David Hirsch’s guest this week is Colonel Mark Huhtanen of Columbia, SC, a 25 year combat veteran of the US ARMY, who has served four active duty tours, and is the father of two, including a non-verbal son with Autism.
Mark and his wife, Shelly, have been married for 18 years and are the proud parents of two boys;
Hayden (17) and Broden (15) who is non-verbal and has Autism.
Serving in the military and raising a family presents unique challenges. Raising a child with special needs, while serving in the military requires an extra level of dedication and additional resources like that offered through the military’s Exceptional Family Member
Program, also known as EFMP.
In addition to being a military spouse, which has entailed several moves, being a mom and raising two boys, Shelly somehow found the time to author the book: Giving A Voice To The Silent Many and writes a regular column for Exceptional Parent Magazine entitled: Puzzles & Camo.
It’s a patriotic and uplifting story about a couple’s commitment to serve our country, while raising two boys and making a difference in the lives of countless other military families and beyond.
That’s all on this Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast.
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) – https://efmp.amedd.army.mil
Exceptional Parent Magazine – https://www.epmagazine.com
Check out Shelly’s book: “Giving A Voice To The Silent Many.” https://www.amazon.com/Giving-Voice-Silent-Shelly-Huhtanen/dp/1940129834
Or check out the book’s website, where you can contact Mark or Shelly: http://silentmany.com/giving-a-voice-to-the-silent-many/
Tom Couch: Special thanks to Horizon Therapeutics for sponsoring today’s Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. Working tirelessly to research, develop and bring forward medicines for people living with rare and rheumatic diseases. Discover more about Horizon Therapeutics’ mission at horizontherapeutics.com.
Mark Huhtanen: I get a persona sometimes. I’m a leader in the army, and I’m supposed to be put on this pedestal, and I’m not supposed to have all these flaws. You know, we have some great stories where Broden just brings us right back to reality. But it’s great because it allows us to stay humble and it allows us to connect with those around us.
Tom Couch: That’s our guest this week, Mark Huhtanen, a colonel and 25 year veteran in the US Army. Mark and his wife Shelly have two boys, Hayden, and Broden who has autism. We’ll hear the Huhtanen and family story, including what it’s like for a military man to raise a child with special needs. That’s all on this Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad podcast. Say hello to host David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: Hi, and thanks for listening to the Dad to Dad Podcast, fathers mentoring fathers of children with special needs, presented by the Special Fathers Network.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support dads. To find out more, go to 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: And if you’re a dad looking for help or would like to offer help, we’d be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group. Please go to facebook.com/groups and search Dad to Dad.
Tom Couch: And now let’s listen to this conversation between Mark Huhtanen and David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: I am thrilled to be talking today with Mark Huhtanen of Columbia, South Carolina, who is a father of two and a colonel and 25 year veteran of the US Army. Mark, thank you for taking the time to do a podcast interview for the Special Fathers Network.
Mark Huhtanen: It’s great to be here.
David Hirsch You and your wife Shelly have been married for 18 years and are the proud parents of two boys, Hayden, 17, and Broden, 15, who has autism. Let’s start with some background. Where did you grow up? Tell me something about your family.
Mark Huhtanen: Sure. I grew up in, really across, the state of Montana. My parents were educators, and I was born in a small town, kind of in the middle of Montana. And then we bounced around to different jobs as my parents progressed through the school network.
And we finally ended up in western Montana in the small town of Hamilton, which is just kind of south of Missoula. That’s where I graduated high school in front of my sister. I have a younger sister. She graduated high school there. And my parents actually retired there and still reside there. My dad did 28 years in the education system.
He wrote grants for a while to help other schools get money in. He also was a city administrator in Hamilton after he completed his time as a school administrator. And so that’s where they reside now. After my mother went out of teaching, she worked for the National Institute of Health at a laboratory there in Hamilton, where she did 20 years there and retired out of that. So it was kind of a western upbringing, I guess.
David Hirsch: Excellent. I did remember that your dad was also a veteran. He was a Vietnam veteran.
Mark Huhtanen: Yes, he was. I think it was four years that he served. He graduated from the University of Montana as an ROTC, and got his commission. I think he understood that he was going to get drafted if he didn’t, so he went that route.
He got his college degree, and then served a tour in Vietnam. Came back and asked to go to Germany. Well, he came back and married my mother, and asked to go to Germany. But the army said, “No, we’re going to send you back to Vietnam.” And my father politely declined, and that started his education career.
David Hirsch: Okay. And did he talk about his experience in the military when you were growing up, or….?
Mark Huhtanen: A little bit. I think the older I got, the more I learned about his time. I didn’t know a lot of what my father did until I got older. And then right before I came into the military is when he shared his full story with me, which was very surprising, you know? And then what was very interesting is, as I’ve gone through my 25 years, I think I reached a point at probably my six year mark where I was getting out of things he was familiar with. The different echelons and responsibilities and stuff like that began to be different from it, from what he had experienced. So that was kind of a passing, I guess, that happened in our relationship.
David Hirsch: Very interesting. Thanks for sharing. So, how would you describe your relationship with your father?
Mark Huhtanen: He was always fair and firm. Those would be the two words I always use to describe him. I think I got my work ethic from him. Working hard was a quality he always instilled in me. As a child, we always had chores You didn’t play until your chores were done. But then he modeled that too, and made sure all of his stuff was done before he would sit down and watch a ball game, or before he would relax. So I think that’s where I get my work ethic from.
As I hit my teenage years, I think like every father-son relationship, that’s where some friction started, as I started to come into my own. But he was always very, very supportive. It does make me laugh looking back on it. As a junior in high school, I always remember him looking at me and saying, “How are you going to pay for college?”
It was a wake-up call, so that’s when I started to apply. That’s how I fell into an ROTC scholarship. I actually had tried to go to Annapolis to go into the Navy, but that didn’t go through. And so I ended up getting accepted for an Army ROTC scholarship. I don’t think I would’ve even thought of that if my father hadn’t asked me that question.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Funny you should mention that. In our family, we had a little running joke with our five kids. I would do this [knocks on the table]. I’d say, “You hear that? That’s the real world knocking.” So that was my way of reminding them that there was a gravy train, and then it was coming to an end at a certain point in time.
Anyway, thanks for sharing. So was there a lesson or two that come to mind, beyond being fair and firm and these core values, the work ethic that your dad modeled? Was there a lesson or two that you’ve incorporated into your own parenting for that matter?
Mark Huhtanen: Integrity was always very important to him. It’s a great Thanksgiving joke now, but my father was the school principal where I was, and I played high school football. I think it was my junior year. I got a date to homecoming, and I stayed out 10 minutes past curfew. I got the young lady home, but I was 10 minutes late getting back to my house.
My father never lost his temper, but he said, “Are you going to call the football coach, or am I going to call the football coach?” He wasn’t going to have the principal’s son violate the school rules. I think that was a great lesson for me. Integrity is important, and I try to pass that on to Hayden as we go.
David Hirsch: So my recollection was you went to Montana State University where you were a biomed science, minor in chemistry. And your career took you from studying science to going into the military. I’m wondering if you can explain how that transition took place.
Mark Huhtanen: Sure. I was always going into the military. The original plan when I first got there as a starry-eyed freshman was that I would get my pre-med degree and apply to medical school, and then go on to be a doctor. Then I would pay off all my debt by serving in the military, because there are a couple different programs.
I think it was probably my sophomore year when I went into an embryology class, and there were 50 microscopes on the table. The teacher handed out a blank sheet of paper and said, “Look in every microscope, and tell me which phase of development that is.”
And at that point I knew I did not have the photographic memory to pass well in that class. I think I fought my way to a D plus in that class, but I knew that some of the medical school stuff was not probably going to be there. Back then you couldn’t change your major, because your scholarship was tied to your major.
And so I didn’t know what to do. I talked to my parents, and they were very supportive. But they’re like, “Hey, stick it out for your scholarship, and then you can go into the army. There are lots of things you can do in the army if you don’t want to be a doctor. And then you can get out and find your career field.”
So that summer, the Army actually sent me to a school, of all places, out in Hawaii. So I got to experience travel, and then I got to do fun things like repel out of helicopters. I’ve always been an outdoors person. So I asked, “What Army job allows me to do this?” They told me to join the infantry. I said okay, and the next thing you know, 25 years later, here I am still doing it.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. Thanks for sharing. My recollection was that your military career has taken you to Germany, to Alaska, and to a number of other places. And I’m wondering if you can give us a quick fly by.
Mark Huhtanen: Oh, sure. I started out of course intermixed with military schools, but after I graduated Montana State, I spent the summer at Fort Lewis, Washington, which is out by Seattle, leading other cadets. I’m a brand new lieutenant, and so part of our job is to go back and lead those that are still coming up through.
Then I reported to my official school at Fort Benning, Georgia, which is probably two hours south of Atlanta, where I went through all of the infantry training: ranger school, airborne school, and so on. And then my first assignment was in Germany, so I think it was in the fall of ’97.
I reported to Germany on a three year assignment. It was a great time. Got to travel all over Europe. I came back around 2000, went to another military school, and then my idea was to go to Alaska as a single guy and just fish and hunt when I wasn’t working, and enjoy the great outdoors in Alaska. I got there in March, I met Shelly in October, and I left Alaska.
I ended up doing two tours there, so I left six years later with a wife and two children and a dog. So it was awesome, but I didn’t do my hunting and fishing adventure quite the way I thought I was going to.
David Hirsch: Well, you did have a lot of tangible takeaways from your time in Alaska.
Mark Huhtanen: I did, yeah, absolutely. And then from there I went to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, because that’s a big transition school for everybody. And usually it’s a year long school, kind of equivalent to a graduate degree. I got accepted to another school, so we ended up spending two years there.
And that was kind of the pivotal place. That’s where we figured out what was going on with Broden. And then from there we went down to Fort Hood, Texas, and then back to Fort Benning. And now we’re here in Columbia, South Carolina. All of those assignments were really charted around places that the Army could put me where Broden could be taken care of like he should be.
David Hirsch: Well, thanks for sharing. You’ve seen a lot of the country, but you neglected to mention that you’ve done four tours.
Mark Huhtanen: Yes, I have. I’ve done four tours to combat and multiple training tours.
David Hirsch: So if you had to pick one experience from your combat experience, which one is top of mind for you?
Mark Huhtanen: Well, I think it was probably my first tour. And not to be clicheic, it was probably the most defining tour for who I am now, and our family. I deployed on my first combat tour in 2005. Hayden, our oldest, was one year old, and Shelly had just found out she was pregnant with Broden.
What was really neat is back in those times was, for the 12 month deployments, you would get a two week leave period somewhere in the deployment. So one of the things my commander did was he came to all of us that had wives expecting and said, “Hey, we’re going to do the best we can to get you back around the delivery dates, if there’s not an emergency, and so we all got to kind of plan that.
And so I was able to come. I didn’t make it quite on time, but that’s a different story. I was there right after Broden was born. But I think that was a defining moment because I was a captain at the time. I was more at the tactical level on the ground. Then we got towards the end of our deployment, and the big shocker was the army knew it was going to surge and uplift the troops, but they couldn’t get enough units over there in time.
And so we were literally ten days from coming home when they said, “You’re going to stay.” I was able to get to a phone and call Shelly. I said, “I don’t know what’s happening, but they’ve got this big three star general coming in to brief us. So I don’t think I’m going to be home on time.”
David Hirsch: You know, there’s this issue of expectations. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s three months away. It’s two months away, it’s a month away. And you know, things usually happen on schedule, but not always. And that has to make it really hard, psychologically and emotionally.
Mark Huhtanen: Oh, absolutely.
David Hirsch: Is there anything that you learned as a result of that, that Shelly learned, an important takeaway that you might be able to share with other families—because that’s the real world. Our expectations and reality are sometimes not in sync.
Mark Huhtanen: Well, it’s funny that you say that. I think as I talk through it with you today, in some ways that probably—a little bit, not a lot—started to prepare us for Broden’s diagnosis down the road, because that would happen about a year and a half later. And I think what it definitely taught us as an army family was that plans change, and you’re really not home until you’re home.
So I think we began to understand and take it as a blessing each deployment. And I guess what I’m trying to say is, later on I would have a deployment that was cut short because we were drawing down troops in Afghanistan. And so instead of the full year, I got to come home early. So those kind of things become even more of a blessing after going through something like that.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, it’s a matter of managing expectations, and I guess certain things are within your control, and then there’s certain things outside of your control. And maybe it’s a reminder that you can’t beat yourself up over things that are beyond your control. Do the best with the information you have, with the facts that you have, and just move forward. Try not to dwell on the coulda, woulda, shoulda.
So let’s switch gears and talk about special needs, first on a personal basis and then beyond. And I’m sort of curious, before Broden’s diagnosis, did you or Shelly have any exposure or experience with the special needs community?
Mark Huhtanen: Not really. I don’t think a lot of people do. I had a cousin that had Down Syndrome, so growing up I was aware of it, but neither one of us were immersed in it. Which I think is probably pretty normal, I’m assuming. It’s what you hear a lot of times.
David Hirsch: Yeah, I think so. So I’m sort of curious to know, how did the autism diagnosis come about, and what was your first reaction?
Mark Huhtanen: Sure. Like I said, I was at school in Kansas when we began to notice that Broden wouldn’t react to certain things. He had a physician’s assistant assigned through the military that was checking up on him, kind of his doctor. And we kind of convinced her too that we thought he might be deaf. You know, we were in Kansas, and you get these amazing thunderstorms and all this kind of stuff, and when the thunder would go off, the dog would bark, we’d all scream—and Broden would just sit there.
But we knew the visual cues were there, because he was very interested in visualization and cartoons, and then the visual stimulus. So we literally thought he was deaf. We went through a series of hearing tests. And in fact the Army actually paid us to go up to Omaha, Nebraska, to do kind of an extensive auditory test where they hooked a bunch of electrodes to him. They put him in a quiet room and they monitored him. And it was kind of a shock when we got done, and the doctor looks at us and says, “Your son can hear fine.” And we’re like, “Well, what’s wrong then?” We were expecting more than that. And he goes, “I can’t really tell you. I just can tell you it’s not his hearing.”
I remember we walked out of the hospital and back to the hotel, and we were just bewildered. We didn’t know what was going on. Shelly hopped on our laptop at the time, and started calling and calling and calling.
I don’t remember exactly who she got hold of, but I think it was somebody with the early intervention services back in Kansas. They said, “You’ve got to get him into an interdisciplinary team.” Then she’s like, “I don’t want to tell you what I think it is, but if it’s not a physical disability, then it might be something else. And an interdisciplinary team will look at all these different things.”
So we’re like, “Okay.” So we went back to his doctor, told her everything, and ended up getting on a wait list. Of course, in our world there are all these wait lists. I remember Shelly would just call every day just to see if there was an opening.
And finally one day there was an opening, so off we went to the KU Med. They interviewed Shelly and me, and we felt like it was an interrogation. I mean, I’m sure many parents out there have gone through that. You know, “What did he eat? How did he sleep? What did you do? blah, blah, blah.” And then somebody was evaluating Broden, and finally when they got done, they’re like, “Yeah, he has autism.”
You know, you get hit with shock, you get hit with depression, you get hit with, “I can’t believe this is happening.” But looking back, I think the one Shelly and I would both say is, “Okay. This is the way ahead. What’s the treatment?” And I think what floored us was that there wasn’t any treatment. There was, “Well, here’s some pamphlets. There’s this Defeat Autism Now program, and then there’s this thing called applied behavioral analysis therapy.”
So that was just kind of the blow. I remember we walked out of there just kind of stunned. And I remember Shelly ran to the restroom. I didn’t know at the time what was going on, but she says in her book she was dry heaving, just from the stress and everything.
Then that night she starts looking for BCBAs. Wait list, wait list, wait list. And finally we found this one BCBA, and she’s like, “Okay, I can take a look at him in a couple weeks.” And so that was kind of the way ahead where we saw maybe a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel.
David Hirsch: Well, it sounds like, if I can paraphrase what you’ve said, Mark, it was very unsettling. You weren’t prepared for the news or the information about the diagnosis, and there wasn’t a context to put the information in. And it sounded like you were sort of on your own to come up to speed, and there was a little bit of a delay, as far as having access to more information or a further diagnosis.
So were there some fears that you remember experiencing early on, or maybe as things transpired, that you can recall?
Mark Huhtanen: It’s funny. My first fear was honestly—and this is going to sound crazy—my first fear was, “Oh my gosh, Shelly is outrunning me right now.” Because she’s a mom and this is her baby, and she is trying to find ways to fix it. And honestly, I’m still processing everything.
Later we would find out that I was fighting PTSD. I’d just come back from that first tour where I described. It was very interesting. My fear was, I’m not going to be able to do enough as a dad. I’m not going to be able to pull my weight. I’m not going to be able to keep up with Shelly. And so those were probably my two biggest fears.
As we began to navigate, after about the first month, I finally looked at Shelly, and I was like, “You can’t do this all by yourself. How can I help?” I told her that. I said, “You’re outrunning me. How can I help?”
What we figured out was, at that point, since I was still in the military, I was going to navigate the military systems. Our healthcare was provided by TRICARE, so I was going to be the one to navigate how to get Broden’s referrals. We have a program in the military called the Exceptional Family Member Program, and so I would be the one that would enroll us in that. What it does is it ensures that I can only get assigned places where Broden can get taken care of.
And so I began to be that advocate on that side, and Shelly began to be the go-between between therapists and doctors. She researched who she needed to get a referral to, and then she would come to me, I’d figure out how to make that happen on the other side. And it allowed us to kind of share the weight.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, thank you for sharing. That’s really important, no matter whether you’re a military family or a non-military family, for that matter. And another observation that comes to mind is that men and women, husbands and wives, moms and dads don’t always process the situation at the same pace.
Mark Huhtanen: No, definitely not.
David Hirsch: We could be ahead, or our spouse could be ahead. Dads generally experience a certain level of denial. Like, “Why don’t we give it a little bit more time? Or we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. And let’s not be too hasty. Let’s not pre-worry our worries.” These are things that I find myself saying, Mark, over and over.
Mark Huhtanen: Oh yeah. Absolutely. Well, my famous saying is, “It’ll be fine.”
David Hirsch: You know, that’s credit to our wives. Maybe they’re more accepting and understanding of reality. And there has to be a certain amount of grace that goes along with coming to that understanding. We’re both going to get there, but maybe not at the same time or the same speed. There’s a give and take in a relationship. And I sort of heard you saying that as well.
Mark Huhtanen: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
David Hirsch: Well, was there any meaningful advice, a dozen or so years later, that you can look back and say, “Oh, I’m really glad this person told us this,” or “I’m really glad we got that advice”?
Mark Huhtanen: Yeah. I think on my side, we got to meet a family that are still friends with us. She actually went on to be a BCBA and was Broden’s, BCBA, and he’s a general officer now. But Andy and Nikki Helms were—well, I won’t get the years right—but they were definitely ahead of us on the journey.
I think the one thing they both told us is that it is okay to fight for Broden, and it was okay to buck the Army system. I think sometimes we don’t want to buck the system, but it’s okay to buck the system to take care of your child. They showed us that you could still have a successful career with a special needs child, and I think as I’ve gone through my career, that was probably some great advice.
You can tell me better, David, because I haven’t been in the civilian world for 25 years, but I think I get a persona sometimes. I’m a leader in the army, and I’m supposed to be put on this pedestal, and I’m not supposed to have all these flaws. You know, we have some great stories where Broden just brings us right back to reality.
But it’s great, because it allows us to stay humble, and it allows us to connect with those around us. I’ve gotten to mentor so many other younger families in the military, because just at the right moment, Broden will just bring us right back down.
I remember I got my first battalion command, and we were doing a big event at our house. One of the things Broden likes is he likes to wear his favorite pair of pajama pants. When he’s done with school, those pajama pants are going on.
And we were so busy getting ready to host all these people at our house that we didn’t think about the fact that Broden’s pajama pants were in the laundry, which was in the basement of our house. So we’re doing this big thing in the foyer of our house, and here comes Broden with no pants on. Broden’s on a mission to go downstairs to get his pajama pants, right? So it’s like, “Oh, well, here’s Broden,” you know?
I think it was just great because, as embarrassing as it was at the time, it was also a great lesson of humility. And after that people were not afraid to bring issues to us and talk to us. It was exactly what the organization needed at the time—and Broden did it.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, thanks for sharing. I can only imagine at the time you’re like totally embarrassed. You’re shocked actually. And then, when you look back on it as you were recalling this story, which no doubt you’ve told numerous times, there is a lot of levity to it. That’s just part of what makes life fun and interesting.
Mark Huhtanen: Absolutely.
David Hirsch: There’s an interesting comment a military leader shared with me in one of these interviews. It was actually interview 100 with Doran Almog, a revered person in the Israeli defense force, who also had a son with autism. And the way he described it—and it was very profound for me, which is why I’m sharing it—was that the experience of raising a son in both your cases with autism made him more humble, less arrogant, and less selfish.
And at the end of the day, you want to be around people who are more humble, less arrogant, and less selfish, right? Those are the people that make the world go around. Those are the people you want to spend more time with. But you’d like to think we could get there without these dramatic experiences.
Mark Huhtanen: Right.
David Hirsch: Anyway, thanks for sharing. So not to focus on the negative, but to be real. I’m wondering what some of the bigger challenges have been for you and Shelly, or for Broden for that matter.
Mark Huhtanen: Oh my gosh. Yeah. Well, I think there’s a couple challenges, and I don’t think they’re unique to the military. The first challenge is obviously I had three more combat deployments and a couple training deployments after Broden’s diagnosis. So Shelly and I always have to be very deliberate the older we get, because I think early on we didn’t think about what roles and responsibilities people would do.
And so I’m out the door. Shelly takes over everything. She’s running kids to therapy. We’ve got our older son Hayden, who’s typical, so he is going to school, sports, all this kind of stuff. So she takes on the role of mom and dad. And then all of a sudden, after six or nine months, I’m back in. I’m looking around, and I’m like, well, what do you need me to do? And she goes, “Nothing.” And so I feel like we had to enter some delicate negotiations there. But it’s just life, you know? You get going and you get focused on things.
I think I shared with you on our first phone call about the good side of some of this is, and I think you equated this to grandparents. I see the immense progress he makes because I’ve been gone for six months. Shelly’s in the knife fight, and sometimes she’d be so frustrated, “Well I can’t believe he’s not doing this, and I can’t believe he’s not doing this, and we’ve been working on this for months.” And I’m like, “Oh my God, look at all this stuff he can do.” And so it kind of brings some perspective for our family. That’s a good side of it.
But the other side of it is figuring out those roles and responsibilities. I think it’s always a challenge, because I feel guilty. But technology has been great. I have done IEP meetings now, I have done counseling sessions just like you and I are right now, thousands of miles away. When we first were diagnosed, we couldn’t have done that. Now it’s just a matter of making time for it.
I think the other challenge is not to forget you have other challenges in life. We’re raising another child who is going through different things. And then, as I shared earlier, right when Broden’s diagnosis was going on, I was battling PTSD from my first deployment. And between autism and that, it took us a lot longer to get everything under control and back in balance. So those are some of the downsides. But there are some silver linings in there.
David Hirsch: Well, thanks for sharing. It’s not a straight line. You do have those challenges of raising more than one child, typical or otherwise. You know, that’s a balancing act in and of itself. And I’m sort of curious to know along those lines, what impact has Broden’s situation had on his older brother, your marriage, or the extended family for that matter?
Mark Huhtanen: Sure. I’ll start with the extended family. I think both my parents and Shelly’s parents feel challenged because we move all around. We were lucky enough in Texas. We got to spend the last three or four years there, and we were only about an hour apart. So that meant they got to see quite a bit of Broden and Hayden growing up.
But then once we were out to Georgia and now in in Columbia, and then with the pandemic, well, we’re going to see my parents next week for the first time in two years. And I can’t wait. They’re just going to be floored at the different progresses. We can zoom, and we can see it, but it’s just not the same as being able to spend every holiday together. So that’s a challenge on the extended family.
I think the blessings are though that both have done a phenomenal job of finding different ways to help Broden. I talked early on that my father was a grant writer, so he’s big into finances. He did lots of research for all his grandkids, but especially with Broden he helped with things you don’t think about, like a special needs trust.
We did the legwork with the lawyers, but then my dad helped figure out how to set up some future stuff for Broden that you wouldn’t think about. For a typical kid, you do your college fund, and then you kind of hope they’re out of the nest and going. For our special needs kids, you have to have a lot longer term planning. I think that’s something that my dad did, even though he’s not been in the fight every day.
Shelly’s parents on the other hand have planned trips around times when we need somebody to watch Broden. Even if it means flying halfway across the country, they will do that to help us. We might need help for something to do with my career, or even for Shelly’s role as an autism advocate. I remember her mom flying in because I had a bunch of training to do. At one point she also flew in so Shelly could go to an advocate conference in Washington, DC. Those are things the extended family has done.
Within our immediate family, I don’t want to speak for him, but I think just watching Hayden, that at times he does feel like he is an only child. He can’t do normal sibling things, because Broden can’t go with him. For example, Hayden played basketball for many years, and he has had to suffer through just one parent being at the events, because it was just too loud for Broden. We finally got him some hearing protection so he could come, so that was good. But there are just certain things that Broden couldn’t go to or handle. So Hayden got stuck with one parent in the stands versus two.
I think the good thing, though, is that now I don’t think there’s anybody else who knows Broden better than Hayden. Hayden will step up to the plate and watch Broden at a moment’s notice if we’ve got to do something. He knows how to take care of him, knows how to handle outbursts, knows what his diet is. I mean, he’s kind of a walking encyclopedia on what Broden needs, and is in tune with him. He can anticipate, as fast as I think Shelly and I can now, when something’s going to upset him or something’s off balance.
So I think, as we’ve had the struggles, it has shaped Hayden a lot. In fact, he just got hired here in Columbia. We’ve got a special needs camp called Camp Cole that they just stood up for a lot of different special needs kids. So to help with this college resume, Hayden’s going to go be a counselor there for some volunteer hours here in a couple weeks. It was fun listening to the interview because they like throwing situations at him, and Hayden’s like, “Oh, I take care of that all the time with my brother.” So I think he was kind of a shoe-in for the job.
David Hirsch: That’s awesome. Well thanks for sharing. I’m thinking about supporting organizations now and I’m wondering, you mentioned the Exceptional Family Member Program as being sort of critical or essential. I’m assuming that’s not just for families like yourself who have a child with autism, but probably is for a lot of different diagnoses. Is that correct?
Mark Huhtanen: Oh, absolutely. In the Army and the Air Force, we have really two EFMP programs. One is tied to our medical system, and once you’re enrolled in that, it will ensure that you’re only assigned where your family member gets care. And I’ll come back to that one.
And the second is kind of a community service type organization that connects you with support groups and activities, and so on. And then the Navy and the Marine Corps kind of combine theirs, so they’re just a little bit different between the services. I think it’s more efficient looking across the fence, and seeing what the Navy and Marine Corps do. We’ll see if the Army gets there.
But coming back to the medical needs, you’re exactly right, David, that it’s for any family member. I’ve had friends who have had family members with cancer. They’ve taken on their parents as a dependent to take care of some of their medical things. And so all of those allow the soldier to enroll in that program. So whatever need is out there that’s designated as a medical necessity, the Army can only assign them where they can get that care.
David Hirsch: I’d like to talk a little bit about the writing that Shelly does. She writes a column entitled “Puzzles in Camo” for the Exceptional Parent Magazine, and she also wrote a book that came out in January of 2017 entitled Giving a Voice to the Silent Many. And I’m wondering, where did the motivation come to be writing, with as much as she has on her plate?
Mark Huhtanen: Yeah. I think for Shelly, writing started as kind of a way to process the diagnosis and everything that she was going through. She’s a communications teacher by trade. So I think writing was her way of voicing it.
She kind of fell into the Exceptional Parent Magazine, because it had some of the articles that were handed to us early on with Broden. I think she read a couple of the articles, and she thought, “I need to share our story.” Then they kept asking her to write about different things, and pretty soon they made a column for her.
The book I think was something Shelly always wanted to do along the way. And I think that was probably one of the most therapeutic things to help her process that I’ve ever seen her do. And actually, I think it was one of the fun parts in our marriage. I don’t know if she’ll agree with me, but we took every one of her columns and laid them out on the floor, trying to figure out how to piece them together into the chapters. Then I would go find them on the computer and put together electronically for her. After that, she wove everything together.
It was all part of her process to be able to talk about what she’s been through, think about what she’s been through, and kind of synthesize everything. And we definitely wanted to tell a story. We’re not out to make money. I think we hand out more books than we sell, just because we want people to know they’re not alone.
Shelly actually told me something the other day that I didn’t realize. She says she gets a lot of people asking for her book just for the part where I talk about being a dad. So I guess there wasn’t a lot out there about dads until you started doing what you’re doing, David.
David Hirsch: Yeah, well, maybe now she’ll have two things to hand out: her book with the chapter that people are asking about for dads, and then this podcast. Which, you know, she’ll be able to share, and you’ll be able to share.
And I’m very serious about it. There’s not a lot of material out there for dads. And I think that, as simple or as basic as it is that you’re relating your story, it’s still enlightening, right? Especially if you can put yourself back ten years ago when you were a younger family and you were on the beginning of your journey. There’s a lot more unknowns then.
So you’re sharing your story, being more matter of fact about it, but obviously it’s been very challenging. But you have a different perspective now, right? It’s like when you take on leadership roles, you’re taking on more responsibility.
You know, you exert yourself, you stretch yourself, and then once you get to wherever it is you’re going, it doesn’t seem like it’s that extraordinary. It’s when you’re climbing the mountain, when things are hard and you just don’t know what is around the corner or what’s beyond the hill.
Yeah. Well, thanks for sharing. I’m thinking about advice now, beyond what we’ve already discussed. Are there any important takeaways that you might share, A) for a military family, and then B) just for dads at large and the wider community?
Mark Huhtanen: Sure. I think my elevator pitch for military families has couple things. Number one is you can have a successful career in the military with a special needs child or special needs family member and still take care of them. I have unfortunately seen families that might sacrifice things to try to get a certain assignment, but honestly you can do it. The thing is you have to be enrolled in the EFMP program, like I said earlier, because then the military knows, and they won’t assign you somewhere else.
What I would say to everyone, to all dads and husbands out there, is it takes a partnership with your spouse. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of communication, talking through feelings, responsibilities, jobs, who’s doing what. I mean, you have to talk, especially about the feelings part, which is probably the hardest thing for me. Actually, Shelly would probably say I’m the more emotional one, and she’s probably right.
But I mean, you’ve seen her write her book. That’s her way of processing it. So I think it’s that communication piece, because if you don’t know what your partner’s going through, and you don’t know what your partner’s taking care of, then you’re not complementing each other.
We like to joke sometimes that navigating this is like being in a canoe. You’ve got to paddle together, or you’re not going to go anywhere, or you’re going to go in circles. That’s probably the best analogy we’ve come up with.
David Hirsch:. Yeah. Well, thanks for sharing, and the image of the canoe comes to mind. It seems like the person in the back does most of the work, at least that’s been my experience, and sort of keeps you going in the direction you’re intending to go. And another thought that comes to mind is you don’t want to stand up. You don’t want to get the canoe out of balance.
So I’m sort of curious to know, why is it that you’ve agreed to be a mentor father as part of the Special Fathers Network?
Mark Huhtanen: I think I’ve been doing it already inside the military, so if it helps connect to a broader audience, then great. Just a couple weeks ago, I had a friend of mine tell me, “Mark, I’ve got this young major who works for me, and they just found out their son has autism. Can you take a few minutes to talk to him?” And I was like, “By all means. Here’s my number.”
I think it’s just that I didn’t have that when I went through it. I literally stumbled through it with Shelly. Like you asked in that question, what was the biggest thing I needed to know? It was that there was somebody who had gone ahead of me and had been through a few more doors than I had. Someone who could look back and say, “Okay, this is kind of what’s coming up next,” or “This is what I think you need to do,” or “Here’s some things we tried that didn’t work.” Sometimes that’s as good advice as anything. Having that meant a lot at some crucial moments for me. So I think that’s the biggest reason.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, we’re thrilled to have you. Thank you for being involved. In fact, I would say that a very, very large majority of the 500 plus dads in the network, the mentor fathers, have said, “I wish there had been something like this when I was a younger dad.” And the more authentic ones might actually add, “I don’t know that I would’ve taken advantage of it, though.”
Mark Huhtanen: Well, that’s true. I mean, I hate to say it, but there’s some male pride that sometimes gets in our way. But I think that’s okay too. You just have to be willing to make the phone call. You might not have to be wanting to talk. You know, us old guys, we’ll tell stories all day long. So I mean, if you just have the phone call and listen, it might get you something.
David Hirsch: Absolutely. Well, let’s give a special shout out to your lovely wife, Shelly, and our mutual friends at Exceptional Parent Magazine for helping connect us.
Mark Huhtanen: Absolutely.
David Hirsch: Is there anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up?
Mark Huhtanen: No. I mean, thank you for your persistence in getting me on here, and I’m just glad that I could share a story. Hopefully somebody out there was helped, just by listening to me.
David Hirsch: If somebody wants to learn more about the book, Giving a Voice to the Silent Many, or wants to contact you, what would the best way to do that be?
Mark Huhtanen: Well, they can contact me through your network, obviously. The other way is Giving a Voice to the Silent Many has its own website and Facebook page, so you can contact us through that. That would probably be the fastest way to connect with us, and then we can share other contact information on what’s most convenient for whoever’s trying to reach us.
David Hirsch: I’ll make sure to include all that in the show notes.
Mark, thank you for your time and your many insights. As a reminder, Mark is just one of the dads who’s part of the Special Fathers Network, a mentoring program for fathers raising a child with special needs. If you’d like to be a mentor father, or are seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation to your own, please go to 21stcenturydads.org.
Thank you for listening to the latest episode of the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. I hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as I did. As you probably know, the 21st Century Dads Foundation is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization, which means we need your help to keep our content free to all concerned. Would you please consider making a tax deductible contribution? I would really appreciate your support.
Thanks again, Mark.
Mark Huhtanen: Thank you. Great being here.
Tom Couch: And thank you for listening to the Dad to Dad Podcast presented by the Special Fathers Network. The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for fathers to support fathers. Go to 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: And if you’re a dad looking for help or would like to offer help, we would be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group. Please go to facebook.com/groups and search dad to dad. Also, please be sure to register for the Special Fathers Network biweekly Zoom calls held on the first and third Tuesdays of every month.
Lastly, we’re always looking to share interesting stories. If you’d like to share your story, or know of a compelling story, please send an email to David@21stcenturydads.org.
Tom Couch: The Dad to Dad podcast was produced by Couch Audio for the Special Fathers Network. Thanks again to Horizon Therapeutics who believe that science and compassion must work together to transform lives. That’s why they work tirelessly to research, develop, and bring forward medicines for people living with rare and rheumatic diseases. Discover more about Horizon Therapeutics at horizontherapeutics.com.