This post is part of Breakthrough with Tony Robbins. A series featuring the empowering stories of individuals who have triumphed in the face of hardship and crisis.
After an early life of trial-and-error, I have come to a life of blessing in which I want to give back to persons who are hurting or alone, but who deserve blessings. It seems simple now, but I have not always seen how the Universe gives and desires us to share one with another -- to give back.
Two days during my fifth year stand out clearly in my mind. My dad's car arrives, carrying a boat almost as big as the car. Dad places me inside the boat, seating my younger brother, Ron, right behind me. I am teleported into a different world where pirate ships are defeated, and new lands discovered. On a Sunday later that fall, after church and lunch, we take a nap. Mom sleeps with my little brother, while I am sent to my parent's room. Hearing someone coming, I pretend to be sleeping. Dad walks past. Just as I sit up to talk with him ... he clutches his chest. I ask what is wrong. Silence. I shake his body. No movement. I bolt to get mom. She turns his lifeless body over, shouting my dad's name. As his body is carried out, mother sends Ron and me to grandma Toffel's house next door. Mom's demeanor changed. Perhaps like her, I loved dad for the boat, but regretted the life we got when he died.
At age 9, I am a starting pitcher in Little League. Each step poses a struggle as my mother, a widow, scrimps to keep us fed. Then, I lose my baseball mitt. At practice, I tell my coach, who approaches mother. Two hours and an ocean of tears later, she is not finished explaining her troubles. He finds me a left-handed mitt. As I get used to it, I take extra long on the pitcher's mound. I re-kick the dirt, trying to get my mother's voice out of my head. As I look at the hitter, I imagine his bat contains my mother's wails and humiliation. I fight to hold back hot angry tears and throw my first pitch. Strike one! I wipe the sweat on my face and realize that pain, humiliation, and adversity have become my motivation. That old, uncomfortable mitt gave me a way to increase my game: pitching strikes means I didn't need to bother with the mitt.
As an undergraduate, I was a walk-on member of the track team and ran by the same old rickety house. One day I knocked. An elderly man invited me in. The living room had no furniture, except canoe to catch water from a gaping hole in the roof. A WWI veteran, and a new widower, he wanted to move. Maybe because I grew up without a father, I decided to help him. I drew up a contract, found him an apartment, and helped him move there. Then I paid my fellow athletes to fix the place up. Hardly any skills. Yet in 7 weeks, it was completely remodeled and rented to a sorority. Six months afterward, I called the university folks to negotiate a potential sale; my bank account was restocked and school loans paid off. The man had been hounded by the university, he told me; I had approached him "on the right day and in the right way."
Shortly afterward, I was running a City Master Plan project my small firm had won even though I was under 30. This was another blessing -- the opportunity to design and implement a 20-acre parkette, fitness trail, and water feature. I got valuable experience, while the community got an exceptional development. For the first time in such a powerful way, my visualizations became the reality I saw.
My master's degree thesis offered a mathematical model to value real estate, focusing on how the energy permeating a building draws or repels tenants. I asserted a building evokes a feeling much like an oil painting or piece of music and translates into numbers. The committee could not envision this. At an impasse, I debated whether to appease the committee members. I maintained my stance and obtained my masters degree by the narrowest of margins. Here the reality I saw manifested; value is not just the cost of things.
The derision about granting my masters degree caught the attention of the architecture department. The dean invited me to become University of Illinois's first Ph.D. in architecture. Under my professor's tutelage, I designed a HVAC system to circulate air while exploiting natural air currents; this increased heating and cooling efficiency by nearly 68 percent. I worked in my own laboratory; a tuition waiver allowed me to take course sequences in four colleges. I also took ballroom dance classes as a way to meet girls, and this manifested in falling in love with a young violinist.
Unfortunately for graduate work, my business escalated. A prominent real estate developer died. I used to run by an all limestone mansion every day. According to any expert, it was not worth much. Yet, I loved its Gothic cathedral feeling. I phoned my banker to join me in attending the auction. Once there, I spotted all the big name players. So I visualized the building again, its grainy limestone on my hands. This present-experience (what I call the point of power) centered me. The bidding began, and I made my one bid. The banker and I stopped at our building on the way home to feel the limestone again.
My real estate business added staff, and I enjoyed giving back by helping them thrive. One night I was awaked at 3:00 a.m. One of the fifty or so employees, "Sharon" was crying. She needed money to bail out her son. I thought of my own mother -- a struggling single woman raising two boys -- and my heart melted. I comforted Sharon, paid the bail, and drove both of them home. Surely, I was tired, but warmed by a feeling of family.
I have also been able to give back to my community. For example, I was invited to be on the board of directors of the local symphony. Once seated, I discovered that this 125-year-old symphony was on the verge of bankruptcy. Three board women came to my office. Over tea, they asked me to take the position of president. I declined without much hesitation. That night, I felt a deep sadness toward all those who depended on the organization and toward the community. The musicians and the children in the surrounding community who were always invited to our annual free concerts. Some their only exposure to the classics performed live. After I accepted, I initiated fund-raising events and reached out for support. Within eight months, our first concert was sold out. Within 18 months, the company ran at a profit. To this day, this successful volunteer effort is one of my proudest achievements. And I owe it all to the women who visualized a great outcome in the organization and me. Sometimes, we are actors in the visions of others.
Five years ago, I decided to do camera interviews at each port on a sailing trip up the east to Manhattan and then back to Miami Fl. Many persons agreed, but then were unable to say much. I asked questions about their belief systems in religion, politics, and eating. Their practices came from their parents or their long-time associates or meaningful classes taken or media.
One of the inspirations for my book "The Point of Power" came from a chilling moment during these interviews. A family of 5 each member appeared obese walked into a McDonald's. After interviewing the parents, they were not aware that they were handing their bad eating habits over to their teenage children. The parents seemed to love these kids, but could not see that they were marching their children down the plank to super sizing their next meal. Life spans of children ages 9-14, according to the AMA, are getting shorter because of weight and the sharp rise in diabetes due to the diets imposed by us adults. It was in this moment that I felt an urge to cause a bigger ripple; by translating the wisdom I had learned to a larger audience through writing.
Most persons simply seem to swim along in the stream of life until they meet the falls. Had this become my life as well? That led to a decision. Those who know me would be surprised that in my thirties, without any disease or medical condition, I had outsourced the company I had founded. It was posting record profits, and yet I chose to close it down and embark on my semi-retirement. I want to devote my life to helping others explore and benefit from the Law of Attraction. I have also decided to give my attention to the things that feel good. With this elementary logic, I create the best life possible -- one of giving back.
This give-back attitude emerged from a series of transformative events in my life and the lessons that I was able to learn from them. Lacking a father led to a desperate home life, of course. The embarrassment of losing a baseball mitt led to focusing on pitching more strikes (because then the pitcher doesn't need a mitt). Furthermore, these experiences led me to be able to make connections with others in their losses (such as the elderly man).
Notice, I was not so much determined to somehow, at sometime in the future have wealth. It was to see the wealth in the bleak situation or see triumph in the bidding situation when it could have easily ended in failure (like losing the bid on the Grey Stone building). This led to my three-point insight:
Writing this has been my greatest joy because I truly believe that the Universe intends good for us. With such wealth in the present moment, how can we not share with others?
To read more about Peter's story and his inspiring philosophy, check out his book, "The Point of Power", available now on Amazon. He is also the author of "It's None of My Business What You Think of Me!: If You Want to Change Your Life ... Change the Way You Are Looking at It". His website is peterbaksa.com.
This post is part of Breakthrough with Tony Robbins. A series featuring the empowering stories of individuals who have triumphed in the face of hardship and crisis.
My grandmother Billye, raised me to understand that "success is not a destination, it's a direction -- and that direction is forward." In 1981, my life was jolting forward via my success as a champion debater and former special education student.
Then it all changed with one sentence: "Your father's been murdered."
Even though I only spent one week every summer with him, I loved and admired him. He was a swashbuckling gadabout that saw the world, wrote for television shows and sent me postcards from exotic places -- far away from rural New Mexico where Billye and I lived on a farm. He was brutally murdered only a week before we would finally spend time together, sharing an apartment in Los Angeles while I attended Loyola Marymount University on a full scholarship.
When I got that news, everything I believed in was shattered -- especially my faith in God and my confidence as a person. I stopped being a winner and instantly became a victim. I slumbered my way through college, discovered drugs and rock and roll, and started to live the user-life of a person pursuing passion instead of purpose. Thirteen or so years drifted by as I blew opportunity after opportunity, disappointing Billye as well as my wife, Jacqueline.
Every day, brushing my teeth and connecting with myself in the mirror, I knew I was blowing it. I had chosen resentment and hate instead of forgiveness and understanding and I was paying the price. So was my wife and son.
I still loved Billye, I just didn't believe her teaching anymore, even though they had rescued me from the short bus and delivered me as a champion debater and senior class president. When dad got killed, everything changed, and I believed that I had been successful as a fluke, and that faith had no value in my life. One day in 1996, while driving home to Clovis NM from the Lubbock airport, I stopped to take a picture of the water tower in Sudan TX where Billye took possession of me for good. It wasn't the best time for her to adopt a little boy, but she loved me and wanted me to have a proper home. That picture changed my life -- it was a visualization of the second chance that we all get in life, whether we are five years old or thirty five.
Sitting in bed one night, it snapped in my psyche: You have a second chance in life, but the trick is to seize it, move on from your pain and point the car forward again. I decided that night that my wife and son deserved a champion, not a bitter man that couldn't let go of a random murder in San Francisco that involved my father. I decided at that moment to reacquaint myself with Billye's teachings -- based on the masters of motivation (Peale, Carnegie, Bristol and Maltz). I started to invest in my mind diet, practice gratitude and take control of my self-image. Through this practice, in less than one year, I was the same guy that rose to the top of the pile as an eighteen year old. Just in time for the opportunity of a lifetime: The internet.
In 1997, I interviewed for a job at Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner's AudioNet (which would later become broadcast.com). I started out as a sales rep, but through a series of personal victories rose to business development manager just as the world wide web took off. I leveraged what Billye taught me: Generosity is a wonder drug and positive thinking is rocket fuel. It helped me make vital connections and propel my career. After Yahoo! bought our company, I was offered a job running the think tank (ValueLab) and moved the family to Nothern California.
Staying in close touch with Billye and her 'masters of motivation,' I soared at the company, fueled by her plan for confident living. I gave my way to the top and in 2001 was awarded the role of Chief Solutions Officer at Yahoo! and a year later published the New York Times best seller Love Is The Killer App. When I look back on it now, I realized that my breakthrough was based on three simple steps:
If you are moving sideways in life, you can turn it around too, and point yourself back forward. But you'll have to open your eyes, open your heart and go to the only place of recovery available to you. Home.
Tim Sanders is the award-winning author of 'Today We Are Rich: Harnessing the Power of Total Confidence'. You can learn more at TimSanders.com.
What do you do when your husband disappears from your bed one night, leaves you with $6 million in debt, and turns out to be a total fraud? If you're Michelle Kramer, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get a Ph.D. in psychology -- so that you can diagnose your missing husband as a major narcissist.
Michelle was a 29-year-old psychology student based in Chicago when her husband, a wealthy sinus surgeon named Mark Weinberger, vanished during a family vacation in Greece -- on purpose. He knew something that Michelle didn't. He was about to get busted for alleged healthcare fraud and medical malpractice of the worst kind: performing unnecessary surgeries on patients at a clinic he ran in northern Indiana. Michelle's search for him turned up shredded documents, survivalist gear and a mountain of debt.
Five years later, in December of 2009, Weinberger was found -- hiding in a tent atop the highest mountain in the European alps. He'd been living on and off in the tent and in a nearby Italian town, with an apparent plan of writing a survivalist handbook. In the meantime, more than 300 malpractice suits had been filed against him in the States.
Today, Weinberger is back in America, and this week, a judge in Indiana ordered him to pay $13 million in one of those many malpractice suits. Separately, he has pleaded guilty to 22 counts of healthcare fraud and is awaiting a judge's sentencing, due later this month.
Michelle, meanwhile, has refused to be defined by her husband's mind-boggling betrayal. Last spring, she completed her Ph.D. in psychology in Chicago. This spring, she is working on a postdoctoral fellowship in Baltimore. I had the pleasure of meeting Michelle and learning the details of her personal journey. She credits her down-to-earth, blue-collar parents for keeping her grounded, even when she and her husband were flying around the world in private jets or hanging out on their yacht in Europe. "I never lost myself, even when I had all that stuff," she explains. "I just didn't lose who I was."
You can read her full story in Marie Claire this month.
Abigail Pesta is an award-winning journalist who has lived and worked around the world. Currently she is the editor-at-large of Marie Claire magazine in New York. In Hong Kong, she was a news and features editor for The Wall Street Journal. In London, she ran an editing desk for Dow Jones Newswires. She has also worked at Glamour, where she launched Mariane Pearl's popular column about women who change the world. Abby writes short stories for her website, Fine Words Butter No Parsnips.
Today many of us are dealing with devastating losses in our lives, from natural disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan to losing our homes, jobs and relationships. After the initial shock of any type of trauma, there are, of course, the various stages of grief that everyone goes through, including denial, rationalization, anger and acceptance. For those who are on this journey, it is important to have faith in yourself and the inner compass that guides you. If you do this, you'll understand that opportunities for growth and happiness lie in the most unexpected places, ready to be seized if you're open to recognizing and embracing them. I don't believe we ever get over a significant loss, but we do learn to move through it, live with it, and perhaps even use it creatively to find our life's purpose and harvest its lessons.
Mark and Selena, a couple I treated a few years ago, are a remarkable example of how you man deal with a devastating loss and transform your life. They came to me shortly after their two young children had been killed in a car crash when they were with their teenage babysitter, who somehow survived. Mark and Selena were overwhelmed with guilt, anger, and feelings of loss. They could barely function and couldn't begin to imagine how they could go on without their children, or why they would want to. I discussed various treatment options, and we agreed upon a method outlined in my book, "Wise Mind, Open Mind," that combines a mindfulness practice with positive psychology and creative thinking to help one let go of the past, tune in to the present, find his or her core creativity and finally move forward with the future. While we were working with the tuning in stage, I was concerned that due to the depth of their sadness, it could take several years before they would be ready to move out of their grief and begin to envision a new life.
I decided to meditate on their situation, and what came to me was the visual image of the subcontinent of India. "That's curious," I thought, but decided to sit with it, and soon, as if a voice had spoken to me, I had an inner knowing that I needed to suggest to Mark and Selena, who had conveyed an openness to the idea of traveling, to take some time off from their jobs and travel to the city of Varanasi in India. Varanasi is known as a holy place where the dying go to prepare for death and where bodies are prepared for the traditional cremation and return to the sacred Ganges River.
My logical, rational mind said, "Ron, that's crazy. Why would you send two grieving and suffering parents who have no spiritual connection to India, and who are Lutherans from the Midwest, to Varanasi, where they know no one and would see death and suffering all around them?"
I discussed it with several of my colleagues, who agreed it was a terrible idea, but every morning when I meditated and connected to my intuition, it kept telling me the same thing. Finally, one of my old teachers and mentors, Ram Dass, told me, "I think you may be on to something. They need to immerse themselves in their grief instead of denying it. Where better to do that than India?" When I mentioned it to Mark and Selena, they weren't sure how they would benefit from a trip to Varanasi, but they meditated on it and told me that taking the trip felt "right" to them.
In India, Mark and Selena connected with their grief as they observed the dead and dying, but at the same time, they started to feel a sense of connection to other people and to a world in which suffering is inevitable. While there, they spent time working with a committed humanitarian in her facility for the poor. She did not try to explain to Mark and Selena how they might handle their loss but instead invited them to join her in her everyday work of attending to the sick and dying.
When they returned to the States, Mark and Selena told me that they had finally begun to heal. The deep compassion that had been awakened in them had eased their grief, and they felt that they'd transformed from suffering parents who had lost their children to people who reached out to other suffering parents. They said they no longer felt quite so alone.
Over the next few months, Mark and Selena continued their mindfulness meditation practice and began to move forward with their lives. Selena, who loved music, returned to school to earn a master's degree and began working with children as a music therapist. Mark went back to his work as an electrician, but he now approached it in a very different way. When he consulted with clients, he suggested bold changes that they hadn't considered and had more patience and compassion with them. In time, Mark and Selena adopted two special-needs children and had another child of their own. They continued to talk about their children who died and kept photographs of them in their home, but they were able to creatively transform their tragedy into a new life with meaning and purpose.
For those of us who are unable to take such radical steps, here are six strategies from my book, "Wise Mind, Open Mind," to help you mindfully recover from a loss:
Many of us admire people like Al Gore, who found his road to the White House suddenly blocked and chose to focus on educating people about global warming, and Christopher Reeve, who left acting behind after becoming a quadriplegic and went on to become a film director and advocate for those suffering from spinal cord injuries because they were able to let go of the past and transform their lives. You, too, have the ability to tap into your inner courage, move forward with your life and even reinvent yourself.
Several weeks ago my new book, "Parentless Parents," was published. This is the third book I've written that deals with mourning and loss. And while you might assume I'd be the last person you'd want to meet at a cocktail party, I've been told otherwise. I smile; I laugh. You might even call me "bubbly."
Each book I've written is the result of successfully pushing through an unwanted and unanticipated experience, and using that experience for something more powerful than anger and self-pity. Writing about death and grief has been healing for me.
I wrote my first book, "Covering Catastrophe," after nearly dying on 9/11. I was a producer at WNBC-TV in New York at the time, and when the second tower collapsed I thought I was going to be buried alive. The dust cloud knocked me off my feet, and emergency crews dragged me off the street so I wouldn't be crushed by falling debris. I was taken by ambulance to the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital. Doctors cut off my clothes to examine my skin, and shoved tubes down my throat so I could breathe.
Physically, I was fine. Emotionally, though, I was in trouble. I had panic attacks for days, and many journalists I'd later speak with were also having traumatic flashbacks. Because of what we experienced, three other radio and television journalists and I decided to write a book documenting what it was like to be a broadcaster that day, both personally and professionally. Creating this book was cathartic for all of us, and what happened after publication was even better. "Covering Catastrophe" was turned into a documentary by the U.S. State Department, has been recognized by the National September 11 Memorial and Museum and every penny earned has been donated to 9/11 charities. Giving back is the best emotional Band-Aid I know.
Three days after September 11, my father died of cancer. I was 31 years old. Almost immediately (and because my mother had died several years earlier) I felt compelled to write about my parents' deaths. "Always Too Soon" was hard to write because for the five years it took to complete, my parents' deaths were always with me. I had to deal with how much I missed them with every period and comma I typed. What kept me going was the anticipation of helping others cope with the same pain. My muse was an imaginary group of readers who needed comfort and validation.
And readers responded. Men and women emailed me wanting to talk about being an adult orphan. Many of these emails specifically addressed the challenges of being a parent without parents. To manage the influx of emails, I began sorting them by state and city, and then, when I had two or three from any one area, I started playing matchmaker. It was in putting these strangers together that Parentless Parents, the organization, was formed. It was also how I knew that "Parentless Parents," the book, needed to be written.
In "Parentless Parents," I write not only about how the loss of my parents affects me, but also the myriad ways their absence affects my children, who don't have my mother and father as grandparents. Since the book came out, it's been warmly embraced. Parentless Parents support groups are taking shape all over the country. The Parentless Parents Group Page on Facebook continues to grow. And then there are the new emails I've been receiving from readers, like this one from a mother of two young children: "You tapped right into my life, my heart and my soul. It is comforting to know that at least one other person in the world has gone through similar tragedies and has some understanding of what I deal with on a daily basis."
In truth, I'm happy in the face of what I write because I have an outlet for all my feelings. Conducting interviews, leading focus groups, creating the Parentless Parents Survey (the first of its kind) and writing -- all of it has brought me incredible peace. My upbeat attitude has been shaped by creating a new and different conversation about loss, and the symbiotic relationship I have with my readers. Ultimately, the most important lesson I've learned from writing is that I'm not alone.
I would never walk again.
Though everyone told me to be positive, the cold facts were painful. The news from my doctor was a harsh reality that tore me up inside, leaving me hollow, my mind spinning and my eyes seeing nothing but a vacant future.
Inspired to serve my nation by the tragedy of the September 11 attacks, I proudly served with the United States Marine Corps, returning from my overseas tour healthy and able bodied. With my fiancée Shenette, a Corps gunnery sergeant, my future in 2005 seemed bright -- that is, until the dark day I suffered a severe spinal cord injury that took away my legs and left me learning to live again.
For most people, the road to recovery starts when they enter a rehabilitation hospital. For me, my recovery process started in March 2007, when I left my final rehabilitation hospital and joined a team called World T.E.A.M. Sports. That's when I accepted the challenge of riding the Face of America Ride -- my very first ride -- a ride that changed my life!
Competitive by nature, the idea of riding 110 miles from Gettysburg to our nation's capitol using a handcycle appealed to me. It was a challenge I needed to undertake. I'd always been athletic, having participated in sports in school. But a handcycle was something different -- a challenge that encouraged me to excel.
So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then when we summon the will, they become inevitable. With support from my family, I began to train and learn how to channel my energy into my arms and hands.
Completing the April 2007 Face of America, I joined Team Semper Fi, a sports program funded by the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund. The Team was founded by other wounded Marines and sailors who refused to let their challenges prevent them from competing in athletics. Together, their athletic drive and unwavering spirit on their road to recovery is an inspiration to all they meet.
With Team Semper Fi, I participated in several events nationally, including a marathon in Virginia Beach, triathlons in San Francisco and Washington, and became active in wheelchair basketball, competing in conference tournaments and championships.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, I enjoyed snow and ice, so skiing appealed to me. I began participating in biathlon and cross-country skiing in mid-season 2010, and was surprised I could compete at the highest level. It's not that sit skiing is easy, but its difficultly encouraged my competitive nature. I find it to be one of the hardest sports I have ever done, both able-bodied as well as adaptive.
I went to two World Cup events trying to make the Paralympic Team to compete in the Vancouver Paralympic Games. Despite my best efforts, I missed making the team by a very slim margin. To my surprise, the US Olympic/Paralympic Committee, along with US Biathlon, invited me come to Vancouver as part of an Ambassador/Alternate program. Their intent was to get me addicted to Biathlon. It worked. I decided to take Biathlon very serious and train hard. With summer arriving, I accepted an invitation to participate in World T.E.A.M. Sports' 2010 Sea to Shining Sea Cross-Country Ride and use it as my cardio base. During the 3,800 mile ride from San Francisco to Virginia Beach, I rode about 1,000 miles on my Sit-Ski, and that made a difference.
After the ride, I continued to train. It's hard to gauge how well you are doing until you compete, so after a few races, I saw how my training paid off. In the January national championships in Maine, I came in third. Plus, I am top-ranked in my division. At the next Paralympics in Sochi, Russia in 2014, I'm convinced our American team will be a threat to the Russians on their home turf. Looking back to the harsh reality of five years ago knowing I would never walk again, I am extremely humble and grateful the Lord put World T.E.A.M. Sports in my life to give me challenges that would alter my quality of life in the most positive way. Others should be inspired to participate in this April's Face of America Ride with disabled and non-disabled participants, including Marines, soldiers and sailors beginning their own road to recovery. If you're not a rider, sponsor a competing athlete or donate your used cell phones and other equipment to support the ride. As World T.E.A.M. Sports says, the exceptional athlete matters, and you can be exceptional.
World T.E.A.M. Sports is coordinating the Face of America Ride April 15-17, from Washington DC to Gettysburg. This inclusive 110-mile non-competitive bicycle ride includes disabled and non-disabled military active duty and veterans, along with the general public. For more information, visit the Face of America website. World T.E.A.M. Sports is teaming up with the nonprofit UpCycle4Hope to support the 2011 Face of America ride with UpCycle4Hope. This nonprofit is collecting used electronics devices including unused cell phones, video games, digital cameras, notebook computers and other devices for upcycling. Contact UpCycle4Hope by telephone at 941-225-8372 or explore online for further information regarding this innovative program that turns unwanted and obsolete devices into funding for World T.E.A.M. Sports and its many programs.
According to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), 99 percent of Americans have seen some form of combat on television, yet only 1 percent have seen it in Iraq or Afghanistan.
For most of us, we may be touched by the stories we see on TV, or outraged by the violence that goes on overseas. But for those who haven't been in combat, it's impossible to truly know what it's like to be in a war -- or even more difficult, in some cases -- coming home from battle.
Troops face a job market in which civilian employers rarely understand or appreciate military skills and experience. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are already turning up on the streets much faster than other generations of veterans, often within 18 months of coming home, according to IAVA. And over time, the signature wounds of current conflicts -- psychological wounds and traumatic brain injuries -- may contribute to higher rates of homelessness.
Executive Director and Founder of IAVA Paul Reickhoff and Director of Government Affairs for IAVA Todd Bowers spoke to the Huffington Post about their own experiences reintegrating into civilian life -- and shared the insights they've gained listening to the stories of so many others as advocates for young veterans.
"I was amazed by how many people asked me how many people I killed," says Bowers. "That's not how I look at it at all. It's about the people I save."
Reickhoff mentioned that he appreciates being told "thank you for your service," but would love people to take it a step further: "When you see a soldier in uniform ask them where they're going. Engage with them."
We compiled the stories of veterans, military nurses and caretakers who took the time to share their personal experiences. Here's what they had to say.
Abrigal Forrester served 10 years without parole for his first offense, a drug charge. He was inside from age 21 to 31. He had a daughter, was married and divorced, and paid child support during that time. When he got out, he immediately got a job as a janitor at MIT, and ultimately became Program Coordinator for Street Safe Boston, an organization working to reduce violence in the most dangerous areas of the city. He works from the Roxbury Boys' and Girls' Club.
TOM: So tell me a little bit about what happened.
ABRIGAL: It was from 1991 to 2001 that I was in state prison. Long story short, I ended up getting a 10-year mandatory sentence for drug charges. I went from Walpole to Concord to Shirley. If I'd gone to the federal system, it would have been three years, eight months. But I wouldn't become a government informant. And the state already had implemented mandatory sentences, and January '91 was when they implemented that whole no-statutory good-behavior time rule.
TOM: How old were you were when you got there?
ABRIGAL: I was going on 21.
TOM: Jesus. So you got out when you were 31?
ABRIGAL: Yeah. I got out when I was 31, yeah. For me, personally, the whole process of being incarcerated helped me -- not because of the incarceration, but because of my own drive to make changes in my life and to grow and develop. Over that time period, I pretty much committed myself to change.
TOM: Did you find help inside?
ABRIGAL: I found help from older men who were willing to get engaged and question your thinking. But you have to seek that out. The system itself didn't provide anything. It's really about whether or not you want to change.
Around year six, I did some college courses and stuff. But then I went to a minimum institution, which meant that I had to sacrifice the education track I was on. I went because I didn't want my family to have to keep going through that whole shakedown when they came in.
When I came home in 2001, I swent to Roxbury Community College, started working, got a job at MIT -- my first job. I was making $16.21 an hour, because I did some networking on the inside with a family friend who told me what I would need to learn in order to become a maintenance person, or what they called a maintenance technician, which is really just a janitor, but (laughs) that's a good title for it.
I always stayed ahead of my job. My thing was, get the skill set so that I can transfer the skill set outside to this other job that I'm trying to prepare myself for. And it worked. The superintendent offered to write me a recommendation letter.
I went to MIT, I interviewed, they hired me. My first nine months home, I was working from 11 p.m. to 7 in the morning, going home for two hours, going to school from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., picking my daughter up from school, sleeping from 5 p.m. to, like, 10 -- and doing that for nine months. Just to get myself acclimated.
And then, in the ninth month home, September, I got an offer for a job at this organization called Strive. They were more of a social service, a nonprofit, community-based organization trying to work with people and get them jobs, train them for jobs.
I ended up taking that job, then graduated with my associate's degree from RCC. I then matriculated over to UMass Boston for undergrad in psychology, and I got that degree in 2008. Then I continued on the professional track, worked for Strive for five and a half years, did some stuff with them, and helped them build out an ex-offender training program that I supported in developing and facilitating.
The sheriff of the county jail here, Sheriff Cabral, wanted to bring the job-training component to the House of Corrections, so I helped build that. I did the training in the House of Corrections for two and a half years, then moved on to the Urban League to manage their employment resource center, which is just right across the street. And now I'm at StreetSafe Boston.
TOM: What does StreetSafe Boston do?
ABRIGAL: StreetSafe Boston is a violence-intervention program. The goal of StreetSafe is to work with five primary neighborhoods that have been identified through a Harvard research study as having the most violence in the metro Boston area.
The goal is to target those neighborhoods, target those individuals based on intelligence information. To try to intervene in violence, try to help support and extract those individuals, and then provide them with support for their basic needs, whether that be education, employment, mental-health services, housing, recreation, or health services.
TOM: And so you have one daughter?
ABRIGAL: Yes. I have a daughter, and I have a son. My daughter is 19, and my son is 5. My daughter was born six months before I was incarcerated.
TOM: And what's the situation with the mom now?
ABRIGAL: We get along well. I paid child support to my daughter when I was incarcerated, because I tried to be as responsible as possible. There were jobs you could get that paid you $50 a week, which were like the highest-paying jobs in the institution. I was fortunate enough to work my way to those jobs.
So at every end of the month, I would send her at least $125.
TOM: Wow, that's crazy. That's great. So your daughter is all grown up now.
ABRIGAL: She's all grown up now. It's an interesting place to be. (Laughs.) I was on the phone with her this morning for about two hours. She's just starting college, Palm Beach State. But she's living in Lauderhills. And there's a transportation issue. She's struggling with getting a vehicle, all this stuff. Hopefully, once I get past this house situation, I'm going to try to drive my car down there and give her that.
TOM: What was your childhood like? Where did you grow up?
ABRIGAL: I grew up in Dorchester, on Regina Road, between Codman Square and Four Corners, which were two high-profile neighborhoods for crime and violence back in the '80s.
TOM: Were your parents around?
ABRIGAL: My mom. My father was around -- diabolically enough, he lived right up the street but had a whole different family.
ABRIGAL: Yeah. I'd say I was, like, five blocks away. It was pretty much me and my mom. My sisters were much older than me. By the time I was nine or 10, they were pretty much out of the house, which created a somewhat vulnerable situation for me as a young boy growing up in a very socially threatening neighborhood. I was very astute in academics from age one, grade one to five. But then, middle school was different. I went to one of the toughest middle schools in the city, which was Woodrow Wilson. And that's when a lot of changes started to take place for me.
TOM: There are 10 questions we ask everybody. First, who do you think taught you about manhood?
ABRIGAL: My understanding of manhood only began to develop when I went to prison, to be honest. Prior to that, I was in what we would call the state of just being a male -- still living life by my desires, what I missed and what I didn't have as a kid. You see a lot of grown men who have their priorities confused. They live at home with mom but they got a $30,000 car outside. I don't consider that to be manhood.
You know, when I went to prison and met men who were doing long sentences, for some reason these were the men that I associated with. These were men that I could have conversations with. They would question my thinking. And so it was really then, I believe, that manhood became a serious question for me.
TOM: How has romantic love shaped you as a man?
ABRIGAL: Oh, man. Romantic love. You know, I don't know if I could say romantic love has shaped me as a man, as much as getting to a place where, as a man, monogamy has begun to shape me. Being at a place where being with one person and fighting yourself and desires and all that good stuff to try to stay and be with that one person. Because when you're monogamous, it's not always about running. It's not always about leaving quickly.
I was married to my daughter's mother once -- while I was incarcerated. We got married when I was incarcerated and divorced while I was incarcerated.
There was the sense of her being romantically in love with me, and us thinking we could still build a future, and then me trying to convince her even before we got married, "You need to move on." But she was like, "No, I want to be with you." And we got married. And then three years later, she realized, "I can't do this whole 10 [years], you know?" She needed romance, and she needed to move on. And me in a position where I could not even fight for the love that I have for her.
It was like sitting at a place with your hands tied, your feet tied, your voice tied, no speech, paralyzed, watching someone that you love just walk away. You know you love them, you know they love you, but you can't do anything.
ABRIGAL: So that was my first experience, and then I came home, got married to my son's mother, and that didn't work out. You know, that was a tough assignment. And what I understood was that I didn't know myself and I didn't give myself time to understand myself. I think that the more you know yourself, you understand -- you begin to understand the kind of relationships you need to get in.
When I met my son's mother, she was very new to relationships, monogamous relationships, pretty much a virgin. And me, I had experience. But sometimes, an experienced person with a non-experienced person, it's overwhelming. It doesn't become just a thing about romance or love and growth. It becomes almost like puppy love, and if you're at a place where you're past that phase in your life, you're now wanting room, and they want to cuddle, right? Or they want all your time.
And so, there can be a frustration in that kind of relationship. When I look back, I think that was the biggest challenge, was that my experience and her limited experience, it clashed.
And now I'm married again. (Laughs)
TOM: What two words describe your dad?
ABRIGAL: My dad? I don't know if I want to say stern -- I would say rigid when it comes to what he thinks is right. But he still has his own way of going about his life. It's hard for me to label it. My father was very interesting, because he wanted to be on deck in a certain kind of way, but at the same time, he abandoned many of the responsibilities.
TOM: How are you most unlike your dad?
ABRIGAL: I think my commitment to responsibility, regardless of the turmoil or tribulations. My father's the type that if he wasn't getting along with someone, like my mom, then he was M.I.A. I'm not that type. Compared to my father, it's my stick-to-it-iveness.
TOM: From what mistake did you learn the most?
ABRIGAL: Criminal life, you know? Making bad choices, going to prison. Having people tell you this is the pathway to your dream, your hope, your desire, and not researching enough. Or not being able to look at the reality of it. So now, I do more research. I look into things a bit more before I make a final decision, because other people can make a lot of things look really good.
TOM: How would the women in your life describe you, and is it true?
ABRIGAL: Ah, they'd probably describe me as stubborn. I stand firm on certain things. But not because I think I'm right. I stand firm because I do the research.
TOM: Who's the best father you know, and why do you think so?
ABRIGAL: A gentleman named Stanley Green. He's faced some of the same challenges as I have, and I've watched how he's fought hard to raise his son. His son is an athletic star. He has the ability, even through a rocky relationship with his son's mother, to stick and stay and fight it through. He has really been on deck. I think being a good parent is just being on deck, you know? That is what parenting is all about.
TOM: This isn't on my list, but why do you think so many fathers either aren't physically there, or aren't mentally there?
ABRIGAL: You know, it's work.
TOM: Tell me about it, dude.
ABRIGAL: Yeah, it really is. And it's a different kind of work, because the work is so encompassing. It changes all the time, it's not one-dimensional. Like, you go to your job, that work is one-dimensional. You get into a bottom line, you're just working. But a husband and a father -- today your work might be emotional. Tomorrow, your work might be getting up at 2 in the morning and going to the store. The next day, it might be that you're being attacked financially.
It changes, it evolves, day to day. And if you're not stable, if you don't have a support system, you'll run, because of your own insecurities in that work. Because there are times where you may not have the answer.
TOM: That's why we're starting with this conversation about manhood among men, because what the hell, we can't figure it out ourselves.
ABRIGAL: Yeah. How can you teach what you don't know? In my younger years, no one talked to me about manhood. When you really start to understand manhood, you see that when you go into a situation, you need to ask yourself what is it that you're doing.
TOM: So what advice would you give teenage boys now, about manhood?
ABRIGAL: A 16-year-old has to understand what responsibility means at 16. It's different from what it means at ... For instance, my son is five. My responsibility is to teach him: You need to pick up your toys and put them away. You need to put things in the trash. When you finish, you don't throw it on the ground. If we're riding in the car, you don't throw trash out the window. Those are responsibilities right there, but then he'll get that. And then he'll become 10 and his responsibilities will shift, and it will increase over time.
Manhood is something that is developed. It's about understanding what it means to be responsible in different phases of your development. That's how you become a man.
TOM: When was the last time you cried?
ABRIGAL: About two weeks ago, in my therapy session.
TOM: What was it about?
ABRIGAL: We were reflecting on some of my experiences when I was incarcerated. I was talking about my relationship with my daughter's mother, and losing that relationship that I had, and it brought tears to my eyes. And then I was starting to understand a little bit more about love. I was taught to shut down that love thing. You know, like, "Don't love no one." That's how I was taught in my neighborhood. Like, "You love a chick, you going to be a mess, man." When I finally got to a place where I started to understand what love felt like, I got incarcerated. So I never even got to express that love.
TOM: Last question. What's your favorite man ritual, guy ritual?
ABRIGAL: Favorite guy ritual? Hmm, I love sports, man. I'm a sports fanatic. That's my thing.
Many people look at me and simply see a man with no arms and legs. They pity me, failing to see my happiness beyond my circumstances--failing to see that I live a zealous life, characterized by a deep joy that is unhindered by my circumstances. Although I appear "incomplete" on the outside, I am whole on the inside. Sadly, there are so many people with arms and legs who are whole on the outside but are broken on the inside. Their lives are characterized by unhappiness, dissatisfaction and un-fulfillment. My mission in life is to resurrect strength in these individuals, inspire them to fulfill their potential and motivate them to live life without limits!
Having been born without limbs (and with no medical explanation), I traveled a long road of unanswered questions. I traveled this road for so long that I eventually fell into a deep depression, telling myself that I could only survive as a burden to those around me. I felt like an inconvenience to my parents and a nobody at school. Although I was able to experience the groundbreaking opportunity of being the first "disabled" student to be integrated into Australian mainstream classrooms, I hated my life. Kids were kids, and I was ridiculed and humiliated. Teasing and rejection became the daily norm for me.
Although I had many friends, my life consisted of so much daily bullying that I believed my life had two purposes: to be teased and to be a burden to others. My parents loved me and did their very best to raise me and my two younger "normal" siblings in love, support and encouragement. They helped me believe that there was a future and a hope for my life. They believed in God, but it was a god that I could not understand at the time. How could I have a future for my life when I could not see one? At age eight, my desperation lead me to tell my mom that I wanted to kill myself. At age 10, I tried.
Finally having had enough of life, I went to the bathtub and rolled over. Once ... twice ... three times. The third time, I could not do it. I could not stomach the visual of my parents and siblings crying at my grave, asking "why?" and blaming themselves. Can you imagine if I didn't stick around in this life? I had no idea that I would complete a double degree in Accounting and Financial Planning, or that I could type 43 words a minute, or by age 27 I'd be a world-traveler, meeting Presidents and speaking to crowds as large as 110,000 people. I had no idea that I would found two organizations, give to the needy and address four internationally-based congresses. Who could have imagined that a man without arms or legs would be the hands and feet of love, hugging teenagers around the world, telling them that they are loved, making them believe that there is hope and a future for their lives? I love helping people see that their value is not determined by their religion, looks, wealth or job. I love helping them embrace a genuine satisfaction in living, a peace in belonging, and an inspiration to believe that a rich man can be poor, and a poor man can be rich. Each of us can live a life of fulfillment despite our circumstances.
We have a daily choice: we can choose to be angry about what we do not have, or we can choose to be thankful for what we do have. Being angry is counterproductive and fear and pain can be destructive. I believe it is far worse to be in a broken home than to have no limbs. I never try to pretend that I understand your pain, but I am here to tell you that there is hope, whether you see it or not. Just because you cannot see purpose in your life does not mean there is none. You are here for a reason. Find it. Seek it. Live it. If my life's journey can inspire you to live life to the fullest, never give up, dream big and believe in your potential, I am fulfilled. Why? Because I have come to understand that even when the clouds in my personal storm do not part, I can still carry someone else through their storm. If I do not get a miracle, I can still be a miracle for someone else.
Today, I challenge you. If this was your last day to live, who would you call? Who would you thank? What would you say you have taken for granted? Do your best. Set goals. That is success. What can you do today to be a better person? To be the kind of person you want to become? To be all that you can be?
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