Military Hearts Matter
Holly Vega, a Marine spouse of eighteen years, founded Military Hearts Matter in partnership with the Tampa AHA, works with Military Home Base, and hosts a live vlog,” Mimosas in the Morning” and “Shine On ”. Vega was recognized as the 2019 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year for her outstanding commitment to the military community and volunteer work with the American Heart Association and L.I.N.K.S.
Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death in the United States and are on the rise in the Military community. The percentage of Army personnel that had cardiovascular diseases rose from 6.8% in 2007 to 9.4% in 2014 (see Army troops have worse heart health than civilian population, study says). This is not a problem unique to civilians or one branch. It is a problem that military personnel and their families are faced with as stress increases and personnel health is put to the side for the sake of the mission. As the founder of Military Hearts Matter (MHM), it is my desire to bring awareness of the stresses of military life for both service members and family and its relation to heart health.
My heart story began with my brother. At 40 years old, my healthy and physically active brother went into cardiac arrest. At the time, I was a thousand miles away from family with my Marine away for training and three children under the age of eight, and I struggled with feelings of helplessness. I do not have the temperament to sit around and wait - I’m a doer and a helper, but so far away from those who needed me, I had nothing to give. Instead, I marched myself to the base hospital to see if my primary care doctor would answer some questions.
That is where my why began. The doctor was patient with me and did not dismiss my concerns. He guided me forward answering questions honestly and directing me to AHA. Thankfully my brother is now a heart survivor. His story is the beginning of why I care about heart disease. But the story of Military Heart Matters did not end there.
Soon after my brother’s heart attack, I met Dr. Vivianne Cisneros Wersel, an audiologist, and fellow Marine spouse. Her husband had died of a heart attack while working out at the gym in Camp Lejeune, two weeks back from a deployment. That spurred Dr. Wersel into action and she became an advocate for Gold Star Spouses working to ensure they receive death benefits regardless of if their soldier died in combat, in a car crash, or in the gym.
Dr. Wersel’s story was the jolt I needed to move from feeling sorry for myself to advocacy. I began to look for data on heart disease and the military and reach out to others via social media to hear their stories. Suddenly a new world of military service members, spouses, and children who dealt with cardiovascular disease opened to me. I began a Heart Awareness “GO RED” Military Spouse event at 29 Palms through L.I.N.K.S. The event was successful and over the next seven years I would have the opportunity to help with five other events. The stories these events brought to my attention led me to establish Military Hearts Matter through the American Heart Association.
Military families live in highly stressful situations, moving and deploying often, while attempting to maintain the outer image of strength. Their personal health gets pushed to the side and their hearts suffer. Military hearts do matter and deserve our attention.