JWMS Honors Local Veterans with Patriotic Program

The Northwoods River News
By David Chrisinger
09 Nov 13

By Andy Hildebrand

The bleachers in the James Williams Middle School gymnasium were packed Friday morning.

For the 43rd year in a row, students, local veterans and members of the community gathered to collectively thank those who have served under the banner of the United States of America and remember those who lost their lives in its defense.

A number of patriotic songs were performed by band and choral students.

This year’s featured speakers were Rhinelander High School graduates Brett Foley and David Chrisinger.

Chrisinger said they welcomed the opportunity to tell the public about the 50-mile ultramarathon they recently completed to raise money for The Mission Continues, a program designed to help returning veterans adjust to civilian life,

“(Principal) Paul Johnson asked us if we would come and speak today and, of course, we accepted,” he said. “But then I was thinking about what kind of message we wanted to give these kids. We really wanted to talk about how we can expect great things from returning veterans just like people expected great things from my grandfather’s generation. I just want to remind people of that so we don’t lose sight of how valuable veterans are.”

The two showed a short, informational video from The Mission Continues about the group’s goals.

Then, after another song from the band, Foley took to the podium to share his personal experiences in the service and afterward.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last 15 years, it’s that life has a tendency to surprise you,” he told the room full of students, veterans and civilians. “You can think you have everything planned out, but it doesn’t work that way. 15 years ago, when I was sitting where you are today listening to the Veteran’s Day presentation, I had no idea that one day I would be a Marine or would be speaking to you here today.

“If there’s another thing I’ve learned, it’s that life isn’t always easy. Sometimes it can be downright hard. It’s these days that make you find out what you’re really made of. When I came home from Afghanistan almost three years ago, I thought my most challenging days were behind me. I thought that because I had made it home alive, I could handle anything.”

Foley struggled with post-traumatic stress upon returning home from his service overseas. Eventually, he leaned on his friendship with Chrisinger and took to writing to help him cope with his feelings.

“When things got hard for me and when I was struggling to deal with things I had been through in Iraq and Afghanistan, I began to think there was something wrong with me,” he said. “Why couldn’t I put the war behind me? For five years, when I was in the Marine Corp., I felt like I was a member of a highly select group, and I was. When I got home, I felt like less than nothing. I had no purpose and no direction. I eventually became so focused on all the bad things that happened to me, I forgot all the good things in my life. I forgot about family and friends, and all the people who supported me. I forgot there were people in my life who wanted to be there for me. At first, I couldn’t see any of these people because I was too embarrassed to tell any of these people what I was struggling with.”

Foley struggled with alcohol abuse and experienced some relationship issues as a result of his post-traumatic stress. Chrisinger and The Mission continue helped his friend out of that hole.

“It took me a long time to realize the things that happened to me in Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t have to follow me for the rest of my life,” Foley said. “If anything, I could take those experiences and learn from them in order to become a better person. People talk about the Greatest Generation and how they were great because of the challenges they faced, not despite them. I realized they faced the same challenges when they returned home that I did. The difference was when they got home, they searched for a new purpose and new direction, so that’s what I did. I needed to find a new goal; I need a new purpose. I realized I had the skills to build a good life.”

Foley used the message stressed by The Mission Continues to give his life a new direction. He attended the police academy and has served as an activist for other returning veterans struggling with the same issues he went through.

“When Dave told me about The Mission Continues and showed me that I could take a similar path in my own civilian life, it made me wish I had known about them when I first got home. They inspired us to run 50 miles to raise money for the cause. We wanted to suffer together to raise awareness of the challenges veterans face when they return home and what The Mission Continues is doing to help. We wanted to do whatever we could to help those struggling with the same issues I struggled with myself.”

Chrisinger and Foley completed their 50-mile race last month and raised thousands of dollars in the process.

Now their cause is to raise awareness and continue to change the conversation regarding returning veterans.

It was not lost on Foley that he was delivering remarks in the same room where he observed Veterans Day as a student 15 years ago.

“It’s weird being back,” he said. “Everything looks smaller for some reason, but nothing has really changed.”

When he finished, everyone in the room left their seats and gave him a thunderous standing ovation.

It was a long road back for Foley, but after struggling with post-traumatic stress, finding a renewed sense of purpose and running 50 miles to help raise awareness, his one constant has been change. The next goal is to make sure the public will always see returning veterans as an asset instead of a burden.

It started with a room full of middle schoolers celebrating Veterans Day.

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