Story by Mike May | Photos by Abner Pedraza
The biggest battle that many of today’s veterans face is not the enemy they found on battlefields in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, it’s at home in their own communities as they attempt to reintegrate into regular society after serving their country in the United States military.
To help fellow veterans make a successful transition to civilian life after serving in combat, Jake Hampu, a retired U.S. Marine, has stepped forward and created an organization to help veterans re-adjust to civilian life.
That group is called Unified Dream, a locally based nonprofit that Hampu founded in 2017. Since its inception, the group has been volunteer-driven with Hampu at the helm as its founder and president.
“I knew that I had a greater calling in life than leading men in war,” said Hampu, 39, whose military service includes a 2002 deployment to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and a nine-month deployment to Fallujah, Iraq, in 2005. “I knew there were many veterans out there who needed help integrating back into regular society.”
According to Hampu, the strengths that many veterans display on the battlefield can actually hinder them in their daily lives when they return home.
“Soldiers are tough, stubborn and hard-headed,” explained Hampu, who once led 30 men into war and served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2001 to 2006. “Today, veterans struggle to ask for help and assistance when they return home. Veterans are looking for that sense of accomplishment and purpose that they had while serving in the military. When we get out of the military, we have to find a new mission.”
With Hampu’s leadership at Unified Dream, nearly 80 veterans to date, and their family members, have received assistance on finding that new mission. Often this means dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“PTSD is for real, and the impact of it is also felt by family members of their loved ones who have served in the military,” Hampu said.
While family members love their veteran relatives, their lack of understanding of life in combat often creates a major disconnect back home. “Unless you went through it, you can’t totally understand it,” Hampu explained.
One of his most impactful military experiences was dealing with the loss of a close friend and colleague. “The day after I lost one of my best friends in Fallujah, I was back out on the battlefield,” Hampu recalled.
In civilian life, people pause, mourn and reflect the loss of a close friend or a relative. In the military during wartime, the mission must continue. And it did for Hampu. “For years, I felt survivor’s guilt because my friend had a wife and child back home. Yet I survived that day for something greater in life,” he said.
For Hampu, that greater calling is his work with Unified Dream.
At Unified Dream, veterans are coached and counseled so they find hope, gain self-respect, deal with depression and look forward to daily life again. One of Unified Dream’s coaching tactics is to get veterans involved in community projects that help intertwine them with the local community.
“Veterans need a sense of accomplishment in their daily lives, just as they had when they wore a military uniform,” Hampu said. “Since 2017, our local veterans have helped more than 50 local nonprofit organizations. By veterans helping others, we help them.”
But that’s not all. “We also teach good health and wellness habits,” he said. “We get veterans using yoga and meditation. We also take the veterans on adventure group outings where we go snorkeling, biking, hiking and target shooting. We are now planning a paintball session.”
The element of camaraderie that soldiers experience during military life is a missing ingredient in their civilian lives, which is why adventure group outings are so important to them. “The friends you have back home often don’t compare to the friendships you form in the military,” Hampu explained.
It doesn’t take too long to make a positive impact on their lives.
“Within a few months, we begin to notice a difference in the lives of veterans,” Hampu said. “They regain their self-respect, they are looking for more things to do, and they start living a life of peace and purpose. Family members often approach me because they notice a positive change in lives of their loved ones.”
Aside from his work with Unified Dream, Hampu also has a full-time job with the Palm Beach Kennel Club, where he coordinates video, photography and marketing projects.
While he is the executive director of Unified Dream, it’s not a one-man show. Hampu has the dedicated assistance of many other local veterans, who support Hampu’s passion for helping fellow veterans reintegrate into daily life.
The organization has evolved with the help of Hampu’s longtime friend Matt Baker, a fellow veteran. “Matt fully understands the struggles of reintegration,” Hampu said.
His army of local supporters include a dedicated group of board members and volunteers, such as Bill Garland, Jeff Hmara and Matt Vermilyer.
“Bill Garland, a former member of the United States Army, is my right-hand man,” Hampu said. “Jeff Hmara is a retired U.S. Army colonel who cares. He has been instrumental in our growth and is somebody I look up to. Matt Vermilyer is a former Marine who is willing to help, very passionate about our cause, and is a true leader.”
While Hampu is delighted with the progress of Unified Dream, he’s not content with the status quo.
“My goal is to find somebody with a big heart and deep pockets who is willing to make a large donation so I can do this work full-time,” said Hampu, who spends 15 to 20 hours a week with Unified Dream. “My priority in life is my purpose. I don’t do this work for a pat on the back. I do it for the survival and betterment of my fellow veterans.”
Hampu knows that his work with Unified Dream is making a positive impact. “When we reintegrate a veteran back into regular society, they are your best citizens,” he said.