Ann Yingling: Advocating for our wounded warriors
Ann Yingling’s home reflects the experiences of her life. Cuckoo clocks chime and sing on the hour. Polish pottery adorns shelves and a 100-piece Hummel figurine collection stares out from behind a glass cabinet. Korean and German antiques grace the rooms. A vase is from Bangkok; another piece of pottery from El Paso. Dozens of birdhouses collected from all over the world are scattered around the sunroom. It all seems perfectly suited to the home of this lady who has traveled a lot, has humorous stories about each move she has made, and a genuine fondness for each place she has lived.
Until just a few years ago, Ann Yingling had moved nineteen times in her married life. An Army wife of 30 years, Ann knows the joys and hardship of military life. She has experienced the joy of living in places all over the world – the hardship of nineteen moves; the joy of learning to make friends easily and readily; the hardship of her kids changing schools nearly every year; the joy of seeing soldiers who have been overseas reunited with their loved ones, the hardship of watching these same brave men and women deploy.
Never a bystander in life, Ann has a background of getting involved. She is as much connected to the Army today as she ever has been – even though her husband, Jay, retired a couple of months ago. Ann has put her experience as an Army wife and a veteran of military life into good use by working for the Army’s Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) as an Advocate for severely injured soldiers returning from the Global War on Terrorism.
Instituted about five years ago after wounded soldiers experienced much-publicized problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, AW2 is the official U.S. Army program that oversees and serves severely wounded, injured and ill soldiers, returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families. The program started at Walter Reed along with several other large military hospitals and then was instituted in VA hospitals and military installations across the country.
Today, there are approximately 5,600 soldiers in the program nationwide, many with injuries such as amputations, loss of vision, loss of hearing, severe burns, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries, and paralysis. There are about 120 Advocates across the nation working with the soldiers on a one-to-one basis, counseling and facilitating the soldiers’ progression back into careers and civilian life. Ann has been the Advocate for the program at the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur since September 2008. Her territory covers a region that includes the Atlanta metropolitan area and beyond to the North Georgia Mountains, Athens and Columbus.
“Basically, what I do is cut through the red tape so we can help our wounded warriors get what they need and help them transition back into civilian life,” says Ann. “As an Advocate for the program, I have a caseload of soldiers that I help. Each one of these soldiers is injured in some way – some more than others. All of mine have been medically retired and have come home to Atlanta. I do everything from helping them get their VA benefits started to setting up medical appointments. A lot of times, they have financial problems; perhaps someone is behind on a house payment. I help them get assistance. Recently, I went with one person to get his new I.D. cards. I’m helping another get a service dog.”
Ann’s Peachtree City neighbor Rita Briggs has known her for eight years and believes Ann’s compassion makes her the perfect AW2 Advocate. “Ann sees the joy in this job. Helping the soldiers work through their problems – even the little successes – is very rewarding for her,” says Rita.
Ann was not very familiar with the AW2 program before she took the job, but when she read the job description, she realized it was the perfect job for her. “I thought, ‘This job is what my experience as an army wife has led me to. I have to do this – this is me.’ I just begged the gal who hired me for the job,” she says laughing. “I kept saying, ‘Please, I can do this job for you. It’s in my heart!’ Later, she told me that she had heard the passion in my voice, and she knew that I would be the perfect person for the job. I found out that over 100 people applied for the position. I’m so lucky. I love this job and feel really, really fortunate that I got it. I believe that the journey of my life has prepared me to work with these wounded soldiers.”
And once you talk to Ann, you understand that statement completely. With a Masters Degree in counseling, Ann, who grew up in Kansas, was a high school counselor when she met her future husband, a U.S. Army Lieutenant at the time, at Fort Riley, Kansas. Once they were married, the Yinglings left for Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Ann stepped into the whirlwind activity of an Army officer’s wife. She and Jay believed in keeping their family together as much as possible, so over the years the couple and their three children saw assignments in Army posts across the United States as well as three overseas assignments — Germany, Korea (the most challenging) and Hawaii (the favorite).
“Ann jumped into this Army business with both feet,” says Jay Yingling, who retired as Major General Operations Officer of Forces Command at Fort McPherson in 2009. “She cares about people. From the very beginning, she was taking care of the soldiers and their families in my battalion.” Jay relates that Ann did everything from making sure that soldiers without families nearby received Christmas stockings to lending a hand to wives whose husbands were deployed.
Each of the Yingling’s moves presented Ann with direct insights into the life of Army families and opportunities to use her counseling skills. “I’ve been working in Army family programs all of these 30 years – mostly in a volunteer capacity because we were moving around every two years,” says Ann. “I always loved taking care of Army families. It’s tough on families whose husbands are deployed. For the most part, the wives are young, many with babies. They are left at home on their own – many times with little experience in managing the family finances and day-to-day issues that come up.”
Ann assisted military families through Family Readiness Groups and Army Family Team Building, a program which teaches young spouses all about life in the military. She’s sat on numerous boards of directors, including those for Child Care, the Officer’s Wives Club and the Thrift Shop.
Barbara Curasi, who now lives in Peachtree City but met Ann in 1986 when Jay Yingling and Barbara’s husband, Vince, were stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, applauds Ann’s willingness to volunteer her time to Army families. “Ann is incredibly compassionate. She doesn’t know a stranger. She will go out of her way to help others. Ann Yingling is one of the ‘good guys,’” says Barbara admiringly.
Besides her volunteer work, Ann found some employment along the way, too, as a counselor at the Army Education Center and one time as the manager of a post thrift shop. “But when you move every two years, it’s hard to find a career job,” says Ann. “So when Jay decided to retire, I said, ‘Now, it’s my turn.’ I knew he would support me in whatever I wanted to do, and I wanted to continue working with Army families. I was looking for a job with ACAP (Army Career and Alumni Program), which helps retirees transition with finding a job, when I read about the position with AW2 Wounded Warrior.”
Her degree in counseling and her 30-year journey as an Army wife, supplemented by a training program in Washington D.C. ,were a firm foundation for her Advocate position, but Ann says she was still overwhelmed during the first six months on the job. “It takes time to learn a job, but because of being involved in the Army so long, I immediately understood a lot of the hardships and the red tape.”
“When you have a AW2 Advocate that has the experience that Ann has – knows the Army the way she does, you couldn’t be in better hands,” says Jay Yingling proudly. “Plus, as we say in the Army, it all begins with attitude. And Ann’s attitude is always positive. She sees the glass half full, not half empty.”
Ann has 52 soldiers and their families on her caseload; all are medically discharged with severe injuries and most have post traumatic stress disorder as well. The youngest soldier is 19 and a couple are in their 50s, but the average age is around 23. “Unfortunately, this is a growing business,” says Ann sadly. “I don’t like to think of it that way, but it is. The Army is hiring more Advocates all the time, but right now, I am the only one with this program in the Atlanta area.”
Ann sees most of her caseload of soldiers when they come to Atlanta’s VA hospital for appointments, but if they receive their medical care elsewhere, she travels to them. “I try to see each person at least once a quarter. I talk to them all at least once a month. There are a couple of people that I talk to nearly every day. It just depends on the severity of their injuries.”
Is being an Advocate for AW2 stressful for Ann? Certainly, but she focuses more on the rewards. “This is the most heartbreaking job I have ever had, but it’s also the most heartwarming. And I am in awe of the bravery of our young people. I’ve got a 19-year-old whose life will never be the same, but he is proud of his service to his country. I am amazed and inspired. How do they dig so deep – these kids – that they have found that kind of courage?”
One of Anne’s charges, Adam Emory, grew up in Newnan and lived in Fayette County at one time. “Adam often wears a t-shirt to his VA appointments,” says Ann. “On the front, it says ‘What have you done for your country lately?’ And on the back, it says, ‘I took a bullet to the head on April 27, 2007.’ Adam was hit in the head by a sniper in Iraq and has a traumatic brain injury. He told me that he wears the t-shirt because he gets tired of people looking at him strangely. It is so sobering. He is only 32 years old.”
Adam, a medically retired staff sergeant, relates that Ann got him admitted into Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta for therapy. “If it hadn’t been for her, it wouldn’t have happened,” he says emphatically. “Ann really looks out for me. She is a good person to talk to and she gets things done. There needs to be more Advocates for soldiers – and more Advocates like Ann. She bends over backwards, and it is greatly appreciated.”
“Kansas breeds real good people,” laughs Barbara Curasi, who knows all of Ann’s Kansas family. “Ann is a down-to-earth Kansas girl. She is pragmatic. She can work through the emotions and get the job done. Plus, she goes the extra mile.”
“The AW2 Wounded Warriors program’s motto is ‘as long as it takes,’” says Ann. “In other words, I’m going to be this Advocate for these service people on my caseload and their families until they tell me, ‘Ann, go away. I don’t need you anymore!’”
Dedicated, compassionate, and energetic, Ann Yingling is a good person to have on your side – the perfect Advocate for the men and women soldiers who much deserve compassion, dedication and thanks from us all.