SAN DIEGO — Freedom Station is a nonprofit support center and transitional housing program that works with the Warrior Foundation and the Naval Medical Center San Diego to help seriously injured military transition from military careers to successful civilian lives. Most servicemen and women who are currently in the program are paraplegics in their twenties.
The program began in May 2011, in response to the large number of seriously injured returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many returning troops suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, spinal cord injuries, amputations, traumatic brain injuries, burns and blindness. The program serves all military branches.
Fundraising efforts to start the program and scout for the right location began four years prior to its opening.
“We wanted to find somewhere neighborhoody enough, so they would have the experience of community,” Sandy Lehmkuhler, Navy wife and Freedom Station founder and president, said. “I saw two restaurants, two barbershops, and a Starbucks in the neighborhood and said we found us a home.”
Injured military who are undergoing rehabilitation and waiting for their medical retirement from military service are taught the norms of civilian life. The transition process takes about a year.
“They are still active duty dealing with injuries,” Lehmkuhler said. “We train them to begin to be civilians.”
Servicemen and women live independently in small cottages surrounded by a white picket fence and joined by a common outdoor space. The housing is located in the community of Golden Hills close to the Naval Medical Center San Diego, restaurants and coffee shops. This gives troops the advantage of staying connected to military services and becoming part of a vibrant civilian community.
“It’s wonderful to watch,” Lehmkuhler said. “The neighborhood has embraced them. We found what the boys needed.”
The focus of the program is to truly serve the needs of injured military as they transition to civilian life. Monthly budgeting, home building, job search skills, and college entrance procedures are taught to servicemen and women. Services are added as staff sees a need or troops make a request.
“We show them what they need to do for them to form a home,” Lehmkuhler said. “To
know how much they’re getting in housing allowance, to save to own furniture, to get a job and apartment.”
Lehmkuhler added that many servicemen and women in the program joined the military right out of high school and never held a civilian job.
“They are taking a breath and understanding what a civilian is,” Lehmkuhler said. “It’s their pride that makes them the fighters they are, but it’s also their pride that makes them not ask for help so easily.”
Lehmkuhler said she works closely with servicemen and women in the program and has seen many heartwarming moments as they meet new challenges in physical mobility and self-sufficiency.
“They are happy, smiling, social,” Lehmkuhler said. “One day they were rough housing in their wheelchairs and just being 20 year olds. Watch them, they will give The Greatest Generation a run for their money.”
Freedom Station currently leases the housing property and is working to raise funds to purchase it within a year.
Donations to support the program are accepted at the Freedom Station website, freedomstation.org.
There is also a TEXT2GIVE fundraiser taking place through April 19. Donors can text PRIDE to 20222 to automatically donate $5 to support the Freedom Station program.