HUDSON —"We all have a passion for veterans. We’re in for the long haul ... I know that it’s actually starting to bear fruit right now."
That’s how Sagamore Hills resident Ray Tutolo describes the people he works with in the military ministry he launched to help veterans. The group meets at Christ Community Chapel, 750 W. Streetsboro St. in Hudson.
Tutolo, a Vietnam veteran, said when he returned from service, he was in a support group "that helped me process some things." He recalled that many Vietnam veterans were not treated well upon their return home.
"We don’t let that happen," said Tutolo, who served as a medic in the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968.
About four years ago, with U.S. Marine officer Phyllis Hammerstrom’s help, Tutolo said he founded and organized Veterans Circle, which meets on the second and third Mondays of the month at Christ Community Chapel. Veterans from any branch of service can attend and offer support to each other.
About three years ago, Tutolo said he added a military family support group, which meets on the fourth Monday of the month at Christ Community Chapel. This group provides support to the spouses, parents and families of service members who are currently serving.
Within the last year and a half, Faith Deployed was started to offer support to younger veterans returning home. This group meets the first Monday of the month.
Each group meets at 7 p.m. in Room 11 on the lower level of Christ Community Chapel.
Tutolo said he is "handing the reins over" to Ryan Hagen to run the Faith Deployed group, which focuses on helping combat veterans. Hagen, who served in Afghanistan in 2010 in the U.S. Marine Corps, said his group has a "closed door meeting" for returning veterans with the rule that "what’s said in there, stays in there."
In this group, younger veterans can interact with older veterans and are invited to "tell us their stories or share anything they want without being judged," said Tutolo.
Tutolo noted he believes the older veterans’ presence is helpful to the younger veterans.
"We can tell them that there is light at the end of the tunnel even though it’s very tough to navigate and guys are closed when they come home and they don’t trust the system and they don’t really want to open up too much," said Tutolo. "We help them do that."
Tutolo emphasized that the older vets tell the younger vets "we’re available to them because there’s 22 vets a day that are ending their life and we want to make a difference."
Attendees at Faith Deployed pair up with one another and take the Spartan Pledge, in which they "promise not to do anything to hurt themselves until they call their buddy," said Tutolo.
This approach is a continuation of the buddy system that is "ingrained in the military," stated Tutolo.
"Guys will do anything for each other and they cover each other’s back," said Tutolo. "That’s how you got home."
The Veterans Circle meetings typically open and close with a prayer, and veterans share thoughts and then plan trips to visit veterans in nursing and assisted living facilities, according to Tutolo.
Tutolo said group members regularly visit the Gables of Hudson, Portage Trail Village in Cuyahoga Falls and Briarwood Healthcare Community in Stow.
"We give them packages and supplies they need," said Tutolo. "We pray with them and we thank them for their service."
In these sessions, Tutolo said Veterans Circle members typically share a story from a Christian devotional such as Our Daily Bread or Today in the Word, followed by a discussion. Tutolo said these visits are a way of paying back veterans who fought to preserve liberties.
Tutolo added he enjoys the visits, noting, "I think we get more out of it than they do."
Tutolo said being part of the organization and its activities is "very therapeutic."
Veterans Circle member Ed Roxbury added that participating in the group’s activities is "very rewarding."
Family Support Group
In this group, parents, spouses and family of service members may attend and share their concerns. Tutolo said he will make sure these folks know how the ministry can help them, which includes delivering letters and packages, and through offering prayer.
Al Rhoades, who has a daughter in the Marines, coordinates this group, according to Tutolo.
Rick and Cindy Skidmore participate in this group and talk with parents about their concerns. Cindy served in the U.S. Air Force, while Rick is still serving in that military branch. They have a son who went through basic training and is now going through classes in the Air Force. Rick said he and Cindy try to use their own military experience to offer advice and support to service members’ families.
Tutolo noted the group will advise parents and family members to maintain a "positive" tone and refrain from discussing problems in letters they send to their loved ones overseas.
"(The service members) got enough concerns, especially if they’re overseas or in combat," said Tutolo.
Prayer list maintained for active duty members
The organization maintains a prayer list of active duty service members and their families that is posted on a bulletin board outside of the support groups’ meeting room.
Anyone who like to add an active duty member to the list should contact Ed Davidian at 330-620-5668 or via email at email@example.com.
Though it varies from week to week, Tutolo estimated about "a half dozen" people attend each of the meetings, and added he would like to increase attendance.
Tutolo expressed appreciation to Christ Community Chapel for allowing the groups to meet in the facility.
"We know that what we’re doing is a privilege," he said.
For more information on Veterans Circle, call Tutolo at 330-908-1594 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on Faith Deployed, call Hagen at 480-603-7405.
Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at 330-541-9421, email@example.com, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.