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A Mom’s mission to help vets and soldiers grieve

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image Kelly Kowall speaks to volunteers at her new property. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Kelly Kowall stood on a beach and asked God for a ‘burning bush’ sign. Then a large caliber bullet washed up at her feet.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

RUSKIN — Kelly Kowall needed a sign. She didn’t want a nebulous sign subject to the interpretation of the moment. She needed something serious, something strong. It had been only a year since her son Spc. Corey Kowall had been killed in Afghanistan while en route to lending aide and support near his base.

“I jumped into my boat and went to an island, just walking around, talking to God,” Kowall related. “I said, look, God, if you really want me to do this, I’ll do it; but I need a sign. And not just a little sign, I need a burning bush sign.”

In the time since her son’s death, Kowall had become aware of a crack in the support system for veterans and soldiers. Across the nation, people drive around with yellow ribbons on their vehicles and say they “support the troops” but sometimes, frequently perhaps, more than symbols and words are needed. Sometimes, the big, strong men and the selfless, courageous women of the world’s most powerful military need more than that — they need a shoulder to lay their heads on. They need someone to understand just what had been lost: soldiers they depended upon, soldiers who protected them, soldiers they thought they should protect, brothers and sisters in arms who were taken from them senselessly. Men and women they loved now gone in the horror of war. Thoughts and feelings that are difficult to discuss but impossible to escape.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Administration recognizes the problem of grief in soldiers returning from combat but acknowledges that little has been done to deal with it. Men and women serving together in a unit frequently form bonds that go beyond description and the understanding of anyone who has not “been there.” Soldiers depend upon the members of the units with their very lives. In an environment in which not even the next breath can be taken for granted, the bonds form quickly and deeply. Even the military acknowledges that the attachment and bonding between soldiers are necessary elements for unit cohesiveness.

In chapter 11 of the Department of Defense Iraq War Clinician Guide, a section entitled Traumatic Grief: Symptomatology and Treatment for the Iraq War Veteran by Ilona Pivar, PhD, says that symptoms of grief are different from the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

“Although research into the prevalence and intensity of grief symptoms in war veterans is limited, clinicians recognize the importance for veterans of grieving the loss of comrades,” Dr. Pivar wrote. She went on to describe that from a limited sample of Vietnam combat veterans, “grief symptoms were detected at very high levels of intensity, thirty years post-loss.”

Kelly and Corey loved boating and being on the water. But Corey’s calling was serving his nation. Sometime after Corey’s funeral, Kowall began a non-profit organization that involved taking soldiers and veterans and families of veterans out on to Tampa Bay as a way to say thank you. She quickly began to realize that the boating trips were more than just a ride on the bay. Being on the water with someone who understands was a healing experience.

Her first thought was to buy a houseboat in order to provide housing to veterans to not only help with their grief but also to train them to be mentors for other returning vets. Kowall quickly realized that a houseboat alone wouldn’t be enough. She wanted to serve more soldiers and veterans than a houseboat could handle.

Factors that may influence the development of prolonged grief syndrome include: survivor guilt; feelings of powerlessness in not being able to prevent the death; anger at others who are thought to have caused the death; anger at oneself for committing a self-perceived error resulting in the death; tasks of survival in combat taking precedence over grieving; not having an opportunity in the field to acknowledge the death.
— Traumatic Grief: Symptomatology and Treatment for the Iraq War Veteran by Ilona Pivar, PhD

I am so sorry for your loss. You have my sympathies. Sorry to hear about your friend. That had to have been rough. I’m so glad you survived. Time heals all wounds. No one has a magic wand and no magic words can make things all better. By any measure, grief and bereavement are one of the most difficult aspects of human life in even the best and most supportive of circumstances. But imagine what it must be like if there is no opportunity to grieve or if grieving could result in further loss of life, perhaps even your own. Soldiers in a combat situation simply don’t have the luxury to experience that most difficult situation. Doing so could be fatal for them or for others. Tears could blind their eyes to mortal threats.

Dr. Pivar went on to say that, “Soldiers who lose their comrades in battle have been known to make heroic efforts to save them or recover their bodies. Some soldiers withdraw and become loners, seldom or never again making friends. Any sign of vulnerability or “losing” it can indicate that they are not tough enough to handle combat. Delaying grief may well postpone problems that can become chronic symptoms weeks, months and years later.”

Kelly Kowall was talking to God on an island beach. She asked for a sign, a burning bush sign that would help her to know if she should dramatically expand her plan to help returning veterans deal with their grief. As she asked for the sign, she turned towards the water and she saw that God answered her.

“I took two more steps and a wave washed up and it deposited a bullet at my feet,” she said.

It was a large caliber bullet. How it could have been washed up from a wave is anyone’s guess. But Kowall knew. She had her answer.

Bob Perez, the owner of a waterfront mobile home and RV park on 22nd Street NW in Ruskin offered to sell her the property on favorable terms. Many of the units were in various states of disrepair due to abuse and neglect by past tenants, but the basics were all good. In fact, the basics were great. In that park, Kelly Kowall could envision Key West colors and the peaceful, tranquil setting she needed, just the setting needed by the soldiers and veterans she plans to help. It is a place where a shoulder will always be available to lay a head upon; a place to make peace with the inexplicable.

Kowall, a certified life coach, enlisted the aid of friend and founder of Grief, Inc., Darcie Sims, PhD, and other mental health care and educational professionals to develop a peer-mentoring program to help soldiers and veterans deal with their losses. In doing so, she’ll not only help those who arrive at the beautiful campus she is building, they will go on to help others, thus greatly expanding the reach of the program and making a big step towards bridging a crack in the veteran support system.

A volunteer applies paint to one of the units. Mitch Traphagen PhotoTrash from cigarette butts to piles of old tires were found in corners of the property. The structure of the buildings was good, but after years of neglectful tenants, floors needed to be torn out, steps repaired and broken appliances discarded. The former owner of the property warned Kowall that she had her work cut out for her.

“I know I should be scared, but yet at the same time I just feel that God and my son and others up in Heaven are holding my hand and keeping me safe,” she said. “This is a lot, it should be overwhelming. I have to keep focused on just one step at a time. When my son died, I could only focus on the next minute or even the next breath.”

Now she is focusing on helping others take their next breath. Project Corregidor (taken from a nickname given to Corey by his grandfather) is alive and well. On Thursday, May 10, sixty people, which included many from Keller Williams Realty in Apollo Beach and Sun City Center, came out to hold her hand — and to pick up trash, a paint brush and to handle everything from floors to broken appliances. There is much to be done yet, Kowall’s need for assistance won’t go away anytime soon, but she has taken big steps forward on an infinite journey. It is, of course, a journey with no end for her or for the soldiers who find themselves laying their heads on her shoulder at this little corner of peace on a river.

Through the program, she hopes to have an impact in lowering the suicide rate, the divorce rate, and the drug and alcohol abuse that is on the rise around military bases across the country. At this former mobile park in Ruskin, Kowall found the safe environment she needs to make that happen.

She still hopes to buy a houseboat someday to use in the program. But right now she’s focusing on the emerging dream on her new property. Kelly Kowall is taking things one step at a time.

Eyes on the Sky’s Project Corregidor is a 501(c)(19) nonprofit organization. For more information on how you can help Kowall and our veterans, visit www.favebe.com or write to FAVE Project Corregidor, P.O. Box 3547, Apollo Beach, FL, 33572. Sponsorships, memberships, tribute or memorial donations and volunteer opportunities are available. The Iraq War Clinician Guide from the Department of Defense may be found on the web at www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/manuals/iraq-war-clinician-guide.asp

In addition to several individual volunteers, the following South Hillsborough businesses stepped forth to help Kowall with her dream of serving veterans in need:
- Staff members from Keller Williams Realty in Apollo Beach and Sun City Center
- Tim Gibson from Ace Hardware Apollo Beach
- Lisa Kennedy from Alley Cat
- Deforest Brown from Brown Comfort Systems
- Frank Patsche from Handyman Direct
- Mike O’Dell from Mike O’Dell Electric
- Randy Ramos from Riverview Plumbing
- Daniel Drohan from Sherman-Williams Ruskin
- Lori Graves from Southeast Windows & Glass, Inc.
- Dave Johnson from Tampa Crosstie & Landscape Supply, Inc.
- Mauricio Pinzon from Renovations Inc.
- Tammy Franco from Beautiful Walls & More
- Brian & Melissa Konitzer from All Trades (contractor)
- Rob Wolfe from Majestic Flooring
- Jacob Moore from John Moore’s Floors to Go
- Melvin’s Air Conditioning
- Rent King
- Buddy’s Home Furnishings
- A&M Furniture


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