Military gift of hope for hardscrabble town

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht
  • 108th Wing
Corporate America abandoned this area years ago, closing factories and taking many of the jobs and healthcare options that came with them.

Now, nearly one in three people in this rural farming community near the New York Finger Lakes region are without jobs or access to a regular doctor. Many have been addicted to meth or heroin. Some have lost hope.

After being identified as an underserved community, residents of Cortland and the surrounding areas were given the opportunity to visit service members at "Healthy Cortland," an Innovative Readiness Training exercise at the intermediate school in neighboring Homer, where they could see a dentist, optometrist, and medical specialist, all at no cost. Those that owned cats or dogs could bring them in for spaying or neutering by military veterinarians. The Innovative Readiness Training team was made up of U.S. Army Reserve, U.S. Navy Reserve, and New Jersey Air National Guardsmen from the 108th and 177th Medical Groups.

"This is one of the reasons why I joined the military," said U.S. Army Reserve Capt. Michael Cruppenink, the exercise commander at Cortland. "To go to different places to provide healthcare to people who don't always have access to it."

Matt Nichol, 38, and girlfriend Rachel Miller, 30, both from Cortland, came out to take advantage of the services being provided. Nichol and Miller are both on disability, unable to work.

"I saw a therapist named Troy, he was absolutely amazing," said Miller, who has suffered for years with mental illness. "He really listened to what I had to say, and really wanted to hear about my story, and actually lost track of time and didn't want to take me away from everything else, he was the first gentleman I saw after medical. It was some of the best therapy I've ever had."

Nichol and Miller rent a small, one bedroom apartment in Cortland, right next to a busy main road. To pass the time, they watch movies, and Miller draws as part of her therapy. They barely get by with disability and food stamps.

"I would like to be able to go back to work," said Nichol, who has struggled with ruptured discs from years of working on a farm. "Do some kind of job. Having the injuries I have, I'll never be able to do physical labor. I love working with my hands. That's what I've done my whole life, and now I have to learn how to use my brain for a job. I would like to be able to work, and take care of myself, and be able to afford a better life for us."

Nichol showed the electroshock device he wears, to help manage back pain.

"Severe chronic pain takes away your ability to concentrate, and things that used to be fun aren't fun anymore, and that's where the depression comes from. Everything you loved to feels like it's stolen from you," said Nichol.

Miller suffers from Lupus, a disease in which the immune system becomes hyperactive and attacks healthy tissue.

"I get sores in my nose, all over my body, my lymph nodes swell, and my hair falls out," said Miller. "Clumps of my hair fall out in the shower. My joints and muscles are affected, and I get tired easily."

Both Nichol and Miller hoped to see the Department of Defense return to Cortland.

"This town is struggling majorly," said Miller. "These kind of events give people hope."

Nichol and Miller were very grateful for the care they received from the Healthy Cortland event, especially new pairs of eyeglasses.

"We wouldn't have been able to afford these glasses on our own," said Nichol. "It makes a big difference, it's a very special thing that we don't take for granted."