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Freedom is Not Free Aids Wounded Veterans

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Aired 7/14/09

Severely wounded soldiers continue to return from Iraq and other war zones in need of a variety of support. We speak with an Iraqi war veteran about his experience in combat, as well as his involvement in a local non-profit that helps wounded military veterans and their families.

Little Warriors Surf Camp will take place August 10-14, 2009, at La Jolla Shores.

ALAN RAY: You're listening to These Days on KPBS. I'm Alan Ray, in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Veterans coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have resources and help that vets who came home from Vietnam seldom saw, help on the streets, not always help from the government. There is a private organization called Freedom is Not Free, established by Iraq war veteran Jay Koepelman, who joins us now on These Days. Good morning.

JAY KOEPELMAN (Executive Director, Freedom is Not Free): Good morning, Alan.

RAY: Now you came home from Iraq. You wrote two books about your time there, you decided you still hadn't done enough so now you have an organization that helps vets who come home from Iraq and Afghanistan and have problems. And in this regard, in particular, we'd just love to have you call if you are a vet, if you know somebody who is, who has problems, need help, give us a call at 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. So what kind of help can you provide to vets?

KOEPELMAN: First, I'd like to clarify something. As much as I'd like to take credit for having started this organization, I honestly cannot do that. It was started by two San Diego businessmen, one a Vietnam veteran who was wounded there, David Dominguez, and Carl Frank, and I am simply a caretaker at this point. But what we can offer veterans and their families, wounded veterans and then also families who've lost somebody in the war, is financial assistance, different programs to help them. We've aided with modifying a home, with providing special vehicles, we’ve helped refurbish the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton, the Brain Trauma Center at the Naval Hospital there. We've hosted a conference for spouses of fallen service members and next month we are hosting a camp for not only children of wounded and fallen but for active duty – children of active duty who have somebody deployed. We're hosting a surf camp in La Jolla and presenting each child with a surfboard at the completion of the camp.

RAY: Now what exactly moved you to get involved in this program?

KOEPELMAN: It was important to me that I give back in some way because I'd been very fortunate in my – not only in my career but my post-military career, having some success writing a couple of books and achieving, I guess at least, a modicum of public notoriety. And I felt that I could use that to a higher goal, a higher calling, something bigger than myself, which was really what the Marine Corps was about as well.

RAY: What's the significance of the name of the group, Freedom is Not Free?

KOEPELMAN: The significance is that – and this comes from the founders, that when we lose a hero or we have a warrior who's been wounded and comes home and the family now has to become the primary caregivers, that that injury is not felt only by that individual but by the family and the community at large. So we all pay a price for the freedom that these national heroes are providing for us in the war on terror.

RAY: What kinds of problems do wounded service members routinely face when they come home? And I – before we – you go to that, I do want to talk a little bit about why the government doesn't do more but first just talk about the problems a little bit.

KOEPELMAN: Well, some of the problems, of course, are financial problems related to the fact that many can't find work once they come back and have been separated from the military. And you have an issue here, it's not only physical injuries but we have psychological injuries as well. And it's primarily due to the psychological injuries that guys and gals come back and cannot find work. They cannot get along necessarily with others, and not because they choose to not get along but because the psychological injury, the traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder, leads to that so they can't get along with others very well or they're afraid to get along or be around other people and so they can't work. That leads, of course, to a loss of income, which could potentially lead to having nowhere to live. And I would like to point out that right now, we have more homeless Vietnam veterans on our streets than there were veterans killed in that Vietnam war. So – And that's over 58,000. So that's a real problem today, and I don't see it getting better anytime soon.

RAY: We, fortunately, in the last few years have begun to realize that this is truly a medical problem not just a problem of resocialization.

KOEPELMAN: Yeah, no, it absolutely is a medical problem. There's studies have been done, the numbers have been published and depending on which study you read, whether it's the DOD or the Rand Corporation or other independent studies that show that anywhere from 20 to 40% of all the troops who've deployed during the war on terror, whether it's to Iraq or Afghanistan or somewhere else, will have suffered some sort of psychological injury.

RAY: Okay. If you are a veteran or you love one and he or she has problems coming back, readapting to life here or just recovering from injury after service in Iraq or Afghanistan, please give us a call at 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. I want to ask you, do you have the sense, do you have the feeling that the federal government is doing what it can, what it should? Why should a private organization have to do what you're doing?

KOEPELMAN: Unfortunately, there are those instances where people fall through the cracks, and that's not the only reason we exist. We exist to help anybody that we can. But the system, I don't think, was developed to handle the numbers that we're seeing now. So more people than ever have come back and are checking into VA hospitals for substance abuse treatment. The system just is not designed, as it is, to handle that. And it's under funded, I believe. I don't understand why with all this money we're giving to companies who've gone broke on their bad performance, why some of that money shouldn't be earmarked so that the VA is funded two to three years in advance just for this type of circumstance so that the people coming back who really need the treatment and the help can get the exact levels of help that they need because it's just not there and the government needs to step up and do more.

RAY: I have a young friend who is now serving in – on his way to Afghanistan after having served in Iraq. He's probably twenty-three years old. He came home between the two deployments and he talked about the fact that he drinks a lot of beer now. Sometimes he gets just -- just, you know, falling down drunk and sometimes day after day after day. Did you see that in your service there? And is that something we should be looking at as an indicator of problems when people come home?

KOEPELMAN: I didn't see it but I know that that exists. And that's very typical of the kinds of things that you see when somebody does have post traumatic stress disorder or some sort of traumatic brain injury. The behavior becomes aberrant compared to what it was previously. And especially when they've done multiple combat tours, the likelihood for a traumatic injury, a psychological injury goes up. And some of the behavior you'll see is substance abuse, spousal abuse, behavior that would be 180 degrees out from this person's usual norm. So where this person would put on their seatbelt and never drive drunk, now they don't wear a seatbelt, they're driving under the influence. You see that kind of thing all the time.

RAY: When you came home, and even after you'd written your second book, were you aware of the depth of the problem?

KOEPELMAN: I think I probably was at that point and that was part of what led me to write the second book, was knowing that there was an issue out there that was going to be – it's not just within the Department of Defense and each of the branches of military service, it's a societal problem because the people who are coming back and then getting out and who maybe need help and haven't gotten it yet or won't get it because of the stigma attached to admitting that you have a problem, those people are going to become police officers, they're going to become lawyers, some will become doctors, and you don't want them to have that moment at an inopportune time.

RAY: Okay, talk, if you would, about some of the wounded vets you've worked with through the nonprofit group. What kinds of assistance have you provided?

KOEPELMAN: Well, as I said before, we've provided primarily financial assistance and what we'll do is, people apply online with us or they fax or mail an application to us, a request for assistance. And we do a lot of vetting. We have to do our due diligence because, unfortunately, there are people out there who will take advantage of the system. But what we do at Freedom is Not Free is go through the application and then have volunteer or I, myself, will call and talk to a case worker. We check with that person's previous military command to ascertain that they are who they say they are and that the problems are what they say they are. And then we ask them to send us their bills, as well, when they send in their application. And we review their bills and try to determine, as best as we can from all the information we have, what we can help them with. So typically it's mortgage or rent, security deposit on an apartment, car payments, insurance payments, the utilities, the basic necessities for daily life. And we've – we'll even send gift cards to a supermarket or to a Walmart or Target, something like that to help them get through. That's what we're really there for. It's kind of a bridge – I don't want to say a bridge loan because it's not, it's a bridge grant. It never has to be paid back. And typically, that's what we'll do. We will not pay credit card debt and we're not going to pay child support. That's a legal matter that somebody has to deal with on their own. But we do help with rent and mortgage and we try to find the cases where we know we can make a difference, where what we're going to do is going to get that person over the hump and they're going to be fine. If somebody comes to us and says, look, I'm about to foreclose on my house and my mortgage payment is $2,000.00 a month and I'm only making, you know, $1,500.00, what we'll do then is also try to help them find a situation that they can afford and say, look, we can pay it for a month or two or three but you're still going to be in that same situation. We don't want that. The foreclosure's inevitable anyway, let's get you into something you can afford where you can then move forward.

RAY: Okay, you talked about post traumatic stress and the complications that creates and that certainly is a medical issue. There's also another medical issue that could look like that and that would be the results of a nonapparent traumatic brain injury. How much more difficult is it to deal with people who've been the victims of that hallmark weapon, the roadside bomb?

KOEPELMAN: For me, it's not difficult to deal with the individuals. What happens is they may not even know that they have the injury and it's very difficult to diagnose. The doctors who've looked at it say it's nothing like the concussion that you get from hitting your head on the ground or even that professional football players get when two players hit their heads together when they have a collision on the field. It's completely different. It's far worse and I – I'm a layman, I'm not a medical professional by any stretch of the imagination, to my parents' chagrin, but I do know that the troubles, the problems that arise from these injuries are far worse than you'll see any – from a typical concussion.

RAY: Okay. Are they far worse or are they – have you noticed that they're different from PTSD, for instance?

KOEPELMAN: Well, it's usually a precursor or the PTSD is a ramification of the injury.

RAY: Okay.

KOEPELMAN: So that's one way that it happens.

RAY: Okay, you talked about helping financially. Where does your money come from?

KOEPELMAN: Typically, it's private donations from individuals just like you on the street and people who find us on the internet will send in donations. They can donate online. We get checks. We have had a few corporate donations. And that seems to, hopefully, be a growing trend for us, that we'll get more and more corporate donations.

RAY: We're talking with Jay Koepelman who is with Freedom is Not Free, an organization that helps veterans coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and if you know somebody like that, somebody who could use the help, 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. We would love to hear your story and maybe get you in touch with somebody who might help if that's what you need. Now we've talked about veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you help, also, at all, you mentioned the homeless Vietnam vets, do you help them as well?

KOEPELMAN: We have had a few applications from Vietnam veterans and actually since I've been there, it's been less than a year now, I've had applications or requests for assistance from I believe it was the daughter of a Vietnam veteran who was writing in saying that her father was having problems. And not as much. You know, not as much. And maybe it's that they're not as aware that we're out there or that there are services available. But I think the organization was really designed for Iraq and Afghanistan because in 2005, November 2005, when the founders put this idea together and built the organization, they were realizing that there was much less attention being paid to what was happening with our service people abroad, the ones who were deployed and the ones who were being wounded and injured and killed, coming back, there wasn't – It was like page six news at that point. So people were going about their lives, which they should, but less and less attention was being paid. I mean, look, we've seen it, what's happening in the news lately. You know, all the news is about Michael Jackson and, granted, he was a wonderful musician, a tremendous talent, you know, maybe one of the greatest songwriters and musicians of all time, but I find it very, very difficult to equate his death with the tragedy that we face with the loss of just one young man or woman killed in the war on terror.

RAY: Is that in your sense? Because we just don't want to look and see? Are we maybe hiding our eyes from a reality that's unpleasant?

KOEPELMAN: Well, I think a lot of people do that but I think that that is also part and parcel of our celebrity society nowadays, that people dwell on celebrities so much.

RAY: A couple of questions about vetting and veracity. First of all, you take the money, how do I know where it's going? Or do I ever find out where it goes?

KOEPELMAN: Well, you can audit us. You know, we – our Form 990 is readily available on the internet at guidestar.org. And we put it on our website. It's very transparent. One of the things that we do internally to make sure that we do have checks and balances is the people who bring in the money, my board of advisors and board of directors, do not get a say in who gets the money. We get an application in, take a look at it, go through all the information, make a recommendation on whether or not this person should actually receive a grant from us and how much. That information is then sent to our Purple Heart board, which is comprised of recipients of the Purple Heart or the spouse or survivor of a Purple Heart recipient. They have the final say on who gets the money, how much, and so we don't – it's –One hand brings it in, the other gets to give it away, so it's a – really an internal checks and balances that I think makes a lot of sense.

RAY: When somebody comes to you and says I was in Iraq, I was in Afghanistan, and I need some help, how do you verify that? What record-keeping do you have to go through to assure that somebody doesn't get the money they don't deserve?

KOEPELMAN: Again, they have to fill out the application thoroughly, provide references, and if they've received help from another organization, we ask that they list that and the amount. And that doesn't mean that somebody isn't qualified to still receive assistance from us but we just need to know that so that we can check. And, again, preferably they'll give us somebody from their previous military command. We ask if they're been discharged already if they're no longer on active duty. We ask for their DD-214, which is a record of their service that they would have to have and, of course, their social security number.

RAY: Okay, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We're talking with Jay Koepelman of the organization Freedom is Not Free. We'd love you to join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. Lori in Imperial Beach, good morning. You're on These Days on KPBS.

LORI (Caller, Imperial Beach): Good morning. I just had a quick comment that I think it's important when we hear stories like this also to acknowledge the sailors and the other military forces who are not necessarily in combat zones. My husband is doing his fourth deployment in four years on board the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan. And he, too, has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and depression due to the time that he's spent away from his family and away from the rest of his life. And I feel like often when we hear the stories, we look at the people who are serving in combat zones but while my husband's never actually seen combat, he, too, is experiencing these problems as well.

KOEPELMAN: Lori, one thing I'd like to clarify and, first of all, thank you very much for calling in and we appreciate fully your husband's service, of course. At Freedom is Not Free, we do not have any requirement that you have been in one branch of the service or the other. We do help people from all branches of the service. However, our charter was written so that we help combat wounded and families of the fallen. That's just how our charter was written. It doesn't mean that we, in any way, demean your husband's service. Anybody who serves and has done multiple deployments certainly deserves a lot of credit.

RAY: Well, I have to guess there are not a lot of other organizations like yours out there dealing with people like Lori's husband so then my question – Let's go back to something we talked about earlier, is the government doing what it can, what it should, to take care of the people who are giving the service?

KOEPELMAN: You know, again, I don't think that it's a matter of the government doing what they can or should or not wanting to do what needs to be done. I just think that the system hasn't been put in place properly. And, hopefully, with John Shinseki as the new Director of Veterans Affairs, we'll see a change in that. I mean, if anybody understands it, he certainly should.

RAY: Okay, you talked a little bit about the Little Warrior Surf Camp. That's coming up. Talk a little bit more about that.

KOEPELMAN: Yeah, I'd love to. The Little Warrior Surf Camp we have coming up, it's August tenth through the fourteenth in La Jolla Shores. I've got room for 100 children of military families to attend this camp. Each child, if we get 100, we'll do 20 a day for five days. There'll be food provided by Wahoo's. The surf instruction is through Surf Diva and their La Jolla Surf Academy. We have surfboards from INT. American Airlines is our official airline partner for this event. We've got four nights in an oceanfront room at the La Jolla Shores Hotel, donated by the hotel, if we can get one family. Somebody's got to apply for a contest that we have, an essay contest, but one child and his parents will win an all expenses paid trip to San Diego as part of this. I've got celebrities coming down to the camp, professional surfers, Wounded Warrior Surfers. It's going to be a great event.

RAY: Okay, just briefly, any longer term plans, expansion of Freedom is Not Free?

KOEPELMAN: Well, we'll see what happens. You can't expand without the money to do so and so, of course, we're always looking for more donations. We can't get enough because there are so many people that need our help. And one of the ways we're going to do that is with our 2010 America's Heroes Calendars. So if anybody listening is an honorably discharged or a recently retired service member, and that's got to be within the last three years, and think you are physically fit enough and have the right look for our calendar, please visit our website and you can apply with us, call us, send us an e-mail. We'd love to have you. We're taking applications for that and that was a huge hit for us last time so we think it'll be a big winner for us again.

RAY: Okay, if somebody's heard this, heard you, and needs to know how to get in touch with you for help, how do you do that?

KOEPELMAN: Right, our website is freedomisnotfree.com and they can send e-mail to info@freedomisnotfree.com, and our phone number is area code 858, 847-9999. We'd love to hear from you. If you need assistance, get in touch with us and if you want to volunteer for a very worthy cause, please let us know.

RAY: And how does somebody give you money?

KOEPELMAN: Send a check, donate online.

RAY: All right, Jay Koepelman, thank you very much. Jay Koepelman is with the organization Freedom is Not Free. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

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