By: Jaimee Preston
“It feels like my husband and I are both at a pinnacle point in our careers.” Major Cathleen Snow, Chief of Public Affairs at 920th Rescue wing, for Patrick Air force base, explained in her last remaining hours before heading off to Germany for a training session with NATO. This December, both she and her husband will be embarking on the two “Big A’s.”
For Major Snow, it’s her first trip to the frontline of Afghanistan and for her husband Kevin, New York City, starring in an off-Broadway production by Squonk Opera. “I’m just so proud of him,” she exclaimed, while describing Kevin Kornicki, a maverick of sorts, who possesses an array of talents: professional musician, drummer, percussionist and composer. Though she’ll be serving overseas, Major Snow has plans to see Kevin’s “Big Apple” debut. “I’ll send a friend to see the performance with a seat reserved for the computer. That way I can catch everything via Skype,” she laughed.
But the distance is no laughing matter, and it will be a long six-month separation spanning the holidays’, including a one-month, NATO training that falls during their 13th wedding anniversary. “I’ve hidden a surprise under his side of the bed. I’ll tell him about it once I’ve left,” she said.
She explained that her deployments are hard on their family. “We don’t have children, so it’s just him. It almost feels as if someone has died.”
Together, they’ve spent the last seven years on the Space Coast in their Cocoa Beach home. A portion of that time, Major Snow deployed as part of a combat correspondent team. At that time she composed stories about exciting historical missions, such as U2-spy planes on their lowest ever flight mission over Afghanistan.
Now, in her current deployment to Afghanistan, Major Snow steps into a vital role as spokesperson in media relations. There she deals with queries from all major news sources. “The airmen are amazing. Their capability and education really has equipped them to reach out in the big challenges. I believe the small steps we are making in Afghanistan are powerful steps.”
Just as military family members like the Snows create ripples that turn into powerful waves overseas, right here in our own community, similar organizations seek to do the same for our Veterans. One such group, The Sentinels of Freedom Space Coast, is a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to serve US Armed forces who have suffered severe injuries in the line of duty after Sept. 11, 2001. This is accomplished through medical, educational, social and vocational assistance that help families transition back into a civilian lifestyle.
Ernso Augusto, a former Combat Medic, served in the military for seven years before sustaining injuries in Iraq. He describes leaving the military as a difficult experience, almost like going through a divorce. “It was hard. It is a culture shock leaving this feeling of brotherhood. You experience fear, wondering how you’re going to support your family. There’s this internal pressure and it takes time to establish a new support system,” he explained.
So, when Ernso received the Sentinels of Freedom Scholarship, he felt like he’d found the support he was missing. “It has been a very great experience. If I feel like I need someone to talk to I can always turn to them.”
The four-year program is designed as a mentoring program, but it has also provided Ernso aid with housing, and aid with the expenses of tuition and books. This type of support has fueled his drive toward earning his degree in health care administration from Webster University.
Like Ernso, twenty-six year old Robert Smith realized, “I have no reason to let anything hold me back.” After serving four years in the Marine Corps, a second tour to Iraq ended with sustainable injures from an improvised explosive device. Robert, recently married, found himself unexpectedly traveling with his new bride Natalie to the Washington Army Medical Center for extensive rehabilitation.
Throughout his rehabilitation process, Robert struggled over questions of what his life would be like as an amputee. Together, he and Natalie researched, hoping to find answers for this new life experience. This research uncovered other people with similar injuries still leading important military and societal roles. Smith was inspired.
While in Washington, Robert met with a career advisor who introduced him to the Sentinels of Freedom. This information lead Smith to an application and interviewing process with Barbara Lyn, President of Sentinels of Freedom Space Coast. Along with Roberts’s sacrifice and commitment to guarding America’s freedoms, his drive to become independent and a successful member of society made him the perfect candidate for a Sentinel Scholarship.
“I joined the military knowing that one day I wanted to end up in law enforcement. Now, I am just half a year away from receiving my degree in interdisciplinary studies of behavioral science and education with a minor in emergency management and homeland security,” he said.
But it wasn’t without struggle, getting to this point in his career. “The transition of medically retiring from the military was hard. It took six months for VA disability to come through. The Sentinels of Freedom helped us financially with housing and assisting my wife with her associate’s degree.”
With their two little girls, Keira and Khloe, the Smith family is well on their way to settling into life on the Space Coast. “This area is very military-friendly,” Robert said.
Space Coast natives like Matt Gifford foster this military-friendly atmosphere through their fortitude and vision to raise community awareness. This past October, Matt partnered with the Brothers in Arms Foundation in Stuart, Florida to create the Fallen Warrior Golf Tournament. His younger brother was an elite Critical Skills Operator in the Marine Corps – MARSOC, who was fatally wounded on July 29, 2012 in Afghanistan while conducting combat operations. Jonathan left behind a wife and five boys, having never met his youngest son.
The Gifford brothers are both graduates of Melbourne Central Catholic high school and both received athletic scholarships to attend Saint Leo College. Matt Gifford described his brother as “the type of person who was always there for anyone who needed help. He loved his family, the Marine Corp, his country and was willing to give everything, including his own life.”
Matt Gifford hoped the Fallen Warrior Golf Tournament would raise $20,000 for GySgt Jonathan Gifford Children’s Trust Fund and Brothers in Arms Foundation. Instead, the tournament raised $25,000 with over a hundred participants, numerous sponsors and volunteers wanting to give something back to our military families. “Money does not replace the loss,” Matt explained. “But it allows for more time to grieve, to come up with a new normal, because nothing will ever be the same for these families who’ve lost a loved one.”
With the holidays fast approaching, each family is searching for their new normal. The Gifford family will have already celebrated Christmas at a family Thanksgiving; the grieving process still a present force. For the Smiths, the first hours of Christmas morning have been reserved for the immediate family. “It’s just the four of us until after 12. That way we can really enjoy each other and watch the girls play with their new toys.” Ernso Augusto will share a festive day with his two daughters. And Major Snow? Kevin has planned a tour of New York City’s most famous Christmas sites, complete with dinner date … via Skype.