Military Retirement = Going Back to School for Both of Us

Rex Temple and Liisa Hyvarinen Temple, April 22, 2010, the day he returned from a year's deployment in Afghanistan.

When they tell you retiring from the military is a gateway to a whole new life – they mean it. These last few months going through my husband’s separation from the United States Air Force after 28 years of service has at times felt like we moved to a new country and learned a whole new society and a language – and we stayed in the same town where we’ve been since 1996!

I am the first to say we are incredibly blessed to have awesome retirement benefits. But learning to navigate them has been quite interesting. Just getting my husband’s entire medical record transferred from the military to the Veterans Administration has taken months coupled with multiple medical evaluation appointments. Fortunately my husband is currently using his educational benefits and attending graduate school fulltime so we don’t have to worry about taking time off from a civilian job to go to all these appointments. He also transferred 28 months worth of educational benefits to me so I will be able to go back to school and update my skills. That transfer will not only pay for my tuition and help with my books but it will also pay a housing allowance, which will help with our mortgage payment. (The housing allowance varies based on location and is higher if you attend a physical “brick and mortar” school versus take courses just online.)

Being able to access your spouse’s educational benefits is a great benefit for military spouses who may need updated skills to help spruce up a resume that reflects all those mandatory PCS (Permanent Change of Station) moves as they followed their spouse from one duty station to the next. (For more information about transferring education benefits to your dependents, check here: http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2009/0409_gibill/ ) Keep in mind also that this fall you can use these benefits to pursue non-college degrees, on the job and apprenticeship training, flight programs and correspondence training.

(More on that here: http://www.gibill.va.gov/benefits/post_911_gibill/Post911_changes.html – be sure to scroll down the page to heading “Effective October 1, 2011)

SMSgt. Rex Temple with his parents, Raymond "Skip" Temple and Maxine Temple, and his wife, Liisa Hyvarinen Temple, during his retirement ceremony, April 6, 2011, at the MacDill Air Force Base Officers' Club.

The hardest part about retirement is of course deciding what you will do now and where you will go. Many retiring military families face the decision about whether to stay in the area where their last duty station is at or moving to someplace else – for example closer to their families. In our case my husband has not been home for Christmas in 26 years and ultimately it would be nice to get closer to his family (my family lives overseas in a very cold climate so that’s not an option).  But mix in the current tight job market and the high unemployment among veterans – and deciding where you will enjoy your retirement is not so simple. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobless rate for veterans who have served since September 2001 was 13.3% in June, up from 12.1% the month before. In June 2010 it was 11.5%.

Another hurdle has been dealing with friends and family. Retirement is a difficult process for anyone who has had an active career – whether it’s a civilian career or one in the military. Making the transition can take an emotional toll especially these days when you may have “survivor’s guilt” for being able to leave the service and your buddies and their families are still facing many more deployments and night and days filled with worry and separation from their loved ones.  Many friends and family are eager to spend time with you and constantly ask what your plans are for the future. When you don’t have an answer, having that conversation gets old quite quickly.

One of the most amazing blessings about retirement has been the ability to spend true quality time together. We recently were separated for 15 months when my husband first trained for a deployment out-of-state and then spent a year in Afghanistan. Although my husband returned from Afghanistan in the end of April 2010, life has not really returned to “normal” until a few weeks ago. Decompressing as a couple after a combat tour takes time and getting used to being together is also a time-consuming process. We have enjoyed gourmet cooking together, going on long walks with our dogs and getting into a routine of working out together at the gym.  Surprisingly this last deployment brought us much closer together as a couple because it was so incredibly demanding on our relationship and it’s been great to build on that strong bond even further. Now we get to go back to school together although we are studying vastly different subjects. But it will be fun to see just who has the higher GPA!

What I wish I had known about military retirement

Retiring from the military is a huge change – not just for the service member but also for the family. So many things are changing at once that the stress in the months preceding the retirement ceremony can be quite overwhelming. My husband SMSgt Rex Temple is getting ready to hang up his uniform after 28 years in the Air Force – watching him go through the process compels me to write a few words of encouragement and advice for other spouses who are getting ready to help their loved one go through this major transition.

Starting early …..  WAY EARLY

When your military member is encouraged to start the separation process early – they mean it. If you start the process 12 months before, it’s not soon enough. You need to make sure you’ve crossed all your T’s and dotted all your I’s by the time you serve the

This was a Naval Retirement Cake which was a very large 18x24 sheet-cake, about 60 servings. Made of Vanilla/Chocolate marble cake with butter-cream frosting. Photo by Jennifer Shockley of Shockley's Sweet Shoppe.

retirement cake. There are so many steps you have to take, so many classes you have to schedule to take, so many medical appointments you have to have, so many forms you have to fill out – you will need all that time to properly prepare. Can you do it in less time? Absolutely, but starting early will help minimize the stress and it will allow the service member to have time to react to unexpected problems that will come along when you least expect them. (Sometimes the computer program for military retirement will schedule appointments for you on a Sunday when the office for that particular part of the retirement process is not even open. And you will get “nasty-grams” via email from that same computer program for having missed your appointment …. It takes time to fix such bureaucratic stupidities.)

Medical records

Depending on where you serve and what military branch you serve with, getting your medical records copied for the transition to the VA system can take weeks or sometimes even months.  Remember that you want to make sure all those medical records have been updated to include all service related medical issues so that those will be covered under the VA system once your spouse makes the transition. This is where deployment related “aches and pains” that could be nothing or could be something significant are worth some extra “bitching.” Document everything – you never know whether things like being exposed to burn pits in Iraq or being in the vicinity of an IED blast will come back to haunt your loved one. So ask a lot of questions and help your service member go through his or her medical file to make sure everything has been properly included in the official record.

The dreaded resume

Start writing the resume for the post-military job search early. It takes days and days to translate military job descriptions into something that civilian employers understand and can appreciate. You have to be able to take out all the military jargon and also “translate” what you did in the military into functional skills that a civilian employer will understand and value.

The military offers lots of classes on resume preparation and on job searching techniques. These are open to spouses and we decided to go through them together so that I could help my husband with his job search. It helps when you have two sets of eyes and ears paying attention to the presentations and taking notes. Plus the courses also offer lots of advice for the spouses about job searching and how to fix your resume so that all those gaps you have in your resume because of frequent military moves are less obvious and don’t hurt your chances of being hired.

These classes offer you access to special books for free that will also help you and your service member write federal resumes (totally different from civilian). It took us at least two full weeks (working on weekends and at night) to make Rex’s federal resume.  There were tons of steps along the way and a steep learning curve – but thanks to the Family Readiness Center on base we got through it and now Rex has a great “base” resume to use as part of every application he submits online.

You really need to be realistic and keep these sobering numbers in mind. In January, the national unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans hit its highest level since the government began collecting the data in 2008 —15.2 percent, compared with 9 percent for the entire workforce. The veterans’ rate dropped to 12.5 percent in February as the overall rate also dropped, to 8.9 percent. So make sure your spouse takes advantage of all the free programs offered during the separation process – they are well worth the time.

Retirement ceremony

We started to prepare for Rex’s retirement ceremony about 8 weeks before the actual date. We did not really have a choice to start earlier but if you can start earlier, I highly recommend it. Just booking the venue, sending the invites and getting different people to commit to being part of the ceremony can take weeks. And since you are probably asking people to travel to the ceremony (family and close friends) they need time to book flights etc.

And sometimes military service will interfere and whoever you asked to officiate will get called away. So make sure you have your number 1, 2 and 3 choices for all the different roles that are in your ceremony. For our’s, we needed a narrator, someone to sing the National Anthem, someone to say the prayer, someone to actually officially retire Rex, and someone to be the guest speaker.  How many close friends do you have who can sing beautifully and are available in the middle of the workday to be part of your ceremony? (You can get more advice about retirement ceremony specifics here.)

 

 

Getting the shadow box done takes a long time. You need to find all the medals, ribbons and other memorabilia and have the shadow box made in time for the ceremony. Remember that it takes anywhere from 5 to 10 weeks to have a special flag flown above the U.S. Capitol.

Producing your photo montage

Most retirement ceremonies we’ve been to always include a photo montage of the service member’s career; this photo montage is often set to the favorite songs of the military member. And it appears that it’s quite often the spouse who gets asked to put this together in the last few days before the ceremony – and that can be a herculean task when you’re also juggling the food order, the RSVPs to the ceremony, picking up visitors from the airport and figuring out how all your civilian friends will access the base without military IDs.

The first step in producing the photo montage is simply to locate all the photos you want to use. The last few years will be easy since all the photos will be digital. However, you need to set aside time to go through old photo albums and carefully scan the images from the early years. We have about 20 years worth of photos that are not digital that we need to go through and scan so that we can edit them.

Then you need to figure out what music you want to use and what order the photos will be shown. But before you do that, check with the venue you booked for the ceremony. You need to know what format the finished montage needs to be in so that you can successfully play it at the ceremony. You don’t want to spend hours and hours editing this project on some software program that ultimately isn’t compatible with whatever playback method you have at the ceremony. Most places will be able to play a regular DVD (remember, no jump drives in military computers).

I would highly recommend you don’t plan to play it off the Internet because if you suddenly have no Internet access the day of the ceremony, then you obviously can’t play your photo montage. So having the montage on a DVD and having a back-up DVD in your purse is a good idea (what if the original gets scratched and at the last-minute you need the back-up?).

You can use common video editing software programs such as I-Movie or Windows Movie Maker to create the photo montage. Or you can hire a professional to put it together for you. If you hire a professional, make sure you hire someone reputable. Ask to see work samples and ask for references. Make sure the professional will agree to review the finished product with you and that you are allowed to have at least one round of changes before the project is considered final. This way you can make sure the photos are in the right chronological order and that you are happy with the final length of the photo presentation.  Who really wants to have a 30-minute photo montage set to “Eye of the Tiger” playing seven times back to back?

You can’t possibly cover all the advice for military retirement in one blog entry. Look for a Part 2 in the coming weeks.

Free Caregivers Conference this week

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed a harsh spotlight on the term polytrauma – more than one injury – a problem all too common for returning veterans.

Lee and Bob Woodruff (photo courtesy of People Magazine).

This critical issue will be the focus of the Second Annual Pathways to Resilience Caregivers Conference this Thursday, March 10th, at the University of South Florida Tampa campus. The keynote speaker is Lee Woodruff, wife of ABC News anchor and reporter Bob Woodruff..

This special daylong event is free, open to the public and focuses on the needs of family members and caregivers who are involved in the lives of veterans with polytrauma. It will be held at USF’s Marshall Student Center from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Lee Woodruff’s speech takes place at 11 a.m.)

While pre-registration has closed, you can still attend. On site registration is available at the Ballroom entrance on the second floor of the Marshall Center.

Bob Woodruff with his daughter Cathryn (left) and son Mack two days after he woke from a coma. Photo courtesy of the Woodruff Family.

Bob Woodruff sustained a Traumatic Brain Injury, TBI, when the vehicle he was traveling in was blown up by a roadside bomb while he was on assignment in Iraq in 2006. Together the Woodruffs founded ReMIND.org, a non-profit organization that helps wounded service members.  Lee has become a national advocate and travels around the country raising awareness of traumatic brain injury and the sacrifices of service members and their families. She and her husband co-wrote the best-selling book, In An Instant, about their family’s journey to recovery.  She will sign copies of her new book, Perfectly Imperfect, at the event. (The book signing is around 12 noon during lunch).

There will be various breakout sessions and special presentations including, “Family Caregivers” by Dr. Steven Scott who is from the James A Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa where he serves as the Medical Director of the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center. Dr. Scott is also the Principal Investigator of the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. In 2004, Dr. Scott was the recipient of the “Olin E. Teague Award”; it’s the highest honor for treating War-Related Injuries in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  He also received the “National Commander’s Outstanding VA Employee Award” from the Disabled American Veterans in 2007.

Dr. Linda Mona will give a talk about  “Dealing with Sexuality & Intimacy Issues.” Dr. Mona is a licensed clinical psychologist who has advocated for the sexual rights and sexual expression of people with disabilities for the past 15 years.

In addition, Father David Czartorynski will speak in a session titled “Resiliency through Faith & Spirituality.” Czartorynski is the acting chief of the Chaplain Service at the James A. Haley VA Hospital (JAHVA) in Tampa.  He specializes in pastoral care to spinal cord injury patients and polytrauma.

And Shealyn Holt, who is the Family Caregiver Coordinator at the Washington, D.C. office of the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, will talk about  “Caregiver Resources.” Holt conducts research on traumatic brain injury and advocates for patient and family education and support.

The day concludes with a CPR training session provided by the USF chapter of the American Red Cross.

I am personally thrilled to be helping to organize this event and am proud of my husband, USAF SMSgt Rex Temple who is volunteering his time as the emcee for the event.  Rex is stationed at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base, but he recently spent a year on deployment in Afghanistan where he was embedded with the Afghan National Army. While there, he completed more than 180 combat missions and was awarded the Bronze Star.

We both believe that having one trauma is certainly bad enough, but polytrauma presents a particularly unique set of problems that require a multidisciplinary approach to treatment. But, polytrauma also creates a unique set of demands on those closest to the wounded veteran – compounded injuries, compounded need for care and for understanding. This conference will go a long way toward helping people start to get a handle on the associated issues.

Note: A version of this blog post was first written by me and Barbara Melendez for the USF.edu website.

Family OPSEC: How Facebook and Social Media Can Hurt

Blogging is a wonderful way to share our military family experiences with the outside world. The same goes for using Twitter and status updates on Facebook and all the other ways we now can use social media to tell our own stories.

But do you have your own OPSEC social media plan for your family? All my military friends probably are nodding their heads saying of course we do. But here are a few items that probably were not mentioned at the last deployment briefing you went to.

Accepting Facebook friend requests from media

I worked in the media for 15 years before I married my wonderful husband who is a 20+ year veteran of the Air Force. So naturally I have loads of friends on Facebook who work in media. Most are close friends who would never use my status updates for a story without talking to me first. However, I’ve had two instances where reporters who “friended” me on Facebook and whom I had known professionally for close to a decade wrote entire articles based on my Facebook posts and it never even occurred to them to ask me if I was OK with that. Fortunately for our family both pieces were positive but imagine the potential damage if these had been negative stories?

Ever since then I have learned to use the custom privacy settings on my status updates when the update refers to a topic I only want to share with my military community friends. I do this to ensure that whatever conversation I may have with my friends stays private and doesn’t end up on some media blog or in the next day’s newspaper.

You may think a reporter or a producer will ask you permission to use your posts for publication. Some will ask but unfortunately not all will think it’s necessary. So some of your private thoughts meant for just friends and not for broadcast are at risk of becoming news material. Think how often we blow off steam online – and it’s just that, blowing off steam. But for someone who is not familiar with military life and is pressed for time to turn a story on deadline, your “rant” may become an easy quote too tempting to resist.

Posting birthdays and anniversary dates

The other day I was reading a friend’s just published blog post. It was beautifully written and featured photos of the family members. The photo captions included the new baby’s first, middle and last name along with the baby’s exact birthday. Another photo showcased the couple’s wedding with the exact anniversary. Such detailed information in a public blog post is like an open invitation for identity theft.

Having a public family tree

We love our families and the ability claim your mother, father, siblings, etc. on Facebook can seem like a harmless little feature. Just the other day I noticed a friend of mine who is new to Facebook and currently lives overseas had posted her full name including her maiden name to her account. She also proudly displayed all the full names of her children and her husband with their exact birth dates and also her mother’s details – including her mother’s maiden name. Again, probably not the type of details you want to be posting.

Know the social media rules that cover your military member

The rules regarding social media usage by members of the US military have relaxed a lot in the last few years. But it’s a good idea to know exactly what rules cover your spouse and model your family’s personal social media “policy” to accommodate those  rules. This was a great help for our family when I managed my husband’s popular deployment blog in 2009 and 2010 and used Facebook to update our families who live in five different time zones on two continents.

Here are two documents that can be helpful as you plan your personal social media OPSEC policy:

Sample blogging OPSEC rules

How to report about deployment

Here’s to safe military blogging, microblogging, tweeting, facebooking, and flickering, digging, stumbling, etc!

National advocate for wounded troops to speak in Tampa

Lee Woodruff is a rock star in the military community especially among those who have followed her husband Bob’s amazing journey to recovery after the convoy he was in was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006.  The ABC News co-anchor and reporter was on assignment in Taji, Iraq, about 12 miles north of Baghdad when he suffered severe head injuries and wounds to his upper body.

http://vimeo.com/3008107

A national advocate for wounded servicemembers and their families, Lee will be in Tampa on March 10, 2011 to speak at a special conference for family and professional caregivers of polytrauma patients.

Lee Woodruff, author and co-founder of The Bob Woodruff Foundation and ReMIND.org.

Just a few weeks after my husband Rex returned from Afghanistan we got a call from the American Red Cross Tampa Bay Chapter asking if Rex could participate in this special conference. He immediately agreed and we’ve been helping out with organizing the conference ever since; Rex will serve as the event emcee. Now that event, the Second Annual Pathways to Resilience Caregivers Conference, is almost here offering various sessions and special presentations about intimacy, spirituality, coping and the reality of caregiving. The event is sponsored by the James A. Haley VA Hospital, the University of South Florida and the American Red Cross Tampa Bay chapter along with the very active American Red Cross student club at USF.

Lee co-wrote the best-selling book “In an Instant” with her husband Bob. This book is a compelling and at times quite funny description of her family’s journey to recovery. Along the way she and her husband started The Bob Woodruff Foundation (for more go to ReMIND.org), a national nonprofit that helps ensure the nation’s injured servicemembers, veterans and their families return to a homefront ready to support them. One the organization’s key goals is to educate the public about the needs of injured service members, veterans and their families as they reintegrate into their communities. Lee speaks to groups nationwide to raise awareness of traumatic brain injury and the sacrifices of our military and their families. And her husband Bob is back to work at ABC News and frequently covers the military in his critically acclaimed series Woodruff Reports.

This daylong conference will be held at the Marshall Student Center ballroom at the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus on March 10, 2011. To sign up, please follow this link.

Why have the conference in Tampa? Because Tampa is home to the James A. Haley VA Hospital where some of the nation’s most severely wounded servicemembers come to seek treatment at the Tampa Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center. It’s one of just four specialty facilities designed to provide intensive rehabilitative care to veterans and servicemembers who experienced severe injuries (including brain injuries) to more than one organ system.

Polytrauma is defined as two or more injuries sustained in the same incident that affect multiple body parts or organ systems and result in physical, cognitive, psychological, or psychosocial impairments and functional disabilities. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) frequently occurs as part of the polytrauma spectrum in combination with other disabling conditions, such as amputations, burns, pain, fractures, auditory and visual impairments, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health conditions. When present, injury to the brain is often the impairment that dictates the course of rehabilitation due to the nature of the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral deficits related to TBI.

Dec 30 deadline for deployment related property tax refund

If you are active duty or retired military who owns a home in Hillsborough County in Florida and served more than 45 days on deployment in 2008, you qualify for a combat grant that refunds up to $1,500 from your property taxes for that year. The deadline to get the required paperwork in for year 2008 is today, Dec. 30 at 5 pm. (If you live in other parts of Florida, check with your county’s VA office as well as your county administration because many counties offer similar programs to the one in Hillsborough that refund part of your property taxes if you were deployed.) Important: You have to file the application in person – you can get all the forms online but the military member or someone with a power of attorney for that military member has to submit the application in person.

If you deployed for more than 45 days in 2009 or 2010, you can apply for those years now too. My husband, USAF Senior Master Sgt Rex Temple and I did that yesterday at the Windhorst Road office near Falkenburg. The process took less than 10 minutes and the staff at the Veterans Administration office was tremendously helpful. We qualified for the maximum of $1,500 for both 2009 and 2010 as Rex was deployed for a full year in Afghanistan. As a military family we certainly know how much a $3,000 refund means to our budget.

USAF SMSgt Rex Temple at Serobi dam in Afghanistan in 2009.

The process was rather simple. Once you find the right page on the county government website, you simply follow the steps. The time consuming part is finding the receipts for the taxes; fortunately for us I keep pretty good records and found both the tax collectors tax estimate and also the receipt for the payment with relatively little digging. We also needed a copy of Rex’s deployment orders and his military ID card.

If you want apply for your combat grant/property tax refund, you have to get started on the web. You get started at this link:

http://www.hillsboroughcounty.org/veteransaffairs/combatdutygrant/combatgrantprograms.cfm

Once on that page, you click on the Combat Grants for 2008 and 2009 button.

http://www.hillsboroughcounty.org/veteransaffairs/combatdutygrant/combatgrant2008.cfm

By the way, this also applies to people who have already retired as long as they were deployed for 45 days or more in 2008. And even though the web page only mentions 2008 and 2009, you can also apply for the grant for 2010.

Here are some lessons we learned from filing our application.

1. Make sure you have a copy of your deployment orders to submit with the application.

2. If your home is in the name of your non-military spouse because it was purchased before you got married, bring a copy of your marriage certificate (copy is fine, it does not need to be notarized). The military member whose name is not on the title will qualify for the refund since the home is a joint marital asset.

3. A lot of military families have recently applied for the grant so there will be some delay in getting your application processed. The website says applicants should allow 30 days for processing and to receive payment. But if payment is not received within 45 days, you call the Veteran Affairs Office to determine the nature of the delay. (We were told it would probably take at least 45 days for us to get our refund.)

Here are requirements for the grant being offered to active military and former military members who meet all of the following criteria:

Good luck with your application. And a big thank you to the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners for making this grant available for those who deploy to the front lines in service to this nation.

Manatee catches Air Force flight to Puerto Rico

My husband’s unit worked on this mission so I just had to share it. Enjoy the video!

by Master Sgt. Bryan Gatewood
6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AFNS) — Air Force officials partnered with specialists at the Fish and Wildlife Service and the South Florida Museum to transport an 840-pound male West Indian manatee, along with six biologists and two veterinarians, from here to San Juan, Puerto Rico Dec. 9.

Fish and Wildlife Service representatives contacted officials from the Puerto Rico Air National Guard‘s 156th Airlift Wing for assistance in transporting the manatee. A Puerto Rico ANG C-130 Hercules already was at MacDill supporting maneuvers for U.S. Special Operations Command. Air Force officials seized an opportune moment to provide support for this effort at no additional costs.

Members of the 6th Logistics Readiness Squadron at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., assist in transporting an 840-pound male manatee Dec. 9, 2010. Accompanied by six biologists and two veterinarians, the sea cow is heading to San Juan, Puerto Rico, after suffering minor injuries in a boat strike. Officials from Air Mobility Command and the Puerto Rico Air National Guard’s 156th Airlift Wing are working together to airlift the mammal to San Juan. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Angela Ruiz)

According to Dr. David Murphy, consulting veterinarian from the South Florida Museum, the sea mammal, called “UPC,” is healthy, but requires special accommodations in a shallow containment area due to injuries sustained from a boat strike.

Biologist Dr. Antonio Mignucci-Giannoni added that the boat strike damaged UPC’s diaphragm, causing the animal to be negatively buoyant which means it will sink if not in a shallow containment area.

UPC received its name because the injuries made by the boat strike look like a barcode.

Researchers at the Caribbean Stranding Network in Puerto Rico are interested in UPC as part of their efforts toward manatee conservation. The West Indian manatee currently is listed under the Endangered Species Act. UPC will serve as a surrogate parent to orphaned manatees in rehabilitation. UPC soon will have a new life at the Puerto Rico Zoo and a new name, Guacara.

Jonathan Perez Rivera from the Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center pours water on a wounded manatee after a four and a half hour flight from MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., to San Juan, Puerto Rico, aboard a C-130 Hercules from the Puerto Rico Air National Guard’s 156th Airlift Wing. The manatee was being transported to its new home in the Puerto Rico Zoo (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Angela Ruiz)

by Senior Airman Katherine Holt
6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

12/10/2010 – SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AFNS) — A five-year-old manatee now known as Guacara has arrived in Puerto Rico after a flight down from MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.

The manatee was escorted by Dr. Antonio A. Mignucci, director of the Puerto Rico Manatee Conservation Center; Dr. David Murphy, South Florida Museum; and a Parker Museum consulting veterinarian and six biologists.

Scheduled to be euthanized Dec. 10, Guacara was transferred from the South Florida Museum to Puerto Rico on a Puerto Rico Air National Guard C-130 Hercules at no additional cost to the Department of Defense. The Air Guard aircraft already was at MacDill AFB conducting a training mission with U.S. Special Operations Command, giving Air Force officials a great opportunity to help a great cause.

During the four-hour flight to San Juan, Guacara was spoiled with rubs and pats from the crew members.

“It was such a great experience having him on the flight with us,” said Senior Master Sgt. Jose Vidal. “It was a once in a lifetime experience and I’m honored we were able to be a part of it.”

When the flight landed, Guacara was greeted by members of the 156th Airlift Wing including Col. Carlos A. Quinones, the 156th AW commander. Also in attendance during Guacara’s welcome home party was Maj. Gen. Antonio J. Vicens, the adjutant general of Puerto Rico.

“The Puerto Rico National Guard is committed to preserve nature and wildlife through its many environmental programs,” General Vicens said. “Helping to save this manatee is an example of our dedication to the preservation of our ecosystem.”

General Vicens was not the only servicemember pleased to bring Guacara home safely.

“Flying Guacara on our aircraft was incredible,” said Capt. Cesar Lozada, a 198th Airlift Squadron aircraft commander. “We have put a lot of things on this aircraft, but the manatee was a first for me.”

After his arrival to San Juan, Guacara was transported to the Puerto Rico Zoo where he was placed in his new home. Guacara will serve as a surrogate to orphaned manatees in rehabilitation.

Best Thanksgiving

Thank you, Lord, for the courage and selfless service of our military troops. Thank you for their dedication in the face of difficulties and challenges. Thank you for their families. I pray that all of our servicemen and women will experience Your mercy each day, and that You will provide for their every need. Let them feel your presence with them, and your everlasting love. In Christ’s name, Amen.

The prayer above was posted on one of my friend’s Facebook page today in honor of Thanksgiving as she spends yet another holiday without her husband who is deployed. Just seeing that makes me once again appreciate our Thanksgiving this year so much more – this year for us truly is the best Thanksgiving ever.

SMSgt Rex Temple talks to his family from Afghanistan via Skype on Thanksgiving 2009.

We have so many reasons to be thankful. First and foremost is the fact that my husband Rex made it through a year in Afghanistan. He served on more than 180 combat missions, came under fire often and saw things he had never seen despite his three previous deployments and 10 other overseas assignments. But now we know he will be retiring for sure come next year. No more deployments. No more fear. Because for me it’s the never ending fear for your loved one that is the hardest thing to cope with when the center of your entire universe deploys. Today I am thankful that for us that fear is now over.

***

The following was written in June 2009 while Rex was deployed but never published.

Waiting for a call or a knock on the door

My husband Rex left on his convoy mission yesterday about 12:30 am EST our time. I knew his team was headed into “the valley” and had enlisted some additional firepower from the Afghan National Army to help provide security for the two-day convoy.  He was hoping to be out of the valley before nightfall, providing no incidents or breakdowns.  Then he and his team would stay overnight at an outpost before returning the next day.

“It should be an interesting trip,” he wrote in his farewell e-mail as he hurried off to meet his teammates for this humanitarian aid convoy. In an earlier phone conversation he had told me in passing that he expected to be back on Thursday by lunchtime our time – and he would call me as soon as he got back.

I know the worry my husband and his fellow teammates have every time they leave the relative safety of their forward operating base. They know the enemy is out there determined to kill them.

I woke up Thursday morning exited about Rex getting back to his camp today and looking forward to his call. I checked my e-mail on my cell hoping for an early surprise; Internet had gone out the night before at my house due to a thunderstorm. Maybe his convoy was back early and he could send me an e-mail describing his two days away. He had been hoping to be the one tossing out candy to the Afghan children; he had even made a special trip to the camp’s store to get a few bags of candy so that he could pass the treats out at the villages he would visit on this trip.

But there was no e-mail so I went downstairs and got my two dogs Charlie and Sam ready for our morning trip to the dog park. At the last second I grabbed my laptop and decided to pass by Starbucks and check all the other e-mail addresses I had not yet bothered to program into my fancy new phone.

So a few minutes later in the Starbucks parking lot with a Venti Misto in the front seat cup holder and dog cookies keeping the “boyz” busy in the back seat, I logged into Twitter. In my favorites I have saved this address: http://twitter.com/usfora – the official Twitter site of the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. And the site’s latest tweet said: “Three coalition servicemembers killed in IED attack in Kapisa Province.”

My heart dropped. I know enough about my husband’s convoys to know that this is an area he has to travel through often. He has only been in Afghanistan for about a month – he took off from Tampa International on May 5th for this tour that is supposed to be his last tour of duty before retirement. And the first few weeks of his stay there have been bloody – by Rex’s calculations the units close to him have lost eight troops in just the last few days.

The next few hours are sheer agony. I have an idea how fast family notification happens. I know what to expect; Rex has prepared me for both injury notification and also should there be a death. I figure out how to get the Internet back working at our house and I research the news websites for the latest details.

Finally I can’t take it anymore and head to the gym. As I pound through 3 miles on the elliptical I constantly check my cell for incoming e-mails. Nothing. I move to the bike and peddle another 30 minutes. Still nothing. Feeling defeated I head back home – it’s still too early. “They could still notify me” keeps running through my mind.

I get home and check all the news wires again. There’s a bit more detail available but nothing that really eases my mind. I keep looking at the clock calculating what time the incident happened and how soon they would likely be able to get the family if something had happened. I realize that if I make it to 5 pm then probably everything is OK. Because by then they would have already gotten a hold of me – whether it was an injury or something worse.

As the clock ticks closer to 5 I feel claustrophobic stuck in the house as I jump every time I hear the phone ring – and especially when I hear a car door slam outside our house. I say a quick prayer: “Let it not be the notification team. “

So I finally can’t take it anymore and take my husband’s car to the mall to go pick up my engagement and wedding rings, which have been fixed – some of the stones had come loose. Sitting in my husband’s vehicle I feel like his car represents his arms wrapped around me but I feel a massive need to be able to wear my rings. And hour later those two pieces of jewelry are back on my ring finger and I all of a sudden finally feel calm. And I calmly settle in for the wait to hear from him – however long it takes.

Rex finally e-mails home Friday morning. He is safe but four others who were on the same mission have died.

I need to take a deep breath and write a supporting e-mail back not showing my fear. I need to hide my fears and only show my love and support so my husband can keep going for the 40+ more weeks he still has to serve out there in the middle of the enemy’s roadside bombs and ambushes to complete his last tour before retirement. The end of this deployment cannot come soon enough.

****

So on this Thanksgiving I am thankful for all the others who are still out there fighting the fight and keeping us safe. And I am thankful for all the families who support their deployed troops.

I am thankful for those who served bravely and made the ultimate sacrifice. My thoughts are with their families as they sit down on this Thanksgiving with an empty seat at their table. My heart aches for their loss and I am thankful for their service.

I am thankful for my husband Rex and his service of almost 28 years in the U.S. Air Force. I am thankful he is home with us – now and forever.

Reaching Military Families

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter during her opening remarks at the Carter Center Nov. 3, 2010.

This was a very special week for me. I returned to the Carter Center in Atlanta more than a decade after I was awarded the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship For Mental Health Journalism. Back in 1999 I was working in broadcast journalism and had convinced my employer WTSP-TV (a Gannett owned TV station) to support my application so I could get a $10,000 grant from the Carter fellowship to help produce a multi-part TV news series and a documentary about depression and suicide. This week I returned not so much as a journalist but more so as a military wife to speak to the 26th Annual Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Symposium.

The symposium’s topic this year was “A Veteran’s Journey Home: Reintegrating Our National Guard and Reservists into Family, Community, and Workplace.” “National Guard and reserves make up approximately one-third of all military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are more likely than other military to face multiple deployments. Yet, once their job is finished, guard and reserve service members return to civilian life instead of a military base, and do not have the same access to health care services as their active duty colleagues,” said Dr. Thomas Bornemann, director of the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program.

Liisa Temple giving the military families and social media presentation.

I was asked to speak at this event from the perspective of a military wife who greatly benefited from my husband Rex’s access to social media while deployed. Rex wrote a blog called Afghanistan – My Last Tour the entire time that he was gone; the blog also turned into a popular radio series on our local NPR affiliate, WUSF, here in Tampa, Fla., where Rex is stationed at MacDill AFB. Both my husband and I think the blog was a crucial lifeline for us and our family and friends; it ultimately made our marriage stronger and gave us something to share even though thousands of miles and multiple time zones separated us.

The audience at the Carter symposium was made up of mental health experts and military members as well as those who advocate for military families. My job as a speaker was to highlight how social media can be harnessed to help inform military families about mental health services that are available. So I made sure to highlight MILblogging, Blackfive, Bouhammer, YouServedSpouseBUZZ and many other popular milblogs; my goal was to show how working with military bloggers can be very effective in disseminating information to younger troops and their families. But to be honest I think I’m not sure I was entirely effective in reaching the audience when I got into the nitty gritty of Facebook, Twitter and using the #MilitaryMon hash tag in your tweets.

I met so many wonderful experts who are passionate about caring for the returning troops. However, there was one who just really impressed me with her energy and the services she provides through a non-profit called “Give an Hour.” Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, a psychologist in Washington, D.C. with a military family background, founded the organization in 2005. “ The mission of “Give an Hour” is to develop national networks of volunteers capable of responding to both acute and chronic conditions that arise within our society. The nonprofit, which is a licensed 501c3, provides counseling to individuals, couples and families, and children and adolescents and is dedicated to meeting the mental health needs of the troops and families affected by the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dr. Van Dahlen was on the same panel with me and during her speech she said her organization provides confidential treatment for free to anyone who loves someone who has deployed.  “We mean parents, cousins, girlfriends – we don’t turn people away,” she said.

“Give an Hour” offers treatment for anxiety, depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, sexual health and intimacy concerns, and loss and grieving. I thought I was a pretty well informed military wife and I had never heard of this group. But I am so glad I did. And I plan to tell every military family I know about it because I have a hunch there are lot of people who could benefit from its free services.

There was also a booklet someone gave me titled “South Florida Military Family Peer Guide.” It’s a 58-page guide to deployment and I was amazed by its effectiveness; I read it twice cover to cover on the flight home from Atlanta. It is entirely based on confidential interviews with actual military families and it’s full of deployment related advice and tips in a very easily digestible format. The tips are color coded to indicate which ones are from the spouses and which ones are from the military member who deployed; each point of view is priceless and I wish I had had a chance to read this marvelous booklet before going through my first deployment. I truly hope the Florida BrAIve Fund, which sponsored the booklet will find a way to make it available online soon. However, the fund provides a magnificent web based guide for services for Afghanistan and Iraq Veterans living in Florida – just click on this link to get started.

I also had a chance to take with me to Atlanta a video I have been working on about a special new “hands free” wheelchair being developed at the University of South Florida by a dance instructor. This chair is of particular interest to injured veterans and if all goes well, the USF researchers and students working on the chair will soon get it in commercial production. You can watch the video by downloading a copy from USF’s i-Tunes U site here. Or by simply watching the YouTube link below.

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