President of local veterans support group, Battlefront 2 Homefront, gives back to the community that helped her through her struggles.
Life as Spc. Jon McGowan knew it changed forever when the explosive detective device he was working with blew up during his second deployment to Iraq in 2006. He was left with three quarter-sized white spots on his brain, implicating a traumatic brain injury.
The Army was Jon's passion, everything he had known. He served for eight ½ years prior to his accident, and he intended on staying in for the full 20.
But, soon after returning home, he was honorably discharged from the military for his brain injury. Jon and his wife Marla were left without jobs and without ideas of what to do next.
Two weeks. That was all the McGowans were given to figure out their next course of action. On top of it all, Jon was dealing with rehabilitation from his injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
They soldiered on.
Things started looking up when Jon was offered a job in Texas. The couple had already shipped their belongings and prepared for the move when Jon's new company rescinded the offer because he was not authorized to carry a gun on account of his medical issues.
The pit that already seemed so deep and dark became even worse. Still without jobs or sources of income, Jon and Marla couldn't afford shipping their belongings back to Missouri. They had nothing but each other and their house.
"I didn't know who to talk to, where to go, what to do," Marla said. "We were out of the Army, and didn't even know where to start with the VA (Veterans Affairs). It's a whole new system to learn."
While applying for assistance through the VA, times were tough for Marla and Jon — both mentally and financially.
"We slept on an air mattress for six months. We had to shut the air off, lived out of a cooler because we couldn't afford electricity," Marla said. "I had to chose between his medicine, our mortgage, food and water to pay for, so we had no phones, no TV, not much of anything."
All the while, Jon was dealing with serious PTSD that he wouldn't admit to. But Marla could see in his eyes he was constantly battling memories of war.
Marla said that while Jon slept, he would frequently get up and launch various items in the room at the wall.
Marla was told by a therapist to ask him in his sleep why he was doing this.
"Honey, what are you doing?" Marla asked one night after her husband had hurled a lamp at the wall while he was sleeping.
"I'm throwing bombs so people don't get hurt," he responded.
"Is everything OK?" she asked softly.
"Yeah, I saved everyone."
Healing and Moving Forward
Marla said that they wouldn't have made it if it wasn't for their friends and family helping them while waiting for the VA to make its decision on whether or not Jon would receive assistance.
"I went through a period when I was very angry — angry at the Army, angry at him, angry at myself" Marla said. "Now I look back and I'm thankful it happened. It really humbled me."
Marla said that her friend, Sheryl Eagleburger-Williams wrote her a check for $1,000 to help them get back on their feet.
"If it wasn't for her I wouldn't be here today," she said. "It's hard to imagine how much $1,000 can help you, but it was enough to get us out of a huge hole."
Two years after applying, the McGowans finally received the financial help they needed from the VA.
Marla said that on top of the VA benefits and assistance, she has been able to work through the VA Care Givers Program, which pays spouses of wounded warriors to take care of them.
"I just feel so blessed for what we have now," Marla said.
Battlefront 2 Homefront
Things are much better today for Marla and Jon. Jon's PTSD is improving with the help of counseling and Marla is able to take care of Jon full-time.
"People really helped us out when we were struggling so much," she said. "Looking back on everything now, I'm so thankful for the Army and the VA and the community for helping us out and now that we're able to help others, we wanted to pay it forward."
In July, Marla and Jon came up with an idea to give back to the community and help others, like they were once helped.
They saw a need to help veterans, especially in Pulaski County.
"I know five people in my neighborhood alone who are going through similar troubles that we were and if that's just in m neighborhood, it has got to be everywhere," Marla said. "One-third of our county is made up of veterans. One-third. That's huge. It's larger than any other county in the state of Missouri."
They wanted the VA information to be more available for military and veterans They wanted to provide affordable services and goods for people in the community. They wanted to raise money and awareness for the veterans in this county and surrounding areas.
Marla then founded Battlefront 2 Homefront, an organization to help local veterans, struggling with simular battles that they were years ago.
"I named it Battlefront 2 Homefront because as a soldier and as a spouse, you are always in a battlefront position," she said. "And once you get out, you're on the homefront. You're still in a battle. Just because the Army stops doesn't mean the Army stops in you."
And in July, the McGowans began planning their first event: An Old Time Christmas.
"We decided on the Old-Time Christmas theme as a reminder of how our lives were when we were going through our struggles," she said. " We didn't have much besides each other and we were very close."
McGowan began planning for the event, and created a board of directors for help, including Amanda Moore, Sheryl Eagleburger-Williams, Alana Hancock,Rose Andrews and Jana Camplejohn. Marla McGowan is currently the president of the organization.
McGowan said she was overwhelmed with support from the Waynesville, St. Robert, and Fort Leonard Wood Communities.
"I didn't think it would be as big as it has become," she said. "We intended on just having a few vendors and maybe an auction. As we went along people kept offering to help, it has blossomed so much."
On Saturday, Battlefront 2 Homefront will host its first event: An Old Time Christmas at the Old Waynesville Middle School gymnasium (located on School street behind the Post Office).
The event is being held to provide affordable, family-friendly services/ activities for adults and children within the area and to raise funds for local Veterans, Wounded Warriors in the Fort Leonard Wood Warrior Transition Unit.
"All of the donations and money raised will go to veterans in Pulaski, Texas, Phelps, Camden, Maries, Laclede, and Miller counties," Marla said. "And also to the Wounded Warriors on Fort Leonard Wood."
There will be different events and activities going on all day, but one of the most unique parts of this event will be the eight representatives with the Veterans Affairs from Columbia,Jefferson City, and Fort Leonard Wood attending, making history for Pulaski County.
"There have never been eight or more representatives present in Pulaski County at one event for registration with the VA, questions, concerns, answers, information about new programs, counseling, and so on."
Marla said that the representatives will be available for any military or current veterans to answer questions. Marla recommends talking to them years in advance if possible, coming from experience.
"It's special for them to come down because it helps the people who were like us feeling lost and confused with the VA system," she said.
The event will last from 10 a.m. to 4. p.m on Saturday and is open to the public and will include over 60 vendors, a children's area, a fashion show, picture booths, a fireside chat with local leaders and much more.
Marla said that Battlefront 2 Homefront intends on planning more events in the future to help out local veterans.
"My passion is charity and I just want to continue to give back," Marla said. "I'm honestly thankful for my struggles and thankful I am able to help others right now."