VA Secretary: Our National Cemeteries Should Be Shrines

Patriot Plaza at night. Photo by Steven Brooke courtesy of The Patterson Foundation.

Patriot Plaza at night. Photo by Steven Brooke courtesy of The Patterson Foundation.

There’s one section of the VA that gets really high marks. The National Cemetery Administration (NCA) is ranked first in the American Customer Satisfaction Index which surveys private businesses as well as other government agencies.

There are 131 national cemeteries. Florida has seven — with others on the way.

Just one of dozens of photographs showing service members from the Civil War through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Just one of dozens of photographs showing service members from the Civil War through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

But VA Secretary Bob McDonald said the Sarasota National Cemetery is a showcase among VA cemeteries because of Patriot Plaza. The $12 million amphitheater and art installations was funded by The Patterson Foundation of Sarasota. The hope is that it will become a model for other communities to turn their veteran cemeteries into a place of honor and contemplation.

“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 stone plinths that hold the photographic exhibit are carved from the same marble as the veterans' headstones.

The stone plinths that hold the photographic exhibit are carved from the same marble as the veterans’ headstones.

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.

One of the eagle sculptures that guards a side entrance into Patriot Plaza. Just beyond are the seals for all branches of the Armed Forces.

One of the eagle sculptures that guards a side entrance into Patriot Plaza. Just beyond are the seals for all branches of the Armed Forces.

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.

Patriot Plaza is integrated into the pastoral setting of the Sarasota National Cemetery.

Patriot Plaza is integrated into the pastoral setting of the Sarasota National Cemetery.

Seeking Solutions to Veteran Suicide

crisis_line_veteransVeteran suicide is a real and present problem in the community. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that on average 22 veterans die by suicide every day.

That’s a straightforward statistic for a very complex problem.

Calling it a growing and troublesome trend, U.S. Representative Kathy Castor of Tampa organized a roundtable to discuss what is being done in the Tampa Bay area to prevent veteran suicide.

“The suicide rate among veterans age 18-24 has skyrocketed 70 percent during the past three years,” Castor told a gathering of about 50 mental health experts, researchers and veteran advocates at James A. Haley VA Hospital.

One thing Castor said she learned is that the group needed to be broadened to include active-duty military to help fight the stigma associated with asking for help.

Depression, financial debt, domestic disputes, a traumatic combat experience – any number of problems can contribute to a veteran feeling that suicide is the only way out.

Carmen Genovese, a licensed professional counselor with the Haley Suicide Prevention Team, said studies have shown that only 10 percent of veterans who commit suicide have been in combat and only 40 percent had deployed.

“The biggest problem I would say that keeps veterans from calling the Crisis Line is that they think they have to be suicidal or homicidal to call,” Genovese said. “That’s why they changed the name a few years ago.”

Genovese was among the mental health experts who attended the roundtable. Prior to coming to Haley, he worked at the Veterans Crisis Line in upper New York state.

Another item Castor gathered from the discussion is that the crisis line is for families and friends trying to get help for a troubled veteran.

“Families have got to understand where they can turn and it may not be a suicide. But it might be some economic challenge or a health challenge and there are folks who can assist,” Castor said.

She called on the attendees to share ideas and stay connected so they can maximize efforts to let veterans, active-duty military and their families where to get help.

Listen to a story from November 2013 featuring the HBO documentary that went behind the scenes at the Veterans Crisis Line and talked with the responders who field the calls for help.

Camp Leatherneck Transfered to Afghan National Army

Marines and sailors with Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan load onto a KC-130 aircraft on the Camp Bastion flightline, Oct. 27, 2014. The Marine Corps ended its mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan, the day prior and all Marines, sailors and service members from the United Kingdom withdrew from southwestern Afghanistan.

Marines and sailors with Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan load onto a KC-130 aircraft on the Camp Bastion flightline, Oct. 27, 2014. The Marine Corps ended its mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan, the day prior and all Marines, sailors and service members from the United Kingdom withdrew from southwestern Afghanistan.

Another chapter in the Afghanistan War closed today as U.S. Marines, sailors and British forces left Helmand Province and transferred Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion to the Afghan National Army 215th Corps.

Regional Command Southwest is the first of the International Security Assistance Force commands to transfer authority to the Afghan national security forces as ISAF moves toward the Resolute Support mission that begins in 2015 according to a Department of Defense news release.

During the past year, Bosnia, Estonia, Denmark, Georgia, Jordan and Tonga ended their operations in Regional Command Southwest.

A 93-Year-Old Veteran Turned Away at Early Voting

vote-hereWith stricter voting identification laws in place, an election judge in Texas reports he had to turn away a 93-year-old veteran because his driver’s license was expired and the veteran had never applied for a VA identification card, according to a report from Think Progress.

Election judge William Parsley on Sunday said he has only seen one potential voter turned away at his polling location, the Metropolitan Multi-Services Center in downtown Houston.

“An elderly man, a veteran. Ninety-three years old,” Parsley, an election judge for the last 15 years, told ThinkProgress. “His license had expired.”

Under Texas’ new voter ID law, one of the strictest in the nation, citizens are required to present one of seven forms of photo identification to vote. The identification can be a Texas-issued driver’s license, a federally-issued veteran’s ID card, or a gun registration card, among other forms. Licenses can be expired, but not for more than 60 days.

… And though he had “all sorts” of other identification cards with his picture on it, they weren’t valid under the law — so the election judges told him he had to go to the Department of Public Safety, and renew his license.

“He just felt real bad, you know, because he’s voted all his life,” Parsley said.

It was earlier this month that the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the new, Texas voter ID laws to stand.

Ride Along during an Air Force KC-135 Refueling Mission

Off the wing of a KC-135 Stratotanker during a refueling mission.

Off the wing of a KC-135 Stratotanker during a refueling mission.

When you’re about to run out of gas in your car, you don’t think too much about pulling into the closest station to fill up.  The process is a bit more complicated if you’re a pilot flying an F-16 Thunderbird with the United States Air Force. That requires an airborne filling station.

For our series Off The Base, we went on a refueling mission in a KC-135 Stratotanker out of Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base.

 

One of the 16 Eisenhower-era planes left MacDill on an afternoon in early October, and flew almost all the way to Louisiana to meet up with seven F-16 Thunderbirds on their way to an air show in Melbourne.

According to Capt. Robert Jurgensmeier,  these types of refueling mission happen all over the United States, and the world.

“Every day everybody needs training because we always have to stay ready for whenever we get the call, so pretty much every day we’ll go out and do refueling with everybody all over the country, just to stay good at what we do,” Jurgensmeier said.

A reporter lays next to the boom operator to get a photograph.

A reporter lays next to the boom operator to get a photograph.

In the back of the jet, the boom operator lays on his stomach and controls the boom that juts out of the back of the Stratotanker and connects with the Thunderbird.

“They get really close, I couldn’t give you an actual distance,” Jurgensmeier said. “I don’t know what their books are and how close they fly, but I would say somewhere 20 feet, 30 feet maybe.”

When he has a full tank, the Thunderbird pilot gives a wave, and then drops out of view. All of this happened as the Stratotanker flew at around 345 knots, or about 500 miles per hour, according to Jurgensmeier.

The seven F-16 Thunderbirds received about 30,000 pounds of fuel.

“Then they flew in formation back with us and departed somewhere around Seminole, and headed toward Melbourne, and we continued back home to MacDill,” Jergensmeier said.

In 2013, when MacDill lost a bid for new KC-46 tankers, military officials said the older, KC-135s will remain a priority at the base.

Inside the KC-135 Stratotanker during a refueling mission.

Inside the KC-135 Stratotanker during a refueling mission.

A Veteran’s Voice: The Real Meaning of Community

Team Red, White and Blue and the Tampa Strong Dogs. Photo courtesy of Thomas Martineau.

Team Red, White and Blue and the Tampa Strong Dogs. Photo courtesy of Thomas Martineau.

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 and the WUSF Veterans Coming Home project, email Veterans@WUSF.org or Tweet @WUSFveterans.

A Veteran’s Voice: It’s Okay to Talk About Suicide

One of the groups from the TAPS Good Grief Camp in St. Pete Beach, FL for 170 children who a military service member or recent veteran who died by suicide.

One of the groups from the TAPS Good Grief Camp in St. Pete Beach, FL for 170 children who a military service member or recent veteran who died by suicide.

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 www.taps.org. 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.

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