It was a balmy Montana summer day on Tuesday, August 13, when the wives of three injured veterans arrived at the ranch home of Luther residents Dennis and Nancy Stevens, active volunteer members of Operation Second Chance (OSC). The women had flown in the previous Sunday, and were staying at the historic Pollard Hotel in Red Lodge as guests of OSC, to participate in the upcoming week’s OSC activities. They were: Dennise Nicholson from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Stephanie Albrecht from Fort Washington, MD and Yolanda Ward from Colorado Springs, CO. While OSC has hosted single veterans and sometimes a couple or two, this was the first time that only veterans’ wives were invited to a Red Lodge OSC Retreat. Besides doing the usual veterans’ activities of rafting, horseback riding and visiting Yellowstone National Park, on this day the women were being treated to yoga, massages, haircuts, manicures and pedicures. The yoga and massages were donated by local Red Lodgeans and provided by The Wellness Center earlier Tuesday. The women were then offered treatments for their hair, feet and nails at the Stevens residence. “Dennis and I both own Great Clips franchises. We are business associates,” said Susan Rooney, who came from Seattle, WA to assist the women. “I thought coming here and helping would be a great way to spend a vacation. It’s a very tight knit company.” She is originally from Great Falls and Billings. The Stevens were out of state attending their daughter’s graduation. Stevens had arranged for employees from various Great Clips salons to help the ladies today. The wives were delighted to see a table readied for them on his back patio surrounded by a lush green backyard shaded by a giant willow. The Beartooth palisades stood majestically in the background. The women were not missing their husbands at the moment.
“They get all the fun things to do. It drains you not having time to yourself,” said Nicholson. Despite breaking her ankle, she had been determined to come. She sat at the patio table in a wheelchair, her foot in a cast, getting her nails painted. “He always leaves me and goes on trips. Now it’s my turn,” agreed Albrecht, who has three children, aged 6,2 and 1. “They had asked me if I wanted to go before, but I was pregnant. We’ve known Cindy (OSC founder and President Cindy McGrew) a few years. We love her. She’d give you the shirt off her back. She helped us when we moved into a new house. We had nothing. She gave us an IKEA gift card and we bought furniture.” As for her husband watching the kids… “He’s in a hockey tournament right now,” she chuckled. “My mom watched the kids so I could get to the airport.” Albrecht’s husband had a great time attending events here two years ago and now, she said, so is she. “I recommend it to other wives,” she said enthusiastically, thinking about her day rafting down the Yellowstone River thanks to volunteers who donated their rafts and time. “I got in the river,” she said with a big smile. She added, “I was going to get my hair cut before I came, but when they offered-I said I’ll wait.”
Then Albrecht sat back to receive an expert cut under the comfort of the trees. Various salads and cool drinks were served. City Bakery donated a big cake for dessert. Albrecht discovered that some injured veteran’s organizations don’t really help. “We were all signed up for our children to participate in an event with one major group. When they realized my husband had ‘no visible injuries’ they cancelled the children! That’s all some groups are looking for-an injury you can see.” Her husband did two tours of Iraq and two tours of Afghanistan. Vets returning with serious injuries such as traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may not appear injured. “I think the other injuries are harder,” empathized hair stylist Kindra Scribner, as she trimmed Albrecht’s hair. Scribner had come to assist from Great Clips, in Billings, where she resides. “My husband is medically retired and has ‘no visible injuries.’ He served in Iraq. He has two purple hearts and PTSD." “It’s good for women to know they’re not the only one with a husband who doesn’t want to leave home and is not working,” she said. “You know the drill,” nodded Nicholson. “I know the drill,” acknowledged Scribner. She was happy to see wives of injured veterans being appreciated. “This would have been fabulous!” she sighed as she looked around. “I need a vacation!”
After a while, the women visibly relaxed. Intimate comments were spontaneously shared with former strangers: “Living with kids, you know all the shows and know all the theme songs.” “I’m just happy to go to a movie where you watch the big screen.” “My husband is so gentle with the kids, they put curlers in his hair.” “My husband lets them put curlers in his beard!” They all laughed. “My husband’s always asking, ‘Where is my wallet? It’s his wallet!’” “I put a flower pot outside and later, it’s full of butts!” “You’re lucky. My husband just goes outside and flicks them! All over the place!” In a more somber moment, Ward spoke up about the VA. “My husband was 100 percent medically disabled. Upon his return in March we filed for his continued pay. The VA just started paying his full pay in August.” She said they received a little bit in May, but she’s wondering, “How do other families who don’t prepare for this delay make it?” She said they are still waiting for all of his back pay.
“They said it wouldn’t take more than two months to get it.” Albrecht agreed, “It took us three months to start receiving his pay and the pay was still messed up. We refiled.” “It’s frustrating,” said Ward, who noted how difficult it is to speak up. “You talk to your VA reps; they are not compassionate-they get their pay.” By coming to Montana, it was clear that the women, just like the injured veterans hosted before them, were receiving a needed break from the day-to- day stresses and challenges of a family adapting to spouse’s injuries. By days end, the women were very, very relaxed. Ward reflected, “I am most surprised about the support here, the hospitality. This is not near a military base!” Everyone was up for shopping and seeing Red Lodge that evening. The next day they would be touring Yellowstone National Park and another day, horseback riding. Previously, they had gone flying in veteran and OSC member Wally Zook’s plane. Albrecht smiled at the memory. “It was fun. He let us fly it for a little bit-so, that was pretty awesome.”