Army Major Richard Star enlisted in the military in 1988 and after 30 years of service he was still going strong until a terminal cancer diagnosis in June 2018 changed everything. His career and way of life was over. He and his wife, Tonya, moved into housing at Walter Reed where he started treatment.
While they were grateful for the room, which had a kitchenette, the tight space added to the stress of the treatment and Tonya’s role as caregiver.
“I haven’t been in such a small space in a long time,” Richard said. “The other thing was, because of my condition, it was just the two of us in this room, and she’s caring for me for 24 hours a day—you kind of go stir crazy.”
Employees at Walter Reed told Richard about Operation Homefront’s Transitional Housing Village program. In February, Richard and Tonya moved into a rent-free, fully furnished apartment in the Gaithersburg, Maryland Village. The couple received financial counseling that, by the time they moved out in late August, had helped them save $1,000 a month, raise their credit scores and pay down their $50,000 in debt. They also felt more confident about how to budget once he received money through his life insurance policy.
The space the apartment provided as he received treatment was equally important for his and his wife’s peace of mind. “When we came in, we were like, ‘wow,’” Richard said. “I was surprised at everything that was offered. We were really taken aback. It’s a beautiful place. It’s not just that it’s fully furnished but that it’s a turnkey operation, which was perfect for us. It made us both feel great. It felt like a home. It was a wonderful feeling. And my wife especially was super excited about it because we had the opportunity to if a friend or family member came to town, we could have them over at our place.”
Operation Homefront staff helped Richard get their family support dog, Otis, who has become part of the family and has improved their quality of life immensely, Richard said. The couple decided to move to Rome, Georgia to be closer to family. Richard’s sister lives there and Atlanta has cancer centers where he can continue his treatment plan. The couple has four kids who live independently from them—Samantha Star, 22, Amanda Star, 21, Kyle Gelsthorpe, 21, and Matthew Gelsthorpe, 18—who are excited for his move to Georgia.
The end to his career is not what he expected when he joined as a teen to “do my duty for my country during the old war.” Richard deployed four times to combat zones. He worked the burn pits as a private during Desert Storm. He was also deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. At the time of his diagnosis he was a combat engineer for a unit in Toledo, Ohio.
Richard is blunt when he talks about how the transition would have been without Operation Homefront and the donors who support the Villages program.
“I don’t know if I could express my gratitude enough to the donors and Operation Homefront. I want to thank them so much. It means a lot to this soldier, soon to be veteran, and we just really appreciate the opportunities this gave us,” he said. “It came at a really important time for me and my wife. And it helped. It helped big time. It made things possible for moving on to next step. From a transition standpoint came at a really critical time in my life.”