A Place of Heart and Spirit

Janie Dyhouse - 10/4/2020

‘A PLACE OF HEART AND SPIRIT’ 

JANIE DYHOUSE

Iraq War veteran and former resident of VFW’s National Home for Children Brian Daniels stands in front of the house in which he grew up in June on the home’s campus in Eaton Rapids, Mich. A member of VFW’s Department of Indiana, Daniels credits the time at the home for his desire to serve in the military.

INSET: Daniels is owner of emPOWer, a boxing gym in Lansing.

In 1996, Brian Daniels was 10 years old and homeless, living out of motels with his mom and siblings. But that is the year everything changed for the better.

Because his maternal grandfather was a Marine, Daniels’ family re-located to the 629-acre VFW National Home for Children in Eaton Rapids, Mich.

"We went from living in a seedy motel to a beautiful home with four bedrooms,” Daniels said. "It was unheard of stability for me. VFW gave me a real childhood. I got to go fishing and play in the woods. I had food and shelter.”

Daniels’ favorite memory of the home is "Cootie Christmas.” That’s when members of VFW’s Military Order of the Cootie host a Christmas party.

"Santa came on a firetruck with a big bag of gifts,” Daniels recalled. "I remember at one point in my life, my mom pawned her belongings to pay for our Christmas presents. So this was a really big deal.”

Daniels’ mom met her future husband — a VFW Post commander — at the home. They eventually married, and the family moved to Grand Ledge, Mich.

"I always knew that veterans were responsible for the home, and I intended to give back,” said Daniels, a member of VFW’s Department of Indiana. "From middle school on, I knew I

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said Daniels, a member of VFW’s Department of Indiana. "From middle school on, I knew I

was going to join. Then 9/11 happened, and it was set in stone. A friend showed up in his dress greens and I was like, ‘Yep, where do I sign up?’”

In 2004, Daniels enlisted in the Army and by 2005, he was in Iraq with the 1st Bn., 320th Field Artillery Regt., 101st Abn. Div.

On Nov. 15, 2005, while on a combat patrol in Taji, Iraq, Daniels’ Humvee rolled over an IED that was immediately detonated by a cellphone.

"Everything around me blew up,” Daniels said. "The four guys with me were killed. Spec. Travis Grigg, Staff Sgt. James Estep and Spec. Matthew Holley died immediately — Spec. Alexis Roman Cruz lived for 15 hours.”

‘I HAD TO LEARN TO WALK AGAIN’

Daniels lost his foot in the blast. He remembers being put on the gurney and his foot slid off it. He felt immense pain. He passed out and when he woke up 16 hours later, he was told everyone else had been killed. Doctors asked if he wanted to try and save his foot.

It would take 12 surgeries to do it, but Daniels’ foot was reattached.

"I had to learn to walk again,” he said. "I went from a wheelchair to a walker to crutches to a cane. I have a lot of nerve damage and residual pain, but I refuse to take pain meds. Initially, I was a medicated blur. I weaned myself off the medications, and I refuse to take them now.”

During the process of rebuilding his body, Daniels discovered a passion for fitness. Someone suggested he use his GI Bill benefits to become a personal trainer.

He took that suggestion and attended the American Academy of Personal Training in New York City. He also began teaching fitness classes in Manhattan.

During that time, Daniels also became a dad to a baby boy. Daniels and his son’s mom decided they didn’t want to raise their boy in New York City, so they moved to Michigan.

In Lansing, Daniels opened a boxing gym called emPOWer, which has been open for two years. He also works with the local court system to help children who have been sexually trafficked find their voice and to help build body confidence.

Daniels said he feels "blessed” that his hard work has paid off for him. He hopes to run for Lansing City Council one of these days and to also become active in VFW.

‘IT’S WHERE I’M SUPPOSED TO BE’
Daniels is one of thousands who have great memories of living on the campus of VFW’s

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National Home, which opened its doors to war widows and orphans in 1925.

For the National Home Executive Director Fred Puffenberger, his life has come full circle. He grew up in Eaton Rapids and had many good friends who lived there.

"We called them the ‘VFW Kids,’” Puffenberger said. "Some have come back to visit me since I got this position last year. My grandfather worked here in the 1920s as a herdsman, and my great aunt also worked here.”

Puffenberger fondly recalls the four Nowak brothers who lived in the New Jersey house. He got to spend the night there many times and even saw his first movie in a group setting there — it was the 1960s Alfred Hitchcock thriller "Psycho.”

"My history here is as if I lived here myself,” he said. "This is where I’m supposed to be. It’s kind of cosmic. It’s a legacy for me.”

Before coming to the home, Puffenberger worked all over the country in various roles. He also worked as a hospice volunteer and served on a board of trustees that oversees children in the foster care system.

During his first full year on the job, Puffenberger said he’s worked to really get to know the home’s 53 employees, noting that a number of them have been on staff for more than 20 years.

"I like to know what they think and what they would do,” Puffenberger said. "I want their ideas. Anybody who works here can come in and tell me what they think.”

Puffenberger noted that as of press time, 38 of the campus’s 42 homes were occupied. Each home has a different state sponsor. For example, the Colorado house is sponsored by the VFW Department of Colorado and its Auxiliary.

He added that Eaton Rapids businesses also support the home. One example, he said, was a donation of gift cards from a local pizza place to all the families on campus.

"This is a place of heart and of spirit,” Puffenberger said. "We want this home to be able to flourish. We can change lives; we just have to do it.”

‘THE HOME MEANT EVERYTHING TO ME’

Navy vet Terry Lewis can attest to how his life changed while living at the National Home. At age 3, he moved there in 1951 with his brother, Lynn. Their older sister, Connie, would join them a little later.

Their father — a WWII veteran who had served in France and Germany — suffered from what

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Their father — a WWII veteran who had served in France and Germany — suffered from what

is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. After the loss of one of his siblings in a house fire, Lewis said his mom suffered a mental breakdown and was institutionalized.

With no one to care for them, the National Home was the best option, according to Lewis. The VFW Post in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., referred the family to the home.

Lewis said he had a lot of good experiences at the home, including getting to meet Hopalong Cassidy and sit on his horse, Topper, when he was 4. At 5, he passed his swim test at the home’s pool.

One of Lewis’ fondest memories of growing up at the home, though, was the time his father visited and took the kids on a four-day fishing trip.

"That was the longest time that we ever spent with him while we were growing up,” Lewis said. "He also had gas model airplanes, and we flew the planes at the playground.”

Lewis’ mother remarried and lived in Detroit so he and his siblings were able to see her from time to time.

Lewis recalled watching movies in the community center every Saturday night as well as the Cootie Christmas.

He said there was a sleigh with live reindeer and Santa Claus. There was a lot of singing, and each child received a box with peanut brittle, gum, oranges and a box of chocolates.

"We all loved that,” Lewis said. "We were told to wait until we got home and then we could open up the candy. But every year I gave my mom the box of chocolates because I couldn’t shop for her. She just loved that chocolate.”

With the Vietnam War raging, Lewis decided to enlist in the Navy in 1966.

As a sonar technician, Lewis was assigned to the USS Eugene A. Greene. In 1968, he spent six months on a "goodwill cruise” to locations such as South America, Africa and the Middle East.

Lewis got out of the Navy in 1969 and went to art school in Grand Rapids, Mich. He later worked for the city of Bay City, Mich., for 27 years.

Today he is married and has a 17-year-old son. He recently authored a children’s book called Bani: A Butterfly Adventure.

"My time at the home meant everything to me, and I met so many wonderful people,” Lewis said. "I just don’t know where we would have been without it.”

JUST GETTING TO BE A KID

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One such friend Lewis made is Stephen Shelden, who lived at the National Home from 1953- 1968. He lived in the Pennsylvania 3 house with his brothers, Leonard and Merrill.

Hailing from the Chicago suburb of Evergreen Park, the trio lived at the home with a house mother. Shelden was 5 when he moved in.

"My mother was having issues so she was put in a mental institution,” Shelden said. "Dad was in the Army and had served in Hawaii, but he couldn’t take care of us.”

Shelden said he most enjoyed just getting to be a kid. He said he could play in different sports and go swimming and boating.

In high school, Shelden, along with four others, joined the Navy Reserve. Each Wednesday night, they reported to duty. Then their schedule changed to weekends.

"In 1969, I was on the USS Ashtabula in the Philippines,” Shelden said. "We would go off the coast of Vietnam to replenish fuel. Once, we experienced a typhoon with 120 mph winds. But at 20 years old, I was out there and feared nothing.”

A VFW life member of Post 701 in Lansing, Shelden retired from the Navy Reserve after 22 years.

"The Navy gave me a way to see places I would have never been able to otherwise,” Shelden added.

‘SUCH A GREAT EXPERIENCE’

In her second semester of her sophomore year of high school, Ann Gosnell was 15. She traveled from her home in Oregon to her new home.

Referred to the National Home by VFW Post 4307 in Enterprise, Ore., Gosnell lived at the North Dakota cottage with house parents Caroline and Ed.

"They were wonderful, amazing people,” said Gosnell, now a life member of VFW Post 4307. "It was all such a great experience. I was captain of the campus fire department, and I played volleyball for the home’s team.”

During her senior year at Eaton Rapids High School, Gosnell lived in an independent living apartment on campus.

"There were three of us girls who got to live there,” Gosnell said. "Basically, we lived there on our own to learn how to budget and buy groceries and just be responsible. It was an excellent experience.”

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After graduating high school, Gosnell attended nearby Lansing Community College for a semester and then decided to join the Army.

With three WWII vets as uncles and a father who was a Korean War vet, Gosnell felt the desire to serve.

Originally, she joined the Michigan National Guard, but ended up in Tennessee with the Tennessee National Guard.

She did a total of 18 years.

From 2004-2005, Gosnell served as a medic with the Tennessee National Guard’s 278th Regimental Combat Team at FOB Bernstein in Iraq.

On Oct. 12, 2005, Gosnell’s unit was 10 days from heading home. She was part of a convoy showing the replacements the route from FOB Bernstein to Camp Anaconda when they hit a roadside bomb.

"This was the first time we were blown up,” Gosnell said. "We were very lucky to have never gotten blown up before then.”

The blast sent the Humvee in which Gosnell was riding up into the air and slammed it back down. Her knee and shoulder were, and still are, damaged, as is her hearing.

Being a medic, though, Gosnell didn’t take time to evaluate the trauma to herself.

"I was worried about everyone else in the vehicle,” she recalled. "When we stopped, I climbed on top to check on my gunner in the turret.”

It wasn’t until she was back stateside and went to the VA that she discovered the extent of her injuries. Incidentally, she’s having shoulder surgery this month to help with the pain from the IED blast.

She departed the National Guard in 2006 and worked for the VA in Tennessee for a few years as a phlebotomist. Then she worked for children’s services.

Gosnell said she joined VFW as soon as she got back from Iraq. She was the Department of Oregon chaplain for the 2019- 2020 year and is now her Post’s chaplain.

"The National Home is supporting veterans and families,” Gosnell said. "It was certainly there for me.”

FINDING A PLACE FOR 11 SIBLINGS

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In 1987, Matt Lightner was 14, and his family was in jeopardy of being split up. He and his 10 siblings were going to be separated into foster homes all over the state of Michigan.

A few years before, the family’s home in Jackson, Mich., burned to the ground, and they had nothing.

Lightner’s parents divorced. The children were living with their paternal grandmother in a trailer park.

"The state was coming in and saying, ‘This isn’t going to work out,’” Lightner recalled. "My dad prayed, and my grandmother prayed. The pastor of the church came up to my grandmother and said, ‘Don’t worry, you will be taken care of.’ My dad heard about the National Home in the nick of time.”

Lightner’s dad’s Vietnam service qualified the children for residency. Matt lived in the Wisconsin house with some of his siblings and the others lived in another house on campus.

During his first 30 days on campus, Lightner met his neighbor, who had witnessed his parents die in a home fire, but made it out alive with his siblings. Lightner said it was a "humbling” experience for him to hear this.

"I was thinking, ‘I’ve got my parents and my brothers and sisters, and my gripe is that I lost my toys,’” Lightner said. "When you think you have it bad, there’s always someone who has it worse.”

Lightner said being at the home allowed him to "just be a kid like kids should be.” He was always fishing and would sometimes spend all day fishing.

He was a student captain with the fire department. He went sledding and played ice hockey. If he wanted to participate in after-school activities, transportation was always available.

Lightner joked that at school, National Home kids were known as the "poor little rich kids” because they all came from unfortunate circumstances but ended up being really cared for.

"The staff always had our best interests at heart,” Lightner said. "They all had that mission to provide love and care for children. Looking back, we took it for granted as kids.”

Lightner was a high school senior around the time of the Persian Gulf War. He said there was a lot of recruiting going on, but serving wasn’t on his radar — yet.

"I went to college and met a reservist,” Lightner said. "After that first year of college, I joined the Army Reserve and was in from 1992-1994.”

Somewhere along the line, Lightner decided that college was boring and so was the Army

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Somewhere along the line Lightner decided that college was boring and so was the Army

,— so he joined the Marines and stayed with them until 2007.

He deployed to Iraq in 2005 with Combat Logistics Regiment 25.
Today, Lightner is a watch commander for the U.S. Border Patrol in Michigan.

"Every house on the National Home campus has a U.S. flag,” said Lightner, a life member of VFW Post 9363 in Flat Rock, Mich. "You learn about patriotism. My service to country is attributed to the National Home.”

EMAIL jdyhouse@vfw.org

 Full Story in VFW Magazine

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