Miami Jewish Health Systems give disabled veterans some holiday cheer

When Benjamin Rosario was on his way to help Iraqi citzens in 2005, his patrol vehicle was attacked.

After being hit by an improvised explosive device, the vehicle rolled over and ended up in a canal. Rosario was underwater for three minutes. His driver saved his life.

“Those were three long minutes,” he said. “The three longest minutes of my life.”

Rosario, a former military police for the Army and now a 37-year-old disabled veteran, received a Purple Heart after the incident.

On Friday, he and 37 other disabled veterans were honored at the Miami Jewish Health Systems’ Operation Heart and Soul holiday party. Standing alongside the veterans were their families — 28 significant others and 85 children.

Many of these disabled veterans are unemployed and struggling with post traumatic stress disorder — commonly referred to as PTSD — which causes individuals to experience flashbacks, nightmares, frightening thoughts, trouble sleeping and depression, among other symptoms.

Rosario, who joined the Army from Puerto Rico and is married with four kids — three daughters and a son — says that serving in the military helped him appreciate his freedom, because he saw that “freedom isn’t free” in other places. While in Iraq, Rosario also helped to rebuild schools, helped children and fought for women’s rights.

“It’s very fulfilling to protect our nation,” he said. “I would do it all over again.”

Besides the disabled veterans being honored, their children were able to submit wish lists of what they wanted for Christmas. During the party, the children were presented with a box filled with four to five gifts found on their lists — tablets, bicycles and clothes were among the popular wish-list items.

Leslee Geller, a director of residential living at Miami Jewish Health, named the party Operation Heart and Soul because she says soldiers are “the heart and soul of our freedom.”

“I believe that these women and men honor us with their selfless determination by serving our country and it is really important to show them how important they are to us,” she said.

Jeffrey Freimark, the president of Miami Jewish Health Systems, is really thankful they are able to give back and says it is improtant to remember our veterans.

“We wouldn’t have the freedom we have today if it wasn’t for them,” he said. “We can’t ever forget them.”

The party kicked off with lunch from Perricone’s Marketplace and Cafe, and the Star Spangled Banner. Miami Heat mascot Burnie was there to surprise the children, and there was dancing and a DJ. Organizations also donated items to each of the veteran’s families: passes to the Miami Seaquarium, a kayak rental, a $50 Publix gift card, passes to Pinecrest Gardens, and a pass to Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden.

“The contributions and generosity from the people affiliated has been overwhelming,” Geller said. “Nobody said no to me, and that shows this is very important.”

Ellen Oakes, director of marketing, communications and public relations at Miami Jewish Health Systems, added that the employees and residents have also helped.

“A lot of the people we serve are in their 80s or 90s and served in World War II,” she said. “In honoring our soldiers, we are also honoring the residents we have living here that served.”

Janette Chandler, the Family Readiness support assistant for the Army Reserve, was one of the wish-list shoppers. She served in the Navy for 20 years, and is also a disabled veteran. She works with Navy sailors, Army soldiers and veterans to provide them with the resources and outreach services they need.

“What Leslee has done for these diabled veterans is phenomenal,” she said. “There are a lot of people that don’t know the struggles and challenges these veterans go through on a daily basis.”

Among the disabled veterans honored was 39-year-old Hugo Gonzalez, who became legally blind after his platoon was ambushed while serving as a combat patrol for the Army in Iraq. The improvised explosive device left him without vision in his right eye, and with slight peripheral vision in his left eye.

“It’s enough to see my babies, and I’m grateful for that,” he said.

Gonzalez, who is married with children, said he is honored that Miami Jewish Health Systems put together Operation Heart and Soul.

“This event is important because a lot of disabeld veterans aren’t able to get their kids good gifts because we can’t work and our spouses become our caregivers,” he said. “When soldiers go to war, their families go to war. When soliders are wounded, their families are wounded. It’s blood and tears, but I would serve again. A thousand times over.”

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