Freedom Station II
Posted July 1, 2020
Transitions are hard, especially when they involve life-altering injuries such as disfigurement, the loss of a limb, or traumatic brain injury — wounds that can take months if not years of medical treatment to stabilize. They are also hard when you’re 25 years old and your life’s dream is to serve your country as your father did. That’s the position San Diegan Jasper Hernandez is in following open heart surgery related to injuries suffered during training. “I wanted to stay in the Marines,” Hernandez says, something he might have done even if he had lost of a limb. Marines are not easy to find, and they are arguably more capable than most, even down an arm or leg. However, Hernandez’s heart issue was a red flag, and continuing in the service was not an option.
That’s where the Warrior Foundation and its Freedom Stations step in, supporting service members making the difficult transition from military to civilian life.
Hernandez, who is now studying cyber security, is one of the first residents of Freedom Station II, a remarkable property in South Park dating to the 1920s which, like nearby Freedom Station I, consists of individual one-bedroom cottages around a central courtyard. South Park, one of San Diego’s many vibrant neighborhoods, is close to the Naval hospital, a must as many Freedom Station residents are engaged in extensive medical rehabilitation.
“I know from my experience the cottages work really well,” says retired Sergeant Povas Miknaitis, who spent a year recovering from his injuries at Freedom Station I and who now volunteers with the organization. “If it’s a door facing a door like in an apartment, marines and soldiers are going to treat it like a barracks. Here, you’re not far away, but you’re in your own home.”
San Diego is a Navy town, and many of those at Freedom Stations I and II are Navy and Marine personnel, but all branches are welcome, which is why the word “warrior” was chosen for the foundation’s name. “The terms ‘sailor,’ ‘marine,’ and ‘soldier’ have specific meanings to military people, but they are all warriors,” says Sandy Lehmkuhler, a 30-year Navy wife and mother who founded the organization in 2004.
The year is also important because the Warrior Foundation was created specifically in response to the wave of injured servicemen and women returning
from Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11. While volunteering at the Naval Hospital in Balboa Park, Lehmkuhler met two marines, one who had lost his left arm and one who had lost his right.
“They were helping each other dress, working together to button shirts and do their belts, but they couldn’t shave each other and were getting dinged each morning at inspection,” Lehmkuhler recalls. “It was Christmas and what they really wanted was a new Norelco razor you could use with one hand in the shower.”
Lehmkuhler tirelessly worked nonstop ever since, and over the past 16 years, Warrior Foundation has raised nearly $20 million. Only last year did the foundation hire its first paid employee, Col. Greg Martin, U.S. Marines, Ret. Martin commanded the wounded warrior effort on the West Coast for the Marines from 2008 to 2011 and cut the ribbon at Freedom Station I.
Martin grew up in a military family in San Diego and spent 30 years in the Marine Corps. “I thought I’d be in for four years but it really agreed with me. One of the things I loved was the sense of purpose and meaning, not only serving your country but also serving your marines in terms of leadership. That’s what led me here,” Martin explains. “[For] what senior officers like me have asked these people to do over the years, there is a sense of duty. I feel I owe these guys something. Every American does, but I’ve had a front row seat to the sacrifices they’ve made.” warriorfoundation.org Bill Abrams
Photography by Vincent Knakal