Keri Anne

Like most little girls, I dreamed of the fairytale life: meeting Prince Charming and living happily ever after. A glimpse into my childhood would reveal promise that it might come true. My father was a ranch foreman and my mother was the kind of stay-at-home mom who made from-scratch apple pies that superseded any comfort food you can imagine, and the most delicious donuts you would ever put in your mouth. My earliest memories are of magical days that affirmed the fairytale I imagined. I recall my father sitting me on the kitchen counter as we ate the raw dough for the apple pie. Then we’d head off to the barn to feed and groom the horses. I was surrounded by animals and sunshine, and it was a peaceful time — until my parents divorced. Then life became complicated, more so than any five-year-old should ever endure. My father immediately remarried and we did not maintain a close relationship after the divorce, so it was difficult to relate to him or my stepmom. I did not feel known. While I lived in Athens, I endured some painful and traumatic events that were weaved into the fabric of my heart forever. I was 14 when I returned to my mom’s house, who by then had moved to Arlington, TX. I did my best to just stuff my feelings and start over.

I married my high school sweetheart and we had two children together. Soon after the birth of our second child, my father fell ill and came to live with us during the last half-year of his life. I anticipated that it would be an awkward arrangement, but during those six months we were able to reconcile and come to a place of understanding; so I thought. My husband had deep-seated challenges stemming from his childhood that led to negative behaviors that were taken out on everyone that loved him, including the children and me. After six years of escalating negative behaviors, I decided that I could not take it anymore. This cycle is one that would repeat and continue for years in all my relationships, whether it was a partner, friend or loved one.

After many failed relationships, I had come to believe that this was all I was worth. If everyone I loved chose to misuse my good nature, then I must really be devoid of any value and must deserve this kind of treatment. These relational failures also deeply wounded my codependent spirit. I found my worth in making others happy, and felt as though the only way I contributed to a partnership, my family, or the world at large was to be a martyr, a helpmate, and a defender (which I now recognize as rescuing). It didn’t matter how tired I was, or how emotionally drained, or that I had no energy left for myself after managing everyone else’s lives. My driving focus was centered around their approval and their level of satisfaction. I had not been able to rescue or keep happy even one person I dearly loved, so I concluded that I truly had nothing to offer anyone.

Then I met Tom, and from the beginning, I just had a sense that this time it would be different. He was a Vietnam veteran, and due to his exposures to combat and the mistreatment he and other Vietnam soldiers received upon returning home, he was full to the brim with residual anger and unresolved trauma. None of us could understand the extreme cycles of highs and lows he suffered, or the emotional intensity in his personality. We had no idea that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress (PTS) – he did not even know. This marriage WAS different, because I loved him more intensely, but the treatment I received from him mirrored what I had experienced in the past. I could not understand why men continued to treat me this way. I lost all hope and even considered taking my own life, truly believing that I was a hindrance to this world. Fortunately, God mercilessly lifted me out of the shadows of the darkest pit I had ever experienced.

I could not continue living this way anymore — I had to do something different. The only immediate solution I could see was running from the situation, with my literal and figurative baggage still in my trunk. I finally stopped driving when we reached the far north end of the continent. I stepped foot onto the frozen soil of Alaska and manufactured a new beginning, securing a job for a nonprofit and doing the best I knew how to create a satisfying life for my daughter and me. A few months into this Alaskan journey, I received a phone call from Tom. He told me that he had undergone research therapy through the VA for his PTS, which opened his eyes to the trauma and challenges he faced during combat. He found true freedom from the conditioned behaviors that he could no longer control, and developed tools to maintain that freedom. Through this time apart, we both recognized the common denominator in all our failed relationships — us, as individuals. It was a hard pill to swallow, recognizing that we both lived in the persecutor-rescuer-victim triangle.

Over time, we were able to learn from each other a new way of living and looking at life. Yet, there was still much more we needed to learn about ourselves, like how to set healthy boundaries and defeat conditioned negative behaviors. I was wary to believe that he had made permanent, lasting changes that I could trust. I needed God to reveal His will to me in an unmistakable way, and within the next several months God started shutting the doors in Alaska. I loved it up there – it was beautiful, and it was a place of redemption and rebirth for me. It was my promised land after spending 40 years in the wilderness, and I was resistant to even considering another uprooting. Then a coworker gave me a book called “Redeeming Love” by Francine Rivers. I read it in four days and it revolutionized the way I viewed myself. I finally understood that I was worthy of being loved. I knew that I was fully loved by my heavenly Father, but for the first time I accepted that I deserved a fulfilling relationship while still here on earth. It became evident that the Lord was calling me home.

I reluctantly packed up our life in Alaska and started the eight-day journey back to Texas. I was spiritually confident that I was following the Lord’s will, but my human nature was mourning the loss of a place that had saved my sanity and given me a fresh start. Upon returning to Texas, I maintained a skeptical emotional distance from Tom because I needed him to demonstrate beyond reproach that he was a changed man. Over the course of time I received the solid confirmation I sought that Tom was the real deal, and the Lord softened my heart toward him. I was indeed in love with him again, and I adored him and respected him the way a wife should her husband. He was not perfect, but he was perfect for me. As I rediscovered Tom, it became evident that God had used my time in Alaska to dramatically change me from the inside out as well. I had learned how to make God the Father I never had and the perfect husband I would never find, and once I did that everything started falling into place.

Shortly thereafter, Tom became ill. The common cold had escalated into pneumonia, and after it persisted for a while I demanded that we go to the Dallas VA. This is when the life-altering journey began.

After performing several blood transfusions and ordering rigorous testing to conclude why his pneumonia was not responding readily to treatment, the doctor informed us that they were concerned about Tom’s blood counts. They had declined over the three prior months, and subsequently they wanted to perform a bone marrow biopsy. I was confused, not understanding the full ramifications of this conversation, so I asked, “What is it exactly that you’re looking for?”
He rattled off a short list of scary afflictions, which included cancer. I remained positive until we got the dreaded phone call, urging us to return to the clinic immediately for the biopsy results. The results came in as Stage 4 Myelodysplasia Syndrome, a bone marrow cancer that renders the body unable to create enough healthy blood cells. Without a bone marrow transplant, they estimated that he would not survive the year. I absolutely lost it – why would God bring me home and renew my heart toward Tom, just to take him away from me? This seemed like a cruel and unusual move, and it did not reconcile with the God I knew and trusted with my life. Why wouldn’t He just let me stay in Alaska where I felt happy and safe? Why would He bring me back into a land of desolation and despair?

We suited up for a fight for his life and went to battle. He received a bone marrow transplant at the Audie Murphy VA Hospital in San Antonio, where we stayed for five months. While we were there, we collaborated with local churches and started a ministry for other veterans and their caretakers in similar health battles. Patients would be in the hospital for months at a time, while their caretakers were placed at a hotel three miles away without a support system, transportation, or funds for food and living expenses. Our ministry arranged shuttles and services for these caretakers who had put their lives on hold to walk this journey with their loved ones. We also filed a case with the VA to recognize Myelodysplasia as a combat-related disease, since it is more likely than not that the chemical warfare in Vietnam was a main trigger and catalyst for this specific disease.

We arrived home from San Antonio in August of 2012 with a praise report of full remission. After a few weeks, he became urgently ill. We feared that his body was rejecting the bone marrow transplant and we drove straight to the VA in Dallas. Initially we were relieved to learn that it was a septic gallbladder causing his sickness, but we also learned that his blood counts were rapidly decreasing. He began receiving blood transfusions, but his body had built up a tolerance due to his numerous blood transfusions in the past. Everything went upside down. In October, just two months after his full remission status was achieved, they told us that there was nothing more they could do for Tom and that he had only a handful of days left.

He chose to spend his remaining seven days at home so that he could be surrounded by friends and family. We opened our home to everyone we knew, and over the course of five days we welcomed over 300 people in to fellowship with us. On the eve of his passing, Tom and I were sitting in the front yard enjoying the cool brisk morning as we reflected back. He took my hand and said, “There are only two regrets I have in this life. That I lived for myself longer than I lived for Christ, and the husband I was to you.” I told him I would not change the last 18 months of our life together for anything. God had given me a glimpse of His redeeming love. After he took his last breath, I felt so much guilt and powerlessness, as if I could control any part of what had happened.

The case that Tom and I filed with the VA back in 2011 is still pending and awaiting resolution. I made a commitment to my late husband that I would pursue everything humanly possible to ensure that other victims of this cruel disease receive the validation, care, and treatment that they deserve. There are thousands of veterans with the same disease that took Tom, but the VA does not recognize the disease as a war-related condition. I am currently working alongside experts in hematology and other international physicians to prove unequivocally that this condition is linked to chemical exposure in warfare, and right now our case is in front of the board of appeals in Washington. Our cause is beginning to receive attention from state and federal representatives, and I am hopeful that our combined voices will become loud enough to effect change for the troops with this disease that currently are not recognized by the VA. It has never been about receiving a monetary settlement – it is about redemption for these brave souls who put their lives on the line for you and me.

At the time that Tom went to be with the Lord, my son was just finishing his commitment to the military and my brother was still on active duty. They both had experienced extensive combat while serving multiple tours in the Middle East. Since decades had passed since Tom’s time in Vietnam, I’d only known the after-war version of his personality and hadn’t really considered that he exited the military different than how he had entered. I just assumed that the Tom I knew was the Tom he had always been. Thus, I was not prepared when my son returned home from combat as a completely transformed person who I did not fully recognize. I was of little use in supporting him, as I was grieving the loss of Tom and struggling with identity alongside him. I had lost my other half and did not know how to put the fragments of my heart and life back together, so my son could not really depend on me to be stable in his stead. Meanwhile, I was just floating around, emotionally numb, trying to make sense of my future and desperate for a way to release the pain in my soul.

Eventually I came to know Josh, a man whose influence and partnership in my life has been a game-changer in my direction and overall life. As I became acquainted with his family over time, Josh’s father told me about his experience attending Pathways several years prior. I did not give it much contemplation until my mother encountered some tests and trials in her life. I proposed to her that we go to Pathways together and make a girls’ weekend out of it, but when I called the Pathways office they strongly recommended that we attend in separate classes. It made sense that I would go first, because I believed that she would follow suit. I entered the training in August of 2015, with the sole purpose of getting my mom in the room. I had not even considered the possibility that there might be something in that room for me, because I placed all of my self-worth in how well I could care for others.

I was the boat anchor in the Weekend, spending much of my time justifying why this program was not intended for me. Nevertheless, when I entered the Walk it got real and I got serious. When we played the first night’s game and I realized that I had not reserved any remedy for myself, I finally felt the gravity of how malnourished and neglected my soul had become. I fell into a heap on the floor and wailed – I have never cried like that in my life. I was allowing myself to grieve Tom’s death for the first time since I lost him. I stayed in that fetal position until after they had dismissed us for the night, when Laurie Mitchell came and picked me up off the floor. She said, “It is okay to grieve. It is okay to take a break. We can revisit this later.” It was as if she was encouraging me to feel everything fully, while also giving me permission to want to enjoy life again and not feel guilty about it. That I could feel pain and joy concurrently and that it was okay. It was the beginning of healing. I gave myself permission to live again.

My journey through the rest of the Walk and Partners was nothing short of profound and miraculous. I served as a small group leader and I was humbled and honored when chosen as the Phil McGraw award recipient for Class 336. I was able to fully internalize the truth that I was not dishonoring the memory of my husband by wanting to embrace and enjoy the rest of my life – that he would want me to be happy and live life as God had intended, to the fullest. My heart is at peace. It is full, it is ever expanding, and I am free to pursue all the dreams God has placed in my heart. I learned how to set healthy boundaries, and how to recognize when to say “no” so that I can reserve energy for myself. It was finally clear to me that my worth was not attached to what I could do for others. I could love myself fiercely and that was enough. Along with surrendering to and aligning myself with God’s will, accepting me was all the approval and confirmation I would need moving forward. The self-love that I developed in the training formed the backbone of the resilience and determination that fulfilling my life’s mission will require.

Attending Teen Family Camp the following summer was a complete blessing that I struggle to encapsulate in words. My child had struggled with extreme anxiety in recent years, and I desperately wanted her to find herself and see herself the way God and I saw her. After her individual training on the teen side, she emerged as a very different kid. She was able to let go of her fears of loving someone to only lose them, and has embraced the gifts God instilled within her. Today my daughter is a social butterfly that exudes confidence and strength, and she loves freely. She has been accepted into Texas A&M to pursue science and engineering. I am so excited for her and the journey she chooses. I have full assurance that she will thrive as a mature and empowered young woman.

Within the walls of the parent training, everywhere I turned I experienced another “aha” moment about how I show up to my kids. I realized that I was still picturing them as little ones who needed me to protect them from harm at every turn. I learned how to relinquish control over their decisions, choosing instead to respect them as capable, independent people. It also enabled me to show my kids raw and real affection, which had not come naturally to me before. As for our shared relationship, it totally opened the lines of communication and allowed us to develop an intimate friendship on top of the parent-child connection. She knows that she can come to me with anything, and that I will hear her and love her with no judgment attached. Nothing can prepare you for parenthood, and there is nothing to prepare you to be a child. This program gives you the tools to break down the barriers that stand between you and your kids, allowing you to build a lasting bond that can cover all transgressions. If there is anything you could invest your money and time into that would be worth the sacrifice, it is not a vacation, a home, or a new car – it is Teen Family Camp.

Prior to, and after my Pathways journey, the Lord strongly impressed upon me that empowering the lives of veterans and their family members was going to become my life’s work and purpose. In hindsight, I can see clearly that the emotional issues that plagued Tom were undiagnosed symptoms of PTS. All of the military men I have loved have suffered tremendously, without support that is adequate to promote permanent improvements to their quality of life. If I can be a conduit of change and a beacon of light to even one returning veteran who is struggling to put his or her life back together, I will have been a success in this life. I am called to advocate on the behalf of those who do not have the strength, insight, or resources to pave the way to wholeness on their own. I am called to be God’s hands and feet in His mission to restore hope to these men and women who have lost their vision. They were at battle overseas, but the war is at home, and we must fight for them.

Even the strongest ones can lose themselves in the rubble. My dear friend took his own life in January of this year. He was a double amputee, a Purple Heart recipient and a veteran suicide prevention advocate. He had completed the Core Training through P1, and he seemed as determined and steady as ever, until he was not. If a man as resolute as he could succumb to his pain, I’m inclined to believe there is not a single veteran out there that is 100% bulletproof against the trauma that wounds their heart. I am determined to do everything I can to not let anyone fall through the cracks again. I am not naïve enough to think that I can save every single one, but I am devoted to making sure each one that crosses my path personally will be extended the opportunity to do different. My Pathways training contributes greatly here, because I have learned how to let go of control and understand that I cannot dictate or determine the outcomes in another person’s course. It is my job to love them exactly where they are. I can guide them toward resources and provide encouragement and understanding, but I cannot choose healthy things for them. If their choices are unhealthy, it is not a reflection of how well I loved them. That is a big breakthrough of peace for my soul.

Pathways reignited my goal to finish college and I decided to attack my studies at full tilt. I graduated with honors last May with a degree in business. I served as the President of Student Veterans of America while I was enrolled, and I was instrumental in the enactment of several changes which benefit the veteran community on and off campus. Last summer I accepted a position as a social worker, where I strive to provide emergency financial assistance to veterans and their families. My work requires a lot of listening and holding space with veterans who have found themselves in a bad place. I lean on my Pathways tools daily to spur them into new ways of thinking about their situation and their self-worth. I offer the Core Training to every veteran, but they must want it for themselves. I am grateful for the handful of those who have trusted me enough to attend Pathways – it is so rewarding to see them build a new reality for themselves from the core level of their heart, and to hear them say, “I am finally home.”

The first actualization of the support network I am a part of building for veterans is a program called Metal 4 Valor, which is my partner Josh’s main undertaking and an extension of his for-profit classic car restoration shop called Valor Built Kustoms. Metal 4 Valor is a nonprofit organization that assists veterans in rebuilding their lives by providing connection through cars. We offer free or low-cost car repairs to veterans, often inviting the veteran to participate in the rebuild and learn a skill set in mechanics at the same time. This on-the-job training opportunity is a building block for job placement assistance and entrepreneurial mentorship. We also accept donated cars and restore them into safe, reliable vehicles to provide transportation for veterans who cannot afford them on their own. We consistently weave the option of Pathways into the conversation as we seek ways to minister to them spiritually and emotionally.

The next phase of my personal mission is the culmination of years of prayers and brainstorming coming into fruition, a nonprofit project called Valor Ranch that is in the development stage. My ultimate vision is a vast expanse of land in the DFW Metroplex, scattered with tiny homes which will house female veterans who are homeless or facing homelessness and other personal crises. They will be able to stay on the ranch for a period, contributing to their room and board with sweat equity on the ranch. I envision a working farm with agriculture and livestock, and a community of women supporting each other as they heal through programs like equine therapy, group therapy, learning a trade, job placement help, creating a life plan and training in self-care. I am currently searching for the perfect plot of land, and God has connected me with a plethora of individuals who desire to participate in the venture. When I close my eyes and imagine all of the miracles that will take place in the hearts and lives of these women, my heart overflows. It is truly the pinnacle of my life’s mission, and it is so close I can taste it!

I still believe in my heart that my mom will attend Pathways one day. My mom is my angel and my best friend, and I want her to find the healing and wholeness I claimed in my training. I graduated three years ago and I do not claim to magically have everything completely figured out. What I do have is an awareness of my emotional stability, which allows me to recognize when I am veering off course and recalibrate. Within the H.O.P.E. acronym, the quality that is driving me most in this season of life is definitely PASSION. I am operating with a resounding fervor and frenzied pace to connect veterans and their families to the help and care they deserve. I must intentionally seek balance sometimes, because left untethered, my passion for these heroes has the ability to consume me – I love them so much. I have a renewed sense of connection with my family and I allow myself to dream big and love out loud. In all things, I commit to doing what is humanly possible and then I simply trust God to do the impossible and finish the job. I may have wandered in the wilderness for 40 years searching for purpose in this life, and the journey was full of heartache and struggle. Nevertheless, He has sustained me and delivered me from all the things that sought to destroy me, and the best part? He is not done writing my story. I am living on purpose, for His purpose, and embracing the journey.