Made in Eastern Iowa: A legacy to help military when help was hard to find

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG-TV9) -- Alyssa Quinn and Sela Gonlubol will always have a bond.

Sela Gonlubol, the mother of Spc. Jacob Hutchinson, talks about her son’s life and how this app to connect military members can make a real positive impact.

One a friend. One a son.

"He's 'Hutch' to me and a lot of people," said Quinn, 26, who graduated from Cedar Rapids Prairie in 2009 and began her journey as a medic in the Iowa Army National Guard.

The "Hutch" that Quinn refers to will always be one of the lights of Sela Gonlubol's life.

"As I look at it, what a large life he lived in 24 years."

"Hutch" is Sela's son, Sgt. Jacob Hutchinson.

This is a story that we've followed for more than six years, first learning about Jacob on a Friday night in May 2011. His journey filled a family with pride and love but also devastated those closest to him.

* * *

Alyssa Quinn is standing amid the sunshine peeking through a first-floor window of the Veterans Memorial Building on Mays Island in downtown Cedar Rapids. Phone in hand, this app that she's working on ready for a demo.

"This is what the screen looks like when you get started," said Quinn, who is the CEO of High Caliber Community. "From here, you get verified with your information and there's a third-party verification service through that verifies that each user is a vet or a current service member."

This idea came from her transformation and transition to a new place. From a high school student to an army medic, from training in Texas to serving in Iowa and, eventually, northern California.

"I was kind of lonely and any normal person would be when they travel somewhere else to meet new people who are like them and I was using other dating apps or social media platforms just to find people with similar interest and it just wasn't quite hitting the mark," said Quinn. "The kind of people I wanted to be around were people like me, who had a military background. I had this crazy idea for an app that did this, just for military vets and current military members and their buddies. Some said it was good, some said it wasn't good and it blossomed into this."

This idea where people who are in the military - veteran or current - can connect to share the experience that a civilian may not quite grasp.

"When I first had the idea to first connect with people socially, it would be great to find buddies for the weekend," explained Quinn. "People to go on trips with. Maybe connect and find a job. Then we started to really focus in on what this could do and that's where my friend Jacob started coming up and resurfacing in the back of my mind all the time."

That's back to Jacob, or "Hutch", as Alyssa called him.

"I met him in 2008 or 2009," she said. "We met before I joined the military. We went to basic training, we went as medics at the same time. He went forward on the deployment and I came home."

It was during that deployment where we learned the complicated story of Jacob Hutchinson.

* * *

A Friday night in May 2011. Rainy and gray in Eastern Iowa as the news came out that a bomb blast in Afghanistan injured four men, all from Eastern Iowa.

Families fretted all evening over any updates about then-Specialist Jacob Hutchinson, 21, Spc. Benjamin Ward, 26, of Rowley, PFC Tanner Williams, 18, of Tama and Sgt. Chisum Frisch, 23, of rural Cedar Falls.

"I want to be there with him and I can't be," said Tracy Frisch, in her home that night in Cedar Falls, as she waited on a call from her son with an update on his condition.

Sela Gonlubol also reached out to us that weekend.

"Some families go through things much worse than this," Sela told me the next day. "His legs will heel. He's an athlete and he will be able to work with folks and have a good outcome. I'm very convinced of that."

She described Jacob's injuries. Two broken legs and a broken arm after a bomb exploded near their vehicle.

Three months later, Jacob was in Texas recovering, in what would be 19 months of rehabilitation with 20 surgeries. We met Sela's youngest child and Jacob's little sister, Maya. She was just 12 at the time but told the world that she was going to honor her older brother by only wearing "toe shoes" until he fully recovered. She figured that Jacob wore toe shoes all the time. She should as well.

Maya wore the toe shoes for seven months.

In fall 2012, Jacob had moved to Bloomington, Indiana, opening a new stage of life as a student at Indiana University. He had just gotten married.

Sela reached back to me with the news, "I am so happy for him," she wrote by e-mail.

A war hero survived two broken legs, all while trying to make sure the others in the field were safe before seeking safety himself. Full rehabilitation. A new life and starting off a successful future with a new family.

This is where a good story should end.

Until life twists the ending.

* * *

On May 8, 2014, an e-mail came from Sela.

"Jacob shot himself in his home on 4/22/2014," Sela wrote me. "My heart is in pieces over this but I wanted (you) to know."

Another e-mail, 25 minutes later, summed up a mother's anguish.

"We thought so much about Jacob's wound that you could see but the PTSD ended up being the wound that took his life."

Sgt. Jacob Hutchinson, dead at 24. Sela wrote me six e-mails that day, saying that she did not want another family to go through this. The calls from reporters were constant, she said, with news outlets wanting a comment from a mother forced to join a group that no person ever signs up for.

Sela Gonlubol worked through the sorrow, the grief and the pain with her loved ones - family and dear friends - for three years, a process that will never go away. For this story, with an app that could help veterans who feel disconnected during or after their service, she is talking.

Again, to try and make sure another family doesn't ever have the void that will always fill her core.

"I have people ask me - does it get better, Sela? Does it get better as a mom?'," she said, in an interview last week from her living room in Cedar Rapids.

A plaque in the hallway, perfectly lit with his military picture below a signed letter from President Obama mark the pride and the pain in a house that looks like any other family's home. Family pictures on top of the piano with smiling children and proud parents.

"I can honestly say it doesn't get better but it does get different. When this first happened, I've never had a broken rib but I felt like my ribs were broken. Every time I would breathe, it would hurt. I still get teary when I think of certain things. But, by and far, when I think of Jacob or I'm reminded of a story, I smile. That means it's different for me. If in any small way his life can make a small difference for someone else and make a difference for some mom that might not have to go through this because we figured out different ways to people, it's so worth it."

She said that, when her son transitioned from getting stronger in Texas to attending college in Indiana, that move from a military environment to a more civilian and college atmosphere was very difficult.

"He didn't have that Army community there and I don't know that it would have changed things for him and, in a way, where he would still be here," said Sela. "I do feel that sense of community would have made a difference for him."

She noted that, when Jacob was around others from the military, their shared experienced provided that level of deep comfort.

"They just seemed, somehow, to just get each other."

Sela Gonlubol has worked to find her inner strength from other survivors of suicide through a closed group on Facebook. This helps in the still of the dire, lonely hours of doubt, sorrow or replaying what could have been done differently.

"I find that connectedness when I can't sleep in the middle of the night because I'm thinking about Jacob, some mom in Australia is awake and messages me back," said Sela. "It's given me a private space to share some feelings, some new blessings that are in my life, something positive that comes from this. "

She said when it comes to the post-traumatic stress issues and military depression, there is no magic answer. Gonlubol is "pleased" the issue is getting more attention but also stressed the need for people to be, truly, engaged in the lives of loved ones.

"We also have to remain in really close contact with the veterans that we love and keep checking in with them and making sure they're okay and making sure they can get connected to people who help them."

* * *

Perhaps that is where Alyssa Quinn's most important mission comes in with High Caliber Community.

"We're not alone with 'Hutch'," said Quinn. "He's not the only friend that we've lost. He's the only one that I've talked about in public so far. Thinking about Hutch and all of those others in a positive way every day and how they're influencing us to create something out of their lives and what they've done for the world, it's incredibly powerful."

The connection - with Sgt. Jacob Hutchinson at the center - is a bond between Alyssa and Sela for something to come from this void.

"I would be very, very pleased if this could be a legacy for him," said Sela. "He made a difference in his short life in many different ways. I feel now as I look at it, what a large life he lived in 24 years. But to see him go on to be a piece of inspiration for this app and to motivate somebody that he served with to do something great like this is to make a difference."

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