This is the local WUSF website. Visit the national VCH site here.

Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide

In Our Community

New VA Secretary Bob McDonald is visiting VA facilities talking to veterans, employees and administrators about their concerns and suggestions for improving service.

Secretary: VA Needs Whistleblowers

  Secret patient waiting lists, delayed medical care, retaliation against whistleblowers  are all reasons why trust in the VA hit an all-time low this spring especially on Capitol Hill. The new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert “Bob” McDonald is trying to restore that trust. He’s started by visiting as many VA facilities as possible during his first 90 days in office. McDonald toured several Florida VA facilities this week and he invited U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Committee of Veterans Affairs, to come along. ”Bob McDonald gets it,” Miller said during a Wednesday afternoon news conference at Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center. “He came on board at a time when the VA was going through probably the worst crisis that they ever had in the history of its time in the federal government. I would say that he is a hands-on person.” McDonald says the formality of his position can get in the way of serving veterans. So, he insists that everyone call him “Bob” not “Secretary.” He has publicly shared his cell phone number  and takes calls from veterans at all times of day. As the retired CEO of Procter and Gamble, McDonald  is all about improving customer service now and better forecasting veterans’ needs. He blames a huge influx of veterans seeking benefits and care for many of the VA problems especially when employee evaluations were linked to how fast veterans got scheduled and seen by a doctor. Bottom line, some veterans waited replica Swiss watches too long to see a doctor while others went without any care. McDonald said he is waiting on the results of 93 active Inspector General Investigations. “Some of those investigations are going to result in the Department of Justice being involved, some of them will result in the FBI being involved, and some of them could well result in criminal charges being brought,” McDonald said. A West Point graduate and veteran Army Airborne Ranger, McDonald said he has no tolerance for employees who don’t embrace a core value of the VA – the veterans come first. But he is equally ready to defend any VA employee who exposes a problem. “I celebrate whistleblowers. I want every employee to be a whistleblower,” McDonald said. “I can’t improve, we can’t improve unless every employee is a whistleblower.” To improve access to medical care, McDonald extended clinic hours, used mobile clinics, and had people work overtime.. “I’ve done some research and this may surprise you, but we don’t see the full effect of a war in terms rolex replica watches of impact on Veterans Affairs until 40 years after the war,” McDonald said. And he wants the VA to be ready when that influx of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans hits in 2054.

Visit the Site
Visual stimulation like this projection on the STAR room wall are used to stimulate veterans with traumatic brain injury.

Tampa VA Gives Vets STAR Treatment

The Veterans Affairs scandal over delayed appointments and secret wait is still unfolding. And there’s been plenty of evidence of some large systemic problems at VA medical facilities throughout the U.S. Yet, even the VA’s toughest critics note that most of the VA medical staff are hardworking, dedicated professionals. “I believe that the majority of VA’s workforce, in particular, the doctors and nurses who provide our veterans with the care they need, endeavor to provide high-quality health care,” said Florida Congressman Jeff Miller of Pensacola and chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. The medical staff at Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center was acknowledged in April for their “cutting edge” care that helped revive Army Ranger Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg from a severe brain injury. “He (Remsburg) arrived comatose with a severe, traumatic brain injury and long odds for recovery. But VA’s remarkable medical staff never gave up on the effort to jump start his brain,” said Sloan Gibson in April as then deputy VA secretary at the opening of the new Haley Polytrauma Center. Gibson is now acting VA secretary having taken the reigns after the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki. “They tried a countless variety of sensory approaches to bring him to consciousness everything from aroma therapy to sitcoms on TV,” Gibson said. “Three months later, Cory became one of seven out of 10 patients with severe traumatic brain injury who’d come back to life through VA’s ground breaking emerging consciousness program.” Those sensory therapies, used by the medical staff, have been brought together in the new, Haley Polytrauma Center. The STAR Room, an acronym that for the Sensory Technology Awareness Room, is designed specifically for patients who are minimally conscious or emerging from severe brain injuries. Speech language pathologist Kathryn Kieffer welcomed visitors into the STAR Room during the open house in April. It was dimly lit in hues of purple and pink. Kieffer pushed a large, flag-shaped button that activated a toy monkey which clanged its cymbals and squeaked. “We have over here an eye gaze device,” Kieffer then demonstrated how by just looking at a button written with the word “yes” – it generated the computer to say “yes.” The STAR room has a multi-sensory environment with a myriad of technologies to stimulate all the patient’s senses from auditory to tactile. Kieffer pointed to one of the bubble tubes. They are clear cylinders filled with liquid. A light underneath changes colors as small bubbles percolate upward. “The bubble tubes also have some vibratory properties to them so you can touch them and get some tactile feedback,” Kieffer said. The STAR room was not available when Cory Remsburg was at Haley, but many of the therapies were and much of the medical staff. And those dedicated professionals now have the STAR room and the story of Cory Remsburg to motivate other severely wounded veterans to not give up.  

Visit the Site
Air Force Academy graduates and friends Steve Berger (L) and Craig Anders (R) are co-founders of Project Road Warrior.

A Freedom Ride for Wounded Warriors

There’s nothing quite like the freedom of the road and the adventure of discovering what’s around the next turn. That independence is what inspired two Air Force Academy buddies to plan a cross-country motorcycle ride in June. But the Project Road Warrior Ride is unique because most of the riders are military members from the Care Coalition, an organization that cares for wounded, ill and injured members of the U.S. Special Operations Command. Air Force Academy graduate Craig Anders now serves with the Care Coalition.  He’s a former pilot who as he put it “suffered one too many concussions” which led to a seizure and epilepsy. “That immediately disqualified me from ever again flying for the Air Force,” Anders said. “That was tough, that was really tough and being that it was a seizure it also disqualified me from driving a car for a while. My wife had to drive me to work and my friends had to drive me to work and for a long time you kind of feel you’re more of a burden than of use.  That’s a hard thing to get past for a lot of folks.” Anders said one day he’d had enough. To recapture a measure of independence, he bought a bicycle and began riding 15 miles each way to work. “Then, I went and found a friend to take me flying again and we went skiing again,” Anders said. “I’m lucky. I had my seizure. I got stabilized on medicine and eventually I was able to do many of the things, except for flying, that I used to be able to. For some folks, they’re not that lucky.” Now, his mission is to help other injured military members regain their sense of control. So, Anders teamed up with his Air Force Academy buddy Steve Berger. Their first idea was to ride in the Scooter Cannonball Run from Alaska to New Orleans. That idea morphed into a fund-raiser. Then, they decided to invite members of the Care Coalition to ride along. They finally decided on establishing their own ride that would start in Seattle and finish in the Tampa Bay area, home to the Care Coalition and two of their major sponsors, Barney’s Motorcycle and Marine and Quaker Steak & Lube in Clearwater. Anders and Berger co-founded the non-profit organization, Project Road Warrior. For their first event, they took eight riders from Care Coalition, traveled across 12 states, over two mountain ranges, touched two oceans and the Gulf and all  in 10 days. “People don’t really realize how rehabilitation can be in the form of adventure,” Berger said. “We’ve got some of these type-A personalities. They’re thrill seekers, they want to do something that’s extreme. They want to do something that is over the top. And riding 10 days across the United States, yeah it’s on Can-Am Spyders, but that’s still going to be a challenge.” Barney’s Motorcycle helped bring aboard the national company Can-Am that is providing the Spyders, three-wheel motorcycles. Berger is a civilian now who organizes auto shows for Motor Trend. But he’s looking forward to getting to know the eight coalition members on the ride. “I was a rescue pilot in the Air Force. So anytime I was doing work in combat it was because someone was having a really bad day. They got shot or they got hit by an IED and we’re flying them to get the care that they need,” Berger said. “So for me personally, I think I’ve seen a lot of these people on the worse part of their day. I want to leave that behind me and find them on some of the better parts of their day the better parts of their lives.” Beyond helping his fellow troops, Anders also hopes to dispel the impression held by some that injured members of the military are somehow broken. “These kinds of events help people see that they’re resilient. They’re capable,” Anders said pointing to the Project Road Warrior poster that features the eight riders. One is a soldier who lost both his legs to an IED but continues in active duty with the Army, another is partially paralyzed, still others have balance issues because of head injuries. “You have guys like Anthony (Radetic). He was hurt, he was injured. He’s in a wheelchair, but he’s also the first guy to land a back flip on a sit-ski,” Anders said. Project Road Warrior left Seattle June 5 and arrived in Tampa June 14, 2014. You can follow their route and adventures on their website. In between, the group took the back roads through Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana and made three stops in Florida. They concluded with a big fund-raiser and party at Quaker Steak and Lube. The trip was fully funded minus things like a communications system which Berger wanted for safety reasons. But they’re also looking to build funds for next year’s ride and other adventures like maybe a Jet Ski trip around Florida.

Visit the Site
Navy veteran Robert Barrie meeting with Cong. David Jolly about getting his ship, USS NOA, on the list for exposure to Agent Orange.

Veterans’ VA Stories Go to Washington

Florida Congressman David Jolly (R-Seminole) asked for and got an earful from local veterans June17, 2014.  He invited them to his office in Seminole where they shared stories of their experiences within the VA health care system. The veterans were offered immediate assistance from Jolly’s staff, VA representatives from Bay Pines Health Care System and volunteers from veteran service organizations. And Jolly, who serves on the House Veteran's Affairs Committee, promised to take their stories back to Washington with the aim of improving the VA system. Yet, a survey of the 183 veterans who stopped by Jolly’s office showed that 68 percent rated their VA care from excellent to adequate. But there were plenty of veterans who were not so pleased. Among them, two veterans looking for help – not for themselves – but for other their fellow veterans. Navy veteran Robert Barrie wore his blue polo-shirt inscribed with Tin Can Sailor – USS NOA. He’s president of the Navy Destroyer USS NOA reunion group that has more than 300 members. “We served in Vietnam in 1969,” Barrie told Jolly. “We were in a place called Qui Nhon Harbor. We are trying to get the ship qualified for Agent Orange.” The congressman watched as Barrie opened a notebook filled with letters, photos and the ship’s deck log to prove his point. They are documents, Barrie said, that will qualify his crewmates for VA coverage of 15 diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure. Barrie complained the VA has repeatedly misplaced the documents and have yet to qualify the USS NOA as a “brown water” ship that cruised along the Vietnam coast and up the rivers exposing crews to Agent Orange spraying. “Have you ever used a congressional inquiry?” Jolly asked. “No. We’ve been submitting these things into the VA,” Barrie responded. “We’ll get the inquiry done in the next three to four weeks,” Jolly said. He promised to write a letter about the USS NOA directly to Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson in the next two week and ask that he pay specific attention to the problem. Also armed with documents, Vietnam veteran Al Kelly handed Jolly two well-worn pieces of paper – a discharge form and a citation for the Silver Star. It was not Kelly but his brother-in-law recommended for a Silver Star while in the infantry in Vietnam. He provided ground fire during an attack, while severely wounded, so his entire company could move from an open rice paddy to the cover of the woods. “Forty-five years of untreated PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). He ended up in prison. He did 23 calendar years locked up,” Kelly said. “And when he got out, he applied for his assistance.” “So, when he attempted to receive care after he got out what was the experience?” Jolly asked. There was no response, no letter, no treatment, his brother-in-law never made it into the system. Six months lapsed and Kelly’s brother-in-law had an incident with a girlfriend, was charged with a parole violation and put back in prison. All Kelly wants is to make certain his brother-in-law gets treatment for his PTSD as soon as he is released from prison. And again, Jolly promised to follow up. Kelly and Barrie are no different than tens of thousands of veterans across the country – veterans watching after their fellow veterans – determined to get them the best of care.

Visit the Site
Artist Larry Kirkland uses photos, veterans words and sketches to illustrate words key to military service and veterans. Note one side of the marble column is rough. The artist left it like that because he believes nothing is perfect.

Patriot Plaza Honors Veterans’ Sacrifice

The Sarasota community dedicated Patriot Plaza on June 28, 2014 as a way to honor the service and sacrifice of veterans and their families. The plaza is the first of its kind, a privately funded, fully shaded amphitheater and art installation at the public Sarasota National Cemetery. The 2,800 tickets to the dedication sold out weeks in advance. Sitting on almost two acres of land just north of the columbarium, Patriot Plaza can seat up to 2,800 people shaded by a space-frame glass structure that soars 50 feet high. The design is such that there are no columns obstructing views of the rostrum or stage which can hold a 55-piece orchestra. It cost an estimated $10 million to build and was paid for in full by the Patterson Foundation. The philanthropic group spent another $2 million on the art installations and established a $1 million endowment for maintenance and structural replacement. Debra Jacobs, president and CEO of the Patterson Foundation, said there’s a back-story on why the foundation wanted to partner with the federally run veterans’ cemetery. “We actually traced back the roots of the wealth that created the Patterson Foundation,” Jacobs said. “We traced back to the mid-1800s when Joseph Medill bought into the troubled Chicago Tribune for two reasons: one to make money and two to create Republican Party to get Lincoln elected.” It was under President Abraham Lincoln that Congress authorized buying land for the first national cemetery in 1862. But the connections don’t stop there. Two of Medill’s grandsons served in World War I and his great grandson, James J. Patterson, graduated from West Point. Patterson’s widow, Dorothy Clarke Patterson, created the foundation. Fast forward to 2008 and the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sarasota National Cemetery. “They anticipated 1,000 people going to the groundbreaking and 3,000 showed up in the middle of July, hot summer days, to turn a spade of dirt,” Jacobs said. “That speaks to the military service in the region with over 100,000 veterans living in this area.” Where there was no shade, Jacobs saw opportunity to honor those who have served the country and their families. Jacobs worked with Steve Muro, the Under Secretary of Memorial Affairs with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration, to create the private-public partnership that allowed the enhancement of the Sarasota National Cemetery. That included seven public art installations. “Public art sparks thinking, reflection. It helps you ponder what has happened, what could happen. So we thought let us bring art into Patriot Plaza and then it becomes a place of deep experience beyond any performance or exhibit,” Jacobs said. As the son of a veteran, the Sarasota National Cemetery director John Rosentrater is especially excited about the photographic  art installation. “I’m just hoping that the conversations that can get started by the artwork that takes place where children or grandchildren or spouses are asking their loved ones, ‘Do these pictures depict for you what happened?’” Rosentrater said. The former Sarasota National Cemetery director, Sandra Beckley, retired after 39 years with the VA. She served as the consultant on the project. She read a quote from President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address that is posted at the east entrance to Patriot Plaza. “Let us strive on … to care for him who shall have borne the battle for his widow and his orphan,” Beckley said. “That is part of the whole VA as well as NCA (National Cemetery Administrtaion). It’s their motto and their mission.” Beckley was part of the selection committee that chose four artists after a national search to help create the seven art installations define Patriot Plaza. Among the artworks are two spires and mosaics by Ellen Driscoll, bronze eagle sculptures at the east entrance by Ann Hirsch called “Home” and two “Guardian Eagles” at the west entrance by Pablo Eduardo. Larry Kirkland has two installations “Testimonies” and “Witness to Mission” where photographs are mounted in marble columns or plinths. “They cut a small frame out of the marble and inserted these pictures,” Beckley said. The “Witness to Mission” exhibit features 44 photographs Kirkland and Kenny Irby, founder of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies  photojournalism program, selected and paired for display along the northern perimeter sidewalk. On the plaza above is Kirkland’s other display which features photos pressed between glass  and suspended in a whole cut from the marble columns. Each column is inscribed with a word such as “Service” or “Conflict” and with a passage from a veteran or family member. “Larry Kirkland picked this marble because it’s the same marble used in the headstones that we see right adjacent to us,” Beckley said. “When he was here for the installation, he said there was no way to separate Patriot Plaza from Sarasota National Cemetery or Sarasota National Cemetery from Patriot Plaza. Now that they are together they are one.” The Sarasota National Cemetery and Patriot Plaza are open from sun up to sun down seven days a week and you don’t need to be a veteran or have someone interned there to visit, experience the art and contemplate the sacrifice of the veterans now at rest there.

Visit the Site
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Tampa) plays air hockey with a veteran in the new USO Day Room at James A. Haley VA Hospital.

First USO Opens Inside a VA Hospital Tampa's James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital officially opened a USO July 1, 2014 located next to the Spinal Cord Injury Center where there are many active-duty troops and veterans undergoing long-term rehabilitation. This is the first time a USO center has been built inside of a veterans' hospital. Senior Vice President of the USO John Hanson said that although the 1,900-square foot day room is not the largest USO center, its impact will be "profound." "I’ll be honest with you. This is an experiment for us," Hanson said. "Our entire focus for 73 years, more than 73 years, has been on lifting the spirits of active duty troops and their families. This center is going to serve those needs. It’ll also serve the needs of veterans who come here and the active-duty troops recovering from injuries. It’s going to be their place." The day room includes a large screen television for games and movies, a "Kids Corner," a pool table and an air hockey game. And there are plenty of comfortable couches and armchairs where families can gather and chat. Haley VA Hospital Director Kathleen Fogarty said that the features contribute to the therapy of military patients in the Spinal Cord Injury Center, and give them a "home-like situation." Several local Taco Bell restaurants raised $30,000 during their "Freedom Bells" fundraiser for the Armed Forces Families Foundation (AFFF) which contributed to the USO project. The AFFF Managing Director Nick Peters said the donation is a testament to military appreciation within the community. "When you think about it," Peters said, "we raised twice as much money for the Armed Forces Families Foundation as we do for Boys & Girls Club and World Hunger, which are great charities, but it gives you a sense of the affinity for the military." The USO World Headquarters donated $25,000 to the project, and the Tampa Kiwanis donated $2,500 for the "Kids Corner." Prior to the Day Room, patients' time with family was spent in their hospital rooms.

Visit the Site
Maria Vazquez, 18, won the Platform Art design competition with her sculpture depicting honor.

Lakeland Art Honors Those Who Serve The area’s newest tribute to military service members, veterans and first responders was unveiled May 9, 2014 in Lakeland, Florida. It’s a sculpture of steel and glass. Designed by a high school student and crafted by a local artisan. The non-profit group, Platform Art, is leading the collaboration behind the sculpture, the first of three pieces that will become part of Lakeland’s Veterans Memorial Park over the next three years. Executive director Cynthia Haffey said their partnerships with veterans associations and first responders will continue for the next two years. Each year, high school students will compete designing a work of art that encompasses a word like service or sacrifice. The winning sculptures will be placed in Lakeland's Veterans Memorial Park. This year’s word was “Honor.” This year’s winner was Maria Vazquez, 18, a senior at Lake Region High School. Initially, the young artist struggled with finding the best way to portray such a broad concept. “Most of the time, whenever I get my inspiration, it’s from a poem,” Vazquez said. “So, I looked up poems that had to do with honor. Nothing stuck. It was all kind of generic and then I came across Mr. McGehee’s poem.” In 2006 as a senior in high school, William McGehee wrote a poem titled “Honor” which Vazquez incorporated into her sculpture. She said the poem taught her that the true meaning of honor is trying to protect your loved ones, your friends and family. So, she translated that meaning into her sculpture which has three steel panels each with a separate silhouette. The first is the profile of a service member. In the middle is a silhouette of a couple. And the final panel has a cutout child. “Whenever you look directly into it, you’re seeing the soldier as who he is and then you’re seeing the family afterward and deeper in you see the child,” Vazquez said. “And that child could probably be their son or it could be them whenever they were a child and everything that their childhood represents.” In front of the three steel silhouettes is a glass panel inscribed with McGehee’s poem. Professional artist Tom Monaco of The Fourth Wall Studio was on the committee that selected the winning sculpture that he was commissioned to create. He worked with Vazquez to help her realize her vision. He let her do everything from try her hand at welding to picking out the script style for the poem. “I was like how do you visualize this being done and she’s like I want it to be handwritten,” Monaco said As a judge, he said several of the 60 student models in the competition showed real creativity. “They were beautiful to look at but they were so abstract that we couldn’t even include them,” Monaco said. “This could be honor, this could be a bologna sandwich. It could literally be everything you wanted to see in it.” Monaco said Vazquez’s sculpture” just nailed it” as being easy to understand yet visually complex enough to generate interest. And the focal point of her sculpture is McGehee’s poem. It took Haffey with Platform Art weeks to track down the poet for permission to use his poem to honor military service members and first responders. McGehee not only gave permission, his life story brings an even deeper meaning to the sculpture. The poet writing about honor is now a U.S. Army lieutenant leading patrols on his second tour in Afghanistan. He graduated college with a theater major. So, McGehee is thrilled that his poem inspired another high school student to create art. He sent a message from Afghanistan to be read at the sculpture’s unveiling that said in part “it serves as a reminder for all that art is still alive in American culture.”

Visit the Site
Lt. McGehee while training in Colorado.

From Afghanistan: A Soldier’s Poem Army Lt. William McGehee was thrilled to learn that a poem he wrote in high school inspired another student’s work of art honoring members of the military and first responders. Currently on his second tour in Afghanistan, it’s difficult for him to get reliable access to the internet. However, he managed to record his poem to share with all involved with the Platform Art project. Listen to Lt. McGehee read his poem on honor which he recorded on a tablet while sitting in his quarters in Afghanistan. And he sent along the following words to be read at the unveiling of the “Honor Sculpture," May 9, 2014,  at Kryger Park, 108 S. Massachusetts Ave., Lakeland. McGehee’s message to Lakeland:

Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to thank you for taking time out of your day to join us. This dedication serves as a reminder for all who ever will walk here that art is still alive in American culture, that inspiration can come from any source, and that we as a nation have not forgotten the sacrifices of those who keep this nation safe. It is easy in this world of mass media and visual overload, to lose sight of the meaning behind a piece of art. I believe that art goes beyond esthetics and possess a spiritual presence which speaks for the human condition. To put it simply art tells us stories.  The story in this sculpture is simple yet powerful. It is our story, the story of sacrifice, the story of anyone who has ever sweated and bleed for our safety, and the story of all those who gave their final full measure of devotion.  This is a story we must never lose sight of. This story told here today came about in a very unlikely way.  A young artist found an unpublished poem on the internet to use as the center piece for her prize winning work. Years ago a young high school student got the idea for that same poem… from a video game.  Please, when you feel that itch to write, to drawl, to sing, no matter where it came from, no matter how insignificant it may seem, do it. You can never know what great story your action could come tell the world. Thank you all for listening.

Visit the Site
Youth volunteer Mairyn Harris, 14, and Kathleen Fogarty, director of James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, FL.

Teens Spend Vacation at Tampa VA

When teachers ask this fall: “What did you do on your summer vacation?” Nearly four dozen Tampa teenagers will answer: “I spent it at the James A. Haley VA Hospital.” For more than a decade, Haley has been operating a summer Youth Volunteer program that gives teenagers insight into health care careers while at the same time helping veterans. Mairyn Harris will be a ninth grader at Wharton High School this fall. She is spending five days a week this summer at Haley. On Monday through Thursday she helps with clerical work in the administrator’s office. On Sunday she comes back and volunteers with her mother in the long-term unit. “We work in in the nursing home part with veterans taking them to church, getting them to lunch, coffee, doughnuts that sort of thing,” Harris said. She also helps with the pet therapy taking care of the therapy dog, Simon. “Well that’s our future right?” said Kathleen Fogarty, director of James A. Haley VA Medical Center. “She gets exposure to the whole gamut of the acuteness of an illness all the way to the long term care of it. She’s working in our office, so she really sees everything that could possibly happen. She’s great.” Forgarty sees a lot of herself in Harris. “I don’t know if Mairyn knows this, but that’s how I started my career was a teen volunteer a hospital in Denver Colorado. And I took care of the CEO. I answered her phones while her secretary went to lunch,” Fogarty said. Haley’s Youth Volunteer program accepts teens ages 14 to 18 and starts recruiting in April for up to 50 positions. Camilla Thompson, chief of Voluntary Services, said the teens are asked to volunteer from 80-100 hours, must have a TB test and go through a full day of training. They are then assigned to one of more than 20 different services at Haley like nursing services or the recreational therapy department. “They get an opportunity to provide like a buddy program where they read to veterans or they may get the newspaper for them or they may assist them with meal prep,” Thompson said. “They get an opportunity to interact with veterans by playing games.” The volunteers also help take veterans on outings. Thompson said they do limit the teenagers’ exposure to veterans and service members with more severe injuries in the Spinal Cord Injury unit and Polytrauma Center. “We really tread lightly with that and have open discussions and gain feedback from youth whether or not that’s an experience they’re comfortable with,” Thompson said. The 47 Haley youth volunteers will finish their summer of service in August with a reception sponsored by veteran service organizations. The teens get a chance to share what they liked most about their summer vacation at Haley.

Visit the Site
Female Veterans in Iraq. A New Resource for Female Vets. Female Veterans have a new resource for information on VA health care and benefits: 1-855-VA-WOMEN.
Credit Department of Veterans Affairs

Reaching Women Vets Is A Challenge

What happens if you plan an event to honor women veterans and none of them come? That’s a real concern at the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 97 in Sarasota. The organization is planning a free event August 30th for the area’s women veterans, but so far, they’re having a tough time generating interest. “Our response, so far, has been lackluster,” said Michael Lannan, commander of DAV Chapter 97. “I’ll be honest with you, we’ve had only one person RSVP and we put out flyers and posters. The team that’s been putting this together has been going around to the different colleges. They’ve gone to the Vet Center. They’ve pretty much hit everywhere where there’s going to be women veterans.” The chapter’s treasurer, Iris Johnson, is part of that team. She said a church group offering free school supplies to children of women veterans had the same problem. “And they couldn’t find one single veteran woman with children and they had 25 slots that they couldn’t fill,” Johnson said. “They (women veterans) have to be somewhere. Somehow, we have to identify them.” The chapter commander is adjusting to reach the younger, female veterans. They recently started a Facebook page and is learning about social media. Getting messages out to veterans is the job of Karen Collins, communications director at Tampa’s James A. Haley Veterans Hospital. “You have to use social media. You have to come at them in multiple avenues,” Collins said. The Haley VA has a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a Youtube channel and Collins routinely posts photos on Flickr. But there are other issues at work too. Capturing the attention of women veterans is one of the biggest challenges for Pam Smith-Beatty, the women’s program manager at Haley. “Part of the problem is that women don’t often think of themselves as veterans,” Smith-Beatty said. “I served for 22 years in the Air Force. But when I think of a veteran, I think of my dad, a Korean War Vet. I don’t necessarily think of myself.” National statistics show that women make up 15 percent of active-duty and 18 percent of the Guard and Reserves but only 6 percent of the VA population. “We’re finding that for the OEF/OIF/OND veterans, they’re actually doing a good job at capturing them. About 68% of those veterans are actually using the VA,” Smith-Beatty said. Yet overall, she said the VA is serving  only about 40 percent of eligible women veterans. “So how do you get the other 60 percent? We look at any kind of  recognition event,” Smith-Beatty said. She started up educational sessions every other month called Pink Bag Lunch and Learns.  Only 17 attended the first Pink Bag event, but as many as 120 have attended. So, Smith-Beatty offered some advice to the Sarasota chapter of the DAV. “If you only get 15 people, then be happy because you’re reaching that 15 people,” Smith-Beatty said. The Honoring Women Veterans in Sarasota event is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the DAV Chapter building, 7177 Bee Ridge Road, Sarasota. Veteran women from the Sarasota region can register for the event and day care by calling 941/580-0999.      

Visit the Site

Vets Voices: Why I joined VCH

1098417_10152102294203098_556830153_nThis blog marks the first entry to kick off our new Veterans Coming Home (VCH) blogging series. We will be blogging about some of the extraordinary work being conducted by veteran’s service organizations across the Tampa Bay region and about the exceptional veterans living here. A big part of VCH has to do with using public media to share the personal stories of our local vets. If you would like to take part in this effort by sharing your story, let us know by emailing To kick off our VCH blog, the crew at WUSF asked me to highlight a little bit of my personal story and talk about why I decided to join the WUSF Public Media team as the Community Engagement Coordinator for Veterans Coming Home. First things first, my name is Kiersten Downs, or just KD…this shortened version of my name continued to stick even after the time I spent in the Air Force. After being asked to join the project, I immediately accepted the position. Listening to public radio every morning has become a part of my daily routine, a habit instilled by my parents while I was growing up. The NPR jingle used to act like an alarm clock on early mornings before school. The position seemed like a logical and perfect fit given my past and current work with military veterans. The most exciting, challenging, and rewarding adventure I have ever completed was a cross-country cycling trip in 2013. The cycling trip was used as a fundraising and awareness campaign that ended up raising more than $50,000 for Student Veterans of America. It was my own experiences as a student veteran during my undergraduate years that motivated me to take on an advocacy role for this particular group of students. What culminated over the two months I spent riding from San Francisco to Washington D.C. was more than I could have ever imagined. The best part about the trip was meeting all of the student veterans and veteran supporters who cycled with me on the road. 1173849_10152171103453098_1768508049_n I had tremendous support from sponsors such as George Washington University, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Cannondale, mtvU, VetAdvisor among others. The ride never would have been possible if it wasn’t for the help of my amazing support crew, consisting of my mom and our videographer, my good friend Annie. With a portion of the funds being delivered back to the Student Veterans Association at the University of South Florida, the rest of the money was used to assist with a chapter grant program for SVA. Peer run student veterans associations across the country gained funding through the chapter grant program to carry out projects housed on their own campuses. Although, still an avid cyclist, I won’t be planning another cross-country trip until I finish up my doctorate in Applied Anthropology at USF. Working on Veterans Coming Home is exciting for me because it is providing me with opportunities to reach out to other veterans and veteran service organizations across the Tampa Bay area. There are many services available for us (vets), and sometimes knowing where to go and what organizations are worthwhile and credible can be daunting. My goal is to help bring order to the disorder that exists within the veteran’s service world. The other valuable piece to VCH is the opportunity to use public media in order to provide vets with a platform to share their stories the way they want to share them. Or if you want to just share photos, that’s good too. We are really excited for the upcoming year and hope that you will continue to follow Veterans Coming Home at or on twitter @WUSFVeterans. 429998_10151936939118098_1643991712_n

If you would like to learn more about Kiersten and her bike trip, visit

Visit the Site
Russ Barnes, a retired Air Force colonel, designed the USF Veterans Employment Project.

Launching Careers, Finding Jobs for Vets

Despite the improving economy, finding a job or establishing a career remains a challenge for the estimated one million or more military service members expected to transition to civilian life in the next few years. So, the University of South Florida Office of Veteran Services created the Veterans Employment Project, thanks to a grant from the JP Morgan & Chase Company, to prepare USF student veterans for the competitive civilian market. Russ Barnes, a retired Air Force colonel with 27 years of service, designed the program. More than 30 student veterans applied, but the sessions need to be smaller to provide one-on-one help. So, he prioritized the applicants with a survey. Those who scored 10 out of 10 as “urgent” that they find a job in the next three months were accepted first. “We want to solve that right now,” Barnes said. “They’re urgent. We want to get them right now.” The employment project he created is not the typical workshop. Barnes turns things upside down. Instead of starting with resume writing, he ends with it. He begins by focusing the veterans on their passion, their ideal career or job. Then, he guides them working backward, identifying their industry of interest, researching companies, and then honing their resume to fit the job description. By the end of day one, Barnes had the six student veterans in his August session signed up on Linked In. They had to join a professional group in their area of interest, researched companies and made personal connections with people working in their desired profession. Joshua Gleaton spent more than four years in the Army as a forward observer. The former sergeant is completing a degree in criminology as he works with students at the USF Office of Veteran Services. “These guys are veterans, they have military experience, there’s still an enormous amount of competition in the work field,” Gleaton said. His goal is to have a career as a state game warden or work in criminal forensics for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Gleaton said the mock interview process helped him the most. “One question that caught me off guard is ‘What is my biggest weakness?’ because you don’t want to sound like you have a weakness,” Gleaton said. “You try to turn that into that into a positive answer. “ To prepare the student veterans for interviews, Barnes brought in Crista Shaw, a disability and employment specialist and author of Passport to Education.” After introducing herself on day four, Shaw, who volunteered to come, started with a couple of questions the veterans may encounter during a job interview. “Has anybody here been fired from a job, two, three, my hand is up too,” Shaw said, putting them at ease. “I’ve been fired from a job. Let me tell you how to answer this question. “ Shaw did role playing with Franklin Castillo, a Marine going for his MBA. She worked with him on how to shorten his answer and bring the question back around to the present and positives he learned from being dismissed. “If you leave with one thing today, I would tell you wherever you go you’re in an interview and if you can just be yourself, relax and be yourself,” Shaw advised. Castillo is one of the student veterans who marked in his survey that it is urgent he find a job in the next three months. He wants to work for a commercial bank in anti-money laundering and fighting fraud. “I came here with a preconceived notion, now as we’ve gone through the week, I’m so desirous to put this to work,” Castillo said. Barnes said the employment workshop works both ways. Helping veterans adjust to the civilian job market and assisting employers by dispelling common myths about military veterans. “Some of the misconceptions: in the military they always tell you what to do. They tell you what to eat, where to go what to do. They tell you when to do it, they tell you how to do it. And then you just do it,” Barnes said. “Many business owners say ‘I can’t have someone like that in my company, I need somebody who will be creative and work on their own.’ That is definitely a misconception.” The workshop ended on the fifth day with mock interviews for the veterans. However,  Barnes said there’s a sixth module – the actual interview and job placement. He plans to stay in touch with all the student veterans until they land their ideal position. In the interim, a third USF veterans’ employment 5-day session is scheduled to start Sept. 15, 2014.  

Visit the Site
The Ruoco Family, Kim, John and their two sons, Billy and Joey.

Support for Military Suicide Survivors

kim_ruoco_TAPS The 6th annual National Military Suicide Survivors Seminar and Good Grief Camp for Young Survivors organized by TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, hosted 500 adults and 170 children looking for help. They participated in workshops, art therapy, and outdoor activities learning skills to cope with the suicide of a loved one who served in the military. The U.S. military passed a tragic milestone in 2012:  more active-duty service members died by suicide, than in combat. And while military families grieve over a loved one killed in combat, families who have a loved one return from the battlefield only to die by suicide have to deal with even more complex feelings like anger and guilt. And there was very little help or support for family survivors of military suicide when it hit Kim Ruoco’s family in February 2005. After more than a decade of service, her husband, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. John Ruoco, died by suicide. It turned Kim into an advocate. “One of reasons I really started talking about my husband’s death was a fear that the way he died would wipe out the way he lived,” she said. “He had worked so hard to get to be who he was and that was part of the reason why he didn’t get help because he feared losing that.” It is important to her that people know her husband: a man eager to serve his country who joined the Marine Corps right out of college. He wanted to be in the infantry but the Corps convinced him to train as a helicopter pilot because of his high test scores. He played rugby, loved football and Halloween was his favorite holiday. Kim said John had his first major depression after losing several Marines in training accidents in the 1990s when they were stationed in North Carolina. But back then, she said, he didn’t let people know for fear it would hurt his career as a Marine helicopter pilot. “His identity as a pilot was everything,” she said. They did confide in one of his trusted leaders who told them “it happens to everybody … take a break and push through it.” And Major Ruoco 'pushed through it,' successfully, until Super Bowl Sunday night in 2005. Kim was in Massachusetts with their two sons and John was in California with his Marine unit. When they talked on the phone, she knew he was having trouble, he hadn’t watched the game, wasn’t eating or sleeping. He promised to get help. She knew asking for help would be harder for him than going to war. So that night, she boarded a plane to be with him when he went to the base clinic the next day. “By the time I got there he had already killed himself. He had killed himself a few hours after he’d hung up the phone,” Kim said. “I learned really quickly that there’s a lot of stigma around suicide and that people don’t have really good answers about how to recover and how to have a healthy grief process after suicide.” Her biggest concern was what do I tell their sons, Joey, 10, and Billy, 8. “At the time, I thought, how do you tell two little kids that their dad went to a combat zone and went to war, made it back safely, and then took his own life?” Kim said. A trauma specialist advised her to tell her boys their father died in an accident. So that’s what she did, not trusting her own instincts at that time. She said not trusting yourself is a common experience of many suicide survivors. But two weeks later, she found out that her son was blaming himself for his dad’s “accident.” “He said mom I think I killed Dad. I said what do you mean honey?” Kim said. “He said, ‘When Dad was home for Christmas we were eating nachos and I said, ‘Can we salt the nachos Dad?’ And he said, ‘No because too much salt is not good for your heart.’ And when Dad wasn’t looking, I salted them. So, he must have had a heart attack and that’s why he had an accident.” At that moment, Kim said, she and her sons started over. She told them that their father was really sick, that he had war injuries and his brain wasn’t working the way it should and he killed himself. TAPS_LOGOKim found a brochure for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, TAPS, a non-profit organization that offers support to all grieving the death of a loved one serving in the Armed Forces. It is a peer-based support group for adults and provides military mentors for children. Nine years ago, TAPS did not have a specific program for survivors of military suicide. So, Kim had to build her own support group. But, she said TAPS did provide military mentors for her boys. Her older son, Joey, was paired with an Airman who had a sense of humor and personality similar to her husband. A Marine pilot, who flew 70 combat missions with her husband in Iraq, mentored her younger son, Billy, and has kept in touch even as both sons have gone off to college. Kim was invited to help TAPS create a support program for military suicide survivors. She’s now manager for Suicide Outreach and Education programs at TAPS. “We need to start talking about mental illness,” Kim said. “Ninety percent of these guys are suffering from severe mental illness that they’ve battled for years and it’s treatable.” She said TAPS is working with the Department of Defense, the VA and the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, SAMHSA, to develop a tool kit to share with local health providers, emergency room physicians and primary doctors on how to recognize and deal with military members and veterans at risk of suicide. For more information go to . If you or a loved one are in crisis, Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Visit the Site
Saint Leo University Veteran Student Services made dog tags to honor their student veterans.

Vets Offered Civilian Transition Course It’s difficult to define today’s military veteran. But there is one thing they have in common - they don’t like being painted with the same broad brush. “Just because I’m a veteran, particularly me because I’m a Marine, a combat Marine, don’t think you know my political affiliation, my beliefs, my values,” said Tedd “Gunny” Weiser, short for Gunnery Sergeant. “There is a label and we want to shed that, we want people to know that we are our own person.” After 20 years in the Marine Corps, Weiser has become a touchstone for the veterans at Saint Leo University where he’s now interim director of Veteran Student Services. He knows what it’s like to have difficulty moving into the civilian world, to hit rock-bottom with post-traumatic stress symptoms “starting to rear their ugly head.” “It came to a point one day at a traffic stop. I actually put my car in park, got out of the car, ran up two or three car lengths ahead of me to tell the driver who cut me off six miles back what I thought of him and my wife said, ‘That’s enough,’” Weiser said. He got help from the VA for his PTS and decided to pursue his passion and his faith which led Weiser to Saint Leo University where he’s working on two masters’ degrees in Religion and Instructional Design. But Weiser said he found his true calling running the Veteran Student Services office and the student veterans appear to be responding. When Weiser started as an assistant in December, he said they averaged about one to two veteran visits a week. Now, just weeks into the fall semester and more than 60 have come through the office. To help with the veterans’ adjust to campus life, a team at St. Leo University including Weiser, developed an online, Veterans Transition Course. They partnered with Corporate Gray, publishers of The Military to Civilian Transition Guide which is used by the Department of Defense. Saint. Leo created an online version. “We wanted to make it as easy as possible for our student veterans and their families knowing that their time is limited and their resources are limited,” Weiser said. The course is broken into eight modules and is self-paced. So, it can take as little as eight weeks or as much as eight months to complete depending on a veteran’s needs. And the course is geared to more than academics. It also offers guidance on networking, interviewing, resume building and even negotiating salary and benefits. Weiser encourages the spouses and adult children of the student veteran to take the online course too. “Because if it helps them, then it helps that veteran because it’s one less thing that veteran has to worry about,” Weiser said. About one-third of Saint Leo’s 15,000-to-16,000 students are veterans or active duty military and a majority are not on the Pasco County campus. Saint Leo University has a College Online as well as 40 locations, many on military installations, throughout the U.S. “When others in the 70s were protesting military, Saint Leo went onto its first campus in North Florida and started teaching at a military installation,” Weiser said. “We just celebrated our 40th Anniversary last year.” That anniversary generated donations that created another program Saint Leo’s Student Veteran Emergency Fund. Since January, Weiser says they’ve given more than 30 gifts ranging from $200 to $500 to help with a financial crisis. The student veteran fills out an application, answers some questions about their financial problems. The circumstances are reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Weiser said he tries to give the student veteran a response within 12 hours. “We’ve given money for, just last week, cancer medications, day care, car repair, unemployment, food, utility bills,” Weiser said. That isn’t the only gift St. Leo University Veteran Services is distributing. Their online transition course was initially just for their students. But earlier this month, the course was opened up to all transitioning military and veterans for free whether they’re headed to Saint Leo University, another college or into the job market. You can learn more about the online Veterans Transition Course here.

Visit the Site
Dr. Steven Scott (left) shows off the Haley Trauma Center’s treadmill pool to former patient Cory Remsburg (center) and his dad, Craig Remsburg.

Army Ranger Cory Remsburg Overcomes

Army Ranger Cory Remsburg returns each year to James A. Haley VA Hospital in Tampa to show the staff his progress. He was severely injured in 2009 and spent two years recovering at Haley’s Polytrauma Center. Remsburg was on his tenth deployment when he was injured by an IED in Afghanistan. His teammates found him face down in a water-filled canal with shrapnel in his brain. He was in a coma when he arrived at the Haley. More than 800 patients have come through the polytrauma system according to Haley Chief of Staff Dr. Edward Cutolo, but he remembers Remsburg. “He’s not a hard one to forget. He was very ill when he came here, very ill,” Cutolo said. And Remsburg has not forgotten them, the therapists, nurses and doctors. He returned this year with one goal in mind, to walk, unassisted to Dr. Steven Scott, director of the Haley Polytrauma Center. Trailed closely by his stepmother, Annie Remsburg, Cory Remsburg successfully navigated about a 10-foot stretch, unaided, and was greeted with a handshake from Dr. Scott and applause from onlookers. “One of the things that’s so interesting about Cory’s story is he was told by so many, so many people said he couldn’t do things. ‘You’re not going to walk, you’re not going to do this. You know what I mean,’” Scott said. “So, Cory always said, ‘Yes, I’m going to, yes I can.’” Cory Remsburg responds slowly, “Being a Ranger, I had the mental part down. It’s the physical part I’m learning to overcome.” His speech is labored because he had to learn to speak all over again. That’s just one of many things he’s had to overcome: dozens of surgeries, blindness in his right eye, a partially paralyzed left side. He was in a coma more than three months. The treatments and people at Haley brought him back. Craig Remsburg, credits a combination of ‘the man above’, Haley’s Emerging Consciousness Program, family and familiarity for bringing his son back. “We knew that he loved vanilla extract, so we would burn that aroma. We would play Scrubs, he loved Scrubs. So, we had that playing always on a reel,” Craig Remsburg said. There was no great awakening like in a movie. Instead, it was gradual and took a lot of hard work every day for two years. As soon as Cory could eat solid food, Dr. Scott would sneak him two Boston Cream doughnuts each morning as incentive.  And even though Cory now lives in Arizona – Dr. Scott is still motivating his prized patient. He asked Cory for his goals which are to walk independently for a sustainable distance and then run. “That’s what I hoped you would say. I’ll give you a third,” Dr. Scott said. “Run up hill. Alright? The reason why you run uphill is because the view is better.” At that suggestion, Cory smiled, held up his large cup of coffee as a toast affirming his new goals and said, “He knows me.” You can listen to the story which is part of he WUSF Veterans Coming Home project on WUSF 89.7 FM.

Visit the Site
Naming your chili entry is half the fun of participating in the USF Office of Veterans Services Chili Cook-Off, now in its fifth year.

Chili Cook-Off Connects Vets to Campus

Over the last five years the University of South Florida Office of Veterans Services has worked to raise its visibility among the estimated 1,400 student veterans on campus and provide them resources. One way USF Veterans Services has gained a lot of notice is its annual Chili Cook-Off. This year, the Office of Veterans Services 5th Annual Chili Cook-Off is scheduled 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Nov. 5, 2014 at the Marshall Center Amphitheater on the Tampa Campus, 4202 E. Fowler Ave. Evan Itle, associate director of the USF Office of Veterans Affairs, says the Chili Cook-Off has grown in popularity and may hit their maximum of 24 participants this year. “There actually could be people we’ve got to tell no,” Itle said. “And we don’t want to tell people no.” In fact, they’re excited about bringing in new participants from beyond the USF Tampa Campus such as the Temple Terrace Chamber of Commerce which plans to enter a chili dish. The cook-off also works as an outreach event for both student veterans and other students on campus. More than 400 students, faculty and USF staff attended the free 2013 event to taste-test the entries. Last year’s winning recipe came from the home kitchen of Royce Thomas, location manager for the Fresh Foods Company USF Dining facility. He didn’t divulge his recipe, but did share a major secret to “great chili” is cumin. “The way that I like my chili profile to come across is a little sweet up front and a little hot in the back,” Thomas said. It’s a matter of pride to Thomas that he used his own home recipe to beat out 19 other competitors because to him, chili is a comfort food. “We used to have chili night in college and everybody would come with a bunch of ingredients and make chili and have a good time,” Thomas said. “You can make chili a thousand different ways and that’s what I love about it, there is no one, great chili.” He was surprised to win the competition in 2013 and declined to enter this year so others from his dining facility could try their hand. “It’s really about the cause. It’s not about the competition, it’s not about the chili,” Thomas said. And that cause is the USF Office of Veterans Affairs. Director Larry Braue said the office has grown in visibility along with the contest that went from about 200 the first year to more than 400 participants in 2013. “We have a vision to go beyond this and not just tie our veterans to the USF community, but to tie them to the Tampa Bay community,” Braue said. The 5th Annual USF OVS Chili Cook-Off is one of several events planned for Veterans Week at USF. Student veterans will be honored at a football game that includes a tailgate graduation bash. There’s an expo of veteran services and a Veterans Day Ceremony on Nov. 4, 2014 that will feature Medal of Honor Recipient Army Ranger Master Sergeant Leroy Petry. Braue said the wounded warrior will speak to USF student veterans about life after the Army and life after the military and to USF student athletes. “He’s a typical student veteran, although he’s not a typical man, he will be on a campus just like all of our student veterans going to school and earning his degree,” Braue said. You can learn more about the 5th Annual Chili Cook-Off, the Veterans’ Week Ceremony and Expo and the USF Office of Veterans Affairs. The deadline to register is Oct. 29, 2014, but entries are limited so don't stew over it. Reporting for the WUSF Veterans Coming Home project is made possible by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Visit the Site
Children from the TAPS Good Grief Camp participating in workshops to help heal wounds from the suicide of a loved one who served in the Armed Forces.

Vets Voices: It’s Okay to Talk About It

By Kiersten Downs WUSF Veterans Coming Home Outreach Coordinator Over time, the sharp and jagged pieces of a broken green bottle have been transformed into a smooth and beautiful beach gem that we call sea glass. While sitting in a circle with fellow mentors and mentees, we were asked by our group leader what was special about the sea glass. My nine-year-old mentee raised her little hand and in a sweet and shaky voice said, “that it changed over time”. This was the theme for the National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp for Young Survivors held this past weekend in St. Pete Beach, Florida by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). For those who are unfamiliar with the work of this incredible organization, TAPS provides immediate and long-term emotional help, hope, and healing to all who are grieving the death of a loved one in military service to America. The 170 children who participated in the Good Grief Camp have lost a military loved one to suicide. I am not alone in saying that participating in the Good Grief Camp, as a mentor was one of the most powerful volunteer efforts I have ever experienced. A resounding theme repeated throughout the weekend that needs to be replicated not just at a suicide seminar but on our military bases is that “suicide is talked about here”. The existing stigma surrounding suicide gravely impacts those who have lost a loved one and silence on the subject also silences the living memories of those who have died, complicating grief even further. We understand that not everyone is at the point where they can talk openly about what brought them to the camp, but by stating that “suicide is talked about here” we are letting them know that this is a safe place where they can honor the memories of their loved ones with people who care and often times share similar life experiences. What I witnessed was a community of people coming together to help heal open wounds, some new and some long-standing. We painted together, we talked together, we cried together. We watched as kids were allowed to be kids. My mentee left footprints on my heart and taught me one of the most important lessons of all time. On Sunday afternoon, after we watched as the ocean waves washed away the words that we drew in the sand - “bad thoughts” and “nightmares” - I asked her what she was going to take home from camp. Her reply was, “that things change with time and it’s okay to talk about it.” For more information go to If you or a loved one are in crisis, Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1chat online, or send a text

Visit the Site
Tampa Strong Dogs and Team RBW. Photo courtesy of Thomas Martineau

Vets Voices: What Community Means

Thomas Martineau Air Force SSGT Ret.,Tampa Bay Strong Dog, Team Red White and Blue Eagle I joined the Air Force at the age of eighteen and knew from day one that serving in the enlisted ranks was what I wanted to do with my life. I was in an accident that left me paralyzed from the chest down and was medically discharged from the Air Force at the end of 2008. It was hard to find purpose in my life when I had put all of my eggs into one basket, that basket being my military career. Adjusting to life in a wheelchair was definitely not "a walk in the park." I faced a lot of challenges along the way as I learned to get used to my post accident body and my new way of doing things. When I found the Tampa Bay Strong Dogs, I finally found a lot of people in a similar situation to myself. The Strong Dogs is not specifically a veteran based organization, but we have vets that play on the team. Family, comradery, teamwork, competition; I found everything with this team that I was missing since having to leave my Air Force family. One thing my team needs is a place to work on physical conditioning and team bonding off the court. It is rare to find a military and/or veteran organization that is willing to open its doors to non-veterans. Team Red, White and Blue is a veteran’s organization that is breaking down those types of barriers. One of Team RWB’s pillars is community. They mean what they say. While we do have a few vets on my team we are a minority and if we had no veterans I believe the end result would still be the same. Blayne Smith and Jeni Donovan opened the doors of the new Firebase and Team RWB to the Tampa Bay Strong Dogs. Team RWB believes in lifting up not only vets but everyone in the community. They turn talk into action and that shows with allowing anyone, regardless if you are a veteran or not, to be a part of Team RWB. It’s great that The Strong Dogs have a new place to workout. But more importantly, the Strong Dogs have some new family members and Team RWB has some new family members of the non-veteran variety. When veterans come together for the overall good of the whole community, everybody wins.

  If you would like to contribute to Vets Voices, email or Tweet @WUSFveterans.

Visit the Site
An evening view of Patriot Plaza Amphitheater at Sarasota National Cemetery.
Steven Brooke The Patterson Foundation

Patriot Plaza Is a First at VA Cemeteries

Problems with veterans’ health care and benefits have dominated recent headlines. But there is one section at the Department of Veterans Affairs that ranks first in customer satisfaction over both private-sector companies and other federal agencies. That’s a point VA Secretary Bob McDonald was quick to point out when he visited Florida earlier this month. The National Cemetery Administration (NCA) is ranked first in the American Customer Satisfaction Index. “We want our national cemeteries to be shrines,” McDonald said, “Shrines that really demonstrate the care of our American people for our veterans.” McDonald believes the Sarasota National Cemetery is such a showcase, or shrine, with its Patriot Plaza Amphitheater and numerous art installations worth $12 million, all privately funded by the Patterson Foundation based in Sarasota. “They have done an outstanding job choosing the artwork in that facility,” McDonald said. “There are photographs- for me as veteran, an airborne ranger, that capture many of the situations I’ve been in.” The Patterson Foundation funded Patriot Plaza and the public art to create a place for “deep experience” at the Sarasota National Cemetery, said Debra Jacobs, president and CEO of the Patterson Foundation. “By having Patriot Plaza, those who come to visit family, those who come now to visit the art, they will each have their own private time and space for reflection and experiencing and affirming why we live in the greatest country on the globe,” Jacobs said. The Patterson Foundation partnership with NCA is the first of its kind among the 131 cemeteries run by the VA. Jacobs hopes Sarasota’s Patriot Plaza will serve as a model for others to follow. U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-R), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, called it a “perfect partnership.” “That facility down there from start to finish was magnificently designed. And then, to have an organization to come in and put the money behind it, a private organization,” Miller said. “Public-private partnerships work.” Miller added that Patriot Plaza gives people an opportunity to learn about freedom and the sacrifice of those who serve to defend the country. To celebrate Patriot Plaza and in honor of Veterans Day, the Patterson Foundation is sponsoring a national, Veterans Legacy Summit Nov. 14-15 which is designed to build connections for veterans and military families. All the summit events are free from the film festival and discussion panels to performances by the West Point Band and the keynote address by best-selling author Wes Moore. However, registration is required for the Veterans Legacy Summit. Reporting for the WUSF Veterans Coming Home project is made possible by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Visit the Site
Veteran Cheldyn Donovan has severe social phobia. But by learning to play guitar, he's been able to overcome some of his fears.

Art in Action at Veterans’ Open Mic

Beyond the battlefield and the barracks, some of Florida’s 1.5 million veterans have had trouble transitioning to civilian life. Yet, there are signs that poetry, art, music and performance are helping veterans adjust. With Veterans’ Day approaching, we bring you their stories this week in a special edition of Florida Matters. These are highlights from the October 2014 Veterans Open Mic Night at Tampa’s Sacred Grounds Coffee House. Military veterans meet there every first Sunday to share their talents and stories. The WUSF Veterans Coming Home project partnered with Art-2-Action Tampa Veterans to bring you this evening of poetry and music with military veterans. The emcees for the evening were Andrea Assaf, director of Art-2-Action, and guest playwright Linda Parris-Bailey who wrote the play, Speed Killed My Cousin, about returning veterans. The highlights feature veterans Charla  Gautierre, Cheldyn Donovan and Marc Reid.

Visit the Site
Master Sergeant Leroy Petry, Medal of Honor recipient, poses for a photo with an unidentified veteran - one of scores who came to his Veterans Day address.

Medal of Honor Recipient’s New Mission

Living Medal of Honor recipients are somewhat rare. There are only 79 living out of nearly 3,500 recipients since the highest military honor was created during the Civil War. So, it was no surprise that 200 students, veterans and members of the public came out to hear Medfal of Honor recipient Master Sergeant (Ret.) Leroy Petry deliver the keynote address at the University of South Florida Veterans Day Ceremony in Tampa. After his 20 minute speech, numerous veterans stood in line waiting patiently to greet the Army Ranger personally, shake his hand and take a photo with him. Later the Medal of Honor recipient visited with members of the USF football team to talk about resiliency. Resiliency is something Petry knows about. On May 26, 2008 as a weapons squad leader in Afghanistan, Petry was shot in both legs as his unit was clearing a courtyard. Two Rangers, wounded by a grenade, were next to him. Petry saw a second grenade near his men. He picked it up to throw it clear and the grenade exploded severing his right hand. Petry’s training kicked in. He applied his own tourniquet and then got on the radio to call for support. Later, he refused medical care until medics cared for the other wounded first. Petry retired just a few months ago. And like many of the student veterans in the audience, he is taking on a new mission college and spending more time with family. “I have served eight tours and I know that sounds like a lot, but I’d love to be nowhere else but with my guys right now who just returned from trip number 17 overseas,” Petry told the crowd. “They want and are still making a difference.” He said in an interview afterward that the toughest part of transitioning into civilian life is balancing his drive to be with his battle buddies versus spending time with his family. “I had an opportunity to go overseas with some guys and it was over Halloween and this might be my son’s last year trick-or-treating,” Petry said. “I had to choose one or the other.” He chose to spend Halloween with his youngest son. The hardest part of his retirement as a Medal of Honor recipient has been managing his time. He has to balance requests for appearances with the need to spend time with his family and working on his education. “I know this award has kind of put me in a different spot where that will come first. But I don’t want to be known only as ‘Leroy Petry Medal of Honor recipient,” Petry said. “I want to be known as ‘Hey! That’s a good guy over there just helping me out.’” Petry starts a new chapter this January when he heads back to college to study economics. He will still do public appearances. And he’ll shake hands – with his prosthetic hand - and take photos with all who ask - just like he did with countless veterans and students at USF.

Visit the Site
Retired Master Sergeant Leroy Petry, Medal of Honor recipient, addresses student veterans and the public at University of South Florida.

A Medal of Honor Recipient’s Speech

Recently retired Army Ranger and Medal of Honor recipient Master Sergeant Leroy Petry delivered the main address Nov. 4, 2014 at a ceremony honoring student veterans at the University of South Florida, Tampa, FL. Petry, like many of the student veterans in the audience,  is taking on a new mission, college, starting a business and spending more time with family. Listen to his full speech delivered before 200 student veterans, faculty, staff and general public who attended the early Veterans Day event: Petry said in an interview afterward that he's looking forward to getting on with his civilian life, returning to college and spending more time with his family, especially his youngest son who is still in elementary school.

Visit the Site

10 Ways to Celebrate Veterans Day

flag_homeHave you missed the Veterans Day parade or the ceremony at your local VA National Cemetery? Well, there’s still time to show your appreciation for the men and women who have served or are currently serving in the Armed Forces. Here are a few suggestions you can practice year-round:

  1. Fly the American Flag outside your home.
  2. Teach your children or grandchildren a patriotic song like America the Beautiful.
  3. Volunteer at your local VA facility.
  4. Write a letter or make a card to be delivered by Operation Gratitude which sends messages to active-duty deployed troops as well as veterans.
  5. Accompany a veteran on an Honor Flight, or be there to greet the veterans when they return.
  6. Participate in the Veterans History Project – the Library of Congress makes it easy with a step-by-step process.
  7. Visit Arlington National Cemetery, the Vietnam Veterans Wall, or any of the other War Memorials or spend a quiet hour at your nearest National Cemetery.
  8. Sponsor a wreath for a veteran’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery for its 150th Anniversary or at your local VA cemetery through Wreaths Across America.
  9. Post a message of appreciation or photo from your Veterans’ Day on the WUSF Veterans Coming Home Welcome Wall.
  10. Spend 18 minutes and listen to a speech from Medal of Honor recipient Army Ranger MSgt. (Retired) Leroy Petry as he addresses student veterans at the University of South Florida, Tampa, on Nov. 4, 2014.
  11. Check out the Military Avenue link on 101 Ways to Thank a Veteran.
A bonus suggestion: if you live with a veteran like I do, give him or her a hug and make their favorite meal for dinner.

Visit the Site
Army combat veteran Wes Moore is a New York Times bestselling author, executive producer for the PBS Series "Coming Back with Wes Moore," and the keynote speaker commemorating Sarasota's Patriot Plaza.
Credit Courtesy of Wes Moore

Veteran Commemorates Patriot Plaza

Saturday in Sarasota they’re holding the national commemoration of Patriot Plaza. It’s the 2800 seat amphitheater and art installation built to honor veterans and their families at Sarasota National Cemetery. The keynote speaker for the capstone event is best-selling author Wes Moore – a former paratrooper and veteran of the Afghanistan War. His book is titled “The Other Wes Moore.” He wrote it after discovering another young man by the same name, from the same city, with a similar background and about the same age. But instead of receiving a Rhodes Scholarship like he did, the other Wes Moore was sentenced to life in prison for murder. He wanted to know why their similar lives were so divergent. “The military for me was a remarkable experience. I grew in the military. It helped to change me, shape me and help me immeasurably,” Moore said. “Some of my fondest memories in my life thus far happened not when I was in a suit, or wearing jeans, but when I was wearing the uniform of the United States of America.” Curiosity led the decorated combat veteran and White House Fellow to reach out to his Doppelganger. Their correspondence became the backbone for his book. And he said the best way to honor veterans is to do the same thing, reach out and ask about their individual stories. “Often times what ends up happening in the fear of saying something incorrect, you end up saying nothing. No conversation takes place but the interpretation in the veterans’ community is that you don’t care,” Moore said. That’s why he became executive producer of the PBS series “Coming Back with Wes Moore” – to tell some of the stories of struggle and success as wounded veterans work to find a new mission in civilian life. The three part series, currently being broadcast on WUSF-TV, Channel 16, at 10 p.m. Sundays, shows how some veterans fight through physical pain and emotional setbacks. “That’s what warriors do,” Moore said in the series. “It is what makes us different.” And he told WUSF that veterans want to make a difference. “We believe we have a lot to contribute. We believe that often times people look at the veteran community as if we’re challenges or as if we’re things that have to be solved,” Moore said. “We view ourselves very differently. We really do look at ourselves as assets that need to be leveraged.” That’s the message that Moore will deliver Saturday at Patriot Plaza. He’s excited about revisiting the artwork there because it triggers an emotional response – that’s different for every individual. The Patriot Plaza Celebrate Service & Sacrifice ceremony is scheduled at 2 p.m. and includes a speech by Jane Chu, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, the West Point Band and Moore. It’s free and open to the public, however, registration is required. The WUSF Veterans Coming Home project also will be there as part of the Veterans Legacy Summit “Legacy Zone” at Patriot Plaza from 12:30-4:30 p.m. No registration is required. Stop by and see us. WUSF Veterans Coming Home is made possible by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Visit the Site
Rob Walker of Leave No Veteran Behind shows off a video promoting their Smart Bike project.

Leave No Veteran Behind Smart Bikes

Bringing together veterans’ service organizations to share ideas and create networks was one of the goals of The Patterson Foundation’s Veterans Legacy Summit that concluded last weekend in Sarasota. It brought one veteran to Florida to share how he’s using his mechanical background to inspire kids on Chicago’s Southside. Rob Walker was a mechanic on a nuclear submarine before he left the Navy and became a lawyer. He’d just finished a big case and was on hiatus when he heard an NPR story by David Schaper in March 2011. It detailed how the non-profit group, Leave No Veteran Behind, was providing safe passage to high school students on some of Chicago’s more menacing streets. “I thought, you know what, I’m a Southside vet. I want to make my neighborhood better. I want to be part of the solution,” Walker said. “So, I reached out to them (No Veteran Left Behind) and I started out on a ‘Safe Passage’ route just like everybody else.” Education is part of the Leave No Veteran Behind initiative as is using each veteran’s assets and training to benefit the community. So eventually, Walker developed a new program. “Now, we’re doing a program where we’re teaching STEM or we like to call it STEAM where it’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics,” Walker said. “We’re taking these kids and we’re giving them skills they’re not getting from their typical education.” And Walker’s teaching tool is not typical, but it is plentiful supply. “We’re showing them how to take these abandoned, rusty bikes that are still all over our city and turn them back into state of the art machines with brand new componentry(sic),” Walker said. The Smart Bike design has several high-tech features. One, the NuVinci N360, makes shifting gears as easy as “turning the dial on your stereo.” It’s also tricked-out with a generator hub that powers an LED headlight and taillight as well as a USB port on the handlebars. So, once the bike is up to speed, you can charge your cell phone. “While teaching these kids, we often heard they don’t have a place to plug in their cell phones,” Walker said. “So, the kids wanted a place to charge their phones.” The promotional YouTube video, produced by Walker, touts that they teach more than science. They teach recycling “Southside style” and find potential anywhere. Walker came to the Veterans Legacy Summit in Florida to network with other veterans’ organizations. He said the Leave No Veteran Behind Smart Bike program could be expanded beyond Chicago. The only drawback is money. He said it can be expensive. The first Smart Bike cost $4000 to develop. But now that they have the prototype, Walker said the cost should drop by half. He has started a crowd-source campaign and produced the 2-minute YouTube video to promote the program.

Visit the Site
Photo courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs

A Way for Vets to Help Their Families

Military service involves more than the person wearing the uniform – families are always a part of that equation. A team of three University of South Florida psychology doctoral students and a graduate of the School of Social Work are conducting a research study looking at how reintegration affects military veterans and their children. Their focus looks at how veterans are “reintegrating” to both civilian and academic life and also examines the student veterans’ well-being and that of their children. The USF Coming Home Project is an anonymous online survey for student veterans who qualify:

  • You must currently be enrolled as a student.
  • You must be a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan.
  • You have children between the ages of 6 and 18.
The online survey only requires about 15-20 minutes and is anonymous. It examines the impact of deployments on children in military families. Information about the Coming Home Project survey is available here.

Visit the Site

When Fishing Is About More Than Fish

photo1The number of Gulf War era veterans is growing as is the list of non-profit organizations formed to help returning service members. Heroes on the Water is a top-rated, all-volunteer non-profit organization formed specifically to provide free therapeutic recreation to veterans of all eras, active-duty military and their families. Florida has seven chapters many of which offer events year round.

  1. Central Florida Chapter
  2. Emerald Coast Chapter
  3. Northeast Florida Chapter
  4. Sarasota/Bradenton Chapter
  5. Space Coast Chapter
  6. South Florida Chapter
  7. Southwest Florida Chapter
Just a week ago, the Central Florida Chapter hosted veterans and their families on Lake Jackson in Osceola County. While chapters like New Jersey's pack in a large number of fishing trips during the summer months. The idea behind Heroes on the Water is simple in theory and application. It only requires a kayak, fishing gear and a volunteer fishing coach to get a wounded veteran or stressed-out service member on the water. “Putting them as close to nature as possible, there’s a tranquil effect,” said Tom Welgos, the Eastern United States operations coordinator for Heroes on the Water. “I like to use Henry David Thoreau’s comment on fishing that: ‘Men spend their whole life fishing only to find out it wasn’t about the fish.’ And by putting them into a peaceful, outdoor environment, we start to see that stress level drop by allowing them to go out and fish they kind of take their minds off day to day problems.” Welgos is a veteran who struggled with post-traumatic stress symptoms. He was actually a fishing guide that offered free trips to wounded service members, but had few takers. He says that’s because fishing tours on a motorboat do provide the peace offered by kayak fishing. The quiet solitude of his first kayak fishing trip was such a revelation for Welgos that he started volunteering for Heroes on the Water. “The realization was that when we put these guys in kayaks and they have to use their body to power this kayak and are selecting the fishing areas with the help of a coach and they’re determining when they come back in, that we’re actually knocking down the overall stress, avoidance behavior and hyper vigilance,” Welgos said. Their free outings get injured veterans out of their hospital settings and offer quiet retreats to returning active duty service members. Their events are open to veterans of all eras and as well as their families. He said the organization is all volunteer and many of them have never served in the military. Welgos said that’s the beauty of the program, it gives civilians a chance to give back to those who have served. “They (civilians) are passionate about this cause because it’s not a fishing club or a kayaking club it is a cause,” Welgos said. This January, Heroes on the Water will train 35 more volunteer, leadership teams that have already been selected and vetted. Welgos said by late spring, the organization will double in size to 70 chapters across the United States as well as affiliate chapters in the United Kingdom and in Australia.  

Visit the Site