Commandant’s Message for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans

Official portrait, uncovered, of the 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos. Gen. Amos is the first aviator in Marine Corps history to be selected for the post, and the first assistant commandant to be promoted to the position in more than 20 years. (U.S.Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Alvin Williams/RELEASED)

Official portrait, uncovered, of the 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos. Gen. Amos is the first aviator in Marine Corps history to be selected for the post, and the first assistant commandant to be promoted to the position in more than 20 years. (U.S.Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Alvin Williams/RELEASED)

There are a lot of patriotic messages on July 4th. Here are some words of encouragement specifically for those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This comes from a portion of the talk, delivered by Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos, at the June 18, 2014 Change of Command at MARCENT – the Marine Command at U.S. Central Command based at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, FL.

Gen. James Amos:

Folks as I take a look and think about Central Command and think about the president’s planning guidance and strategic guidance of a couple of years ago, he was clear that Central Command is important to the United States of America.

He made a decision two years ago which all the commanders supported. We’re on this glide path to reduce the forces in Afghanistan.

We just went through the second set of elections. And I don’t need to tell you, but it’s impressive to me that it was almost, almost without incident.

So, if you think about what is our responsibility as a nation in Afghanistan is, and how we’ve done and gave ourselves a letter grade, I’d say we’ve done pretty doggone well.

We’ve got every reason to feel good about what’s been accomplished in that country and it was the same way in Iraq.

Iraq is going to play out however it’s going to play out.

But we as nations, we as the Coalition and the Joint Force sanctified the ground. We sanctified the ground in Iraq. And ladies and gentlemen, I’d argue that we sanctified the ground in Afghanistan as well.

There’s no harder command, no more thorny area than the Central Command. Bigger than the Continental United States, 522 million people, 20 different nations, seven major languages, and 12 major religions all in that area.

And on any given day it will keep General (Lloyd) Austin and his component commanders awake all night long. There’s no doubt about it.

A Happy 4th of July for those now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and to those who served and as Gen. Amos said “sanctified the ground.”

You can listen to Gen. Amos’ speech at WUSF News.

Marine Commandant: We sanctified the ground in Iraq

The new MARCENT commander Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie just after the change of command ceremony, Hangar One, MacDill Air Force Base.

The new MARCENT commander Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie just after the change of command ceremony, Hangar One, MacDill Air Force Base.

Top U.S. military leaders responsible for Afghanistan and Iraq were in Tampa today for a change of command ceremony.

Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie took over as commander of the Marines Forces U.S. Central Command (MARCENT) which means he now is responsible for all the Marines serving in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Presiding over the ceremony, held inside Hangar One at MacDill Air Force Base, was Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos who praised the success of the recent elections in Afghanistan.

The front row of dignitaries at the MARCENT change of command included US Central Command Commander Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos.

The front row of dignitaries at the MARCENT change of command included US Central Command Commander Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos.

“We’ve got every reason to feel good about what’s been accomplished in that country and it was the same way in Iraq,” Amos told the audience of more than 300, mostly military personnel. “Iraq is going to play out however it’s going to play out. But we as nations, we as the coalition and the joint forces, sanctified the ground. We sanctified the ground in Iraq.”

Amos said in his opinion that the joint forces also have sanctified the ground in Afghanistan.

Both Gen. Amos and new CENTCOM Marine Commander Lt. Gen. McKenzie declined to give specifics about Iraq and the recent surge of fighting by Islamic militants.

But McKenzie who is now responsible for about 6,000 Marines serving in the CENTCOM “Area of Responsibility” offered a perspective through the lens of the Afghan elections.

Silhouettes of Marines awaiting the ceremony frame the aircraft that brought top military leaders to the ceremony in Tampa, FL.

Silhouettes of Marines awaiting the ceremony frame the aircraft that brought top military leaders to the ceremony in Tampa, FL.

“What you see in Afghanistan is you’re seeing the Afghan National Security Force actually being able to stand up to the Taliban. A lot of people a year ago didn’t think it was going to happen,” McKenzie said.”There may be some lessons there that we can apply in Iraq. Don’t know. Two different countries, two vastly different problem sets.”

As commander of MARCENT, McKenzie will work for CENTCOM Commander Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III. It’s similar to 10 years ago when McKenzie was led the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit in southern Afghanistan in 2004 and Austin was his commander.

Tampa Military Parents Group Celebrates 10 Years

T.A.M.P.A. co-founder Cyd Deathe sewing pillows for deployed troops, April 2013.

T.A.M.P.A. co-founder Cyd Deathe sewing pillows for deployed troops, April 2013.

Ten years ago this week, seven parents met for coffee in Tampa. They had two things in common: they all lived in the Tampa Bay area and they all had a child serving in the Marines.

That coffee was followed by a pot-luck dinner and before she knew it, Cyd Deathe had become co-founder of the Tampa Area Marine Parents Association or T.A.M.P.A.

Despite its name, the support group is for all family members and friends serving in every branch of the military. Over its first decade, the support group has sent thousands of care packages to deployed troops and taken on dozens projects at home like supporting veterans’ families that fall through the cracks..

Their first big project was the pillow project. The idea came from Deathe’s son who requested a small pillow, about the size of a laptop computer, that he could rest his head on but was easily packed while on deployment. Thousands have been sewn and mailed to troops since.

“Our favorite story of the pillow,” Deathe said. “One Marine who went on three deployments who refused to let him mother even wash it because he didn’t want to lose that pillow.”10 YEARS_TAMPA

Members meet monthly and maintain a Facebook page as well as a website. Deathe said they plan to celebrate their 10th anniversary all year long.

The celebration kickoff is a picnic Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Hillsborough County’s Veterans Memorial Park on U.S. 301. Everyone is welcome. You are asked to bring your own side-dish, the hot dogs and hamburgers are provided. But, Deathe said no one will be turned away.

In October, the Tampa support group will be represented by 50 runners in the 39th Marine Corps Marathon.

“For the first time in our ten years, we’re so excited, we were accepted as a charity partner by the Marine Corps Marathon Foundation,” Deathe said. “So, we have 50 bibs, some of them are already gone, but we still have some available.”

Even though her son is no longer serving in the Marine Corps, Deathe continued as executive director. It’s her way of serving her country as well as all those who have worn the uniform and their families.

You can listen to Cyd Deathe’s interview on WUSF Public Radio.

TAMPA 10 BDAY INVITE

Marine Lima 3/25 Company Memorial Exhibit Tours Florida

The artist's depiction of LCpl Timothy Bell, Jr, Sgt Justin Hoffman, and LCpl Nicholas Bloem from the Lima Company Memorial traveling exhibit.

The artist’s depiction of LCpl Timothy Bell, Jr, Sgt Justin Hoffman, and LCpl Nicholas Bloem from the Lima Company Memorial traveling exhibit.

Opening today, April 7, 2014, and staying for only three days in Tampa, Florida is an art exhibit that has become an iconic symbol for the men and women who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The Lima Company Memorial: The Eyes of Freedom exhibit features life-size paintings depicting 23 Marines from the small Ohio Reserves unit L 3/25 who were killed in action in 2005 in Iraq.

Mike Strahle served with Lima Company and now shepherds the exhibit around the U.S. He said the exhibit has a broader reach than just his generation.

“It is a great example of a traveling exhibit for this modern war on terror. I don’t even want to limit it to just this war,” Strahle said. “We have so many men and women that come in and see our exhibit from WWII, Korea, Vietnam (wars), and it’s just as moving for them as it is for the 25 to 35-year-olds that have fought in the current war on terror.”

The Lima Company Memorial was open for three days in Clearwater before moving to the Tampa USF Campus.

The USF Student Veterans Association is hosting the traveling exhibit which is set up at the Marshall Center. Marine Reservist Patrick Sweickart hopes the exhibit will bring closure to his fellow student veterans who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“There’s a ton of student veterans whether they were active duty going to school or Reservist or National Guard for Florida that while they were going to classes got called to order, called to serve, they had to leave in the middle of the semester and do a tour,” Sweickart said.

The Lima Company Memorial – Eyes of Freedom is free and open to the public.

The hours at USF’s Marshall Center – Ballroom C – are: Monday noon-8 pm, Tuesday 8 am-8 pm, and Wednesday 8am-4 pm.

The exhibit will then move on to Melbourne for a three-day stop before returning to Ohio.

Medal of Honor Marine Backs Gold Star Memorial

Hershel "Woody" Williams said he is only the caretaker of the Medal of Honor, hanging around his neck, that it belongs to those who lost their lives protecting him on the Iwo Jima battlefield.

Hershel “Woody” Williams said he is only the caretaker of the Medal of Honor, hanging around his neck, that it belongs to those who lost their lives protecting him on the Iwo Jima battlefield.

It took four hours, six flame-throwers and the lives of two fellow Marines, but Cpl. Hershel “Woody” Williams knocked out seven Japanese pillboxes on Iwo Jima February 23, 1945.

It was his fourth day on the Pacific island.

Williams said six members of his original special weapons unit had been killed and he was the sole survivor.

He recalled an officer calling him and others together in a shell crater. The officer asked for suggestions on how to knockout the machine gun fire coming from Japanese several fortified, concrete bunkers that had the Marines pinned down.

Williams volunteered to attack the “pillboxes” using a flamethrower.

For his conspicuous gallantry and risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor.

“This medal, I have claimed from the very beginning, it really doesn’t belong to me,” Williams said. “I wear it in their honor. I am just a caretaker of this medal because if it hadn’t been for those individuals willing to give their life, and the other individuals willing to protect me, I wouldn’t be here.”

Williams said during that four-hour battle, he was never touched. But two of the four Marines assigned to protect his solo assault on the pillboxes were killed doing so.

He shared those details with me and another reporter prior to his presentation at Tampa’s Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy. The students there have vowed to build a memorial to honor Gold Star families.

Williams has dedicated himself to building a Gold Star family memorial in each of the 50 states.

Hershel Williams cheers on students at the Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy as they applauded his $5,000 donation toward their effort to build a Gold Star Family Memorial.

Hershel Williams cheers on students at the Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy as they applauded his $5,000 donation toward their effort to build a Gold Star Family Memorial.

So, he visited the boy’s academy to lend the support of his foundation, Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation, and present them with a $5,000 check toward their $40,000 goal.

In turn, the Boys Preparatory Academy at Franklin Middle School presented the 90-year-old veteran with a special lanyard recognizing his service in WWII, his continued support of Gold Star families and his contribution to their effort to build a Gold Star Memorial.

Tears welled in the eyes of the battle-tested Marine who asked for a moment to compose himself before thanking the students, teachers and others in the auditorium. He wiped his tears away as he walked back to his seat on stage.

Shortly afterward, Williams joined several of the students, military representatives and school officials at a ceremonial ground breaking.

They plan to build the memorial in front of the historic brick Franklin Middle School, 3915 21st Ave., Tampa, FL.

 

The ceremonial groundbreaking for a Gold Star Family Memorial outside Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy, 3915 21st Ave., Tampa.

The ceremonial groundbreaking for a Gold Star Family Memorial outside Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy, 3915 21st Ave., Tampa.

 

 

Camp Lejeune Toxic Water May Link to Higher Cancer Deaths

Photo courtesy: The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten web site.

Photo courtesy: The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten web site.

  they shared news of a new study that found Marine and Navy personnel stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C. who were exposed to decades of polluted drinking water are dying at a higher rate than military personnel at other bases, reports the Tampa Bay Times.

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s study backs up concerns that contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune may be tied to cancers and illness in as many as 1 million people..

The study found that personnel stationed at the base from 1975 to 1985 had death rates for all cancers 10 percent higher than at Camp Pendleton in California. It compared deaths of 8,964 people at Camp Lejuene between 1975 and 1985, and compared it with deaths of people at Camp Pendleton during the same time period.

Families affected by the tainted water were encouraged to apply for care through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Yet, many are frustrated by the VA red-tape and paperwork according to a report in the Sarasota Herald Tribune.

“The VA keeps asking for the same stuff over and over again, and when I send it to them they say they can’t find it,” “It’s pretty crazy,” Englewood’s Cheryl Baillargeon, whose first husband, Dan Albert, died of cancer 24 years ago, told the Sarasota Herald Tribune.

In 2012, President Obama signed a law that provided health care for people with medical problems linked to the toxic chemicals who lived or worked at the base from 1957 to 1987 reports the Tampa Bay Times.

Marine Commandant Calls for Reawakening of Core Values

Official portrait, uncovered, of the 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos. Gen. Amos is the first aviator in Marine Corps history to be selected for the post, and the first assistant commandant to be promoted to the position in more than 20 years. (U.S.Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Alvin Williams/RELEASED)

The 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos. (U.S.Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Alvin Williams/RELEASED)

General James Amos, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, greeted me front and center Monday morning. He was the prime-time interview on NPR’s Morning Edition.

The interview with NPR host Renee Montagne runs for almost nine minutes. The transcript is available, but it’s worth taking the time to listen as Montagne questions the general about his letter where the general called for help: … (to) reawaken the soul of our corps against an enemy emerging from within our ranks. Who or what is the enemy?

Gen. Amos’ response: First of all, the 98 percent of the Marine Corps is absolutely on what I call a moral compass heading of true north. We’re really talking about those 2 percent that are out there on the fringes of our institution, they wear our cloth, and they’re not living up to our standards. And it’s being manifested in a variety of different kinds of poor-choice behaviors. It can be hazing. It can be sexual assault. I mean, it can be abusive behavior, not only to Marines, but perhaps to yourself or your family. So that’s what we’re talking about.

You can read the full transcript and listen to the interview here.

Florida Student Veterans to Battle for In-State Tuition

Marine Corps veteran Kelly Matisi is a University of South Florida student who got hit with Florida's soaring out-of-state tuition rates.

Marine Corps veteran Kelly Matisi is a University of South Florida student who got hit with Florida’s soaring out-of-state tuition rates.

From Gov. Rick Scott to local lawmakers, elected officials love to brag that Florida is “the most veteran friendly state” in the nation.

Many student veterans believe it’s time the politicians prove it and give out-of-state student veterans tuition waivers so they can pay significantly cheaper, in-state tuition rates while attending Florida universities, colleges and trade schools.

More than a dozen other states give all student veterans in-state tuition rates regardless of their state of origin.

“In Texas, all veterans get in-state tuition so I guess it was something I never really thought about,” said Kelly Matisi, a 9-year Marine Corps veteran who transferred to the University of South Florida with the goal of getting into the physical therapy doctoral program.

A veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Matisi was surprised to find that Florida did not offer student veterans in-state tuition rates. And it hit her pocketbook hard. Her tuition soared from $1,300 a semester to more than $8,500 when she transferred from a Texas university.

Matisi is not alone. A legislative analysis shows that more than 500 undergraduate and graduate student veterans paid out-of-state tuition rates totaling more than $8 million to Florida universities. Florida community colleges received more than $1 million from out-of-state student veterans.

Kelly Matisi, a 9-year veteran of the Marine Corps, in Iraq.

Kelly Matisi, a 9-year veteran of the Marine Corps, in Iraq.

“I work in the Office of Veteran Services. We’ve gotten calls from veterans asking that very question: ‘Do you guys give in-state tuition to veterans?’ And I have to tell them no.” Matisi said.

She said without the waiver it’s almost like Florida is turning its back on those who have served.

“We didn’t serve the State of Florida. We didn’t serve the State of Texas. We served the United States,” Matisi said. “So, we kind of feel like picking and choosing who gets a certain amount of tuition and who doesn’t based on where you enlisted, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

One thing the student veterans have going for them is their training. They come from a culture that never says quit. That’s the attitude Ray Mollison, president of the USF Student Veterans Association, adopted when the in-state tuition bill died in a senate committee last session.

“We do have a huge veteran population,” Mollison said last summer. “So, it’s going to bring a big voice next time when this bill does go up there again. And I think there’s going to be a lot more pull and a lot more active people trying to make this happen because the State of Florida has a lot of veterans.”

Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Kelly Matisi (center) with her brother and mother.

Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Kelly Matisi (center) with her brother and mother.

And student veterans’ “big voice” is already being heard. House Speaker Will Weatherford was already predicting passage of the tuition waiver for out-of-state student veterans.

“I think it’s important that we give our veterans the opportunity to go back to school to get the education that they need in the 21st century to make sure they can find employment. These are men and women who have served our country admirably across the country and across the world. And we owe that to them and I feel very confident that we’ll get a bill done like that this year,” Weatherford said in December.

But just in case, Matisia plans to join other student veterans for a trip to Tallahassee in February to lobby lawmakers for passage of (Senate Bill)SB 84 or the House version, (Proposed Committee Bill)PCB 14-01.

You can listen to the radio version of this story at WUSF News.

8 Things to Know About the Afghanistan Withdrawl

After 31 years as a Marine Corps officer, Scott Anderson took a civilian job. He now serves as director of Logistics and Engineering for U.S. Central Command.

After 31 years as a Marine Corps officer, Scott Anderson took a civilian job. He now serves as director of Logistics and Engineering for U.S. Central Command.

It’s a delicate balance keeping troops supplied while downsizing in Afghanistan. Then, add the mandate to do it in the most economical and efficient way.

That’s why troops in Afghanistan, including the commander Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, are eating an MRE for one of their three daily meals. There are a lot of prepackaged Meals Ready to Eat stored in Afghanistan and they are not worth the cost to ship home.

Despite the uncertainty over how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, logistics experts at U.S. Central Command are already closing bases and moving out equipment and troops.

Retired Marine officer Scott Anderson is the civilian in charge of logistics and engineering for CENTCOM.

The time differential between Afghanistan and Tampa, FL is 9.5 hours during Daily Savings Time. That means Anderson comes to work very early in the morning, more like late at night, to coordinate with his military counterparts in theater.

A digital board displaying several time zones is mounted above a large flat-screen TV in his office at U.S. Central Command on MacDill Air Force Base.

And the clock is ticking for Anderson and his logistician counterparts from the Pentagon to the Pakistan’s Port of Karachi. They have just over a year to ship, transfer or destroy tons of equipment originally sent to Afghanistan to support troops.

Here are some details Anderson shared on their progress:

  • They are 60 percent complete with base closures in Afghanistan.
  • At the peak, there were 360 bases in Afghanistan, now; there are fewer than 44 bases.
  • Afghan Security Forces identified the bases they wanted and asked the U.S. to build some new ones.
  • U.S. engineers are training Afghans on base operations like the electrical grid and water systems.
  • A snapshot of how much equipment is coming home: for the period of Sept. 10, 2013 to Jan. 31, 2014, 7500 vehicles and about 1500 shipping containers will be moved out.
  • Troops are eating a prepackaged MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) for one of their three daily meals to use up stores that are too expensive to ship home.
  • The cheapest way to ship equipment out of Afghanistan is to truck it to the Port of Karachi in Pakistan and sail it home. Currently, 70 percent is coming out that way.
  • There are two options for equipment too old or too expensive to ship home: transfer it to the Afghan Security Forces or destroy it if it is deemed it the equipment would only be a burden to the Afghans.

Anderson said his biggest challenge is to not draw-down too quickly. He does not want a scenario where a soldier doesn’t have a meal or enough fuel in his vehicle.

Marine Who Won VA Coverage for Camp LeJeune Water Dies

Photo courtesy: The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten web site.

Photo courtesy: The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten web site.

A Marine who challenged and finally won his VA disability claim that his breast cancer was linked to Camp Lejeune contaminated water died just months after winning his claim according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Tom Gervasi, a veteran who won his protracted disability claim fight with the government over the rare cancer he contracted during his service, died Tuesday at home in Sarasota.

He was 77.

While serving in the Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in 1956, Gervasi was exposed to contaminated water that caused breast cancer, which rarely affects men. For the last decade, he fought with the government over medical coverage for him and other veterans.

After repeated denials, he finally received a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs in April confirming that the contaminated water had in fact caused his cancer.

Read the full Sarasota Herald-Tribune article here.

In March, the VA started reaching out to former Marines and families who lived at Lejeune during the period of contamination. Details on eligibility and a list of illnesses covered by the VA such as breast cancer, bladder cancer and female infertility are available here.

If you served at Camp Lejeune during the period of contamination, August 1953 through 1987, and have health problems, you may be eligible for VA benefits. Details are available here.

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