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Grannies help Carson GIs battle injuries, loneliness

April 20, 2013
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Terry Chapman is a proud grandmother to a Fort Carson soldier who was wounded by a roadside bomb.

It doesn’t matter that Chapman and her grandson never met before the war. Or that their family trees are planted so far apart.

“I think my Johnny would want me to do this,” Chapman said on a recent Wednesday as she served barbecue sandwiches and coleslaw to a group of hungry soldiers at Fort Carson’s Soldier and Family Assistance Center.

Chapman’s son, Air Force Tech Sgt. John Chapman, was killed in Afghanistan in 2002 while rescuing a Navy SEAL.

“From the time he was a little boy, he always went to the assistance of others,” Chapman said. “I want to do this for him.”

Chapman is a member of GI Grannies for Soldier Support, a group of golden-years volunteers who spend countless hours with members of Fort Carson’s Warrior Transition Battalion, home to soldiers with serious injuries and long-term illnesses.

Chapman and the group’s other members, known as “Gigss,” lift spirits at the battalion’s events and “adopt” some of its soldiers, providing additional, personalized assistance.

Gigss can be found passing out hugs and homemade goodies at the battalion’s adaptive sporting events, town hall meetings, weekly lunches and monthly birthday parties. For the soldiers and families they adopt, they baby-sit and help with household chores.

Because of her Gigss status, Chapman is used to interacting with soldiers with serious physical injuries and even those who are contemplating suicide.

But her latest undertaking is different.

The soldier she recently adopted has a terminally ill wife.

Caring for the couple would be emotionally risky and taxing, warned Capt. Dell Harlow-Curtis, the battalion’s chaplain and founder of the GI Grannies program.

It would require Chapman to open up her heart only to eventually be forced to say goodbye.

She wasn’t dissuaded.

Chapman is just one of 18 active GI Grannies and Grandpas who assist the battalion’s troops.

Harlow-Curtis came up with the idea for the program after watching an elderly Italian interpreter interact with soldiers during an overseas deployment.

Nancy Pfander, a Gold Star mother and one of the group’s most active grandmas, recalled hearing the story from him.

The interpreter “would get after the guys for cussing, for putting their feet on the table,” said Pfander, whose son, Marine Cpl. Kyle Powell, was killed in Iraq in 2006.

“The chaplain decided he needed an army full of grannies.”

Pfander and others rallied to form the group in 2011.

Like their adopted soldiers, the group’s active members wear uniforms while “on duty”: aprons, sashes and pants fashioned out of donated fatigues.

Most have a military connection. Many, like Chapman and Pfander, are the parents of fallen or deployed troops.

All but one of the group’s active members are seniors.

But a three-score age on your driver’s license is not required to volunteer, nor is a major time commitment.

Many of the group’s “grandparents” volunteer from afar, sewing quilts and baking cakes.

Harlow-Curtis is grateful for all of the group’s volunteers but has a special appreciation for those who spend their days with his soldiers.

“People try to love from a distance, and you can,” Harlow-Curtis said. “But to really understand what our soldiers are going through, you have to be here with them.”

Spc. Aaron Jones has had two grandmas and a grandpa during his time at the battalion.

He’ll soon be medically discharged from the Army. But his adopted grandparents, Marilyn and Richard Stites, will continue to be a part of his life, Jones said as he sat surrounded by grannies, a plate of Passover cookies on his lap.

It was close to Easter, but Marilyn Stites had remembered that Jones is Jewish.

“The Gigss make your time here easier,” said Jones, a former military policeman who wouldn’t discuss what landed him in the unit.

“They offer a hand to hold.”

Maj. Yetta Concina, a nurse case manager for the battalion, said Gigss offer soldiers an impartial ear to listen, a shoulder to cry on, a sense of family and a taste of home, she said.

“They’re the face of the battalion,” Concina said. “They’re retired, but instead of having lunch with the ladies, they’re here, engaging with our community.”

Wounded and ill soldiers are more successful in their recovery when they’re surrounded by a supportive community, she said.

“It really does take a village.”

Grandma Tammy Davis — a military brat, the wife of a veteran and the mother of two troops — retired a decade ago after a car accident left her unable to continue work.

“I can relate to these soldiers, to their struggles of coming back from an injury, from the depression that comes with it,” she said.

“I’m an empty-nest mom and grandma who’d rather help other people than sit in front of the TV all the time.”

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