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Operation G.I. Jane brings hope to single-mom soldiers

Operation G.I. Jane founders Mike Wunder, from left, Donna Combs, Jula Jane and Keith Coggins stand by a Blackhawk helicopter at the Clay National Guard Center at Dobbins Air Force Base on Tuesday in Marietta. Operation G.I. Jane is a nonprofit geared toward assisting single US military moms and their children.  Coggins International employees and, specifically, Jula Jane have launched Operation G.I. Jane. Mike Wunder, also a Coggins employee and a deployment, field training and tactical operations specialist, has firsthand experiences with the struggles single military moms face.

Operation G.I. Jane founders Mike Wunder, from left, Donna Combs, Jula Jane and Keith Coggins stand by a Blackhawk helicopter at the Clay National Guard Center at Dobbins Air Force Base on Tuesday in Marietta. Operation G.I. Jane is a nonprofit geared toward assisting single US military moms and their children. Coggins International employees and, specifically, Jula Jane have launched Operation G.I. Jane. Mike Wunder, also a Coggins employee and a deployment, field training and tactical operations specialist, has firsthand experiences with the struggles single military moms face.

Today’s U.S. military looks very different from yesterday’s, as women now make up about 20 percent of it. More than 155,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan to date. Among those women are more than 30,000 single mothers, a number that military experts say is unprecedented.

The unique needs and problems faced by single moms in the military is why Operation G.I. Jane was formed. The driving forces behind creating the nonprofit are Jula Jane and Keith Coggins, corporate executives with Coggins International, a defense contractor specializing in fuel technology.

Jane’s thorough understanding of single mothers’ struggles and her passion for addressing them are evident.

“These women are doing an amazing thing for our country,” Jane said. “They need our help. They deserve it.”

The nonprofit initiative is designed to help single moms with everything from contact with their children, to airfare to get home to visit their children, to career counseling. Jane’s hope is that, through Operation G.I. Jane, single mothers will have a strong support system keeping fragile family bonds intact during a mother’s deployment.

One example is Donna Combs, former U.S Army Sargeant and now Coggins International instructor. Her story of the hardships endured by both she and her children during deployment are powerful. She served two tours in Kuwait and one in Iraq, and her two children were about 17 and 9 at the time.

“To me, the biggest thing as a mom serving in the military was asking that one question: ‘What if I don’t come back?’ Of course, that’s always hard, and you write that letter and put it away just in case. But then you think about not being able to put your child on the school bus or being there when they’ve had a bad day,” she said.

Combs said at times the pain was so piercing that she couldn’t even look at pictures of her children doing normal, everyday things. “I get emotional thinking about it even now,” she said.

As tough as the uncertainty and separation were for Combs to live with, she got the ultimate shock when she learned, during her first deployment, that her ex-husband had filed for full custody of her children. The legal documents cited “abandonment” and “instability” (both the result of her deployment) as the reason for the action, and Georgia’s civilian legal system agreed.

Combs could not effectively fight the domestic legal action with the constraints of living in a war zone that is about 36 hours from home. Phone and Internet time are precious. Legal maneuverings are expensive.

When asked how she got through the days, she said simply, “You just get numb. That keeps you sane.”

There was even a point when Combs returned to the States — after 20 years of service to her country — that she was homeless, living in her truck, because of the financial burden of child support and other legal wranglings. A proud woman, that period in her life is not easy for her to share. Surprisingly, her story is not unusual.

Operation G.I. Jane has one focus, and that is to prevent such stories from being repeated. According to Jane, “all of our employees are on board with supporting Operation G.I. Jane.”

From grassroots planning efforts to giving of their own time and money, Coggins International employees have given the fledgling organization a healthy start.

Buford resident Mike Wunder is one of those employees. A former Air Force specialist and now Director of Tactical Operations for Coggins International, Wunder points out that the 10-year war in which the United States is embroiled is the first in this country’s history in which female soldiers do the same jobs as men.

“We’ve never seen anything like (the number of women serving) in the military, or certainly in a war. I am proud to serve alongside these people,” said Wunder, who is one of many employees who has thrown himself behind Jane’s passion for single military moms.

Not a government agency or program, Operation G.I. Jane relies solely on private donations of money, time and resources. Saturday at 9 p.m. the first annual Halloween Hoorah fundraising gala will be held at Terminus, Buckhead in Atlanta. The public is invited to purchase tickets for the event at the door ($150 general admission) and be treated to an impressive military display featuring a Blackhawk helicopter and special operations personnel. Proceeds from the event will benefit Operation G.I. Jane.

To learn how to help single moms serving in the U.S. military through this initiative, or for more details about Halloween Hoorah, visit www.operation-gijane.org.