When Fishing Is About More Than the Fish

A kayak fishing event sponsored by the Central Florida Chapter of Heroes on the Water. Photo courtesy of the Central Florida Chapter Facebook site.

A kayak fishing event sponsored by the Central Florida Chapter of Heroes on the Water. Photo courtesy of the Central Florida Chapter Facebook site.

The number of Gulf War era veterans is growing as is the list of non-profit organizations formed to help returning service members.

Heroes on the Water is a top-rated, all-volunteer non-profit organization formed specifically to provide free therapeutic recreation to veterans of all eras, active-duty military and their families.

Florida has seven chapters many of which offer events year round.

  1. Central Florida Chapter
  2. Emerald Coast Chapter
  3. Northeast Florida Chapter
  4. Sarasota/Bradenton Chapter
  5. Space Coast Chapter
  6. South Florida Chapter
  7. Southwest Florida Chapter
Veterans and active-duty military are encouraged to bring family members on the outings. This photo is from the December 2014 fishing trip hosted by the Central Florida Chapter on Lake Jackson in Osceola County.

Veterans and active-duty military are encouraged to bring family members on the outings. This photo is from the December 2014 fishing trip hosted by the Central Florida Chapter on Lake Jackson in Osceola County.

Just a week ago, the Central Florida Chapter hosted veterans and their families on Lake Jackson in Osceola County. While chapters like New Jersey’s pack in a large number of fishing trips during the summer months.

The idea behind Heroes on the Water is simple in theory and application. It only requires a kayak, fishing gear and a volunteer fishing coach to get a wounded veteran or stressed-out service member on the water.

“Putting them as close to nature as possible, there’s a tranquil effect,” said Tom Welgos, the Eastern United States operations coordinator for Heroes on the Water.

“I like to use Henry David Thoreau’s comment on fishing that: ‘Men spend their whole life fishing only to find out it wasn’t about the fish.’ And by putting them into a peaceful, outdoor environment, we start to see that stress level drop by allowing them to go out and fish they kind of take their minds off day to day problems.”

Welgos is a veteran who struggled with post-traumatic stress symptoms. He was actually a fishing guide that offered free trips to wounded service members, but had few takers. He says that’s because fishing tours on a motorboat do provide the peace offered by kayak fishing.

Two kayakers paddling on Lake Jackson during the December 2014 outing hosted by the Central Florida Chapter of Heroes on the Water.

Two kayakers paddling on Lake Jackson during the December 2014 outing hosted by the Central Florida Chapter of Heroes on the Water.

The quiet solitude of his first kayak fishing trip was such a revelation for Welgos that he started volunteering for Heroes on the Water.

“The realization was that when we put these guys in kayaks and they have to use their body to power this kayak and are selecting the fishing areas with the help of a coach and they’re determining when they come back in, that we’re actually knocking down the overall stress, avoidance behavior and hyper vigilance,” Welgos said.

Their free outings get injured veterans out of their hospital settings and offer quiet retreats to returning active duty service members. Their events are open to veterans of all eras and as well as their families.

The kayaks, equipment and fishing coach are provided for free by Heroes on the Water. And most outings include a free picnic lunch.

The kayaks, equipment and fishing coach are provided for free by Heroes on the Water. And most outings include a free picnic lunch.

He said the organization is all volunteer and many of them have never served in the military. Welgos said that’s the beauty of the program, it gives civilians a chance to give back to those who have served.

“They (civilians) are passionate about this cause because it’s not a fishing club or a kayaking club it is a cause,” Welgos said.

This January, Heroes on the Water will train 35 more volunteer, leadership teams that have already been selected and vetted. Welgos said by late spring, the organization will double in size to 70 chapters across the United States as well as affiliate chapters in the United Kingdom and in Australia.

 

Art Therapy in Action at Veterans Open Mic Night

Veterans Open Mic night with co-hosts playwright Linda Parris-Bailey (center) and Andrea Assaf (right).

Veterans Open Mic night with co-hosts playwright Linda Parris-Bailey (center) and Andrea Assaf (right).

Beyond the battlefield and the barracks, some of Florida’s 1.5 million veterans have had trouble transitioning to civilian life. Yet, there are signs that poetry, art, music and performance are helping veterans adjust.

With Veterans’ Day approaching, we bring you their stories this week in a special edition of Florida Matters.

These are highlights from the October 2014 <a href=”http://art2action.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/veterans-open-mic-flyer-2014-vfp.pdf”>Veterans Open Mic Night</a> at Tampa’s <a href=”http://www.sacredgroundstampa.com/”>Sacred Grounds Coffee House</a>. Military veterans meet there every first Sunday to share their talents and stories.

Cheldyn Donovan is a Vietnam Veteran who has experienced homelessness, PTSD, social phobia, but he finds playing the guitar eases his symptoms.

Cheldyn Donovan is a Vietnam Veteran who has experienced homelessness, PTSD, social phobia, but he finds playing the guitar eases his symptoms.

The WUSF <em>Veterans Coming Home</em> project partnered with <a href=”http://art2action.org/veterans-in-tampa/”>Art-2-Action Tampa Veterans</a> to bring you this evening of poetry and music with military veterans.

The emcees for the evening were Andrea Assaf, director of Art-2-Action, and guest playwright Linda Parris-Bailey who wrote the play, Speed Killed My Cousin, about returning veterans.

The highlights feature veterans Charla  Gautierre, Cheldyn Donovan and Marc Reid. Listen below to the Florida Matters 30-minute special show featuring the veterans as performers which aired Nov. 4 and Nov. 9, 2014.

 

Army Ranger Cory Remsburg Returns to Haley VA

 Dr. Steven Scott, director of the Polytrauma Center at James A. Haley VA Hospital, talks with his former patient, Army Ranger Cory Remsburg. Bobbie O'Brien WUSF Public Media


Dr. Steven Scott, director of the Polytrauma Center at James A. Haley VA Hospital, talks with his former patient, Army Ranger Cory Remsburg.
Bobbie O’Brien WUSF Public Media

Army Ranger Cory Remsburg returns each year to James A. Haley VA Hospital in Tampa to show the staff his progress. He was severely injured in 2009 and spent two years recovering at Haley’s Polytrauma Center.

Remsburg was on his tenth deployment when he was injured by an IED in Afghanistan. His teammates found him face down in a water-filled canal with shrapnel in his brain.

He was in a coma when he arrived at the Haley.

More than 800 patients have come through the polytrauma system according to Haley Chief of Staff Dr. Edward Cutolo, but he remembers Remsburg.

“He’s not a hard one to forget. He was very ill when he came here, very ill,” Cutolo said.

And Remsburg has not forgotten them, the therapists, nurses and doctors.

He returned this year with one goal in mind, to walk, unassisted to Dr. Steven Scott, director of the Haley Polytrauma Center.

Trailed closely by his stepmother, Annie Remsburg, Cory Remsburg successfully navigated about a 10-foot stretch, unaided, and was greeted with a handshake from Dr. Scott and applause from onlookers.

“One of the things that’s so interesting about Cory’s story is he was told by so many, so many people said he couldn’t do things. ‘You’re not going to walk, you’re not going to do this. You know what I mean,’” Scott said. “So, Cory always said, ‘Yes, I’m going to, yes I can.’”

Cory Remsburg responds slowly, “Being a Ranger, I had the mental part down. It’s the physical part I’m learning to overcome.”

His speech is labored because he had to learn to speak all over again. That’s just one of many things he’s had to overcome: dozens of surgeries, blindness in his right eye, a partially paralyzed left side.

He was in a coma more than three months. The treatments and people at Haley brought him back.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-R), on the left, made a special trip to meet Army Ranger Cory Remsburg (right) and his father, Craig Remsburg (center) when they visited the medical staff at Haley.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-R), on the left, made a special trip to meet Army Ranger Cory Remsburg (right) and his father, Craig Remsburg (center) when they visited the medical staff at Haley.

Craig Remsburg, credits a combination of ‘the man above’, Haley’s Emerging Consciousness Program, family and familiarity for bringing his son back.

“We knew that he loved vanilla extract, so we would burn that aroma. We would play Scrubs, he loved Scrubs. So, we had that playing always on a reel,” Craig Remsburg said.

There was no great awakening like in a movie. Instead, it was gradual and took a lot of hard work every day for two years.

As soon as Cory could eat solid food, Dr. Scott would sneak him two Boston Cream doughnuts each morning as incentive.  And even though Cory now lives in Arizona – Dr. Scott is still motivating his prized patient.

He asked Cory for his goals which are to walk independently for a sustainable distance and then run.

“That’s what I hoped you would say. I’ll give you a third,” Dr. Scott said. “Run up hill. Alright? The reason why you run uphill is because the view is better.”

At that suggestion, Cory smiled, held up his large cup of coffee as a toast affirming his new goals and said, “He knows me.”

You can listen to the story which is part of he WUSF Veterans Coming Home project on WUSF 89.7 FM.

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

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

Veterans Town Hall for Bay Pines VA Healthcare System

Bay Pines VA Medical Center

Bay Pines VA Medical Center

Here’s an opportunity for veterans and their family members who want to share ideas, compliments and complaints with the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System and St. Petersburg VA Regional Office.

It’s a town hall, scheduled Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014 as part of the “improved communication” called for by new VA Secretary Robert McDonald.

The goal is to hear directly from veterans.

Outreach workers will be available to help veterans with eligibility and enrollment questions beginning at 8:30 a.m. The main program will follow at 9 a.m. featuring presentations by the two directors. Then, there will be a panel of VA representatives to field questions and comments from the audience that will last until 11 a.m.

The event is scheduled in the JC Cobb room located on the first floor of the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center, 10000 Bay Pines Blvd., Bay Pines, FL.

USO Opens Its First Center Inside Tampa’s VA Hospital

Tampa’s James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital officially opened a USO Day Room July 1, 2014 located next to the Spinal Cord Injury Center where there are many long-term patients.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Tampa) plays air hockey with one of the veterans inside the new USO Day Room at James A. Haley VA Hospital.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Tampa) plays air hockey with one of the veterans inside the new USO Day Room at James A. Haley VA Hospital.

This is the first time a USO center has been built inside of a veterans’ hospital. Senior Vice President of the USO John Hanson said that although the 1,900-square foot space is not the largest USO center, its impact will be “profound.”

“I’ll be honest with you. This is an experiment for us,” Hanson said. “Our entire focus for 73 years, more than 73 years, has been on lifting the spirits of active duty troops and their families. This center is going to serve those needs. It’ll also serve the needs of veterans who come here and the active-duty troops recovering from injuries. It’s going to be their place.”

The day room includes a large screen television for games and movies, a “Kids Corner,” a pool table and an air hockey game.

The USO Day Room includes a play area for smaller children as well as a large, flat-screen television. The idea is to make it feel like home for active-duty troops and veterans with long-term stays in the VA.

The USO Day Room includes a play area for smaller children as well as a large, flat-screen television. The idea is to make it feel like home for active-duty troops and veterans with long-term stays in the VA.

Haley VA Hospital Director Kathleen Fogarty said that the features contribute to the therapy of military patients in the Spinal Cord Injury Center, and give them a “home-like situation.”

Several local Taco Bell restaurants raised $30,000 during their “Freedom Bells” fundraiser for the Armed Forces Families Foundation (AFFF) which contributed to the USO project. The AFFF Managing Director Nick Peters said the donation is a testament to military appreciation.

“When you think about it,” Peters said, “we raised twice as much money for the Armed Forces Families Foundation as we do for Boys & Girls Club and World Hunger, which are great charities, but it gives you a sense of the affinity for the military.”

The USO World Headquarters donated $25,000 to the project, and the Tampa Kiwanis donated $2,500 for the “Kids Corner.” Prior to the Day Room, patients’ time with family was spent in their their hospital rooms.

Special Counsel Says VA Is Downplaying Deficiencies

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner at the U.S. Office of Special Council.

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner at the U.S. Office of Special Council.

In a six page letter to President Obama dated June 23, 2014, Carolyn Lerner, head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, detailed 10 cases where the VA admitted serious deficiencies in patient care yet denied it had any impact on the veterans’ health, public safety or patient rights.

 In one case, the VA’s OMI (Office of the Medical Inspector) said it could not find “a danger to public health and safety,” although its investigators confirmed that nearly 3,000 veterans at a VA facility in Fort Collins, Colorado, were unable to reschedule canceled appointments, including veterans whose “routine primary care needs were not addressed” as a result.

Another case brought forward by a VA psychiatrist showed that a patient with a 100 percent service related psychiatric condition was in the Brockton, Massachusetts mental health care facility for seven years before treatment recommendations were noted on his chart.

Another veteran with “significant” mental health issues waited more than eight years after being admitted before receiving a psychiatric evaluation.

The letter also details significant problems at the VA facility in Jackson, Mississippi and found the administration’s response “unreasonable.”

  • A shortage of providers caused the facility to frequently cancel appointments for
    veterans. After cancellations, providers did not conduct required follow-up, resulting in situations where “routine primary care needs were not addressed.”
  • The facility “blind scheduled” veterans whose appointments were canceled, meaning
    veterans were not consulted when rescheduling the appointment. If a veteran subsequently called to change the blind-scheduled appointment date, schedulers were instructed to record the appointment as canceled at the patient’s request.  This had the effect of deleting the initial “desired date” for the appointment, so records would no longer indicate that the initial appointment was actually canceled by the facility.
  • At the time of the OM! report, nearly 3,000 veterans were unable to reschedule canceled appointments, and one nnrse practitioner alone had a total of975 patients who were unable to reschedule appointments.
  • Staff were instructed to alter wait times to make the waiting periods look shorter.
  • Schedulers were placed on a “bad boy” list if their scheduled appointments were greater than 14 days from the recorded “desired dates” for veterans.

“… in the fantasy land inhabited by VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector, serious patient safety issues apparently have no impact on patient safety.  It’s impossible to solve problems by whitewashing them or denying they exist,” chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Florida Congressman Jeff Miller (R-Pensacola), released in a statement on the OSC Letter to President Obama.

You can read the letter to President Obama and the in-depth analysis of the Jackson VA Medical Center.

 

 

Jolly to Take Veterans’ VA Stories to Washington

Navy veteran Robert Barrie talks with Cong. David Jolly about getting the USS NOA on the VA list for Agent Orange exposure.

Navy veteran Robert Barrie talks with Cong. David Jolly about getting the USS NOA on the VA list for Agent Orange exposure.

Florida Congressman David Jolly (R-Seminole) asked for and got an earful from local veterans this week. He invited them to his office in Seminole where they shared stories of their experiences within the VA health care system.

The veterans were offered immediate assistance from Jolly’s staff, VA representatives and volunteers from veteran service organizations.

And Jolly, who serves on the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee, promised to take the veterans’ stories back to Washington with the aim of improving the system. Yet, a survey of those who stopped by Jolly’s office showed that 68 percent rated their VA care from excellent to adequate.

More than 180 veterans came to Jolly's Seminole Office, and a majority rated their  VA care from adequate to excellent.

More than 180 veterans came to Jolly’s Seminole Office, and a majority rated their VA care from adequate to excellent.

But there were plenty of veterans who were not so pleased. Among them, two veterans looking for help – not for themselves – but for other their fellow veterans.

Navy veteran Robert Barrie wore his blue polo-shirt inscribed with Tin Can Sailor – USS NOA. He’s president of the Navy Destroyer USS NOA reunion group that has more than 300 members.

“We served in Vietnam in 1969,” Barrie told Jolly. “We were in a place called Qui Nhon Harbor. We are trying to get the ship qualified for Agent Orange.”

The congressman watched as Barrie opened a notebook filled with letters, photos and the ship’s deck log to prove his point. They are documents, Barrie said, will qualify his crew-mates for VA coverage of 15 diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure.

Barrie complained the VA has repeatedly misplaced the documents and have yet to qualify the USS NOA as a “brown water” ship that cruised along the Vietnam coast and up the rivers exposing crews to Agent Orange spraying.

Robert Barrie holds a notebook stuffed with documentation he said shows the USS NOA served in coastal regions of Vietnam and was exposed to Agent Orange.

Robert Barrie holds a notebook stuffed with documentation he said shows the USS NOA served in coastal regions of Vietnam and was exposed to Agent Orange.

“Have you ever used a congressional inquiry?” Jolly asked.

“No. We’ve been submitting these things into the VA,” Barrie responded.

“We’ll get the inquiry done in the next three to four weeks,” Jolly said.

He promised to write a letter about the USS NOA directly to Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson in the next two week and ask that he pay specific attention to the problem.

Also armed with documents, Vietnam veteran Al Kelly handed Jolly two well-worn pieces of paper – a discharge form and a citation for the Silver Star.

It was not Kelly but his brother-in-law recommended for a Silver Star while in the infantry in Vietnam. He provided ground fire during an attack, while severely wounded, so his entire company could move from an open rice paddy to the cover of the woods.

“Forty-five years of untreated PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). He ended up in prison. He did 23 calendar years locked up,” Kelly said. “And when he got out, he applied for his assistance.”

Al Kelly asked Jolly to help get PTSD treatment for his brother-in-law, a Vietnam veteran.

Al Kelly asked Jolly to help get PTSD treatment for his brother-in-law, a Vietnam veteran.

“So, when he attempted to receive care after he got out what was the experience?” Jolly asked.

There was no response, no letter, no treatment, his brother-in-law never made it into the system.

Six months lapsed and Kelly’s brother-in-law had an incident with a girlfriend, was charged with a parole violation and put back in prison.

All Kelly wants is to make certain his brother-in-law gets treatment for his PTSD as soon as he is released from prison. And again, Jolly promised to follow up.

Kelly and Barrie are no different than tens of thousands of veterans across the country – veterans looking after their fellow veterans – determined to get them the best of care.

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