• Post welcomes retirees, veterans to event

    • email print
  • Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
    Hundreds of military retirees, veterans and their families were briefed on TRICARE changes and had the chance to receive flu shots, oral cancer screenings and visit more than 40 different vendors, who provided them with resources and support, during the 54th annual Retiree and Veteran Appreciation Day Oct. 27 at the Lewis and Clark Center.
    Formerly known as Retiree Appreciation Day, this was the first year the event was expanded to include veterans.
    “We service about 17,000 retirees, but in addition to that, Kansas has 211,000 veterans and Missouri has 466,000 veterans,” said Garrison Commander Col. Marne Sutten during her opening remarks. “We want to make sure that our veterans feel welcome and know that this community is there to support them.”
    To further assist the veterans, Leavenworth Veterans Affairs and the Veterans of Foreign Wars provided resources on VA disability claims, post-traumatic stress disorder screenings and enrollment.
    For the first time this year, retirees and veterans were also able to get their proper identification cards, whether it be military IDs for retirees, veteran cards or IDs for veterans who receive compensation from the VA.
    Finally, attendees were able to attend small group sessions, which focused on topics such as financial and negotiation skills and preparation skills for surviving spouses.
    Veteran Chris Shove, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1971 to 1975, the Army National Guard from 1975 to 1985, and deployed to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012 as a Department of the Army civilian before being injured, said the new features were helpful.
    “Veterans need the help, and the concentration of support was fabulous,” Shove said. “All veterans should attend (this event) to get full support for their needs at one time and place. Each veteran has particular needs, and it was awesome having concentrated support covering many bases.”
    During the formal portion of the event, attendees were addressed by Sutten and were briefed on the changes coming to TRICARE by Kathy Lucero, Health Net Federal Services and TRICARE provider relations representative, as of Jan. 1, 2019. For information on the changes, see page B1.
    They also heard from guest speaker retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Justin Constantine, who said he was excited when he was asked to speak.
    “Why would I be excited? I can’t see out my left eye, I’m missing most of my cheeks and the end of my tongue, and I can’t speak perfectly clear. I can’t run anymore because the doctors removed bones from both of my legs to use in reconstruction of both my jaws,” Constantine said. “I also suffer from post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, but guess what, I’m the luckiest person in this whole room. It is because of these problems that I’m now far closer with my wife, Dahlia, than I ever would’ve imagined. I’m also far stronger inside than I ever thought I would be.”
    Page 2 of 3 - Constantine joined the Marine Corps in 1997 and served seven years before leaving active duty as a captain. He then joined the Marine Corps Reserve in 2005.
    Constantine deployed to Iraq in August 2006 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he served as a civil affairs team leader in charge of seven Marines and one Navy corpsman. On Oct. 18, 2006, while on a routine combat patrol, Constantine was shot in the head by a sniper. The bullet entered behind his left ear and exploded out of his mouth, destroying much of his upper and lower jaws and several bones in his face.
    His fellow Marines believed he was dead. However, thanks to the efforts of three men, particularly Navy corpsman George Grant, Constantine said he survived the unsurvivable.
    “Even though blood was pouring out of my head and what was left of my face, (Grant) was somehow able to perform rescue breathing on me and then he performed an emergency tracheotomy so I wouldn’t drown in my own blood,” Constantine said. “In the face of overwhelming diversity and with complete disregard for his own life, George focused solely on me and keeping me alive.
    “George did such a perfect job on the tracheotomy that the plastic surgeon told me he thought another surgeon had performed it,” he said. “George was only 25 years old at the time. This was George’s first combat deployment. He had never performed this type of surgery on a human being before … Thanks to an E-4, an E-5 and an O-5, I survived something that probably should’ve killed me and lived to talk about it.”
    Constantine said after he was flown to the U.S. Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and began to fully understand the extent of his injuries, he was embarrassed and began suffering from PTSD.
    “I didn’t want anyone to see me,” he said. “It was hard for me to wrap my head around.”
    Constantine said he knew he could handle his PTSD in one of two ways — seek help from a professional or try and process his feelings on his own. He began seeing a psychologist once a week for 18 months, saying it was the best decision he ever made, and now seeks to help other veterans.
    In the years since his injury, Constantine said he has learned many important lessons, one of the biggest being, “you’re stronger than you think you are.”
    “We’re all capable of doing amazing things,” Constantine said. “It is important to remember that if you’re having a bad day or a bad week or even a bad month and it feels like your whole world is caving in around you. If you dig deep, you’re going to find resources that you may not know you had before.
    Page 3 of 3 - “We’re all survivors. We’ve all overcome adversity of some sort. We’ve all fought our share of battles, but we’ve all become smarter and stronger and wiser and braver because of the struggles that we endured,” he said. “We’ve all bounced back from hard times and have proven to ourselves that our spirit is stronger than anything that attempts to break it. I know life can be difficult and full of challenges, but I also know that life is sweet and beautiful and precious and something we should treasure, not just rush through. Life is about celebration, not merely survival.”
    Constantine said the main thing to remember is that life changes for better or worse.
    “It all depends how you look at it. I think the glass is half full, not half empty, and I embrace change. In fact, I say my cup is forever full on a regular basis because I’m lucky to still be here,” he said. “I’m going to live life in the future, not the past. I’m not defined by what happened to me in Iraq, but what I’ve done since then.
    “I’ve learned that through inner strength and humility and a victorious spirit,” he said, “we can each overcome the toughest obstacles.”
    For his actions in Iraq, Constantine received the Purple Heart, a Combat Action Ribbon and a Navy-Marine Corps Commendation Medal. He is also the recipient of the 2011 George C. Lang Award for Courage, the 2012 Commitment to Service Award and the inaugural 2014 Lincoln Award.
    Constantine currently serves as the senior advisor to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring our Heroes Campaign.
    Army veteran Anita Wilson, who left active duty in 1982, said she was moved by Constantine’s story.
    “Constantine’s story of triumph would motivate a lot of people that struggle with various situations,” Wilson said. “There is a great need for him to tell his story. One can only imagine the souls he could turn around and motivate to achieve their goals.”
  • Comment or view comments