A Golden Age and New Leader for U.S. Special Operations

TAMPA, Fla. (Aug. 28, 2014) -- Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel attends a Change of Command ceremony for U.S. Special Operations Command at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Fla. August 28, 2014. DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt/Released

TAMPA, Fla. (Aug. 28, 2014) — Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel attends a Change of Command ceremony for U.S. Special Operations Command at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Fla. August 28, 2014. DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt/Released

The significance of the U.S. Special Operations Command, based at MacDill Air Force Base, can be measured by the fact that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel came to Tampa for the change of command ceremony.

“As a testament to the growing demand for special operators, Socom has grown by almost 8,000 people over the last three years,” Hagel told an invited audience of hundreds, most in military uniform. “And its growth will continue even as other parts of our military draw down.”

Navy Adm. William McRaven led Socom through the last three years of growth shaping the joint command into a global force.

“I believe that for the past several years, possibly without even knowing it, we have been and we are in the Golden Age of Special Operations,” McRaven told the packed ballroom at Tampa’s Convention Center. “A time when our unique talents as special operators are in greatest demand, a time when the nation recognizes the strategic value of our services, a time when all that we’ve trained for all that we’ve worked for all that our predecessors have planned for has come together.”

Hagel said McRaven’s most enduring legacy may be his effort to alleviate the strain of the relentless pace of deployments demanded of special forces.

Admiral William McRaven while serving as commander of the US Special Operations Command based at MacDill AFB, Tampa, FL. He has retired after 37 years.

Admiral William McRaven while serving as commander of the US Special Operations Command based at MacDill AFB, Tampa, FL. He has retired after 37 years.

“Bill established initiatives to address the physical and mental wellbeing of his force, offer support to family members and provide more predictability on deployments,” Hagel said. “He modified SOCOM’s definition of readiness to include families, families as a vital part of that equation. Something the entire Department of Defense can learn from.”

McRaven said Socom evolved after the 9-11 terrorism attacks and now has more than 67,000 forces ready in 92 countries. Their mission is to help stabilize areas of conflict, work with the State Department on everything from providing clean water to establishing rule of law and to take the fight to Al Qaida, the Taliban, ISIS and others.

While praising his special operators, McRaven added that they are no different than other service members.

“While our missions are unique – or special – we do not view ourselves as special people,” McRaven said. “We are no more courageous, no more heroic , no more patriotic, no smarter, no harder working than our brothers and sisters in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.”

McRaven is retiring and will take over as chancellor of the Texas University System. His successor is Gen. Joe Votel , an Army Ranger, who vowed that SOCOM will always, always be prepared.

Votel is a West Point graduate, the tenth commander at Socom and now responsible for ensuring the readiness of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps Special Operations Forces around the globe.

You can listen to a story on the ceremony on WUSF 89.7 FM.

USO Cool Idea: Homemade Ice Cream for Troops

Troops enjoy making homemade ice cream at USO Camp Marmal. Courtesy USO Blog

Troops enjoy making homemade ice cream at USO Camp Marmal. Courtesy USO Blog

Homemade ice cream is a treat no matter where you are. But it’s an extra treat if you’re in an arid climate far away from home like the troops at Camp Marmal, Afghanistan.

Thanks to the ingenuity of the USO and a little shaking action, those service members were treated to homemade ice cream.

Here’s a story from the official USO Blog and the recipe:

After hearing that the base cafeteria only served ice cream once a week, USO Camp Marmal staff members decided to start monthly homemade ice cream nights.

“We gave it a try and it’s been a big hit since then,” said USO Camp Marmal Center Manager Michael Eyassu.

With a few zip bags, milk, ice and a lot of shaking, troops can whip up a batch of homemade ice cream within a matter of minutes. USO Camp Marmal even provides service members with a number of syrups and toppings to enhance their homemade ice cream creations.

“Troops love it because it’s a fun and interactive event they can participate in with their fellow troops,” Eyassu said. “The end result is delicious, so it’s a win-win!”

If you want to try making homemade ice cream like the troops, check out the recipe below:

In a gallon zip bag:
1/2 cup salt
Ice to fill bag 2/3 of way full

In a quart zip bag:
1 cup of half and half
2 table spoons of vanilla extract
Flavored syrup (optional)

Place ice and salt in a large gallon zip bag. Set aside. Place half & half and vanilla in quart zip bag. Seal tightly and place inside gallon zip bag. Seal gallon zip bag. Shake until ice cream is solid or at consistency of your choice — roughly 10 minutes. Remove quart zip bag from gallon zip bag. Scoop contents of quart zip bag into bowl, add desired toppings and serve immediately.

Stolen Motorcycle Returned to Iraq Veteran

Iraq veteran Paul Rivera, holds his 3-year-old daughter, as he examines his restored motorcycle with Ryan McDonaugh, one of the Nam Knights that helped rebuild the stolen motorcycle.

Iraq veteran Paul Rivera, holds his 3-year-old daughter, as he examines his restored motorcycle with Ryan McDonaugh, one of the Nam Knights that helped rebuild the stolen motorcycle.

When is a motorcycle more than just a ride? For Iraq veteran Paul Rivera, tinkering with the mechanics was a kind of therapy. It calmed him as much as a ride on the open road.

But his peace of mind was stolen from his apartment parking lot June 18, 2014.

The Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office sent out notices about the veteran’s loss to local news media. The motorcycle was recovered and returned to Rivera on July 4th.

The Nam Knights Westside Motorcycle Club pose before the Iraq Veterans Memorial at Hillsborough County Veterans Memorial Park.

The Nam Knights Westside Motorcycle Club pose before the Iraq Veterans Memorial at Hillsborough County Veterans Memorial Park.

But, the vehicle was in bad shape. It had been stripped of parts and spray painted black.

So, the deputies contacted the Nam Knights Westside Motorcycle Club for help. The non-profit club of military veterans, law officers and civilian supporters stepped up. They raised money from other veteran organizations to cover about $1,500 worth of parts. And two members, Travis Wright and Ryan McDonaugh, completely rebuilt the motorcycle.

Businesses stepped up too.  Stepp’s Towing transferred the motorcycle for free as it was being repaired and repainted. Another donated the oil change and safety check,  another a motorcycle lock.

Saturday, August 16, 2014, at the base of the Iraq War Memorial at Veterans Park, members of the Nam Knights and Hillsborough deputies unveiled the renovated motorcycle to the awe of Rivera.

The sight of the restored motorcycle and the applause from more than 50 people who came to celebrate the return left the soft-spoke veteran almost speechless.

He told the crowd how much the motorcycle meant to him because it was the only thing he and his 3-year-old daughter had left after he got out of the Army in 2011.

Rivera said he didn’t know how he could ever thank them for their generosity.

Then someone from the crowd shouted “We thank you for your service.”

Reaching Women Veterans Is A Challenge

 Female Veterans in Iraq. A New Resource for Female Vet on VA health care and benefits: 1-855-VA-WOMEN. Credit Department of Veterans Affairs


Female Veterans in Iraq. A New Resource for Female Vet on VA health care and benefits: 1-855-VA-WOMEN.
Credit Department of Veterans Affairs

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.

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.

“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 Sarasota Disabled American Veterans Chapter 97 building on Bee Ridge Road.

The Sarasota Disabled American Veterans Chapter 97 building on Bee Ridge Road.

The chapter commander is adjusting to reach the younger, female veterans. They recently started a Facebook page and are 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.

You can listen to the story on WUSF 89.7 FM Public Radio.

Why This Will Be a Good Weekend

feeding_america_tampabay_foodtruckWhy I will have a good weekend — it is thanks to Karen Griffin, head of development, at Feeding America Tampa Bay.

I called Feeding America Tampa Bay needing help for an Iraq veteran who had contacted me desperate about his ongoing battle over benefits. He had no money left for food after paying rent and other bills. Karen not only took my call, she offered immediate assistance despite the late hour and weekend.

It’s really comforting to know as a news reporter when I refer someone to a service that the individual gets help from a cheerful person and a supportive organization.

Thank you Feeding America Tampa Bay and extra kudos to Karen! Thanks to you a veteran and his young daughter also will have a good weekend and not miss a meal.

New Twitter Hashtag – #VetQ – for Veterans’ Questions

vetq1Do you want to learn more about veteran benefits or are you curious about adaptive sports?

If you can ask your question in 140 characters or less, tweet it to #VetQ on Twitter.

The new social media campaign is a collaborative effort between the Department of Veterans Affairs and seven Veteran Service Organizations which includes  Paralyzed Veterans of America.

The hashtag – #VetQ – will identify the question and allow the VA and partner organizations to answer it and promote their services. The idea is that more than one of the veteran service organizations will answer questions giving veterans a range of possible answers for their individual needs.

“I am excited at the prospect of using social networking to educate veterans, dependents, and caregivers on VA benefits,” Sherman Gillums, Jr., associate executive director of veterans benefits for Paralyzed Veterans of America, stated in the VA blog. “The #VetQ initiative will provide a dynamic forum to engage stakeholders in real time, which will help VA deliver timelier services. Additionally, it gives veterans service organizations like Paralyzed Veterans of America an opportunity to partner with VA in the effort to close transition gaps for Post-9/11 service members and their families.”

The VA digital team said over time, common questions and answers will likely be categorized on a frequently asked questions page.

The other VSOs collaborating on #VetQ are Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, the Home Depot Foundation, Student Veterans of America, Team Red, White & Blue, and the American Legion.

Debt Relief for Military Victims of Predatory Lending

 Holly Petraeus with the CFPB Office of Servicemember Affairs.  Credit Photo by SSG Lorie Jewell, US Army. / Consumer Finance Protection Bureau


Holly Petraeus with the CFPB Office of Servicemember Affairs.Credit Photo by SSG Lorie Jewell, US Army. / Consumer Finance Protection Bureau

Some 17,000 service members nationwide and other consumers who were targeted by Rome Finance through unfair lending practices will not have to payoff their outstanding finance agreements according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and several state attorney generals.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said in a media release that more than 800 Florida service members were targeted by the predatory lending schemes and will receive more than $4 million in debt relief.

The bureau announced action July 29, 2014 against Colfax Capital Corporation and its subsidiary (formerly known as Rome Finance Co. Inc.) for engaging in unlawful lending that financially hurt servicemembers.

The company provided financing at places such as SmartBuy to sell products to military members. But the merchandise cost was inflated to “hide the true finance charges that servicemembers would have to pay, typically by military allotment,” Holly Petraeus wrote on the CFPB blog.

“This trapped servicemembers in contracts that generated millions of dollars for the company and substantial debt for its customers,” Petraeus wrote.

She called the enforcement action “the last gasp of a chameleon-like company with a long and deplorable record of preying on servicemembers.”

Whether they borrowed to buy computers or gaming systems military members and other consumers who used Rome Finance to make their purchases were victims of “predatory lending schemes.” While the servicemembers will no longer have to pay off their unfair loans, Colfax is in bankruptcy and does not have assets to repay consumers.

Florida consumers who suspect scams or fraud can file a complaint by calling 1(866)-9-NO-SCAM or by visit MyFloridaLegal.com.

Complaints about financial services or products also can be filed with the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.

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