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GUEST BLOG: Healing and Empowering Military Families to Thrive

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Project Sanctuary works with DVNF to support heroes in need

Not an hour goes by for Jim* without reliving the horrors of that day. One moment he was on a fairly typical mission in Iraq. The next he lay trying to clear the dust from his eyes and inventory the full extent of his injuries.

The months that followed seemed like a series of snapshots, each one building upon the last to ensure Jim’s survival. Doctors had prepared him that the odds were against his walking again.

After three surgeries, recovery became Jim’s new mission and perhaps the most grueling of all, trying to make his body move as it had before. Post-traumatic stress and a traumatic brain injury induced nightmares, flashbacks and migraines.

Jim often found it ironic that the virtues of freedom and independence for which he had fought in Iraq became the same virtues he was now fighting for within himself. The stress of recovery, on top of lives interrupted by combat deployments, began to take its toll on Jim, his wife Shannon and their children. A friend of Shannon’s told her about Project Sanctuary and recommended that she submit a family application. Jim wasn’t so sure.

Like Jim, many service members are apprehensive about what to expect at Project Sanctuary. Trust doesn’t come easily with combat veterans. In the end, though, they all seek change, overcoming apprehensions with the hope of starting anew.

At Project Sanctuary, we alleviate those apprehensions, creating a place where every member of the family can truly thrive. In this environment, relationships are renewed, memories made, and tools provided for empowerment. And with at least two years of follow-up support post retreat, families have a partnership they can depend on, even when times get tough.

From the moment Jim, Shannon and their three children arrived at their retreat, they felt welcomed, accommodated and safe. By day two, retreat administrator Neil recalls that Jim truly began to let his guard down.

“We were on a hike, surrounded by warriors with a variety of injuries, even amputations. I think being with them gave Jim the confidence to put himself out there. You could just see from that moment on that he refused to let either his physical limitations or his PTSD define him.”

Jim took part in zip lining and rock climbing, and even left his cane lying next to a log during one of the activities, walking on his own.

“There was a point about halfway through the week when Jim said he wasn’t ready for the retreat to end,” recalls Shannon. “He was looking forward to seeing and talking to people each day.”

At Project Sanctuary, Jim and his family gained the courage to try new things, make new connections and trust once again — changes that will allow them to reach new heights together. With over 1,900 families on our wait list, the grant from Disabled Veterans National Foundation enables us to help more families like Jim’s reconnect, heal, and gain the tools needed to thrive into the future.

*Names changed

DVNF Veteran Employee Spotlight – Tammi Jean Franklin

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A Female Veteran with a Unique Experience

As part of DVNF’s commitment to serving the men and women who stood in our defense, we understand the importance of having team members who have been in their shoes. The following story gives some background on one of the veterans working at DVNF.

Tammi Jean Franklin, DVNF’s Donor Services Specialist, is a Navy veteran who came to DVNF in 2016. She is a Vietnam Era Sailor, and the story of her military experience as a woman in the 1970’s is best understood through the culture of the time. It’s quite remarkable how far we’ve come since that time.

Tammi Jean served in the Navy from 1973-1977. She enlisted at age 18. In contrast to today’s standards, “girls and boys” were not considered adults until the age of 21 so Tammi Jean’s parents had to sign for her to enlist.

Paving the way

Women weren’t allowed to enter the Navy in all professions until the passage of the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment.

“As an Air Traffic Controller, I was one of those women who entered the Navy in a ‘nontraditional’ job and paved the way for women to come.”

Tammi Jean passed Air Traffic Control “A” & “C” school with flying colors and excelled through the rates from Airman Recruit (E-1) to AC2 (Air Traffic Controller Second Class Petty Officer (E-5) during her 4-year tour of duty.

“I was proud to be in the Navy. Throughout my enlistment in the Navy I wore the same uniform worn by the W.A.V.E.S. during WWII. I was proud to wear that uniform. I loved its history. I’m an unapologetic “God & Country” girl. My interest in the military began while I was in Girl Scouts. Even in scouting I revered my uniform and what it meant to represent the Girl Scouts of Colorado.”

Her first duty station was NAS (Naval Air Station) Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Florida, beginning in the radar room. She shipped out to OLF Whitehouse Tower where Naval pilots trained to fly at sea at night. At the age of 19 she became a Tower Supervisor and certified controllers for that Tower.

Tammi Jean Franklin at bootcamp and present day as a DVNF employee

Memorable experiences

Two events stand out for former AC2 Franklin:

  1. The visit of President Gerald Ford to NAS Jacksonville, FL, Sunday, 2 November 1975.

“I felt so proud that day to be a member of the U.S. Navy and to witness and salute the arrival of our 38th President of the United States and our Commander in Chief as he addressed thousands of sailors.”

  1. In 1975 Iran was an Allied country. On May 4th King Hussein of Jordan and Shah Paheui of Iran came to NAS Cecil Field, on an aircraft shopping trip.

“I witnessed the impressive display of jet aircraft power.”

Until the late 1970s, Navy women were not allowed on ships. She spent her “Sea Duty” or “Isolated Duty” on what they affectionately called “the Rock.” Tammi Jean’s deployment to NASKEF (Keflavik, Iceland), as part of the Iceland Defense Force, which operated as a NATO base, began June 1977. She got to enjoy all the marvels this Arctic island had to offer, including the Aurora Borealis.

Why she joined the military

Tammi had many reasons for joining the Navy. For love of God and Country, her love for aviation stemming from her father who was a pilot, and her desire to attend college with the GI Bill.

Primarily, she didn’t want to follow the path that was afforded to most women: nurse, teacher and secretary. “I was 18 & wanted to get away from home to do something exciting with my life,” Tammi Jean said.

Valuable life skills learned in the military

First and foremost, Franklin said that the military established in her a whole new sense of pride for her country. As a symbol of her reverence for the flag of the United States and the Navy, she flies both every day at her home.

Some other things she learned in the Navy were to be on time or early, be vigilant and trust the team.

Challenges faced after service

In 1977, there was no processing out of the military. “We left as ‘onesies’ with little to no explanation of our benefits.” In addition, and like so many others leaving the military after Vietnam, there was no welcome home for her.

As with many newly-minted veterans reentering the civilian world, there is a profound loss of belonging to something bigger than self.

“One day I was in the Navy, the next day I wasn’t, and I was flying home alone.”

Advice to veterans in transition

“Know that you are not alone,” Tammi Jean explained. “We’ve come a long way since Vietnam, with the resources and services available to help you reintegrate. It’s up to you to use them. Take advantage of them.”

Her other pieces of advice are just as important.

  • If you’re struggling, seek help. Asking for help is a sign of strength not weakness. Don’t go it alone. Take advantage of the benefits that are available to veterans including home loans, education, medical care, etc.
  • Reformat your language from ‘militaryspeak’ to ‘civilianspeak’, particularly when interviewing for employment. Most employers won’t know that an 11B is infantry or that 15Q is an Air Traffic Controller. Interviewers may stop listening, which is not a good thing when looking for a job.
  • Find a way to give back to your veteran community. Whether it be in the form of work that you do, financial support or volunteer work. It makes you feel good that you are part of the solution.

We’re honored to have Tammi Jean on our team, and sincerely thank her for her service to our country, and all that she is giving back to support her fellow veterans

Remembering Heroes of D-Day

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The overcast sky was an appropriate omen to the reality of that summer day. The humming of planes resonated loudly. Even if the men could hear one another talking, no one spoke a word. There was a certain understanding of what they would soon face, and their likely last moments would be spent in self-reflection. Though internally overwrought with fear, acceptance of their likely fates and recognition of this just cause gave them some sense of serenity.

The droning engines were soon peppered with loud, intermittent booms. A passive thunder on such an overcast day seemed unsurprising. Through the gray fog, a faint glimpse of the rocky inlays of the shore could be seen, the beach shielded from vision by the tall bulkhead of the amphibious boats they occupied.

The booms grew louder and louder. The closer to the shore they came, the harder their hearts pounded. The firing of guns and explosions of bombs paled in comparison to that metronomic thumping in their chests.  The distinct smell of gunpowder filled the air, further fueling their inner angst with adrenaline. Water continued to splash inside what felt like a metal coffin. They couldn’t see the channel’s open water next to them, but felt every percussive shock from the shells exploding around them.

And for a brief, fleeting moment, a final calm came over them. Looking up into the gray sky, thousands upon thousands of white parachutes danced in the wind, inching closer to the water and what awaited them on the beach.

The boat came to a sudden halt. The metal doors swung open and in that moment, they stared their own mortality in the face, and defied every basic instinct of self-preservation for the sake of preserving good in the world. Bullets humming by their ears, brothers in arms dropping into the bloodstained water, shells exploding all around, the rocky hills in front of them seemed miles away.

And today, we are grateful.

June 6, 1944 was a defining day in the history of the United States and the entire world. In the face of danger, uncertainty, fear and doubt, nearly 160,000 Allied servicemen stormed the beaches of Normandy to face the German Army head on. They stood in defense of our nation and made sure that good would prevail.

On the 73rd Anniversary of D-Day, please recognize what bravery really looks like. It is seen on the aging faces of the Greatest Generation. They are the ones who, against all odds, refused to let evil win, and were willing to give their lives for that cause.

To our World War II veterans, your sacrifices will not be forgotten, and the debt of gratitude owed to you by every American might be impossible to repay.

To our Greatest Generation, we say thank you.

DVNF and O2O Give New Suits to Veterans

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Suits to veterans transitioning from the military

On May 6th, DVNF teamed up with Onward2Opportunity (O2O) to give out new suits to veterans, as well as a full outfit of business clothing to these transitioning service members in North Carolina. The event marked the second shipment of business attire DVNF has sent this year through its corporate sponsor, Joseph A. Bank.

Nearly $150,000 worth of dress clothing was given to the veterans who will graduate from O2O’s vocational training program on May 19th. The goal of the shipment was to equip these veterans with new business clothing so they could be prepared for interviews and employment in a new civilian career.

Onward 2 Opportunity is a comprehensive training and career placement service for transitioning service members. They also provide training and testing for real world certifications. Some of these certifications include IT, Project Management, Hotel Management, JAVA, and Customer Service.

The event was a tremendous success! In total, 53 veterans got a new wardrobe to prepare them for their future careers. It was a true honor to give back to the heroes who have already given so much. We wish them the best of luck in their future endeavors. Hopefully, we were able to make a meaningful contribution to their inevitable success!

We’d like to thank Onward2Opportunity for allowing us to be a part of their efforts to prepare veterans for life as a civilian. In addition, we’d like to give a big thank you to Joseph A. Bank for their commitment to our heroes!

More photos of the event:

PTSD – A Guide to Understanding and Getting Treatment

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What is PTSD, and who does it affect?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an illness that affects approximately one-in-five veterans from all eras. It is an acute reaction to a traumatic event that can cause negative symptoms associated with that trauma.

The technical definition of PTSD is “a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault.”

Symptoms 

Did you know that there are 4 main types of PTSD symptoms?

1) Reliving the event

When a traumatic event happens, a lasting symptom of PTSD is the reliving of the traumatic event. At any point you can feel that sense of horror you had when the event happened.

This may come about through nightmares, flashbacks, or a trigger like a sight, smell, or sound that reminds you of the event.

2) Avoiding a situation that reminds you of the event 

When triggers happen, they usually don’t happen just once. When these triggers occur, you might be able to eventually identify situations in which they are more likely to come about, and begin to avoid those situations.

Examples of this might be avoiding crowds, driving, or events involving fireworks because these could trigger a combat experience.

3) Negative changes in your personal feelings or beliefs

This symptom is typically what causes emotional withdrawal of those with PTSD. Due to the trauma you might:

  • Stop trusting loved ones, and avoid relationships
  • Have repressed memories of the trauma you suffered, and not be able to talk about it.
  • Lose faith in others, and the world around you.

4) Hyperarousal (feeling “amped up” or on edge)

The fight-or-flight reaction that humans have is a valuable asset for survival. The adrenaline released helps you to quickly evaluate danger when it comes about, and act accordingly for self-preservation.

But when you experience a trauma, this can send your system into overdrive and cause you to constantly be on the lookout for danger. Symptoms of hyperarousal can include insomnia, difficulty concentrating, being easily startled, or being overly cautious (like sitting with you back against the wall in a restaurant).

When should I seek help?

If you have these symptoms that haven’t gone away after 4 weeks, or if they are bad enough to cause distress or your ability to function on a daily basis, you should seek help.

It’s important to remember that seeking help isn’t admitting defeat or weakness. This illness can send your life into a tailspin. Sometimes it might get better on its own, but many times, it won’t go away without help.

You should also recognize that the sooner you get help, the more likely you are to be able to overcome PTSD. Don’t let this illness dictate your life. Be proactive – get help!

Where do I get help?

PTSD can come and go over time, and sometimes it may not present itself until months or years after you experience the trauma. Seeking help can help you learn how to cope with the lasting symptoms and address the issue directly.

If you’re in need of help, there are many resources available to you.

If you’re experiencing a crisis, or you’re having thoughts of suicide:

  • Call 911
  • Go to the nearest Emergency Room
  • Call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 
  • Contact the Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, press 1 (text 838255) or Confidential Veterans Chat with a counselor

Here are other helpful resources, courtesy of the VA’s National Center for PTSD:

PTSD Care for Everyone

PTSD Care for Veterans, Military, and Families

 

Mental Health Awareness Month and What You Should Know

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and at DVNF, this holds added meaning. Mental health is a common issue that’s mentioned when talking about veterans.

Military service not only challenges veterans physically; it tests them mentally even more. And when it comes to combat, the mind is just as vulnerable to injuries as the body.

Combat has changed drastically over the course of several decades. While advancements in modern technology and medicine have helped save lives, is it coming at the expense of our veterans’ mental health?

TBI

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is becoming more prominent in today’s warfare. In fact, according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC), among post-9/11 veterans, more than 360,000 have suffered a TBI, accounting for 22% of combat casualties.

This injury can be a problem that’s relatively minor and temporary. Or, it can be a long-term and debilitating issue that affects a veteran the rest of his or her life, and anything in between.

PTSD

Similarly, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has also become a major factor affecting thousands of veterans. It isn’t primarily limited to newer veterans, either. Vietnam veterans have fallen victim to this illness for decades. An estimated 31% of Vietnam vets have suffered from PTSD at some point.

Veteran Suicide

A more disturbing trend has come about, however. Suicide. Nearly 20 veterans each day take their own lives. For veterans undergoing PTSD, TBI, and/or depression, life can be extremely difficult. Family and financial issues often exacerbate this problem. And while the average daily total has dropped in recent years, suicide amongst women veterans has been on the rise.

This month, DVNF wants to help raise awareness about the impact these invisible wounds can have on veterans. Our hope is that we can reach veterans in crisis, and encourage them to get the help they need.

There’s no shame in getting help when you need it. So let’s #BreakTheStigma.

Female Veteran Suicide Rate Increasing

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Veteran Suicide Still a Growing Concern – Especially for Female Veterans

Veterans take their own lives at an alarming average of 20 each day. However, female veteran suicide continues to grow as well. What’s behind this alarming and upsetting trend?

According to the NPR piece, women veterans are two to five times more likely to take their own lives than civilian women. The audio discusses many common contributing factors to this trend, including:

  • PTSD
  • Financial concerns
  • Loneliness
  • Depression
  • Family concerns

However, they mentioned a few additional factors that are a bit more troubling.

Military Sexual Trauma (MST)

Sexual assault and/or abuse is an issue that continues to pop up in headlines. It’s become a contentious issue that comes about in sports all too often. Regrettably, it is not discussed enough when it comes to the military.

Did you know that one in four women screened by the Department of Veterans Affairs reports military sexual trauma (MST)? I bet you didn’t. One of the case workers they interviewed in this segment told it in a very upsetting way.

Talking about military sexual trauma, females often do not report it because then they’re looked at as, ‘oh, you are the barracks whore or no one’s going to believe you’ or ‘it’ll get investigated and you’ll still get in trouble.’

It’s no wonder that MST is such a big factor for women veterans feeling suicidal. If they feel like there won’t be a resolution, how on earth could they even begin to come to terms with the mental trauma it entails?

The gun factor

This piece brought up an interesting point that many may not consider. Guns are an inherent part of military service. Men and women are both trained to use them the same. Thus, it makes sense that a female veteran is more likely to feel comfortable using a gun.

It’s a troublesome topic to discuss, but one that needs to be discussed. This NPR segments mentioned some VA statistics about this. If accurate, and women veterans are 33 percent more likely to take their own life with a gun than civilians, then we need to do a better job reaching to to those in crisis.

If you’re a veteran in need of help, or you know a veteran who is having thoughts of suicide, please go to the Veterans Crisis Line now!

Our veterans need our help, and we all need to do more to reach out and help.

DVNF Veteran Employee Spotlight – Nicholi Ambersley

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A Navy Veteran with a Great Perspective


As part of DVNF’s commitment to serving the men and women who stood in our defense, we understand the importance of having team members who have been in their shoes. The following story gives some background on one of the veterans working at DVNF.

Nicholi Ambersley, DVNF’s Donor Services Specialist, came to DVNF in 2016. This soft-spoken Navy veteran is originally from the island of Jamaica, having moved to New Jersey in 1997.

Nicholi spent nearly 10 years in the Navy, serving from 2004 to 2014. His highest rank was Petty Officer Second Class (E-5). He served at a Naval Operation Support Center (NOSC) in New Jersey for a few years. Here, he receive the duty of funeral honors. This role required him to make sure that those who served before and passed away received a proper military-style burial.

Nicholi, with DVNF Director of Operations, Leander Brereton.

To him, that was one of the most interesting duties he performed because it was unlike anything he had ever done before.

From changing the plane’s light bulbs, to working on its generators

His primary job during his service, however, was as an Aviation Electrician’s Mate, essentially working on jet planes, such as the EA-6B Prowler and the EA-18G Growler, performing maintenance on anything electrical in the plane. This duty consisted of everything from changing the plane’s light bulbs, to working on its generators.

While this job may seem somewhat low-key, it was a major role that put Nicholi in some dangerous places. In fact, he served 4 tours in Afghanistan.

“I served in Afghanistan, did four tours there, but I was never on the front line though,” said Nicholi. “I saw some things, yes, but never had to go into combat.” In addition to Afghanistan, he was also stationed in Kyrgyzstan for a time.

Favorite part about serving in the military

Despite the rough nature of those assignments, Nicholi also spent time in some more desirable locations. He went to places like Germany, Turkey, Ireland, Greece, and Spain, and a few other stations. His service gave him the opportunity to see the world. As a result, this well-traveled veteran has a positive view of his time in the Navy.

“My favorite part about serving in the military was the friendship and the bond you build with the persons you were with, no matter where they were from,” he said. “But also, it was the skill sets I learned that will forever be ingrained in me.”

Nicholi said he learned several life skills in the military that helped him during his transition to civilian life. From adaptability (a necessary requirement for military service), to leadership skills and time management, these assets have helped him make his way back to becoming a civilian after 10 years in uniform.

The transition to civilian life

That’s not to say the transition was an easy one.

“The toughest thing initially was waking up and not working on airplanes anymore and leaving the guys I pretty much grew with in my career,” Nicholi explained. However, he did say that he still keeps in touch with several of his friends from the Navy.

Ambersley’s struggles weren’t necessarily limited to culture shock. He faced another common hurdle that many newly-separated veterans face – finding a job. He thought it would be especially tough for him since he had some college experience but hadn’t finished. Nicholi possessed a security clearance, however. He assumed it to be something of valuable asset in the job search. Unfortunately, it was still a difficult process, much to his surprise. However, like any veteran, no challenge could stop him from his objective.

Advice to other veterans

We asked him what advice he’d give other veterans transitioning to civilian life. Nicholi gave a common-sense answer that may seem simple, but is ultimately quite shrewd.

“I’d tell them to make sure they know before they transition. Know what it is you want to do when you get out [of the military], know the steps it will take to get there.”

He added that these veterans should have a fallback plan in place. He suggested it is wise to have some companies or colleges lined up, just in case.

But Nicholi’s main piece advice? Tenacity.

“Be persistent, the military taught us that much, so don’t give up because you hear one or two ‘no’s.’”

Nicholi works to fulfill requests or answer questions of DVNF’s generous donors. It’s very different from changing a plane’s lightbulb or working on its generator, but we’re thrilled to have this veteran on board our team.

WATCH: Homeless Vet Talks About What’s Important to Him

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Through DVNF’s Health & Comfort program, the items that we send to stand down events to support homeless, low-income, and disabled veterans make a bigger difference than many might realize.

Wayne Stewart, a homeless Navy veteran in DC, spoke with us about his experience as a homeless vet, and which supplies that DVNF sent made the biggest difference.

“Toiletries! Because when a person is clean, looks good, smells good, they have a tendency to feel better about themselves.” 

“I would like to say ‘thank you’ to all of you [DVNF donors] – without your services, without your kind gestures and your kind thoughts, trust and believe me – it would be much harder for us. Thank you, DVNF!”

Countless veterans are helped through the Health & Comfort program, and each time a donor gives, we’re able to provide critically needed items – like toiletries – to veterans like Wayne throughout the year.

DVNF Veteran Employee Spotlight: John Paruch

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A Humble Veteran


As part of DVNF’s commitment to serving the men and women who stood in our defense, we understand the importance of having team members who have been in their shoes. The following story gives some background on one of the veterans working at DVNF.

DVNF employee, John Paruch, takes a photo with a veteran at the 2016 Wheelchair Games

John Paruch, DVNF’s Director of Corporate Sponsorships and Foundation Relations, has been with the organization since 2015. John, like so many veterans, is humble by nature.

“I always say I was a veteran in the loosest sense of the word. I didn’t serve during any conflict, and really didn’t do anything very significant.”

Many veterans often express this same sentiment. However, they need to remember that willingly putting your life on the line – regardless of the presence of conflict or not – is something that should be admired and respected.

John, originally from the Detroit suburb of Hamtramck, Michigan, joined the Navy when he was 17. He was was a Radar Operator onboard a couple different destroyers. The first was a WWII Class Destroyer, DD 866, the USS Cone. Then, after extensive intelligence and naval warfare training, he was sent to a Guided Missile Destroyer, DDG 39, the USS MacDonough. His home base was in Charleston, SC and the longest cruises he was on were for about a month. Both of them included stops at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Where he came from

John came from a modest background as a kid. He wanted to go to college, and he joined the Navy to make that dream a reality. 

Another motivation for him to enlist was his desire to see the world. However, he admitted, “I didn’t see much of it, but traveling to some of the Caribbean Islands was a big thrill for me.”

John, referring to his service as it related to combat, said he felt fortunate to have done so little, but to have received so much in return. Instead, he felt a sense of obligation to his fellow veterans.

“I like helping our veterans that did so much more than I did, and were injured or disabled as a result. I feel it’s the least I can do and think all Americans should help those who have made those sacrifices.” 

A dream fulfilled

John went to college and got his degree from Michigan State University after he completed his service in the Navy. He said that his time in the military had a lasting effect on him. As a veteran, John went to college a more mature individual. He said he learned some valuable life lessons which made him a better student.

We asked what advice he’d give to a veteran transitioning into civilian life. John gave a typically humble answer, but it was important nonetheless.

“Try to use the discipline you were taught in the military to make you a better worker, student, husband, father, or whatever it is you’re doing at any time in your life.”

John is as humble as he is friendly, and has a genuine desire to serve others. DVNF is thrilled to have him on our staff, and we thank him for his service – even if he thinks that appreciation isn’t warranted.