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November 22 2019

Gold Star Mom talks the value of freedom

by Beverly Hallberg

On this episode of “She Thinks,” gold star mom Karen Vaughn join us to share her story, her son’s story, and why she’s dedicated to bridging the gap between civilians and the military.

Karen Vaughn is the mother of fallen US Navy SEAL, Aaron Carson Vaughn (SEAL Team VI) who was killed in action in Afghanistan on August 6, 2011. Over the past eight years, Karen has emerged on the national scene as a powerful spokeswoman for not only our defenders still fighting on foreign soil and securing peace across the globe, but also as an advocate for a better, stronger, more resilient America. Karen is the bestselling author of World Changer: A Mother’s Story, she works with the non-profit her family began in honor and memory of her son, Operation 300, and a regular guest on news programs, interviewing with well over 100 national and local radio shows.

Beverly :
Welcome to She Thinks, a podcast where you're allowed to think for yourself. I'm your host Beverly Hallberg and on this episode we are honored to have a very special guest. Gold star mom, Karen Vaughn is joining us to not only share her story and her son's story, but why she's dedicated her life to bridging the gap between civilians and the military. Before we bring her on, a little bit more about Karen, she is the mother of fallen us Navy seal Aaron Carson Vaughn from SEAL Team six. He was tragically killed in action in Afghanistan on August six, 2011. Over the past eight years, Karen has emerged on the national scene as a powerful spokeswoman for not only our defenders still fighting on foreign soil and securing peace across the globe, but also as an advocate for a better, stronger, more resilient America.

Beverly :
She is the bestselling author of a great book. You should go out and get it. It's called World Changer, A Mother's Story. She works with her nonprofit with her family which began in honor and memory of her son, it's called Operation 300. And she is a regular guest on news programs interviewing with well over 100 national and local radio shows across the country. I actually met her for the first time in the Fox screen room on July 4th. She was in Washington, D.C doing what she does best, and that is talking about her son and promoting the military and talking about the freedoms that we all have. Karen, it's a pleasure to have you on our podcast.

Karen Vaughn:
It's a pleasure to be here with you, Beverly. Thank you so much .

Beverly :
And I know as I just mentioned, you have dedicated your life since the death of your son to be a spokesperson for the things that you really care about, and that is, as I mentioned, bridging the gap between civilians and military and what can we do to encourage each other. Before we talk about your work, I just would love to hear more about your son Aaron. I know that he gave his life for this country. We're all thankful for his sacrifice, we're thankful for your sacrifice, but can you tell us just a little bit about him?

Karen Vaughn:
Oh, I'd love to. Aaron was a kid who unlike most people that you'll ever meet, he knew exactly what he was created to be from the time he was about eight years old. He would tell anyone who would listen that one day he was going to be a Navy SEAL. And Beverly, I didn't even know what a Navy SEAL was at this time, but he had heard about it through his father and he was determined that's the way he was going to spend his life. That's what he was going to do as a career. And he didn't have the body or the physique of a Navy SEAL, but he just knew in his heart that that's what he was.

Karen Vaughn:
And so life came and life threw some curves in his way. He obliterated the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, not once, but twice. The first time they were able to fix it, the second time they weren't and came out and told his father and I in the waiting room of the surgical suite that Aaron was going to spend the rest of his life somewhat handicapped and would never be able to do anything physical again without the use of a special brace. And so a kid that's had a dream of being one thing all of his life and now he's 17 about to graduate and go do it, he just gets benched and he literally thought life was over. And I'll tell you that to tell you how amazing it was what he accomplished because he went on about his life and got a job because he didn't know what else to do, because all of his life he planned on one thing and now it wasn't happening.

Karen Vaughn:
They liked him so much where he worked that they put him through college, paid for his entire education and now he's, he's got some career moves in front of him and everything looks like it's going in another direction, he's laid this dream down of being a Navy SEAL, heartbreaking as it was, and then came 9/11. We had no idea what was going through Aaron's head or heart during those tragic days, weeks, months following 9/11, but a few months later he came home from work on his 21st birthday and he sat down across the table from his father and I, and he told us that he had stopped by the Navy recruiter's office and joined the SEAL challenge program. And long story short, you know the rest of the story, he made it. He made it with no anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee out of sheer determination and will, and the Navy never even knew that he had the injury.

Karen Vaughn:
He had developed muscular structure around the joint to protect it and stabilize it. He couldn't even tape it or they wouldn't have let him in the program had they known about the injury. So when I say that he was a person destined to do what he did, I hope that makes more sense. He absolutely was destined to be who he was, to do what he did, and I quite frankly believe that it was part of his destiny to die the death he did, as hard as it's been, as horrible as it's been, and with all my heart wishing I could change it, but he was a great man. He was an absolutely astoundingly great man who loved this country.

Beverly :
Yeah, I want to go back to just the amazing story about here he had this dream, thought it was tragically over. I'm sure there are some people listening to us today, I have some friends who are in this situation much due to health concerns, their life has drastically changed. What was the process like watching him during that period when your dreams are crushed, but still fighting? Anything that you can share that would be motivational for people listening?

Karen Vaughn:
Yeah. It's an attitude. It's a winner's attitude. It's an overcoming attitude. No matter how bad it was, he just tried to reconfigure what the new plan for his life was, what this direction was going to... What potential it was going to create, rather than what obstacles that was going to create. He was a man who just literally embraced life. He took it by the horns. He lived every day like he was dying, and he left a great legacy because of that. And so many of us can learn so much about an attitude of a person who does not let tragedy or physical ailments stop them. Aaron spent his whole life in pain as an adult, and I learned a lot from him. About just fighting through the pain, he used to say to me all the time, "Mom, pain is in your mind. You can tell your body to do anything you want it to do." And of course there's limits to that, but this was his mentality.

Karen Vaughn:
And he just had the mentality that as long as I'm doing what I want to do, I'm not going to let pain stop me. I'm not going to let the physical, what other people would call impossibilities, slow me down. So we could learn a lot from a person's mentality like that. And I have to tell you, Beverly, Aaron had a profound faith in Christ, and that kind of formed every single decision he ever made and empowered him in a way that just made him a pretty unstoppable human being.

Beverly :
Well, I also think it's been brave of you to share your son's story, something that obviously is the most tragic thing that you have ever gone through. Anything that you can share with people out there who are listening, who have lost a loved one, maybe son, in the military, maybe in a similar fashion to your son? What was that process like and what can you say about how the pain, I don't think it ever goes away, but changes as time goes on?

Karen Vaughn:
Yeah, I'd be glad to address that. There is nothing more horrific than getting a phone call that your child is dead. I mean, there's no way to describe what that feels like, the way your brain tries to analyze what you've just heard because it makes no sense. And you really just have quite an extended period of time where you kind of just walk around in a daze and in a fog. But one thing that our family determined early on, and I'm thankful to God that everybody in the family determined this, not just me, not just one or two of us, but everybody decided that we would not let our pain be wasted. That we would make sure it had value, that if we were going to hurt this desperately and this deeply, that there would be something that came of that pain that had great value.

Karen Vaughn:
And so we all began to seek our own individual ways of making sure Aaron's life mattered, of making sure the great legacy he left was told. And I think that's the most important thing a person can do. Because I say all the time, every day of my life, Beverly, I could choose... And I'm not saying this like patting myself on the back at all, but every day of my life with the pain of losing a child, you could crumble and you could get on your couch in your pajamas, with a good bag of tips and a cup of coffee or whatever, and you could say, "You know what? I'm done. I'm just done." Because it hurts enough to come to that and just kind of retire from the world that I always say to people who are struggling with something like that, "But what profit does that bring from your loss?"

Karen Vaughn:
How does that make any impact? How does your loss count? How does your life matter if that's what you do? You have the right to do a lot of things, but that doesn't mean that's what's best for you. And that's the way I try to encourage people who have experienced loss. Get out there and live in the midst of it, and living in it and doing something with it will give you more power to move through it. You will never move over it, but it will give you more power to move through it than anything else you can do.

Beverly :
Well, I'm sure it gave you power to do what you're doing today. I'm curious, before you decided to write a book and go around and speak around the country and speak on TV and on radio. Did you do any of this in your previous job or time prior to this, or is this a brand new career for you?

Karen Vaughn:
It is a brand new career. I was an office manager on August 5th, 2011. I was just a numbers person. I love bookkeeping, that sort of thing. Never in my wildest dreams did I envision where this journey was going to take me. Absolutely not.

Beverly :
Tell me a little bit more then about your work. You talk about the importance of trying to bridge the gap between the civilian world and the military world. I am someone who did not grow up in a military family. My father was a World War II... my grandfather was a World War II vet, but I did not grow up in a military family. So it is this whole other world. What is it that you do to try to bridge that gap?

Karen Vaughn:
Well, one of my favorite things that I do is an illustration I use, whether I'm speaking to high school students, elementary students, college students, or adults in the business world. I have one illustration. It's profitable and understandable that everybody can grasp and that's this. I have a wedding band that I was given on my 25th wedding anniversary. Billy, and I've been married 39 years now. It's a nice ring, Beverly. It's a really nice, beautiful ring. It's not the one I got when I got married. It's the one I got after 25 years. It costs a lot of money. And so I use this illustration that if I were to give you this ring, first, you'd look at me like I had three eyes. But the second thing is you'd want to know... The first thing you'd want to know is how much does it cost, right?

Karen Vaughn:
Because then based on how much it costs, you would evaluate how you would treat it, right? Whether it would be in a safe when you're visiting a hotel room and going out for the evening, whether it's something you would hand on to the next generation and you would pass this ring to the next generation. I will. And so many of us have [inaudible 00:11:16] that have been passed on to us generation after generation because we understand the value, both sentimental and monetary of that particular item. Yet here we are, we guard it, we protect it, we make sure the next generation gets it. But here we are with the greatest gift ever known to mankind, and that's of course freedom. And few of us feel any personal responsibility to pass freedom to the next generation to make sure they get to enjoy the gift, the way we enjoyed it, and here's why. Because so few of us had to buy it.

Karen Vaughn:
So few of us know what it actually costs because so few of us had to make the purchase. And so what I do in these illustrations across the country is I put a picture of my beautiful son Aaron up and say, "This is what freedom cost me." And that's a powerful way to bridge the gap and to make people understand that each of us, whether we wear a uniform or whether we just go to work on Wall Street or whatever we do in the television industry or anything else, teaching classrooms, we all individually have an obligation to protect and preserve freedom and to make sure the generation that comes after us understands the value of that gift we're passing to them. And so that's the biggest point that I ever try to make is that a great amount of sacrifice has been given to protect our freedom.

Karen Vaughn:
And I make it clear too, I say this all the time. America has had dark periods. We all know that. We all know we've made some horrible, horrible choices and we've done horrible things. But because of freedom, we have always been able to correct it. Because of freedom, a man or a woman has always had the right to rise up and say, "Not in my generation." And so freedom gives us that gift and who gives us freedom? The United States veterans. When it all boils back down to it, it's the person who's willing to fight to defend it that gives us the gift and the honor to live in freedom.

Beverly :
And this country has been through a lot over the decades. Do you think that as we get further and further away from what would be considered to be world wars, we fight wars in different ways these days. Of course in the Middle East, we've given a lot of American lives over there. But do you think that young people today have a harder time understanding what freedom costs? Are you concerned about the next generation and the way that they view what this country has given us and also what your son and others have given us? Do you think that message is being taught in schools?

Karen Vaughn:
I think that there are a lot of [inaudible 00:13:51] inside our country that are teaching that message very profoundly. And I do think Beverly, that because we've moved away from that message so much that there is a kind of a pivotal swing going on in our nation that I'm witnessing, or younger people are starting to question all of this, "Toss this out the window. Toss American values out the window." They're starting to question that. I think these things happen generationally and I'm witnessing it everywhere I go. I'm witnessing teachers teaching their children to basically feel moved when they hear the national anthem. Not just hear it as a song, but to understand what those words were written in reference to, what it costs to write those words.

Karen Vaughn:
I'm seeing a lot of positive things and I like to say to people too, there's a lot of us that are completely removed from the war and here's why. Because never in our nation's history have so few, percentage-wise, been responsible for the welfare and protection of so many at any given time during this. The longest war in our nation's history at any given time, less than one half of 1% of our citizens have been engaged in it. That means 99.5% of us have nothing to do with it. No personal investment in the war. So, I do think people are war weary. I think they've turned their eyes off to it though we still lose war fighters all the time. But here's the thing, I just think that there are people out there making very strong efforts to reinstill in the next generation, patriotism, love of country, love and honor for the American way of life.

Karen Vaughn:
And I think that as students across this nation watch Congress behaves so embarrassingly, as they watch things happen in their government, they're starting to try to question in their minds, "What's happened here that's causing these things to take place, and what can I do to shift it?" And also I want to point out that with as much ridiculousness as we see in the generation coming up with the tide pods and all the crazy things like that. This is also the generation, and the generation before it, that have rushed to recruiter's office to sign up to defend and protect America during a war.

Karen Vaughn:
When I said that about about how many people are serving, and how long this war has been 18 years now, it's a remarkable thing to note that this has been an all-volunteer war. Longest war in our nation's history, all-volunteer war. So I say that the men and women coming home from this war, the men and women serving the generations that are coming up and still signing up, even though this war seems like it has no end in sight. I believe this is the next greatest generation. That's my personal opinion.

Beverly :
And let us know, I'm curious from you how we can help serve military families, some who have lost loved ones, some who have loved ones fighting, some who have come back from the war and are trying to get reinstated in civilian life and that has its challenges. I think we often look to government to provide the solutions or the Department of Veteran Affairs, which has gone through a lot of reforms, much needed reforms. But I don't think government is always the answer. I know at the Independent Women's Forum we have some policy focuses on this. We talk a lot about choice in education and also choice in healthcare for our vets, making sure that they do have choice just like every other American. But I'm curious from you just what do you think we can do as Americans to reach out help the military community? What have you found to be most impactful?

Karen Vaughn:
I love that you asked that question because I'm involved with a couple different nonprofits that take care of veterans. And I'll talk about those just a little bit, but the thing is government will never be able to provide stability for people. It wasn't made for that. It was made to provide protection for us, right? But when people come home and they're broken or they have issues, they need people to help them, not government facilities. And so the VA does incredible work, but yes, it's broken because it's a bureaucracy and it doesn't have the ability to heal people who are hurting. They need people to do that. And there are tremendous organizations across this nation that have stepped up for wounded warriors that are coming home or for just warriors that have post traumatic stress.

Karen Vaughn:
There are colleges across the nation who are finding ways to look deeper into post traumatic stress and see if it's a actually a traumatic brain injury. There are just so many organizations out there doing wonderful things for veterans. So if you really want to get involved in helping veterans, don't press your Congressman to throw more money at the VA, get out there and make a donation to one of these nonprofits that are actually doing the boots-on-the-ground work to see our veterans healthier and have the affection and the appreciation of the American people.

Karen Vaughn:
And let me just say this too, this is what I really love about your question. I've worked for an organization called American Warrior Initiative. What's so beautiful about American Warrior Initiative is we find the needs of veterans and we meet the needs of veterans, whatever it is. If they need a service dog, we pay to have a service dog trained for them. If they need construction on their home, we pay for construction on their home. Whatever their need is. If they want to start a business and they haven't found a way to financially do that, we provide business grants and get them on their feet and get them started in a new direction.

Karen Vaughn:
Now, here's the most critical thing about American Warrior Initiative. 100% of the organization's costs are covered by its parent company, which is Fairway Independent Mortgage. Fairway covers all of the costs. This is a big mortgage corporation across the country. They cover all of the costs so that American Warrior Initiative go out and do and give to veterans. And now every single penny, 100% of every dollar that comes into the American Warrior Initiative goes directly to a veteran. How powerful would it be if companies all across this nation did their part like that and put their money where their mouth is when they actually say, "Oh, we care about our veterans?" Well, how do you care about your veterans? What are you actually doing to help your veterans?

Karen Vaughn:
It's not the government's job to take care of people. It's people job to take care of each other. And these are people who have given everything for us and who've been willing to die for us and managed to get themselves back home. The least we can do as companies and corporations across this country is put some money where our mouths are and really take care of them.

Beverly :
I agree and I just want to say in closing, I thank you for all the work that you've done. You talked about you wanting your life to have meaning and not let your son's sacrifice go to waste. I can definitely say that you have not it go to waste. I think it's inspiring, not only the work that you're doing, but also as you said, you got yourself off the couch. You didn't sit there and just eat potato chips. You wanted to do something and make a difference and not only is his sacrifice being honored by that, but we're all also blessed by the work that you do. So I personally just want to thank you for all that you've done for this country.

Karen Vaughn:
Well, thank you very much. I really do appreciate that. Very humbling words.

Beverly :
And thank you all for joining us. Before you go, I did want to let you know of another great podcast that you should subscribe to in addition to She Thinks of course. It's called Problematic Women and it's hosted by Kelsey Bowler and Lauren Evans, where they sort through the news to bring stories and interviews that are of particular interest to conservative leaning or problematic women. That is women whose views and opinions are often excluded or mocked by those on the so-called feminists left. Every Thursday, hear them talk about everything from pop culture to policy and politics by searching for problematic women wherever you get your podcasts. Last, if you enjoyed this episode of She Thinks, do leave us a rating or a review on iTunes, it does help, and we'd love it if you shared this episode and let your friends know where they can find more She Thinks episodes. From all of us here at Independent Women's Forum, thanks for listening.





Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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