Operation Comfort strives to help vets ‘reinvent their dreams’

Janis Roznowski has made it her mission to provide comfort to wounded veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

While working as a flight attendant in 2003 on military charters from the United States to Kuwait, some of the first soldiers Roznowski met were from a reserve unit. Most of them had been college students just weeks earlier. Now they were on their way to combat in places such as Baghdad, Ramadi and Fallujah.

“They were so young, and many of them had not been able to get in touch with their families (since deploying), so I started sending messages home for them,” said Roznowski, who’s 65. “It took me back to the time my brothers went off to war, and came back to an ungrateful nation. I wanted to do something about it.”

As casualties from the two wars began to mount, the San Antonio resident knew exactly where to start: at nearby Brooke Army Medical Center, a major recovery and rehabilitation facility for wounded American troops.

Within a year, Roznowski and her husband, Tom, who’d served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, had raised enough money to fix up a waiting room at the hospital. Operation Comfort had been born.

A decade later, the nonprofit group provides a range of support for today’s wounded veterans, including automotive repair classes, financial support for cash-strapped families and sports programs for amputees.

Last month, Joshua Sweeney, a former Marine who lost both legs above the knee in Afghanistan, was a gold medalist on the U.S. sled hockey team at the Sochi Winter Paralympics. A former hockey player, Sweeney learned sled hockey through the assistance of Operation Comfort.

“We are generally focused on connecting with men and women just after they’re wounded, and letting them know we can help them do anything they want to do,” said Roznowski, who retired from American Airlines in 2007 to devote all her time to Operation Comfort. “We want to help them reinvent their dreams.”

In many ways, the trajectory of Roznowski’s life has come full circle. She did her first volunteer work in San Antonio at the Army hospital in 1970, soon after moving there from her hometown in San Angelo, Texas.

“My roommate and I would go visit the Vietnam veterans,” said Roznowski, whose two older brothers had fought in the war. “We’d take them out to dinner or to the movies. We just wanted to do anything we could to help lift their spirits.”

Her oldest brother, Jerry Wike, a former Marine, later died at age 54 from liver cancer likely caused by Agent Orange. Exposure to the defoliant has been linked to a range of serious diseases in U.S. veterans and their descendants.

Roznowski said the scorn and neglect that Vietnam veterans faced had made coming home better for today’s younger veterans.

“Vietnam veterans are the ones who brought issues like Agent Orange and PTSD to the forefront and have come out en masse to support our returning vets,” she said. “They understand what the younger veterans went through and just want to help.”

With the recent charity bike ride through Vietnam, younger veterans are giving back to those who welcomed them home.

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Reed and Brown are McClatchy special correspondents based in Vietnam.