Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Airman Paige R Villers, A True Hero


A few months ago, I had the pleasure of "meeting" Wing-sister Michelle Villers through another Wing-sister online in our Air Force Moms and Dads support group. One of the benefits I have gained from the Military is meeting other moms and families all across the US and having an instant connection because they "Get it". Michelle comes from an extensive Military Family. Her Grandfather Sam Smith served in the Army. All three of his sons served – Joe in the Air Force (during the Korean War), Kaye in the Navy & Army and her dad in the Army. Michelle's brother followed in their footsteps serving in the Army. She is very proud of each of them and their service to our great country.

But the affiliation that touches my heart the most is Michelle's daughter, Paige R. Villers, who was an Airman in the Air Force. Paige died shortly after graduating and becoming an Airman. Though her career in the Air Force was very short, she exemplified what a true Airman is. She was also the first woman in Michelle's family to serve in the military.

Michelle loves to spend her time with family and friends, making new friends, and  sharing her faith in Jesus. Also reading, writing, making & preserving good memories, and listening to music. Taking her sweet little Daisy (her white poodle) for walks, is a pleasure! Things that turn Michelle off are when people take advantage of others, and when people take people for granted or people who are selfish and self-centered. 

It was through my Wing-sister that Michelle became acquainted with me and Military Apparel Company. Our Mission: “Change the World one creation at a time by creating custom, meaningful bags and accessories crafted from personal military uniforms while giving back to the Military and their families.” spoke volumes to Michelle as it does for me.

In Michelle's words:
What is there not to love! A military uniform represents the great men and women who willingly give of themselves to serve the people of the United States. Every person who joins the military is aware that this service could mean  laying down their lives not only figuratively but literally. Yet they willingly agree to do this. Those who serve in the military deserve our respect and our sincere appreciation for doing this. The uniform they proudly wear makes us aware that we are in the presence of some of our finest and  bravest people in America. It’s not the uniform in and of itself that we honor – but who it represents. In particular, I know that Paige was so proud to wear the uniform. And I am proud of her for earning the privilege to wear it.

For the families of the military, the uniforms that our loved ones wear are also very important to us. It’s symbolic of their willingness to work hard, to serve, to protect and sometimes give the ultimate sacrifice – their life. Loved ones of military personnel pay a price as well. They are separated from not only their military person but from other family members – sometimes for long periods of time. Sometimes they are separated from that person until they greet them in Heaven.

The uniform is a tangible piece of our military person. It is something we know they are proud to wear and it identifies them as someone who said I am willing to lay down my life for my brother. It is sad to think of how many of these symbolic pieces of honor would end up “abandoned in attics, isolated in closets, retired, forgotten…” or dropped off at a Goodwill without a second thought.

I love that Eve had a dream and a vision to give uniforms a “second chance”. She has given us a way to “wear” our loved one’s uniform with as much pride as they themselves wore it. Eve is using her amazing gift and creativity to give back to the families of those serving. It gives us a tangible reminder of the pride we feel for our military. Wearing and using our military apparel custom creations also allows us to “brag” about our heroes as many people have asked me about my creations.

Paige’s uniforms were neatly tucked away in her room and I could barely bring myself to look at them, knowing the sacrifice she paid to wear them. But when I found Military Apparel Co. through my friend Deb Estep, I knew that I wanted to have something special from her uniforms. I knew that I wanted to display with pride my daughter’s legacy.

But Eve has gone beyond providing a treasure for us, she gives back to the military - by donating 10% of her proceeds to organizations that support the military! In all that Eve does she shows her passion and commitment to serving military families. Like I first said, what is there not to love about Military Apparel Company. 

From the moment I first contacted Military Apparel Company I feel like I became a part of their family. My rep, Lori Thueme, contacted me very quickly and offered her assistance to me. Before we even got into the handbags, she asked me with sincere interest about Paige. Nothing does a grieving mother’s heart good than when she gets to talk about the child she lost. It really made me feel connected to her right away.

There are so many beautiful handbags I had a hard time choosing. But after considering the details of each one I had it narrowed down to a few. After describing my “purse preferences” Lori guided me to the perfect one. But my bigger struggle was letting go of Paige’s uniform. Sending it in the mail really scared me. What if it got damaged? Or worse – lost! Lori assured me that they never had a problem getting a package and that I could track it.

It was exciting to give my input on my creation as well. I had some ideas of what I wanted but really left it up to the creative designers at Military Apparel Company. I tracked my package to Eve’s doorstep and waited anxiously for my priceless creations. Eve and company were excellent at keeping in touch and keeping me posted on things. Eve also talked with me about Paige and it really touched my heart. After she got them in the mail on their way back to me I got a sneak peak on Facebook. It was so great seeing them and made me all the more excited to receive them. Surprisingly, they were made much quicker than I anticipated.

When I received the items in the mail I was overwhelmed. The quality of work was unsurpassed and every detail I had requested plus some were carefully crafted out of Paige’s uniform. I had something that not only could I be proud of because it belonged to my special hero, but was a high quality item, too.

Now, instead of Paige’s uniforms being packed away and unseen, I carry them with me everywhere I go. Paige’s uniforms, now transformed into usable works of art, are with me constantly and I can share the pride I have of her with others.

I have the Companion for my laptop, Tenderness is my everyday handbag, and Connection for my keys. I had a heart pin made to embellish my Companion bag. There are more pieces I plan to get.

I love my creations so much that I was excited to share with others who love and miss Paige so much. I had a Success wallet and Connection key chain made for her dad, a Success wallet for her brother, a Success wallet for her papa and a Beauty bag for her mema. I had Hope change purse and Connection key chain made for my sister, Paige’s aunt. I had Connection key chains made for Paige’s closest friends. My sister Christina loved her items so much she had some more made. It’s been such a blessing to be able to share something Paige was so proud of with her family and friends. All of this has been made sweeter by the relationship and connection I’ve made with Lori, Eve and company. I hope to meet them in person someday!

The photos in the collage are Paige in her blues for the first time, trying them on in preparation for graduation. She was so proud to put these on; Paige after she came out of a coma for 30 days. Miraculously she had no brain damage and, what we thought, was on her way to recovery. Photo of Michelle with her creations…..proudly displaying Companion laptop bag, Tenderness purse, and Connection key ring. 

When Paige was a senior in high school she got pregnant. Initially, I was shocked and upset. Eventually we pulled together as a family and worked through a difficult situation. The young man that Paige was with was not in a position in his life to be a parent. Paige, on the other hand, wanted nothing more than to raise her son. She was in love with him early on. However, Paige came from a broken home and I was a single mom for several years before her wonderful dad came in the picture. But this experience showed Paige that, even though she could love her son enough, he needed a father who could love him as much, too. As Paige worked her way through her senior year while being pregnant, she came to the decision of choosing adoption for her son. Though it broke her heart she knew it was what was best for him. She loved him enough to give him what she couldn’t. What surprised and upset Paige, was how many of her peers expressed that they could never give their baby for adoption and would choose abortion.

On June 6, 2006, Paige proudly walked across the graduation stage, (I should say waddled across), to receive the diploma she worked hard for. Three days later, on June 9, 2006, she delivered her beautiful, perfect son. For three days, they spent every moment together in that hospital room. She adored him and poured all her love into him. On the third day Paige did the most difficult thing in her life – she handed over her son to someone else to be his parents.

Paige grieved this loss, knowing that she was giving him the very best. She reflected on her life and how she got to the place of getting pregnant and the consequences she faced as a result. She knew firsthand how painful this was. She decided that she would do something with her life to make a difference so that other young women wouldn’t have to go through the same pain that she did. She wanted to go to college to become a counselor to help young women make better choices and have a better chance at having a successful life. She also wanted to do something with her life that her son could be very proud of her someday. She also told me that she wanted to give back to the country that she loved and was grateful to live in. Joining the military was the answer to all of her goals.

Paige came to me and her father that September and said she wanted to join the Air Force. I was a little surprised but we have many military members/veterans in our family and have always had a love and respect for our military. She would be our first woman in the family to join.   
On March 13th, 2007, Paige was flown to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio to start her basic training. When she was finally allowed to contact us she was so excited and so proud of what she was doing. She loved being in the military.

Paige started getting sick a few weeks before graduation. At first the doctor thought it was allergies, then a bad cold. Soon she was rushed to the hospital and admitted for 3 days. They diagnosed her with mononucleosis. They released her to med-holding (the place they assign all the trainees who are sick, injured, or trying to find a way home). She did not want to be there. All she wanted was to graduate and get on with her career in the Air Force.

While in med-holding she was instructed no exercise, no strenuous activity at all. That didn’t stop Paige. If she couldn’t keep training she was going to help others get through it. Her Training Instructor informed us that he had to keep an eye on her so that she would stay in resting status but it was difficult because she was out there with her comrades cheering them on and telling them they could do it.

Instead of getting better Paige got worse. On May 16th, 2007, I received a phone call from her that she was rushed to Wilford Hall Medical Center and they said she had pneumonia. Pneumonia caused by very rare virus – adenovirus 14. I refused to worry because pneumonia only killed the elderly, not strong, healthy 19 year olds. Shortly after her phone call, the ER doctor called to tell me that it was life and death serious and I needed to get there as soon as possible. They had to put her in a coma in order to put her on a specialized ventilator because her oxygen levels had dropped so low. The earliest flight I could get from Cleveland to San Antonio was the next morning at 6 am. I couldn’t get there faster if I drove. My sister scheduled a flight as well, and my husband stayed home with our son. I thought, “She’ll get better, she’ll get over this bad hump and I’ll be home soon.”

I couldn’t believe what I saw when I got there. It didn’t even look like Paige. The next 30 days were very touch and go – every day. After several aggressive, unconventional medical procedures, they were able to bring her out of the coma on June 22nd. The concern at that point was brain damage from lack of oxygen. But Paige was completely there and remembered everything up to the point at being in the ER. Everyone was pleasantly surprised.

 Paige’s first question after she became alert and coherent was, “Mom, am I still in the Air Force?” and I told her yes and told her where she was. Then she asked, “Am I going to graduate”. I told her we would work on that. Paige did graduate as an airman on July 20th, 2007. I couldn’t have been more proud of her (for the second time). Not only did she graduate but she was the youngest Airmen to receive the Air Force Achievement Medal. The Air Force was going to medically retire her for 5 years and then reevaluate her to see if she could stay in. That’s what she wanted. She wanted to remain in the AF and get better and come back stronger.

We made plans for her to come home and be rehabilitated. Unfortunately, on July 22nd she started having seizures. The medical staff was baffled. They had to put her back in a coma and it took them 3 days to finally diagnose her. She suffered from another very rare disease – demyelination. On August 7, 2007, the doctors made the decision to remove the ventilator and Paige passed into the arms of Jesus 40 minutes later. She took a piece of my heart with her.

Paige is the bravest, strongest, most determined person I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing - much braver and stronger than I could ever hope to be. She had a dream – to help others not suffer the pain that she did. I wanted to make her dream come true. When I made the decision that I needed to do this but didn’t know how, God began opening doors for me. He dropped into my lap a non-profit organization – already set up with the State of Ohio and the IRS – that was needing reorganization and the people who established it were ready to turn it over to someone who could use it to help others once again. I filed the necessary amendments to make it the P.A.I.G.E. Foundation. My sister was on board without a second thought and came up with an acronym for Paige and our purpose - Pregnancy Adoption Information Guidance and Education. Paige’s dream continued on. Three of Paige’s closest friends jumped on board shortly after and the P.A.I.G.E. Foundation was in full force. Our goal is to educate young women to make better choices in their life, to help young women who are pregnant and aren’t ready for the responsibility know all their options, to reduce (or eliminate abortion), and ultimately, by achieving these goals there will be less poverty, more opportunities for people to achieve their life goals, fewer abortions and stronger families.

Through fundraising, the generosity of our donors, and the commitment of our volunteers we’ve been able to raise money to help young women who are dealing with unexpected pregnancies. We’ve provided clothing, cribs, car seats, food, and financial help to several young women. And as we continue to grow and God leads us we hope to get Paige’s message to young girls before they make choices that could affect them the rest of their lives. It’s my honor to carry on my daughter’s dream.