HOLMES BEACH — A lot has changed for Tami Kemper-Pena, a U. S. Army
sergeant since she had a brief leave at Christmas.
For one thing, she’s now retired from the military. Her husband,
Roland Pena is now also retired from the military. For another, she’s
finally home full time and spending her days with her three daughters
Kemper-Pena sustained head, neck and back injuries in a mortar attack
in Iraq. She had 14 surgeries with more to come, but she says she’s
feeling a lot better.
"I know I’ve come a long way," she said last week at her
home in Holmes Beach. ‘When I think back just to Christmas when the
Privateers came, I know I’m improving. It takes a long time, but I
Kemper-Pena said her memory is getting better and she has less trouble
speaking. "Sometimes I can’t think of a word, but that’s less and less,
and mostly I can talk pretty easily now," she said.
Getting out of the house is still difficult, though. Kemper-Pena,
like many vets, wounded and otherwise, suffers from post-traumatic
stress syndrome. She has flashbacks and sometimes has nightmares.
"She really doesn’t even like to go to Wal-Mart," said Ali
Kemper, Kemper-Pena’s 18-year old daughter as though announcing something
impossible to believe. Fortunately, Ali’s the family’s Wal-Mart queen,
so she’s happy to go and get whatever anyone needs.
"It all gets very confusing for me when I’m out, and the sounds
are scary," Kemper-Pena said. "I know I have to start getting
out more, but for now, I’m just really happiest in my house where I
Ali, who now helps with shopping and other household necessities,
has moved into her grandmother’s house. She’s engaged to Jeffrey Roberts,
who celebrated his 24th birthday last week. Roberts, also a vet, has
fully recovered from leg injuries he sustained overseas.
It was Ali who really covered for her mother.
"She was only 17, but she moved in and helped take care of her
sisters and the household," Kemper-Pena said. "I don’t know
what I’d have done without her."
The closeness of the family is
evident. All three daughters seem to stick as close to their mother
They recall visiting her when she was in the hospital in Texas just
after she was shipped home from Iraq.
"She looked like she was sleeping," said Genevieve, 8. "I
wasn’t scared at all."
Shannon, 14, agreed.
"She just looked peaceful," she said.
"I was the only one who was scared," Ali said. "I was
worried about her."
But 14 surgeries later, Kemper-Pena got leave to come home to have
Christmas with her family last December, and the Anna Maria Island
Privateers were on hand to make sure that Christmas celebration was
memorable for the Island family.
"We wanted to do something for a family for Christmas, and we
wanted to do it for someone who had served our country," Privateers
Secretary Bekka Stasny said.
And it certainly was a memorable Christmas.
"I was overwhelmed," Kemper-Pena said. "We never had
such a Christmas."
"Want to see my bed," offered Shannon. She proudly displayed
the bed the Privateers brought her for Christmas. "We never saw
so much stuff!"
As various family members related their memories of Christmas with
the Privateers, Genevieve held her mom’s arm and kept her head against
her shoulder, smiling happily at the conversation.
"The Privateers were the first people who did anything to help
us," Kemper-Pena said. "I was active in my church. I taught
at St. Joseph’s School and we worked with the homeless. It surprised
me that no one stepped forward and offered to help – especially since
I always helped people."
But the actions of the Privateers changed all that.
"They were amazing," she said. "They even came and cooked
Pena, who was still in Iraq at the time, participated in the Christmas
festivities via Web cam – until something happened and he was disconnected.
"I was so glad they were having a good Christmas," he said. "It’s
hard to be away from your family."
Pena is now retired and nearly recovered from a leg wound he suffered
in a mortar attack.
"My leg’s much better," he said. "I’m looking for a
job. I hope I can find something locally so I can stay here." Both
Tami and Roland said re-entry into civilian life could be difficult
for a combat soldier.
"The stress doesn’t just go away," Pena said. "Loud
noises are bad. You’re so used to attacks, that you want to duck to
But for everyone in the family, the future seems to be looking better
and better – especially since they’re all together again in their home
in Holmes Beach.
"We’re starting to get involved in our community again," said
Kemper-Pena. "Life’s good."