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Retirees create network to help active-duty families

Apr. 20, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Retired Maj. Mick O'Donnell and his wife, Karin, seated, created Retirees on Call at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., after a conversation with base chaplain Lt. Col. Dwayne Keener, standing right. Other retirees quickly joined the effort, including retired Master Sgt. Larry Hoch and his wife, Thetis.
Retired Maj. Mick O'Donnell and his wife, Karin, seated, created Retirees on Call at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., after a conversation with base chaplain Lt. Col. Dwayne Keener, standing right. Other retirees quickly joined the effort, including retired Master Sgt. Larry Hoch and his wife, Thetis. (Ross Tweten / Air Force)
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GOLDSBORO, N.C. — One airman couldn’t fit an oil change into his busy schedule.

A young woman caring for two small children during her husband’s deployment had to leave the store without her groceries when one of them got sick in the checkout line.

An 87-year-old former Air Force nurse didn’t know the first thing about setting up the laptop she received for Christmas — or what to do when she got an exorbitant bill for her first month of Internet service.

For the last few months, a group of retired airmen from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., has stepped in to solve crises both big and small.

They got the airman an oil change. They went shopping for the young mother, delivering the groceries to her doorstep. They set up the computer for the retired nurse, whittled down that bill and negotiated an introductory rate through the end of 2015.

The do-gooders call themselves Retirees on Call. ROC for short. Retired Maj. Mick O’Donnell came up with the name and the concept. He couldn’t get the word “rock” out of his head during a brainstorming session — or the song from Queen, he said with a laugh.

“You can be the rock,” said his wife, Karin, “and also when you rock people, you move them.”

That’s what they’re all about. The group has hosted dinners and delivered home-cooked meals. They’ve baked cookies for active-duty airmen, filled in as babysitters, checked on an Air Force wife whose parents were worried after their son-in-law’s deployment.

It all started with, well, a little bit of bellyaching.

Active-duty airmen and retirees in this Air Force community seemed cut off from one another, O’Donnell mentioned to the base chaplain, Lt. Col. Dwayne Keener.

“Several families had difficulties solving problems when their husbands were gone,” Karin added.

When airmen returned from deployments, they sometimes struggled to find their place again. There were rising incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder and spousal abuse.

Keener challenged O’Donnell to come up with a way to help.

“I thought about it for awhile,” O’Donnell said. “I was guilty of saying, ‘Somebody ought to do something.’ Why not here, why not now, why not us?”

Been there, done that

When retired Master Sgt. Larry Hoch and his wife, Thetis, read about ROC in the local newspaper in January, they knew they had to get involved. They joined the group’s steering committee.

Like the O’Donnells, the Hoches have been married for more than four decades. Both couples survived war — the men are Vietnam veterans — clandestine deployments and moves halfway around the world. They left behind pregnant wives and got news of illness and injury by letter.

Karin and Thetis tended the home front, dealing with pregnancies and parenting while their husbands were in harm’s way and their families were often states away.

Hoch, an aircraft mechanic, had been home from Vietnam for just eight months when he was sent to Thailand. Thetis was pregnant with their second child at the time. She waited for six weeks to learn where he’d gone. Hoch returned 10 days before the baby was born, only to be deployed again when the baby was six weeks old.

O’Donnell, a navigator, was in Saigon when he got a letter from Karin that said she’d slipped down some stairs and broken her leg, but not to worry, because she was doing all right. Karin was in Germany and O’Donnell in Pakistan when their daughter needed stitches. A neighbor took them to the hospital.

“We understand when [wives] talk about their husband being gone,” Karin said. They understand unusual schedules, adjusting to new routines and new places and new faces.

“When you’re on your own, it’s like a big magnifying glass in front of all the bad things. You have to find support for when things go wrong. And things always go wrong when your husband’s deployed,” Thetis said. “I used to feel like my brain was turning to banana pudding when Larry was gone.”

But Retirees on Call isn’t just for families of the deployed.

“The military has strange hours, sometimes,” Karin said knowingly.

“We want military families to feel like they have extended family here,” Thetis said. “They may have 500 friends on Facebook, but if they are gong through a hard day, they don’t need a friend on Facebook. They need someone to sit across the table with them with a cup of coffee, or to clean up that throw-up so you can take a walk.”

The O’Donnells spent about three months laying the groundwork for ROC after that initial inspiration. They got clearances and approvals and the blessing of 4th Fighter Wing commander Col. Jeannie Leavitt. They set guidelines and goals and reached out to area churches for guidance.

They hung posters around base describing what they are there for: a home-cooked meal, an errand, a babysitter, a sanity break, a sounding board.

Keener, the chaplain, provided them with a narrow office with a small window in the base chapel, plus a phone line with voice mail they check regularly.

It’s bare bones — a desk, a computer, a copier and a paper shredder, a couple of binders with “ROC” spelled vertically on the spines and a potted tree in one corner. But, Thetis pointed out, “Microsoft started in a garage, and Mrs. Fields started in her kitchen.”

Keener calls ROC a complement to the warrior care and spiritual care offered at Seymour Johnson, a tool in a toolbox.

“Those four people ... are a glimpse of a gold mine,” Keener said of the O’Donnells and Hoches. “It’s tragic we have retirees in the community who have skill sets and we don’t use them.”

'Legs on love'

Retirees on Call hosted their first monthly dinner at the base chapel in January.

An area church provided the main course and ROC pitched in the rest. There was spaghetti and barbecue and lots of side dishes — and so much left over, the families got to take some home with them.

“We won’t have to cook for a couple of days,” the retirees heard one woman say.

From a seventh grader: “They have the best food in the world here.”

But it was so much more than that, Thetis said. “It quickly changed from just a dinner to a real family atmosphere. It was like looking at the cross-section of a family.”

The children, she said, “were in grandma and grandpa heaven.”

It was equally gratifying for the retirees, many of whom live far away from their grandkids. They took turns cuddling the baby in the group.

“We’re getting the word out, getting people to believe we’re really here,” Karin said. “People say, ‘What’s the catch?’ There is no catch.”

Thetis calls it “putting legs on our love.” Two families showed up for the first dinner. Three showed up for the second. They hoped more would come in April. All you have to do is call and let them know you plan to be there.

“We feed anyone. That’s our philosophy,” Thetis said.

During a quick stop in the base visitor center one recent morning, O’Donnell took the opportunity to spread the word.

“Do you like to cook and clean up?” he asked the airman behind the counter.

She made a face and shook her head. Then, O’Donnell told the airman, she might enjoy stopping by the chapel for dinner April 24.

“Do you have kids?” he asked. “Make sure you bring them, too.”

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