By MARILYN TINNIN
Cheryl Bruce’s only child, Dustin Ryan, enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 17. He adapted well to the discipline, the structure, and the demands of military life, and it was his intention to make the Army his career. He was deployed to Iraq in 2005 at the tender age of 20. Like many others, however, an IED (improvised explosive device) hit his vehicle causing a traumatic brain injury and a serious back injury that dashed those hopes and sent him home, as Cheryl says, “Broken.”
“When Dustin came back, life was different for him,” she says. Her son who used to enjoy being with his friends became a recluse. It was as if all the joy of living had been completely wrung out of him. He even insisted on sleeping in a recliner in a room with black walls. He was anxious, jumpy, and sad. Cheryl, who had recently been widowed, could not sit back and do nothing. She believed he needed to be with others who had gone through the same experience.
As Cheryl says, “PTSD is a monster.” But this was one mama who was not about to let it control her son.
She heard about the Wounded Warrior National Project and became involved raising money and seeking out other veterans who needed the same fellowship that she believed would help her son. When she sought the national organization’s help on three different occasions for specific veterans in Mississippi who had dire needs, she was told there were no funds because they were over budget.
Cheryl came to the sad realization that the money she had raised would not ever be used to help the local veterans she knew, and so, she did a very gutsy thing. She took a total leap of faith to found Wounded Warriors of Mississippi. It is in no way related to the national project and is funded entirely through donations and through the efforts of volunteers. Every dime raised stays in Mississippi to benefit a veteran. She takes no salary.
What did she know about running a non-profit? Not one thing in the beginning. But she knew her heart was in the right place; she knew from her experience the needs many veterans have and she knew it doesn’t take a bureaucracy to meet them; she knew God was in this from the start; and she knew she had the passion to learn as she went.
Wounded Warriors of Mississippi currently has 32 active members registered. Her initial belief that veterans need other veterans for community and support has proved to be very true and quite life-giving for those involved. As Cheryl says, “There is no better counselor for a veteran than another veteran.”
She did her research and discovered that service dogs were true Godsends to a PTSD veteran. Dogs have a unique ability to provide safe companionship and emotional support to their owner. Cheryl and her husband, Hap, now receive donated puppies regularly. They foster them until they are old enough to be trained by a professional local trainer who specifically teaches them with the PTSD victim in mind.
The puppies are paired with their own veteran prior to going to work with the professional trainer. As Cheryl explains, “We try to match their personalities and their living situations.” Then, once the dog has worked with the trainer for a while, the veteran and the dog continue to work with him until they complete the program. Sharon says, “From there on, they become best friends. We have placed five puppies in the last 18 months.”
Transportation is often a huge problem. She discovered a resource through GEICO’s “Recycled Rides.” Cheryl has been able to secure cars at no cost to veterans who need one in order to work or to get to their doctors’ appointments.
Outdoor activities have included family cookouts, hunting and fishing opportunities, and riding on their own float in the Dixie National Rodeo Parade. Friendships and camaraderie have been the result. Few things make Cheryl happier than watching the smiles on the faces of these courageous men she has grown to love like extra sons!
And for the caregivers? She knows well the stress they face, and WWMS provides a retreat each year pampering them and providing a complete mental and physical four-day break from their 24/7 duties.
As diligent as she is in finding a need and finding a solution, there are times when she can’t find the resources needed to help someone. At the moment, she is very disturbed about a veteran who is living in a trailer affected by black mold. She desperately wants to find a remedy and to either eliminate the mold or find him a better place to live.
Governor Phil Bryant is a big supporter of Wounded Warriors of Mississippi. He sponsors an annual fundraising Motorcycle Ride from Richland to the Gulf Coast and back each October. Proceeds make it possible to provide a real Christmas for the veterans and their families.
And as for Cheryl’s son, Dustin Ryan—after ten years, extensive counseling, and more prayers than you can count, he is doing so well. He married two years ago and blessed his mama recently with her first grandson—and life is good. Thank you, Jesus.
July is PTSD Awareness Month. Do check out the Facebook page at Wounded Warriors of Mississippi and find a way you can help or volunteer. You can learn more by contacting Cheryl Bruce at 601.750.3062.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. With PTSD, these feelings increase over time, becoming so strong that they keep the person from living a normal life.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that PTSD afflicts:
- Almost 31 percent of Vietnam veterans
- As many as 10% of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans
- 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan
- 20 percent of Iraqi war veterans