemy troops and was used to direct American troops away from dangerous locations. We used this information to save lives.”
Gehrels became a specialist in military trauma medicine before earning a master’s degree in nursing. Now she is a registered nurse specializing in palliative and hospice care. “On the ground, we’re trying to stop severe bleeding and get her to the hospital as soon as possible,” she said. “At the hospice we know the end is near. My job is to help them deal with the end.”
When she cares for veterans, she is grateful for her experience in the military. “The military is more than a job,” she said, “it’s a way of life. I quickly come into contact with veterans because we have had similar experiences. They can reflect and reminisce with me in a way they can’t with a civilian,” she continued. “It is very important to me to help them find peace in the end. That’s what drives me.”
Josh Gerhels: US Army
Forced by the events of September 11, Josh Gerhels enlisted as the 18 Delta. “These are Special Forces, Medical Sergeants,” he said. Josh and Samantha met about 12 years ago while teaching trauma medicine in North Carolina. It wasn’t long before Josh was helping Samantha fence off her 8-acre horse property in the scorching summer sun. “That’s love right there,” Josh said over the phone.
As the Gehrels prepare to celebrate their tenth anniversary, he was somewhere in Africa working as a contractor for the Department of Defense. “We take someone who’s having a very bad day,” he said, “and try to make it better. We try to get them home to their families.” Josh said he also feels the need to come home to his family as the sacrifices — missed birthdays, sporting events and graduations — weigh heavily on him. “A lot of people think we’re afraid of losing life or a limb, but in reality we’re afraid of missing out on our family’s growth.”
When asked about the heroes in his life, Josh answered quickly and honestly. “Samantha is the reason our situation works,” he said. “When she’s not taking care of the dying, she’s taking care of our three children. She is a strong woman who has become stronger through her military service. It teaches you to be more selfless while facing numerous and ever-changing challenges.”
Josh appreciates strangers thanking him for his service, but he would like more awareness of the challenges common among veterans. “Many suffer from mental illness, homelessness, substance abuse,” he said. “For some, going to work every day is harder than living in a combat zone.”
Brian Augustine: US Army
Brian Augustine was serving in the US Army from 1979 to 1981 when he was discharged. “I had a nervous breakdown in Germany after my girlfriend left me,” Augustine said. “I didn’t have any American friends, I was so lonely. Afterwards they said I was ‘unable to adjust to military life’.”
Augustine is a writer and sales associate for The Denver Voice, an independent weekly whose mission is to “tackle the roots of homelessness by telling stories of people whose lives are impacted by poverty and homelessness…”. He was left homeless after a house he bought with his brother was confiscated. “My brother took out some loans that I didn’t know about,” Augustine said, “and they took our house.”
Up until the pandemic, Augustine was making enough money writing to rent a room on Capitol Hill, which was no small feat considering he was reading himself with a dictionary and a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace has taught. But as rents skyrocketed across the country, Augustine’s savings were quickly depleted. “I can’t afford this room anymore,” he said.
As he turns 61 in July, he’s preparing to live on the streets again. While there are a number of programs put in place to help the 40,000 veterans who experience homelessness every night in the United States, Augustine said finding a home is harder when he’s struggling with mental health issues , “which affect our self-esteem,” he said. “The Bible says to love our neighbor as we love ourselves—but what happens if I don’t love myself?”
Augustine dreams of having her own home again. “A house,” he said, “with enough land to keep a couple of dogs. Making her happy makes me happy.”
Leon Bartholomay: US Marine Corps
Leon Bartholomay joined the 1st Marine Division, 11th Marines Regiment, an artillery battalion, in 1968. It wasn’t long before he was in Vietnam helping defend his compound from what he called a mini-tet offensive. “One group tried to overrun us,” Bartholomay said, “but they tried to run through two posts where machine guns were set up. That didn’t go so well.” The next morning, Bartholomay said, “We collected about 20 bodies.”
Today, Bartholomay is Coda Master and Adjutant at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2601 in Longmont. The VFW is a fraternal organization where veterans can network with other veterans. “We help them contact Veterans Affairs for medical care,” Bartholomay said, “we help them with their GI bill. If they can’t get mental health care, we listen.”
Bartholomay echoed Josh Gerhels’ concerns, saying that 22 veterans die by suicide every day. “This has to stop,” he said. “The veterans of the First World War helped us. Now they’re gone. As we go – most of us Vietnam veterans are in our 70s – the next generation will have to take our place.”
Jennifer Parenti: US Air Force
As a young woman, Jennifer Parenti dreamed of becoming an astronaut. To achieve her dream, she needed an engineering degree and she needed to attend a flight school. After graduating from high school, she was accepted into the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. “They offer you four years of training and a scholarship in exchange for four years of service,” Parenti said. She served the US Air Force for 20 years before retiring.
Her dream of becoming an astronaut was thwarted by a medical disqualification, so she became an engineer. She then joined the International Airmen Program, the Air Force’s diplomatic arm. In this role, Parenti worked to foster collaboration between the US Air Force and other similar organizations around the world. “If we go to war,” she said, “we can work with other countries’ air forces.” After working at the Pentagon and the US Embassy in Paris, Parenti was hired by NATO to continue the same work.
Parenti returned to Colorado in 2019, where she is running for a seat in the Colorado House of Representatives. “I run on a traditional progressive platform,” she said. “Affordable housing is an issue in the 19th district. Transport instability is a problem. Protecting the environment is important to me.” All of these issues are intertwined, she said, and veterans have been disproportionately affected. “Whether I’m elected or not,” she said, “I will continue to fight for our veterans.”
Lew Roman: US Navy
Lew Roman said his journey to becoming chairman 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 anyone. I was just stocking the shelves.” Roman enlisted in the US Navy in November 1968 because he “didn’t want to be drafted into 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 business on board a barge,” he said, laughing. “That is poetic justice.”
After spending a year there, he returned to the States to pursue an accounting degree. He joined the US Post Office as a clerk in 1986 and retired 20 years later. “Then I got really bored,” he says. “I had to find something to do.” So Roman joined the collections department at the Broomfield Veterans Museum and was put in charge of the displays and display committee. Today, as CEO, he sees his job as preserving heroic stories. “If we don’t preserve these stories, they will be lost.” he said.