Heather Sliwinski had the full, undivided attention of the gathered fifth graders in Jessica White's classroom at Longstreth Elementary Thursday afternoon. Even at their young ages, with so much to learn and experience, they completely understood the power of the photos Sliwinski showed them of wounded and burned Iraq and Afghanistan veterans living their every day lives.
One particular set of slides highlighted the achievements of Corporal Todd Love, who lost both his legs right below his hips and most of his left arm on Oct. 25, 2010. Through his recuperation regimen at the VA hospital in Bethesda, Md., he has been able to continue participating in many of the activities he did before he went to war, proven by the images of Cpl. Love on ski slopes, at gun ranges or finishing a 5K race on his wheelchair.
"Nothing was going to stop him from doing the things he loves," said Sliwinski.
The Warminster mother of six first met Cpl. Love during one of her countless trips to the VA hospital. She is constantly in contact with veterans as part of her work with Operation First Response, an organization that specializes in helping wounded soldiers transition back to their normal lives.
"When they are wounded in battle, the soldiers are medically retired from the service," said Sliwinski. "Until the Veterans Administration has put them in the system and determined how much they are going to receive in wages and benefits, they get nothing. They can go six months to a year without pay. We help bridge that gap."
The financial support is the primary function of Operation First Response, including fundraisers such as its annual Walk for the Wounded held in Media or acceptance of online donations at its website. But Sliwinski and the rest of the Operation First Response members are also there to offer emotional and spiritual support.
It is a national organization, Sliwinski says, but strives to keep its mom-and-pop personality by building deep relationships with the wounded vets they assist.
"It's a 24/7 job," said Sliwinski. "I might get a call at 3 in the morning from a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder who is in a tailspin and needs help. I'll stay with him and try to calm him down until he gets the help he needs."
Sliwinski began her work supporting the troops immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks and the start of the War in Afghanistan. She took two, large bins, painted them red, white and blue and placed them at the end of her driveway, urging her friends and neighbors to fill them with items that she would later pack up into care package and send to the troops in the Middle East.
"Socks, clothing, toiletries, snacks," said Sliwinski. "It started piling up so quickly that I could have sent one care package a day."
By 2004, the shipping charges started to become too costly and Sliwinski needed to find a new venue to continue her work. That's when she learned of Operation First Response, called up its founder, Peggy Baker, and asked to join the team. Now, she brings the care packages to VA hospitals around the country.
There have been 32,224 wounded soldiers since the onset of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. From Oct. 7 to Nov. 3 of this year alone, 391 have been wounded in Afghanistan and 21 in Iraq.
"People ask me why I go to the hospitals, because it must be so depressing," said Sliwinski. "It's not depressing at all. These soldiers are phenomenal. I am watching miracles every time I go."
The respect, admiration and love for the soldiers she cares for is palpable, as is the undeniable special affinity she has for Cpl. Love. The simple reason for that is the special bond that has formed between the 21-year-old veteran and her 11-year-old son, Luke.
"They first met when Luke went with me to Bethesda in April," said Sliwinski. "There was an instant connection, and now they are basically brothers."
Of her six children, Luke has been the most involved with Sliwinski's work. She says that Luke takes it upon himself to talk to a vet every day and travels with her to the VA hospitals as much as possible.
"I was a little worried about how he would react to seeing such devestating injuries," she said. "But he was able to immediately look at the most severely burned person and only see a hero."
Luke knew by the age of four that he wanted to become a marine and pestered his mother practically every day about joining the Young Marine Corps up until he turned 8, which is the minimum age requirement to enter a program that carries all the way through high school.
"He showed up to his first meeting two days after his eighth birthday," Sliwinski says. "Luke was the youngest to enter their basic training program, because most kids don't express interest until they are 11 or 12."
Dressed in his Young Marine uniform, Luke addressed the rest of his fifth grade classmates before Sliwinski began her presentation. Reading from an essay he wrote, he encouraged the rest of the room to find inspiration from the true heroes fighting on the battlefield and recuperating at the VA hospitals, instead of on the football fields or basketball courts.
Luke's path to the armed services is pretty much set in stone, a reality that Sliwinski has learned to accept in light of what she sees everyday at the hospitals.
"It scares me to death," said Sliwinski. "And it makes me incredibly proud at the same time."