As soon as Nashville, Tennessee native Ben Maenza graduated high school, he was ready to enter the next chapter of his life as a combat engineer for the U.S. Marine Corps.
Only one month into Ben’s first deployment in Afghanistan, however, he was involved in an explosion that would change his life indelibly.
The soldier behind Ben triggered the explosion after stepping on an IED pressure plate; it resulted in Ben losing both legs above the knee.
He worked through the healing process in the 16 months he stayed at Walter Reed National Military Medial Center before returning home to go to college. Ben served our country from 2010-2012 before medically retiring from the Marine Corps. Two years later, Ben met his wife Kohl, at a prosthetic clinic in Tennessee.
Kohl, originally from Michigan, attended college for Orthotics and Prosthetics. After graduation, she secured a job in field she studied and moved to Tennessee. As fait would have it, Ben was one of the first patients she had met. Six months later, at a mutual friend’s wedding, Ben and Kohl were sat next to each other. The next day, Ben officially asked Kohl out on a date. Eight years later, they have been married for six years and are parents to Hank, 4, and Jack, 2.
The Travis Mills Foundation
The Maenza family first heard about the Travis Mills Foundation after Kelly Roseberry, vice president of program management at the Foundation, had reached out to Walter Reed, where she once worked, about potential Retreat participants. Kelly had met Ben while she was the head physical therapist when Ben was in recovery.
The family’s first trip to the Retreat was when Hank was just 10 months old. One of their most meaningful takeaways from this first experience was the volunteers.
“There was always someone there to help,” Kohl said. “You didn’t have to worry about who’s grabbing what. we didn’t have to figure it all out on our own.”
“You can tell the volunteers wanted to be there,” Ben added. “They want to give back any way they can.”
For the Maenza family, it was the personal touches of the experience that hit home: having staff care enough to bake someone’s favorite pie, or making a birthday cake.
“It was that kind of stuff that was really cool, even if it wasn’t part of the plan,” Ben said.
Ben said the driver who picked the family up from the airport, Darcy, took time to talk to the family.
“And she was great with our kids,” Ben said, adding that Darcy shared an extreme willingness among volunteers to drive families to and from the Retreat.
“It’s meaningful to talk to the families and spend that extra time with them,” he said.
From the first family trip to their most recent visit in 2022, both Ben and Kohl had an opportunity to visit the Retreat individually. Kohl attended the Caregiver Program and said how meaningful and therapeutic the experience was and how nice it was to have the connection with the other caregivers. After attending an equestrian session, Kohl recalls how good she felt after the experience.
“During the session, the women had to learn to let go and give control to the horse,” she said. “There is a lot of effort and meaning in the activities.”
Kohl was also able to learn through the other women about how important it is to take time for yourself and how much one puts into the family while being the spouse of a recalibrated veteran.
“This is your normal life and it forces you to look at the situation and have a realization and appreciation for how much you do and how important it is to take care of yourself too,” she said.
Ben participated in Warrior PATHH (Progressive & Alternative Training for Helping Heroes), a program at the Foundation for combat veterans and first responders who have experienced post-traumatic stress.
He described the week-long imitation program as “therapeutic.” Although emotionally exhausted from the experience, Ben said the program enlightening.
“Some of the practices – breathing, grounding yourself and meditating – are practices that I can do now to help me calm down sometimes or help me work through stuff.”
Additional practices such as journaling and daily reflections, and the connection he felt with fellow participants, were also helpful to him. He said despite the deep feelings he experienced, the program gave him a sense of relief from stress. Ben also credits the PATHH Guides.
“They did a great job and it was a nice experience to sit down and work through similar situations and relate,” Ben said.
Off Site Programming
The Travis Mills Foundation offers programming off site, including at the Georgia Aquarium, where participants are invited to swim with sharks and gentle giants of the sea. Ben immensely enjoyed his experience.
“It was 30 to 40 minute in the tanks just floating,” adding the feast to the senses the experience provided him: hearing differently, crystal clear water, the feeling of desensitization from the outside world, breathing underwater and observing the under water world.
“It was awesome,” Ben said. “There was therapy involved.”
The Maenza family visited Retreat again in July 2022. Their son, Hank, asks when they will be going back to Maine again. With the boys being older, it was a great experience for them as well.
Ben and Kohl said the boys had an opportunity to play with children their age who also had a parent who was a recalibrated veteran.
“It brought normalization to the situation,” she said. “It didn’t single them out, but instead, it allowed the kids to just focus on playing.”
“They were not the only ones with a dad without legs,” Ben added.
The couple said the visit was the most refreshing vacation they had ever had. They also enjoyed “Date Night,” which is when the parents in the family get to have dinner and a boat ride without the children. They also appreciated that they didn’t have to participate in an activities if they didn’t want to.
“There is no itinerary, there is no meet and greets, it is just an opportunity to relax and rest,” Ben said.
They also said it’s nice to be around people who understand your situation.
“You can unload and people know what it’s like, similar situations, stressors, and life problems,” Kohl said.
The Travis Mills Foundation also provides weeks for the parents of recalibrated veterans. Both of Ben’s parents participated in a week and they found it to be an opportunity for parents to get together and talk and bond over the experience of a parent whose child was injured and how their lives changed.