Supporting veterans and families
Some of the biggest ideas are born out of hardship.
In 2003, Army veteran Susan Fenske experienced post trauma as a result of a deployment to Iraq. Her experience would later inspire her to establish the American Heroes Foundation. The Prineville resident noted it was after her experience in Iraq that she had the idea to start the foundation, which will raise funds and donate dollars and time to recipient military veteran and first responder organizations. The selected organizations support veteran's and first responder's physical, mental and emotional health.
Joining the military
Fenske joined the United States Army at the age of 20. She was stationed in Germany and served in a field artillery unit in communications and as a combat medic life saver. In 2003, her unit deployed to Iraq, and the tour was approximately one year.
In 2005, when she received orders for a second deployment, she chose to stay behind, as she had just had her first child.
"My husband at the time was also deploying, and we just had our first child, so we decided that I would stay behind," indicated Fenske.
In 2005, Fenske also made the decision to get out of the Army.
"I was having a hard time with that decision because I had a lot of anger from the deployment and what we had seen and what we had witnessed," she said. "I thought I had to continue to fight, so I went on to school and finished my bachelors' in terrorism."
She worked for just under 10 years for the Department of Homeland Security and helped manage training on some of the devices the terrorists are using.
"I still had that anger and that feeling in the pit of my stomach that I just didn't feel OK," Fenske noted.
She had moments on the checkpoints on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) where she would start having flashbacks.
"I couldn't manage my stress. I got in touch with the veterans' center in Bend and started talking to a counselor and started working through some things and was eventually diagnosed with severe post trauma," Fenske recalled. "That was hard for me to take because I didn't want to be disabled, and I didn't want that title."
Shortly after her diagnosis, she shared her story with Central Oregon Daily, on their series "War Stories." It is a series that is aired on Monday evenings and shares stories from Central Oregon military veterans.
"I was afraid of what people might think, and they might change the way they think of me. It actually turned out to be a really great outcome and people really started opening up to me," Fenske went on to say.
In 2016, Fenske left the Department of Homeland Security and joined wildland firefighting. She took notice of some of the stressors that were associated with firefighting. She did a summer with a hotshot crew.
"I had some flashbacks on a dozer line. It was the sounds of the dozer coming down the line, the trees banging, the chainsaws running, the trees falling to the ground, and the radio chatter and the whole dust storm—just the mixture of it all was overwhelming," she recalled.
Fenske has continued with the veteran's center. After trying firefighting, she made the decision to try emergency medical service (EMS). She had trained in the medical field and wondered if this was the path she was meant to take.
"I was on one of my ride alongs, and I just kind of froze up again," she said of this part of her career in EMS.
Finding strength for new beginnings
"It took a lot to find the strength to start the (American Heroes) Foundation, and I started it because of all the pathways I had taken and all the things that I had overcome, and I wanted to start it to let people know that it was possible," Fenske said of her reasons for beginning the foundation.
She also researched many of the employee assistance programs (EAP) and support programs within the many federal agencies that she had served with. She found that they were not adequate in serving veterans and people coping with the associated stress that veterans experience.
"I discovered that they only cover three counseling sessions, which is hardly enough to really get to know the person or find out if this person is going to work for them. Basically, what my foundation will do, it will offer the cost coverage for people who are struggling," she further explained.
In March of 2020, a sergeant chaplain assistant whom she had served with took his life.
"That hit really hard, because he was so awesome to serve with," Fenske said with emotion. "You never expect those things to hit you like that, especially when it was such an awesome person that lifted us up so many times overseas. His family was left with nothing because it was a suicide."
She rallied with her comrades and raised money for his family, which is one example of the type of events the foundation will cover.
"A lot of the times the insurances don't want to pay, and it's a time when the family is grieving the hardest and they have the most unanswered questions," Fenske explained. "That's where I want to come in and be there for them with that cost coverage and take some of that stress off of them during that time."
One of the programs that she and her husband have become certified for is a 12-week reboot program. It involves a dissection of the pathways into your life to present, and the faith-based program looks at the trauma experienced in the lives of first responders and veterans.
Fenske indicated that they also received a COVID grant from Crook County during the holiday season, and it will pay for mental health awareness classes.
"It was very validating to the foundation, and we were really grateful for that."
"I want it to grow, and eventually I want to have a peer support program where we connect people through their experiences and through their organizations," Fenske concluded.
American Heroes Foundation is a faith-based 501c3
To reach Susan Fenske or the American Heroes Foundation, call 541-390-2310
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.