Milwaukee VA Medical Center
A time to recover
She hated people, but Amber Frymark’s pain drove her dream.
After her Air Force career unraveled after 10 years, Frymark wanted to stay as far away from people as possible. She sought jobs with little interaction – driving a taxi and working in a prison kitchen.
But, it wasn’t enough.
“So, I did something born of pure pain.”
After a rocky road to recovery, Frymark started Chowventions, a “food invention” company, which creates unique artisan food products. The company’s success is receiving the type of recognition that Frymark previously shunned, but she’s learning to accept it.
It’s all part of the dream.
Frymark started her military career the same year as the 9/11 World Trade Center terror attacks and she spent the next seven years as a flight line mechanic at Al Udeid Air Base in Doha, Qatar.
“I will never forget the sound of the A-10s,” said Frymark, about Air Force’s A-10 Thunderbolt, also known as the Warthog. “It is such a unique sounding plane.”
After years as a flight line mechanic, including two deployments, she transferred into a vastly different position that affected her wellbeing.
“I went from swearing like a sailor to being a chaplain’s assistant,” said Frymark. “It was quite a change.”
But the changes had a negative effect.
She felt the world closing in on her. Frymark sought isolation and started despising people more and more. The changes would ultimately end her career in the Air Force.
“You don’t just get out of the Air Force at 10 years for no reason,” Amber said. “It really was a culmination of my time in the service and I knew there was something wrong with my Air Force career.”
There was no single event that put her over the edge, she said. One day her brain just snapped.
“I just really started to hate people, but also knew I needed to find a job to support myself,” said Frymark.
Her desire for isolation led to jobs requiring little to no interaction with people. But even as a taxi driver in Tucson, she needed to be farther away. A sense of danger and lack of fear were prominent components in her life.
“I knew that finding dangerous jobs would lead me away from people,” she said. “I figured people in the back of the taxi were far enough away, but they never were.”
Frymark’s long-standing aspiration was a job in the culinary field. The job that seemed to fit her needs was working in a Tucson prison kitchen.
“I took the job in the prison because I didn’t have to be nice to people,” said Frymark. “But, at the same time, I was working in the culinary field.”
“It was more or less a supervisory job,” she said, “I worked with the prisoners in the kitchen overseeing the meal preparation for the rest of the prison.”
She said the prison job was also short-lived and desperately wanted to avoid people in any way possible.
Along the same journey of culinary arts, Frymark thought attending a culinary institute would aid in some sort of recovery from the destructive path she was on.
She quickly dropped out of food education in Tucson and start realizing her mental health was at stake.
“I gave up schooling in Tucson and returned to Milwaukee for culinary schooling,” she said. “That was just another problem.”
“At least two or three times a week I was in physical fights with people. There were just so many people around I would physically want to fight people.”
At that point she said she just gave up. Defeated, alone and wanting help, she turned to the Milwaukee VA.
After leaving the Air Force, it took seven years of navigating her own personal hell to gradually turn pain into progress.
“Sometimes it takes a long time,” said Nicole Espil, a clinical social worker at the Milwaukee VA. “We are looking at changing a lifetime of harmful habits, a lot of work and a lot of repetition.”
Milwaukee VA offers myriad treatment and therapy options for Veterans like Frymark. Espil said she encourages any Veteran to visit VA with someone they trust and is part of their support circle to find out more about the care available.
Within that support circle are other Veterans, but for those looking for an open forum, Espil said VA is accustomed “to tailoring individual care plans to provide education, resources and support. Veterans are encouraged to observe without the obligation of participation.”
“Having someone important with them can help with the recovery process,” said Espil. “During that process, one of the foundational tools is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.”
Frymark said she benefitted from CBT because it specifically targets types of thoughts or behaviors that lead her to feel anxious or depressed – which aided in breaking down her need to isolate. That gave Frymark the chance to pave paths to other treatment methods – and achieve her dreams in the culinary arts.
“Overall, it is one the most practical types of treatment we can offer,” said Espil. “CBT is foundational for other types of therapy in VA. And I encourage Veterans to observe some of these programs without the obligation to participate.”
As odd as the intersection may seem, isolation and the culinary arts remain Frymark’s comfort zones.
Enter Frymark’s pride and joy – her business.
“I was trying to do something with myself. So, Chowventions was born -- born of pure pain,” she said.
Beginning in 2016, Frymark built the company from the ground up with entrepreneurial confidence, and she’s grateful for the support system around her.
“Going through hell; seeing hell, there is nothing worse than where I came from -- I can only succeed,” she said.
In 2018, she launched her first official product called Zwitchel, a Wisconsin-infused 18th century beverage enhancer that’s sweet and tangy with a hint of spice, according to chowventions.com. The product garnered the attention of Woodman’s Market, a large Wisconsin-based grocery chain, and she just shipped her first batch for sale on Amazon Pantry. She also sells her products at smaller local grocers and liquor stores.
“I can say, that not knowing anything in this business, I didn’t know if it was a big deal or not, but then people were telling me that Woodman’s was such a big deal and I was just thrilled when Amazon called,” she said. “Everyone around me is motivating me, their excitement wears on me. It gives me purpose and what I have built has purpose.”
Regardless of the buzz surrounding the business, she still has difficulty managing her anxiety of being around others.
Frymark’s not sure when she’ll be entirely comfortable around people, but she embraces the opportunity to help others like her who may need help.
“If my story can help that, then my job here is worth it.”
Although she shies away from attention, Frymark was recognized for her tenacity and drive as a woman Veteran. The owner of The Pasta Tree restaurant, Suzette Metcalfe, recognized Frymark as a Woman of Inspiration, which resulted in Metcalfe recreating an entrée of Frymark’s design.
The entrée was part of the menu for more than a month in the spring of 2018.
“Working with such a respected chef in this city was amazing, yet felt odd that such a powerful woman herself saw me as an inspiration,” Frymark said. “Again, I'm used to being just another face in the crowd. I felt humbled that she let me create my own unique recipe for the event, which empowered me to utilize my own culinary talents, and that my new product also be incorporated and utilized to promote it, as well.”
Getting to and from the kitchen also will become much easier for Frymark.
Progressive Insurance is honoring Frymark with a Keys to Progress award, for which she will receive a new car on Veterans Day.
“I come from a military family, my dad was a Marine,” said Brittany Hacker of Progressive Insurance. “We do so little compared to what Veterans have done. We care about our Veterans and if there is something we can do for them, then it’s incredible.”
Progressive works with Veterans Service Organizations throughout Wisconsin to identify Veterans and submit them for the award.
Though Frymark is hesitant about being in the spotlight, she is moving closer to what she calls a full recovery. The recognition and awards bolster her confidence and motivate her toward continued self-improvement.
Frymark signed up for the Milwaukee VA’s Walk-A-Mile-or-More program with a goal of losing 10 pounds. Eight months and 30 pounds later, she is proud of the weight loss as part of her goal of positive physical health and wellness.
More importantly than losing weight, Frymark said, was the acceptance of her fellow walkers.
“It’s the camaraderie. They helped me come out of hiding, too.”
In addition to the weight loss, Frymark said she spent years on medication, but with help of a chiropractor, has been able to ease off all meds.
“I was on so many different [anti-depressants and anxiety] meds,” said Frymark. “and one day, I was at a gym and was offered stress test and just so happened to be a chiropractor.”
Now, chiropractic treatment is a mainstay for her and she is drug free, except for vitamin D, mostly because of Wisconsin winters.
“I have one thing left to kick,” she said. “My Seasonal Affective Disorder lamp, mostly for the darker seasons, but I use it less and less.”
“I feel like I have made a full recovery. With almost all the ailments I have gone -- physically and mentally -- including use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and with the meds going away, I don’t feel like Jekyll and Hyde. It is great.”
Fryman said that maybe next year she will be more comfortable with the thought of being surrounded by people. Then again, maybe not. But it’s all part of her continuing recovery.
“My mind is happier and healthier, living better is just easier. Since seeing the VA, they have helped my get to where I am today and that is really the thing, they do so much for veterans.”