Breaking News: Defense Secretary Hagel to Leave Post

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

Not even two years into the job and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is stepping down according to the Washington Post.

Citing an anonymous defense source, the paper reports that Hagel will stay on until a new secretary is selected and approved by congress.

Rumors had intensified this month that Hagel’s time was short, though the former Republican senator from Nebraska has insisted in recent interviews that he was planning to stay at the Pentagon. The resignation was first reported by The New York Times.

A senior administration official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said Obama initiated discussions with Hagel about leaving in October — shortly before the mid-term congressional elections that saw the president’s party take a beating.

The report further speculates that Hagel’s resignation could be just the first in a series of shake-ups among President Obama’s national security advisers.

 

More U.S. Troops Headed to Iraq to Advise and Train

An F/A-18 Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson as the ship conducts flight operations in support of Operation Inherent Resolve in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations, Oct. 27, 2014. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Alex King

An F/A-18 Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson as the ship conducts flight operations in support of Operation Inherent Resolve in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations, Oct. 27, 2014. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Alex King

Based on a request from the Iraqi government and a force assessment from US Central Command, additional American troops are headed to Iraq according to a report in the New York Times.

President Obama has authorized the deployment of an additional 1,500 American troops to Iraq in the coming months, the Defense Department said on Friday, a move that will double the number of those sent to advise and assist Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the battle against the Islamic State.

The Pentagon also said that American military advisers would establish a number of additional training sites across Iraq, in a significant expansion of the American military campaign against the Sunni militant group in Iraq and Syria. Officials in the office of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that a number of American military personnel would deploy specifically to Anbar province.

The new forces will be sent in two groups, one to advise Iraqi commanders and the second to train Iraqi soldiers.

The Department of Defense News reports there has been “significant” progress three months since the start of U.S. airstrikes against ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) forces.

“I think we’re having a significant effect on the ISIL element,” Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command, told an audience at the Atlantic Council. “The question is, how soon can we get the Iraqis to develop a capability to do what they need to do to sustain the effects and conditions that we’re going to create.”

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.

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: 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.

Military Suicide Survivors Gather at St. Pete Beach

Kim Ruoco helped start the TAPS Military Suicide Survivor program after her husband, Marine Maj. John Ruoco, killed himself on Super Bowl Sunday 2005.

Kim Ruoco helped start the TAPS Military Suicide Survivor program after her husband, Marine Maj. John Ruoco, killed himself on Super Bowl Sunday 2005.

This weekend marks the 6th annual National Military Suicide Survivors Seminar and Good Grief Camp for Young Survivors organized by TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. About 500 adults and 170 children will participate 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.

The Ruoco Family, Kim, John and their two sons, Billy and Joey. Courtesy of Kim Ruoco, TAPS.

The Ruoco Family, Kim, John and their two sons, Billy and Joey. Courtesy of Kim Ruoco, TAPS.

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 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 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.

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