Yvonne Coombes

Branch: Army

Duty Station: Fort Carson

Number of Deployments: 4

Number of PCS's: 12

Share your military spouse story:
In 2019 the adage “Murphy’s Law Strikes during deployments” was an understatement.  My year was bookended by life threatening medical diagnoses for both of my sons.  In January, just before my husband’s accelerated deployment, my 21 year old son, Jakob, had surgery and then began chemotherapy for testicular cancer. Instead of moving to our next duty station, as planned, I stayed in the DC area to face this challenge with him. In June, after Jakob was finished with his treatment, like many capable Army Spouses, I packed up and moved our family to Ft Carson, CO for what unfortunately turned out to be an epic fail of a move with unprecedented loss and breakage. Once at Ft Carson, my focus shifted to the non-profit I cofounded: Operation Deploy Your Dress (ODYD). For the first 8 weeks I was there, I set up the 7th ODYD shop which opened to the Ft Carson community in August.  Once ODYD was up and running, with just two months left of my husband’s deployment, I laid out a plan to get ready for his return.  But, Murphy struck again! In October, a string of events that started with a broken arm for my youngest son, Jackson, led to nine days in the hospital fighting a severe bone infection with fevers spiking up to 107.8 and ultimately sepsis.  My husband was brought home on emergency leave and we again faced the possibility of losing a child for the second time in less than a year.  Jackson was sent home in a wheelchair and spent the next month and a half learning to walk again and regaining his strength.  This last year has tested our family in ways that I never could imagine.  I have learned lifelong personal lessons as a result of these experiences. The two biggest lessons for me to not just survive, but thrive in this military life are: it’s ok to ask for and accept help and community is important. On my high school basketball jersey were 3 words: “together we will”. I know encouraging all military spouses to find their community when they move, they too will thrive.

Share an example of your leadership experience within the military community:
I have filled leadership roles at various levels in my military spouse life. I am currently the CEO of Operation Deploy Your Dress and the senior advisor to our battalion Soldier and Family Support Group. However, what I’ve learned is that it’s not always being the “leader” in the spotlight that makes the biggest impact. As a younger spouse, I took on a lot of more stereotypical "leadership" roles. But that practice evolved as I did as a military spouse. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean that leading from the front is bad or that I never do it. What I’ve learned is that assessing each situation and forming a unique approach is what’s necessary. This military life is much more fun and impactful with friends, networks and company! There’s a saying “misery loves company” but I prefer to stick with the “together we will” mentality. I’ve definitely followed this mindset as I’ve aged and realized that together we can accomplish so much more than I ever did alone or from the front.

Describe your involvement in the military community:
Along with being the cofounder and CEO of a national nonprofit (ODYD), I have also volunteered at every level of military life. I’ve sat on various spouses’ club boards and held the full spectrum of positions from scholarship chairperson to President. I have served at all levels of Family Readiness Groups from phone tree key caller to general volunteer and FRG leader to FRG Advisor. I am an active/trained Care team member, ready to assist when/if the unit has a casualty. I have been a volunteer at all the schools both of my children attended and also a youth sports coach for soccer, basketball and even flag football. I feel strongly that you should always work to “bloom where you are planted” and leave any place better than when you arrived. While my motivation for being involved was never to get anything in return, I certainly know firsthand the power of the military community and the support given in time of need.

Describe how you support your community:
At first glance, Operation Deploy Your Dress just gives away gowns to help “get people to the ball,” but as we’ve grown the true magic of ODYD has come to light.  We are strengthening the military community. Balls have always been a part of military culture as a way of building Esprit de Corps and camaraderie; however, many young families can’t afford the added expense of attending formal events. By giving away over 11,000 dresses, ODYD has helped with that. But, an unexpected outcome of ODYD has been the community we’ve helped grow. We want to be the best place on post to volunteer. Many of our volunteers walked in the door looking for a dress, put on an ODYD apron and joined our team. Moving from post to post is hard for all military spouses, and for many finding a friend is the hardest part. I know from experience that the sooner you get involved in your community and meet people, the better. You never know when a crisis will come and you’ll need to lean on the people around you.

What do you advocate for? Why?
I strive to improve the experience for military families through my volunteering. I want military kids to enjoy their sporting experiences, so I work very hard as a youth sports coach. I want to infuse as much spousal support into military communities as possible, so I volunteer in various roles with spouses’ clubs. I see the importance of inclusion at military balls, upholding military tradition, building camaraderie and bridging the military civilian gap, so I work very hard to help ODYD flourish all over the country. I also advocate for Testicular Cancer and highlight something that our family was very unaware of. Testicular Cancer is most commonly found in males 15-33. We were surprised to hear this because we had thought of it as an older gentleman’s disease. Having two sons who fall in that range and knowing many military families who also have sons of those ages, we think it’s important to raise awareness so they know what to look for and the facts surrounding the disease.

How have you spread the message of your platform/advocacy?
For the first part of my platform (ODYD) I have spread the message through 8 facebook pages with over 20,000 followers and various media interviews. This organization was started by five army spouses and we all shook out into different roles. One of my roles quickly became the unofficial ODYD spokesperson. I have given tv, podcast, magazine, and newspaper interviews at all levels from local to national. I am currently working on a national campaign with Hanes which will highlight Operation Deploy Your Dress and allow us to reach an even wider audience. For the second part, my son and I made videos to share on social media talking about his journey with Testicular Cancer and we continue to share his story with anyone and everyone that we can. If we can help even one young man catch the disease early, we consider our efforts a success.

What do you hope to accomplish with the AFI Military Spouse of the Year® title?
If selected as Military Spouse of the Year, I hope to teach and show military spouses exactly how powerful we can be by working together, not just within our branches but across the entire military. I chose the saying “together we will” because truthfully, I have yet to see anything that cannot be accomplished when a group of military spouses sets out to do something. WE are a force to be reckoned with but also a force to be respected, tapped into and utilized. I (of course) would love to grow Operation Deploy Your Dress, not for personal gain, but because I’ve seen the impact that this program can have on military communities. I would love to spread ODYD to as many military communities as possible. I have seen how the MSOY program can open networks and I’m excited for this potential. I think every single military spouse needs to understand the importance of having a military spouse network and community.