The Heroes Among Us
There are heroes everywhere in Columbia, living quiet lives that belie the importance of their work and the adventures they’ve encountered. Meet seven local men and women whose courage and daring are an inspiration to an entire city.
COL. JIM D. COY (RET.)
Still In The Fight
BY MAC EMERY
Retired Colonel Jim Coy’s accolades can easily overwhelm a page.
Coy has battled cancer multiple times. He has battled enemies as a medic for the Special Forces over his 25 years in the armed forces. He has graduated from rigorous and elite combat and parachute training schools. He has garnered enough medals and commendations to encumber a uniform. He has earned a medical degree and gone on to a long and prosperous career treating veterans and civilians in University Hospital and Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital. He has worked as a University of Missouri professor, and published papers on his innovations in lightweight X-ray technology. He has served for two years as the national president of the Special Forces Medical Association, and as the national surgeon of the Reserve Officers Association. He has published many books compiling the experiences of the nation’s warriors and spreading his profound Christian faith.
But for Coy, the promises of celebrity and renown are empty.
“The degrees you earn, the income you have, the position you hold, the car you drive, the three-car garage and John Deere tractor in the third stall — that is success, that’s secular,” Coy says. “But significance is spiritual. It’s eternal. To those who have faith, the way you impact people eternally will have an eternal consequence.”
Instead of basking in his success, Coy has devoted his life to healing others through his medical expertise and spreading the faith that guided him through the hardships of his own life. Coy recounts how he plunged into battle with excerpts from Joshua and Psalms penned onto his helmet straps.
“Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day.” His helmet carried the words of Psalm 91:5 as his unit spearheaded the invasion of Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War with the 3rd Group Army Special Forces.
But despite his adamancy now, Coy’s religion was not an inborn one. Instead, his faith and ensuing hope developed from facing the hard reality of his bouts with cancer.
“The answer was no longer these questions I had previously asked: ‘Why me?’ ” Coy says about the epiphany following his diagnosis. “But it was ‘Why not me?’ ”
Between 1979 and 2009, Coy overcame three malignancies through multiple radiation and chemotherapy sessions, and endured four surgeries, one of which was deforming. He is now considered cured.
“Over the course of those years, my faith progressed,” Coy says.
But none of these tribulations deterred him on his tireless mission to heal others as a medic and a doctor, and to promulgate the inspiration of his own faith as a speaker and author. He once declined a tempting job offer out of state to remain here in Columbia — in the land of his fathers, as he says, drawing on a verse from the Bible.
“Healing people physically and healing people emotionally and healing people spiritually are all run like a three-cord strand together,” Coy says. “And they are potentially similar. For me, I was blessed, I was blessed to be involved in all three.”
In addition to his hefty military and medical résumé, Coy has published nearly a dozen books. Several of these — the Gathering of Eagles series — compile interviews with hundreds of veterans, religious leaders and politicians to share the hard-earned stories, wisdom and aphorisms of the country’s finest.
Coy’s other publications include a series of children’s books co-authored by his wife, Vicki, and daughter, Patricia. His Gospel of Matthew A-Z attaches biblical teaching to memorable, retainable alliteration. These books aim to pass on faith to the next generation. All of Coy’s books can be found on www.agatheringofeagles.com. The proceeds go to need-based scholarships for youth attending Christian and parochial schools.
Coy also ships hundreds of crates of his books to servicemen and servicewomen stationed overseas. And other veterans without a religious background have gained faith and inspiration by reading Coy’s compound of inspiring experiences and wisdom.
With these experiences and adages wrapped humbly on his belt, Coy tours and delivers speeches on his experiences and his faith to schools, ministry groups and patriotic events across the country and around the globe, hoping to pass on the gritty inspiration he has spent a lifetime collecting.
Yet for Coy, who has served, treated and mended so many, the greatest mission of all is hope and faith.
“If there really is a God,” Coy says, paraphrasing a World War II veteran, “and there really is a heaven, and we miss it, then we’ve missed everything. You have to have hope.”
A Champion For Human Rights
BY DONNIE ANDRICK
For Nanette Ward, working for the rights of humans is more than a day job — it is part of who she is.
“It’s a very humbling thing, actually,” she says, “and in many fields people say ‘Oh, I don’t know how you do that, it takes someone special,’ but really, honestly, that’s what I think is so important for everyone to know — everyone can have a sensitivity, everyone can raise their awareness.”
Ward began her work with the Columbia Human Rights Commission as a human rights investigator and community educator. During that time, in 2008, the MU Stop Traffic organization hosted first human trafficking conference in this area.
“We all learned in that conference that there was definitely a need; there was definitely an issue right here in this area, so it was kind of a no-brainer,” Ward says of the decision she and other conference attendees made to form a coalition outside of the university.
That “sort of coalition” turned into the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition, through which Ward offers survivor assistance, outreach, education, presentations and training. The coalition provide resources and support for those who care about the issue and desire to learn more.
Regardless of the work the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition does, “It’s still the case where you can go to a group and some people might be very well aware, read the news articles, and some people have no idea,” Ward says.
“[Traffickers] are not just some person in this dark, secret corner of the community. We have people who are involved in exploitation that we would be surprised with,” she says. Ward believes it is important to take ownership of the problem, to understand the connection of this crime to the disconnectedness of people in the community.
Ward, however, chooses not to be disconnected.
When she dwells on whether or not victims of human trafficking are getting the services and support they need, it can become overwhelming. At those times, her parents become an inspiration. “They were my heroes,” she says. “They were my models for caring and valuing the life of every human being, and treating people with dignity and respect, no matter who they are.”
Cherishing the life of every individual is a value that resonates deeply with Ward, and she desires to live a life of service to others in the same way her parents did.
Ward continues to instill this value within her own family. “My whole family has been a part of this with me,” she says. “Supporting the work and being involved, and knowing the individuals and being additional support to them as a part of my family.”
Survivors of human trafficking amaze her. “I used to always say I have the easy part. The survivors are always so grateful and appreciative,” she says. She takes inspiration from their thoughtfulness for others, even through their long journey of psychological, emotional and physical healing. “You just become a part of their life, and they become a part of yours,” she says.
Whatever happens in her work, Ward reminds herself, “The survivors are going through the hard stuff; what we do is really not asking that much of us, the unconditional care and concern — genuine, consistent, stable concern, like whatever happens, we’re still here.”
For more information about the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition, or to report a possible victim of trafficking situation, contact:
Text or call 866-590-5959
National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888-373-7888
Keeping An Eye On Her Kids
BY MAC EMERY
Although her name badge reads Officer Edwards, she is known universally and affectionately as Keisha throughout the halls of Rock Bridge High School where she is stationed as school resource officer.
Wherever Keisha Edwards strolls the hallways, a gaggle of students flocks to her natural enthusiasm and genial smile. Friendly chatter, laughter and fist bumps rebound in her wake down the corridors of lockers. She easily shoots remarks to passersby as though resuming a conversation that had been interrupted momentarily.
It would be impossible to dam the flow of students seeking Edwards in her office, so the door remains open constantly. “I want to be available to them all the time,” Edwards says.
Students trickle into her office with their concerns, issues, troubles, questions and friendship. Heads poke in casually at any given moment for a quick laugh; others nonchalantly saunter in for midday sanctuary and chatter. Some students lean in to fondly embrace Edwards at her desk. It’s not unheard of, Keisha recalls, for 10 to 15 kids to cram in her limited space to vent or socialize.
And individually, “her kids,” as she refers to the students in her jurisdiction, come to converse or seek advice daily, often laden with serious personal issues. In response, Edwards’ approach to her job transcends the traditional, authoritative images of police work. Since she first began work as a school resource officer here in 2011, she has been somewhere between psychiatrist, educator, disciplinarian and ready friend to the hundreds of students who look up to her.
“One of my major priorities in being a school resource officer is to build relationships,” Edwards says. “The kids need to see that you care. Some kids have had so many letdowns in their lives. They don’t have an adult who they think cares.”
These ubiquitous, impactful relationships between Edwards and the diverse student body extend far beyond the last bell. Edwards recalls, with a tinge of gravity in her usual brightness, trips late into the night to counsel and console her kids on the troubles of their personal lives. She also travels to public recognition ceremonies, sporting events and graduations to watch her Rock Bridge High family thrive.
A second cellphone sitting on her desk is devoted entirely to the kids of Rock Bridge High. The phone rings and pings incessantly enough to drive the firmest socialite batty — sometimes the noise has to be suppressed with the silent switch, Edwards says with a laugh.
Friendship isn’t the only result Edwards has yielded in the halls of Rock Bridge; there are visible results in her Youth Academy program.
The weeklong annual program, which Edwards has managed for the last two years, offers exposure to public service for interested students. The program tours kids with an interest in public service through the city courthouse, the Columbia Police Department and the Fire Department. The group’s numbers have ballooned under Edwards’ guidance, and many students have aspired to public service and police work, following in Edwards’ department-standard shoes. Pictures of former students hang prominently on her office wall, attesting to students who’ve gone on to big things.
But for all her camaraderie, an effusive recommendation letter framed on her desk warns that she can be “tough as nails” when she needs to lay down the law. Behind the charisma, one senses a stern presence not to be trifled with when the safety of the building is in question.
“I’ve had to fight with kids,” Edwards says. “My tone is always going to be soft and gentle. But at times, because I’m a police officer, it may have to be more direct and coarse and straight to the point.”
Watching students interact with Edwards, any newcomer to the hallways soon understands how Edwards earned the 2015 Officer of the Year award, issued annually by the Columbia Police Department in honor of fallen Columbia Officer Molly Bowden.
But for Keisha, it’s all about the kids.
“If my contact with that kid saves a kid, then I’ve done something right,” Edwards says. “If my contact changes a kid’s mind or changes a kid’s behavior, then I’ve done something right in my role as a police officer and as a person.”
Edwards strives to impart that touch on her flock of kids, whether it’s as a police officer, as a resource, as a friend, or above all, as Keisha to her kids in Rock Bridge High School.
“When you work with passion it becomes your purpose,” she says with her usual smile. “And this is my passion and my purpose.”
A Home Run Hero
BY DONNIE ANDRICK
“At the end of the day, when I leave my job, I know that I made a difference in a veteran’s life,” says Jared Reichel.
Reichel, who works at Veterans United Home Loans, not only cares deeply about veterans, he is one.
“I have a long list of family members who have served in the military,” Reichel says, “I was raised by a single mother, so we didn’t have a lot of money and extra income. I knew the Army was a great way for me to get my college education.”
In his last year of high school, Reichel pondered the idea of joining the Army, but was not convinced he was ready to leave home.
However, when Sept. 11 occurred shortly after he graduated, “I felt a real sense of patriotism and duty,” he says, “and from that moment, I knew that I was going to join the military.”
Reichel thrived in the Army. “I loved the structure, the discipline, the responsibility — not only to yourself, but to your team and the folks who surround you, and your country,” he says. He took his oath to protect the country very seriously, but after he was hit by an explosive while serving in Iraq in 2008, that all changed.
“I found out that I was going to have to retire from the Army. I would no longer be able to continue to fulfill my duties, and I was heartbroken,” he says.
Enter Veterans United.
“The values and the passion inside of those walls is amazing,” he says, “and it has motivated me, being surrounded by those people, to find another way beyond my professional life to continue to give back as well.”
For Reichel, it is very important to incorporate this into his life. “My mom instilled in me the value to give back to others. I’ve been blessed in my life to have opportunities to better myself and with that came more opportunities to give back, but the best way I can do that is through working with veterans because we can connect, and I can relate to them,” he says.
After finding a home in Veterans United, Reichel, along with two co-workers, decided he wanted to give back to the veteran community by creating a softball tournament to raise money: Home Runs for Heroes. “All of our proceeds go to Central Missouri Honor Flight here locally, and, in turn, they send veterans to Washington, D.C., specifically the World War II, Vietnam and Korean war veterans, to see their memorials before they pass away.”
“We pride ourselves in running the largest one-day tournament in the Midwest,” Reichel says with a smile.
This title does come with challenges, though. “There are so many folks who don’t realize that Home Runs for Heroes is a 365-day-out-of-the-year job for one day of softball. There is so much work, so many challenges,” he says. “We donate a lot of money out-of-pocket as members of the board, because it’s really not a self-sustaining program because we try to give so much of the funds to Central Missouri Honor Flight.”
For Reichel, it’s worth it. “The treatment of soldiers when they returned from Vietnam was just unacceptable,” he says. “Being able to help in making that happen, getting a veteran to D.C. is — bar none — the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
DR. RUSSELL EHLMANN
Speaking Up For The Animals
BY MAC EMERY
In the busy, cramped medical room of the shelter, Dr. Russell Ehlmann, head veterinarian at the Central Missouri Humane Society, stands cool and comfortable among the din and ruckus of hundreds of animals with the cheery aplomb expected from a man with 30 years of veterinary experience.
Assistants clad in blue sanitary uniforms scurry in and out, laden with animals. One hauls in a crate containing a litter of mewing kittens that peep out curiously with watery eyes and tumble unstably into their littermates. Another aide carefully handles another puffy kitten, mewing softly as it dangles from the aide’s attentive hands. Another cat, its head ringed in a plastic cone, peers out at Ehlmann from a nearby recovery kennel, and is visibly comforted when Ehlmann picks up and cradles the critter to check for progress in its healing. A constant chorus of dog barks of every conceivable pitch ricochet down the halls, and tails wag rapidly whenever a newcomer walks past the rows of kennels outside.
Here, amid the heaps of newspaper and medical equipment, Russell Ehlmann has saved countless animal lives, and singlehandedly mitigated animal overpopulation in Boone County with proactive spaying and neutering.
“We show up in the morning, and a lot of times we don’t know what we’re going to see by the end of the day,” Ehlmann says. “But we never end our day until we have everything taken care of.”
In all his time at the humane society, Russell estimates he has spayed and neutered an astronomical 15,947 dogs, cats and assorted small animals. This mind-boggling tally has protected the greater Columbia area from rampant overpopulation. Many of these operations include affordable treatments to low-income pet-owners. He also figures he’s performed 2,543 surgeries in 2015 on the animals of Boone County, mending and remedying and healing in preparation for adoption.
“I like the surgery aspect of it,” Ehlmann says of his job, with a hint of grin.
But behind the huge numbers lie personal stories in the faces and histories of the pets. The daily transitions from neglect to recovery can be heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once, as the shelter often rescues the pets from harrowing origins of abuse or abandonment.
“A lot of times, people anonymously either tie them [the animals] to the fence in the back or leave them in crates because they know something’s wrong with their pet,” Ehlmann says. “And they either can’t afford it or don’t want to deal with it.”
Recently, the shelter recovered a crate of abandoned puppies, shivering with malnourishment and neglect.
“We were able to take those pets, turn them around, put weight on them, get them adopted,” Ehlmann says. “Even in just the matter of a week they were completely different animals.”
But the success here doesn’t stem from the isolated effort of Ehlmann. A coordinated network of devoted staff, volunteers and donors sustains the shelter and nourishes its animal inhabitants. Over the course of the year, about 250 volunteers cooperate with the full-time staff, managing the building and adoption desk, walking and socializing with the pets.
“Some of these dogs, they just look forward to that time of day when they can go for a walk,” Ehlmann says. “They’ll out-walk the walkers because they’re so happy to be out.”
And more than 200 foster homes annually open their doors to the needy animals to temporarily expand capacity and shower the pets with affection. Meanwhile at the shelter, a behavioral team tests and trains the animals to acclimate them to the needs of family lifestyle.
“We’re here every day,” Ehlmann says. “And we strive to do the best that we can for the animals of Boone County.”
These inexhaustible efforts account for the impressively high live release rate, a statistic that measures the number of pets who go on to adoption, return to ownership or transfer to rescue organizations across the country. In 2014, roughly 94 percent of dogs in the shelter and 88 percent of cats fell into this category.
“Like any organization, we may not always have an ‘A’ day,” Ehlmann says. “But overall we strive every day to do the best that we can for the pets that are brought to our care. And our ultimate goal is to get them back out into a forever home.”
Ehlmann’s greatest achievements are not the impressive mountains of numbers, but the immeasurable moments when an exuberant dog or a purring cat first enters the greeting embrace of a new owner. So for now, he doesn’t notice the noise.
More participation is always welcome. Donation links, adoptions information, and foster and volunteer opportunities can always be found at www.cmhspets.com.
Look, Up In The Air!
BY DONNIE ANDRICK
“I have a unique opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life on the worst day of their life,” says Rick Baker in a small breakroom in University Hospital. “It may be something as simple as holding someone’s hand, or it may be doing some of the life-saving procedures they teach us to do here; that keeps motivating me, that keeps bringing me back.”
Baker, a flight paramedic for the Staff for Life Helicopter Service, is part of a nurse-medic team that staffs the helicopter 24 hours a day. His work does not stop there, though. He is part of a medical team that responds to areas of need around the world where the team’s skills can help. This group has been so successful, it formed a nonprofit organization called Global First Responder.
“I felt useless two times in my life,” Baker says. “One was Oklahoma City and the second time was Sept. 11, and I decided that wasn’t going to happen anymore. So starting with Katrina, I found ways to get to these disasters to help. We just got back from India, one of our team members is currently in Greece working with the Syrian crisis, and we’re prepping our next trip to Greece in January.”
For Baker, taking care of others is something he grew up with.
“I come from a family of service to others. My grandfather was a doctor and surgeon, and my other grandfather was a minister. One of them delivered me, the other baptized me; it’s kind of unusual,” he says with a laugh.
“My grandfather was a team doctor for the Missouri Tigers for 40 years, which kind of got me interested in athletic training,” Baker says. “I was a trainer all through college. I met some of the medics during the first Show-Me State Games, and decided that what they were doing seemed a lot more exciting than what I was doing.”
“More exciting” is what he wanted, and “more exciting” is what he got.
“I get the chance to work 2,000 feet up going 150 miles per hour, and as an overgrown adolescent that’s a lot of fun. It really is,” he says. “My office is one of the coolest offices you’re going to find.”
Being a flight paramedic is not all fun and games, though.
“There are days where I feel like I can do better and I challenge myself that way. There are days I come home frustrated because of a patient outcome. There are going to be bad outcomes, whether we can fix them or not, and some of those will be frustrating, and some of those are heartbreaking,” Baker says.
Although he has to be away from home and his family, he is never without support.
“The people that I work with here … we’re a family,” he says, “ I love working with these people.”
Baker’s passion for his work and dedication to his patients is apparent.
“We don’t do it for praise or ‘thank-yous.’ When we get a ‘thank-you’ from a patient or their family, that means the world to us.”
A Firefighter To The Rescue
BY MAC EMERY
Greg Kome faces some of Columbia’s greatest dangers. But for a lieutenant firefighter, it’s just another day in the office.
As a lieutenant stationed at Chapel Hill, Kome responds to a range of crises: auto accidents, health emergencies, water and ice rescues, severed power lines, toppled trees, gas threats, fires and any other of the countless problems that might threaten Columbia. Kome, who is a member of the technical rescue team geared for special extrications, also responds to any situation that requires tricky rescues.
“That’s the interesting thing about the fire department. You never know what you’re going to go to,” Kome says. “It’s something different every day, it’s challenging, and you actually get to help people.”
But for Kome, these seeming perils don’t invoke the anxiety most might expect.
“If you do enough training, it doesn’t really seem as dangerous as it does from the outside,” he says. “People always say ‘I would never run into a burning building; that’s just crazy.’ But for us, we do it in training and we get used to being in that environment, in all our gear.”
True to his word, the threat of action isn’t obvious in the amiable atmosphere of Kome’s fire station. “It’s a very unique job, in that we actually live here with the people we’re stationed with,” he says. Friendly banter, joshing and pranks help the firefighters defuse the anticipation of potential dangers as they work 24-hour shifts at the station about 10 times a month. Kome cultivates an atmosphere of easy camaraderie and professionalism at the station.
Training drills in the front lawn streamline the firefighters’ techniques and abbreviate response times. This preparation helps the firefighters maintain composure in the face of danger.
“It is dangerous,” Kome says. “But you’re not scared the whole time you’re in there, because we’ve trained to overcome these obstacles. If you have good training, it translates over to feeling better on the scene.”
Alhough Kome excels in this line of service, he hasn’t always dreamed of being a firefighter. His interest developed when he worked as a call dispatcher for the fire department. Listening to Columbia’s crises, he longed to take action.
Since then, he has thrived with his calling. Kome has risen to the rank of lieutenant and recently received a commendation for excellence after rescuing a local woman from a burning building.
“The general care and concern that he has for all involved is just unbelievable,” says shift Lt. Darrin Amends. “He really gives it 110 percent all the time when he’s on duty. I believe as a supervisor, he does do a lot of things to reinforce and help his employees succeed.” On his off days between shifts, Kome works as an emergency paramedic for University Hospital.
But for all his exceptional action and motivation, Kome is more reluctant to accept the laurel of hero that others confer on him.
“I definitely don’t feel like a hero,” Kome says. “Any company that got there first would have done the same thing. It just happened to be that we were there that day.”
Instead, Kome views himself as just another member of the fire department and another unit in the service it provides daily, often unnoticed, all across the city.
“It would be a shame to single me out as somebody that is vastly different than everybody from the rest of the department,” Kome says. “I learn a lot from the other people, and hopefully, I’m contributing as well.”
All in a day’s work.