Project Refit: Combating Isolation

Wayde Rozniewski sits in Afghanistan. The blurriness and haze represents the effects of PTSD and TBI. (Image edit courtesy of Audrey Smith, Advent Creative)

On May 13, 2014, when Command Sergeant Major Martin “Gunny” Barreras died of combat wounds, his sacrifice inspired an organization called Project Refit. Project Refit is a veteran community built around combating the isolation, pain, and struggles of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) through proactive communication and proactive outreach.

The Soldiers who created Project Refit have PTSD and TBI. They know too well that the mental struggle is isolating and that it creates a stigma of broken individuals. But the ethos at Project Refit is a blunt answer to it: “F*** the stigma.” They have built a network among veterans, first responders, and even civilians to provide an outlet for people to express themselves. This network is a means for people to communicate their problems or pains. No matter how heavy the burden, this organization is there to help people lift it.

Project Refit’s mission, fighting isolation, is about more than connecting over the internet, like with their Blue Skies app and Radio Check program. They want to reach out to veterans and first responders in person to build their network. That will be happening soon with the Project Refit Mobile Base. They are currently fundraising to take the mobile base active.

In Memory of CSM Barreras

To this day, May 13 weighs very heavily on Project Refit’s founders. “Gunny” Barreras, a former Marine turned Soldier, was a powerful leader. He did not confine himself behind the desk., He led his Soldiers outside the wire on patrols and missions. During an ambush on May 5th, Gunny was shot by a sniper. He succumbed to his wounds eight days later, May 13. Each year, Project Refit members and other veterans of 2nd Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, join together to commemorate their Sergeant Major.

At left, CSM Martin "Gunny" Barreras poses in uniform. At right, his soldiers pose with a photograph of him. Gunny Barreras' memory is the spirit of Project Refit.
At left, Command Sgt Maj Martin “Gunny” Barreras. At right, his soldiers pose with a photo of him.

It is a testament to the unity that CSM Barreras instilled in these men that they created Project Refit. Daniel Lombard and Wayde Rozniewski, co-founders of the organization, have both suffered from the psychological impact after their combat experiences. Dan’s vehicle was struck by a 200 lbs IED during his first deployment; Wayde’s built up as he saw the brutality and inhumanity of combat first hand. Another founding member, James Corbett, is a civilian who made “support the troops” his call to action.

Porject Refit co-founder SGT Wayde Rozniewski sits for a moment while on patrol in Afghanistan.
SGT Wayde Rozniewski on deployment in Afghanistan.

James’ story is simple: he reached out to Dan during a time of isolation and struggle with PTSD. After his deployment in 2017, Dan had posted on Facebook “I’m coming back home! If I’m an a**hole, sorry.” Dan was still starting to realize, and not fully understanding, the symptoms of his PTSD and TBI at the time. James, a stranger, reached out to talk. James explains his part very simply: “I’m just a patriot, man.”

That conversation put Project Refit into motion. Today the organization uses their own social media, the Blue Sky app, a podcast called FML, and an interactive program called the Radio Check.

Left image depicts Project Refit co-founder Daniel Lombard being awarded his Purple Heart. At right is the vehicle he was driving when he struck a 200 lbs IED.
At left, SPC Daniel Lombard receives his Purple Heart. At right is the vehicle he was operating after it was struck

“Blue Skies, Boys” – CSM “Gunny” Barreras

The Blue Skies app is so named because blue skies mean God loves the infantry. It is named for Gunny Barreras declaring “blue skies” after a quiet, easy mission. The app is strictly for veterans and first responders. To ensure this, access is locked with a speakeasy-style password. To gain access, your credentials must be proven. The app provides each participant with a fire team. They designed it this way so individuals may build bonds and mutual trust in their fire team.

There is a “vent” button that, when the person just needs to vent their issue, lets them write or record it. The vent is broadcast to the fire team. If a team member cannot reply in time, it is rebroadcast to a larger group within the app. The goal is that when someone needs to vent, someone else is always available to listen.

Radio Check

Project Refit hosts interactive events, called “Radio Checks,” on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. To say the least, they are powerful. I sat in on the Wednesday meeting, a closed event strictly for military and law enforcement. When it kicked off, I immediately knew I was among fellow vets. Curse words, jokes and jabs, and wild stories about military nonsense (like talk about giant Afghan hedgehogs painted blue) that just do not equate among civilians. It builds trust and engagement, which is crucial for when somebody is burdened.

People often arrive on the Radio Checks in utter anonymity to express their struggle. When somebody is struggling, the focus shifts to listening. There is no judgment, no comparison of pain, just support and help for somebody in need. They challenge each other positively, in order to prevent the struggling individual from bottling up and isolating when they need help.

During the meeting, a retired police officer said “you guys opened me up.” Over decades in law enforcement, he had no idea that he was internalizing his traumatic experiences. But those stressors were building inside him and appearing negatively in his daily life.

Facebook Live Radio Checks

Mondays and Fridays, Project Refit hosts Facebook Live events. There are no requirements to enter these Radio Checks. There have been many cases where civilians, many being sexual assault survivors, checked in to talk about their struggle with trauma. Even though the organization was designed for veterans and first responders, they do not turn anyone away. Pain is pain.

One young woman joined with apprehension. She was unsure about talking about her problem among military and law enforcement who had experienced the horrors of war. But despite that, she opened with “I have something I want to say.” What she found was a community that helped her bear her burden. As she expressed herself, she felt empowered to seek help. Some time later, Dan received an email from her mother stating “I haven’t seen her smiling this much in years.”

The Project Refit team works together in an open space
The Project Refit team from left to right: Chad, James Corbett,
and Wayde Rozniewski

Mobile Base

The Mobile Base is the next big step for Project Refit. The mobile is, as they describe it, a VFW on wheels. The first mobile base will tour primarily around the Northeast, since Project Refit is based in New Jersey. But their plan is to go wherever they can to help their brothers and sisters. The Mobile Base is has been built. The final goal before hitting the road is an adequate truck to tow it.

On May 27, Project Refit will be hosting a golf outing fundraiser in Turnersville, New Jersey. Iraqi interpreter and warrior legend Johnny Walker will be the keynote guest for the event. They also sell coffee to raise funds for Project Refit. The organization has the long term goal of getting the word out during active duty transition assistance courses. They also plan to provide mental health and counseling resources.

The programs these men have created are remarkable. The communities they have developed are a truly unique resource for anybody suffering from PTSD and TBI. Please help Project Refit carry on in their mission!

*****

Featured photo: Wayde Rozniewski sits in Afghanistan. The blurriness and haze represents the effects of PTSD and TBI. (Image edit courtesy of Audrey Smith, Advent Creative)

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