Story by Liesel Schmidt
Photography Courtesy of Military Hearts Matter
The heart. It’s the symbol so closely associated with love and Valentine’s Day. But far more importantly, the heart is the very source of life, the organ that works tirelessly in keeping the body running, the one that so often gets overlooked until something goes noticeably wrong. Far too frequently, however, even the signs that should alert us of problems are misunderstood or dismissed, excused as something minor as we go about our daily lives in hopes that, if we don’t see it, it’s not there. This is especially true if those warning signs don’t look exactly like the ones so regularly drilled into our heads: pain on the left side, tingling in the arm, shortness of breath and a heaviness in the chest. It’s not following the rules, so no need to make a fuss, right? Wrong.
According to the American Heart Association, some of the most important warning signs are often disregarded, marginalized or even misdiagnosed simply because they don’t fit the symptoms most commonly associated with heart disease. Heart attacks in women present themselves in ways unlike those in men, and people who have long been healthy and fit assume that they are immune to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, their heart might fail them. Not even age is a factor, as young people experience heart attacks and succumb to other forms of cardiac disease.
Unfortunately, assumptions that someone doesn’t quite fit the bill of what we normally consider to be the “ideal” candidate for developing heart disease is one of the biggest reasons that heart conditions have become such an issue, and military personnel are among the greatest population who do not receive proper support for heart health. Recognizing this need, Holly Vega and Kaprece James created a movement called Military Hearts Matter (MHM) in 2013, going on to co-found and officially launch in 2019.
MHM is non-profit organization whose goal is to educate, support and create programs for the military heart community together with a board, volunteers and ambassadors of military spouses and veterans. “What is not being recognized are some of the health issues that the military service members, their families and veterans struggle with every day,” says Vega. “One of those issues is heart health. MHM is important because of the work we do in helping provide resources and connect our military heart community.”
Funding from the non-profit comes through donations from supporters as well as through events, including the first annual Low Country Heart Health walk in the spring, in partnership with Beaufort Habitat for Humanity. “Donorship and events such as this walk will help raise money for MHM to operate and bring to fruition the important programs that we have created,” says Vega.
Volunteer efforts are crucial to the organization. One such volunteer, Jennifer Powers Hernandez, is an inspiration to those around her. “Jennifer is a military spouse of a retired Air Force member who served for 25 years. She is an amazing realtor who knows first-hand the stresses that come with the Permanent Change of Station move, relocating and establishing roots in a new community. Her goal is to provide her clients with constant support they can rely on as their needs change throughout their lives, and she sets the bar at providing only the highest level of real estate service. She is honest, and her integrity speaks volumes in everything she does—including being an invaluable advisor to Military Hearts Matter. We have been able to do so much this year because of her expertise and dedication to helping us support our military heart community. Heart disease is something that resonates with Jennifer and her family and the support that she gives our mil-heart community is something from a servant leader. Jennifer is enthusiastic and motivated, believing in moving forward with positive energy and being grateful for this life. She is deserving of being recognized for everything she does, but especially for everything she does for everyone else.”
“I believe in MHM’s mission and their compassion for military families struggling with heart health issues. While heart health issues are widespread, it gets little attention, and military families endure unique levels of stress apart from the rest of society.' - Jennifer Hernandez
“I believe in MHM’s mission and their compassion for military families struggling with heart health issues. While heart health issues are widespread, it gets little attention, and military families endure unique levels of stress apart from the rest of society,” says Hernandez, who has worked with MHM since its inception. “Educating families on how to keep blood pressure and stress levels in check goes a long way to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. I was inspired to work with and volunteer with MHM because the organization improves the lives of others and makes our military community a better place while lowering the risk of heart disease. My favorite part is seeing first-hand how MHM can bring a smile, demonstrate passion and offer support to a family who is [in] need.”
Fellow volunteer, Dr. Ingrid Herrera-Yee, is likewise inspired to work with MHM because she believes in the importance of its mission and founder. “Holly’s passion for the military community and heart health is unmatched,” says Herrera-Yee, who joined the organization a year ago. “You can't help but want to join her efforts in this space. The fact that this is the only organization of its kind, focused specifically on military heart health, makes it incredibly vital. This small, but mighty nonprofit is working hard to bring awareness to a largely overlooked issue that has serious implications for our community.”
A clinical and research psychologist as well as a military mental health and suicide prevention subject matter expert, Herrera-Yee currently works as a consultant for another non-profit focused on the needs of military and veteran families of color in addition to teaching multicultural psychology in a graduate program at Pepperdine University. She also established her own nonprofit focused on supporting military spouses in mental health fields. “As a military spouse, giving back to my community in any way I can is important to me and I always find time to do so,” she says. “Only with numbers can we truly make an impact and effectively push for change. Being a part of this amazing organization has also profoundly impacted my own health. Our family has lost loved ones to heart disease, yet it wasn't anything that really crossed my mind before. Now, because of my time volunteering with MHM, I've made significant lifestyle changes that, frankly, might not have occurred otherwise.”
As part of the MHM team, Herrera-Yee has proven herself invaluable. “Ingrid has worked tirelessly in the field of psychology for over a decade as a clinician, researcher, advocate, educator, policy wonk, writer and speaker,” says Vega. “Now an Army Reserve spouse, she was named the 2014 AFI National Guard Spouse of the Year. Currently, she is working for the Department of Defense as a government contractor and specializes in military mental health and policy. Ingrid is an avid volunteer and gives her time and talents to nonprofit organizations. She recently led the first ever military heart health survey and was part of the team to get an amendment passed by Congress for a Military Heart Health Day. She is not only a smart, educated woman who is driven, but she also has a giving heart.”
Through the work of MHM and its volunteers, the military heart is beating stronger—and yet stronger it will become, as we, in turn, serve the hearts who serve us.
For more information on Military Hearts Matter, visit militaryheartsmatter.org