A little over a year ago, I lost everything that I owned in a fire. I was homeless, and forced to live in a hotel. For the average person, losing everything in a fire would be devastating enough. However, when one battles PTSD as I do, those flames were even hotter. They burned even brighter.
I overcame war. I survived firefights and ambushes in the mountains of Afghanistan, and yet, I felt like my life was over. Again. I really had nowhere to go, nor anyplace to turn. But, my battle was not over.
In the midst of this incredibly difficult time, two groups of folks stepped up to the plate to help me: my fellow veterans with the Wounded Warrior Project, and my family with Team #NoKidHungry.
While confiding in a dear friend of mine, with whom I attended culinary school, he told me of the booming economy in Houston, Texas. He said, "Roman, if you could somehow make it to Texas, you'll find work in no time, at all. It would be a great place to get back on your feet!" However, there was a problem: I had no money, no car and no home. I had clothing, because my precious friend Angie took me shopping. But, that was it.
As soon as the Wounded Warrior Project heard about my hardships, they immediately sprang into action. They provided me with the basics, including clothing. However, the single-most important part of their assistance came in the form of airfare. As soon as WWP staff heard that there was work for me out in Texas, they paid for my entire month's stay at the hotel, and purchased a one-way plane ticket to Texas. I suddenly had a way out.
During this time, my fellow members of Team #NoKidHungry, sent gift cards to me. These funds, coupled with the airfare from WWP, provided me with the only shot I had at starting over.
On April 1st of 2013, my Mama (Regina) dropped me off with a few tears and a goodbye hug at the airport in Jacksonville, Florida. Five hours later, I landed in Houston, Texas, with nothing but a suitcase to call my own. I spent the better part of 2013 struggling to make ends meet. I worked as many odd jobs as I could, consulting for a few restaurants, taking catering gigs and working for cash at a few other spots.
Times were tough. There were frequent moments when I didn't think I could survive. My money didn't stretch to cover even the most basic of necessities. However, I surrounded myself with my No Kid Hungry family. In secret, I was even forced to apply for SNAP benefits (Food stamps). All the while, I immersed myself in "doing good" for others -- even when I could barely stand on my own. I suppose there is a bit of cosmic irony in the fact that during the very time that I was applying for food stamps of my own, I publicly never stopped fighting for the 16 million American kids who face hunger daily, and whose families benefit from the same federal program. Even though I sat at their same table, I just couldn't give up on them. Those kids needed someone, and I refused to allow myself to be discouraged. I refused to allow my advocacy to waiver. I refused to stop and lick my wounds. I tried my damnedest to give a voice to those voiceless children. I kept fighting, kept moving, and was never out of the fight -- just as the Army trained me.
Exactly one year from the day that I flew into Houston, penniless and homeless, I walked out in front of cameras, producers and hot lights, onto the set of the Food Network's hit show, Cutthroat Kitchen. No one really knew the story which I've shared within this blogpost. In fact, this is the very first time that I have ever even told this part of my journey. One might ask, "Why in the world would this chef share something so personal, so embarrassing?"
I have a very sincere and heartfelt answer for you. Most of know that there is a cash prize for the winner of Cutthroat Kitchen. However, I was never really concerned with the cash prize of $25,000. In fact, there were other "numbers" which had my attention.
Those were the numbers 1 and 5. Those small, seemingly insignificant numbers represented two statistics are very near and dear to my heart.
1 out of every 5 kids in America live in homes that struggle to put food on the table -- daily. That is over 16 million kids, and would fill over 845 NBA basketball arenas. My mind goes back to days where my Mama struggled to put food on our table. If you haven't already heard of my work with No Kid Hungry, please take a moment to share your strength in the fight to end child hunger in America, by joining Team No Kid Hungry!
The second reason that the numbers 1 and 5 are at the forefront of my mind, is this: 1 out of every 5 combat veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from #PTSD; yet, less than half of those who face this daily battle have ever sought treatment. My mind travels back to the cavernous mountains of the Korangal Valley, deep in the heart of the mountains of Afghanistan. There are times when I can still hear the gun fire.
My fervent hope now, and during the competition on the Food Network was that maybe my 15 minutes of fame would help one of those hungry kids receive the support they need, and if even just one of those combat veterans who is stuck in his or her home, with no one to talk to, teetering back and forth between life and suicide, just maybe, this skinny, crazy chef from South Georgia could be an encouragement to him or her, and that by competing on Cutthroat Kitchen, demonstrate that there is hope! If I can get up off of that couch and continue marching forward, then they can, too! #HOOAH #ArmyStrong
If I can go from being homeless to appearing on the Food Network in just 12 months, then you, too, can follow your dreams, no matter the adversity which comes your way.