TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Melissa Jarboe says she had a choice when her husband, Sgt. Jamie Jarboe, died of injuries he suffered at the hands of a sniper in Afghanistan.
She could take the pain, set it aside and try to forget; or she could take the lessons learned during the 11 months she and Jamie spent navigating the often confusing military health and benefits system and use them to help others veterans and their families.
Melissa chose the latter.
"I learned the system and learned it so well that, now, I just couldn't stop," she said. "How could I take all this information and say, 'I have a personal tragedy so I can no longer do this?' I couldn't do that. I know there are people out there hurting like Jamie and I did. It's my way of giving back to let them know they're not alone because Jamie and I sat in that room and we were alone."
Melissa's efforts in founding the Military Veterans Project are earning her the Military Courage award in the Kansas Capital Red Cross' first-ever Tribute to Heroes event, April 28 at Topeka's downtown Ramada. She is among 10 winners who will be honored.
Sgt. Jamie Jarboe was hit by a sniper's bullet in Afghanistan, April 10th, 2011. It left him paralyzed and fighting for his life. Melissa said being at his side as he fought to recover changed her life forever. She says he was never being upset that he was wounded, onlythankful he was an American.
Jamie was flown home the following February and was able to spend his last four weeks close to Melissa and the girls in a Topeka hospital. Nearly a year after he was shot, Jamie passed away.
For Melissa, a new life was born.
She decided to use Jamie's benefits to form a non-profit organization to carry on his legacy. What started as the Jamie Jarboe Foundation is now known as the Military Veterans Project, or MVP. A large part of its work is dedicated to advocating for and educating wounded warriors, military veterans and their families on health care and benefits issues, helping them to navigate the red tape of the system using all the knowledge Melissa gained during the 11 months she did the same thing with Jamie.
In two years, that piece of the organization's mission has Melissa and her army of volunteers handling some 1800 cases. All have contacted MVP for help and most learned of it through word of mouth. Among those they have helped is a widow whose husband died of cancer and she went five weeks without benefits because she didn't know who to contact. There also was a triple amputee who developed a bone infection because, in moving after his release from a treatment facility, he did not know how to seek out new caregivers and his prior caregivers did not know how to find him. They also have a pharmacist on their board who assists in reviewing medication lists for veterans who may have multiple prescriptions from multiple facilities and doctors.
"It's not because the military doesn't care, but because of that red tape," Melissa said. "Maybe they're restrained or short-staffed. We can fill that gap."
MVP also works to honor veterans. This past fall, Melissa led volunteers in organizing a week of activities leading up to Topeka's first Veterans Day parade. It also has a variety of ways to support military families. MVP purchased a cabin in Minnesota that can be used for get aways. Plus, they host retreats addressing issues like stress and financial concerns.
Sara Kay Hughes of Lincoln, Nebraska nominated Melissa for the Red Cross Military Courage Award. She followed the Jarboes' story on Facebook and now volunteers for MVP.
"She is so driving and a beacon of hope for all lives she touches," Sara Kay said. "She is the most selfless, humble person I have ever met."
Melissa says the honor is gratifying, but it isn't about her.
"It means to me that veterans are being heard," she said. "All our miliary veterans, all our service members today giving me the freedom to do what I do are the heroes. They're the reason I do this."
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