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.

Tampa’s VA Director to Help Troubled Phoenix VA

Youth volunteer Mairyn Harris, 14, and Kathleen Fogarty, director of James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

Youth volunteer Mairyn Harris, 14, and Kathleen Fogarty, director of James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

The new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Bob McDonald, has temporarily assigned Kathleen Fogarty, the director of Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Medical Center, to help restore trust and transparency at one of the most troubled VA networks that oversees the Phoenix VA hospital.

The Tampa Tribune reports that Fogarty was tapped to run the Veterans’ Administration Southwest  Healthcare System, a network of five hospitals in Arizona, New Mexico, western Texas and parts of Colorado and Oklahoma.

“I think that we have to be very veteran-centric and very centered on our mission,” said Fogarty. “That is really what I am focused on. How to get through to an organization that has gone through pretty difficult times being centered on its core mission.”

Fogarty has been head of the Tampa VA hospital and the Polytrauma and Rehabilitation Center for more than three years. She told the Tribune that her new assignment, while temporary, is expected to last at least three months or longer and start Nov. 17, 2014.

It will be her first time, after 31 years with the VA, that she will be in charge of an entire network. And it’s the network responsible for the troubled Phoenix VA hospital where delays in health care contributed to patient deaths and administrators are accused of taking retribution against whistleblowers.

VA Fires Four Administrators, But Is It Just for Show?

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-R) on the left, listens to new VA Secretary Bob McDonald, on the right, during their visit to Tampa's James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center on Oct. 1, 2014.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-R) on the left, listens to new VA Secretary Bob McDonald, on the right, during their visit to Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center on Oct. 1, 2014.

When Bob McDonald visited the Tampa Bay region last week, the new Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary promised to take action against VA administrators if the Inspector General determined they were involved in wrongdoing or coverups.

This week, the new VA administrator started keeping his promise with the firing of four high ranking administrators reports Stars and Stripes.

Among those being fired were a top purchasing official at the Veterans Health Administration, directors of VA hospitals in Pittsburgh and Dublin, Georgia, and a regional hospital director in central Alabama, the VA said.

“VA will actively and aggressively pursue disciplinary action against those who violate our values,” Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said Monday. “There should be no doubt that when we discover evidence of wrongdoing, we will hold employees accountable.”

But the Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-R), was quick to point out to The AP that one of the four VA executives had already said he would retire last month.

“Bragging about the proposed removal of someone who has already announced his retirement can only be described as disingenuous,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs distributed a news release Oct. 7, 2014 where Chairman Miller further admonishes the VA for not acting swiftly in the dismissal of VA executives especially at troubled medical centers where medical care was delayed and employees covered up the long wait lists.

VA appears to be giving failing executives an opportunity to quit, retire or find new jobs without consequence – something we have already seen happen in recent weeks. Right now, it’s incumbent on all of VA’s external watchdogs — Congress, the press and the American public — to maintain pressure on the department until those who created VA’s problems receive the accountability they are due.

You can read more about the House Committee on Veterans Affairs efforts to hold VA administrators accountable on their congressional website that also offers veterans a place for feedback.

VA Secretary Wants All Employees to Be Whistleblowers

 VA Secretary Bob McDonald (left) watches as paralyzed Navy Veteran Dwayne Scheuneman (right) demonstrates the Exoskeleton during the new leader's visit Wednesday at the James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center. Credit U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs


VA Secretary Bob McDonald (left) watches as paralyzed Navy Veteran Dwayne Scheuneman (right) demonstrates the Exoskeleton during the new leader’s visit Wednesday at the James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center.
Credit U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs

Secret patient waiting lists, delayed medical care, retaliation against whistleblowers  are all reasons why trust in the VA hit an all-time low this spring especially on Capitol Hill.

The new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert “Bob” McDonald is trying to restore that trust. He’s started by visiting as many VA facilities as possible during his first 90 days in office.

McDonald toured several Florida VA facilities this week and he invited U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Committee of Veterans Affairs, to come along.

”Bob McDonald gets it,” Miller said during a Wednesday afternoon news conference at Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center. “He came on board at a time when the VA was going through probably the worst crisis that they ever had in the history of its time in the federal government. I would say that he is a hands-on person.”

McDonald says the formality of his position can get in the way of serving veterans. So, he insists that everyone call him “Bob” not “Secretary.” He has publicly shared his cell phone number  and takes calls from veterans at all times of day.

As the retired CEO of Procter and Gamble, McDonald  is all about improving customer service now and better forecasting veterans’ needs.

 A poster inside Tampa's James A. Haley VA announcing Wednesday's Town Hall meeting with the new secretary, Robert "Bob" McDonald. Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media


A poster inside Tampa’s James A. Haley VA announcing Wednesday’s Town Hall meeting with the new secretary, Robert “Bob” McDonald.
Credit Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media

 

He blames a huge influx of veterans seeking benefits and care for many of the VA problems especially when employee evaluations were linked to how fast veterans got scheduled and seen by a doctor. Bottom line, some veterans waited too long to see a doctor while others went without any care.

McDonald said he is waiting on the results of 93 active Inspector General Investigations.

“Some of those investigations are going to result in the Department of Justice being involved, some of them will result in the FBI being involved, and some of them could well result in criminal charges being brought,” McDonald said.

A West Point graduate and veteran Army Airborne Ranger, McDonald said he has no tolerance for employees who don’t embrace a core value of the VA – the veterans come first. But he is equally ready to defend any VA employee who exposes a problem.miller_mcdonald_at_haley

“I celebrate whistleblowers. I want every employee to be a whistleblower,” McDonald said. “I can’t improve, we can’t improve unless every employee is a whistleblower.”

To improve access to medical care, McDonald extended clinic hours, used mobile clinics, and had people work overtime..

“I’ve done some research and this may surprise you, but we don’t see the full effect of a war in terms of impact on Veterans Affairs until 40 years after the war,” McDonald said.

And he wants the VA to be ready when that influx of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans hits in 2054.

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.

New VA Secretary Gives His Cell Number to Change Culture

VA Secretary Bob McDonald

VA Secretary Bob McDonald

Have you ever heard of a cabinet member giving out his personal cell phone and email?

That’s exactly what the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald did to a room full of reporters during a news conference in Washington D.C. according to the Stars and Stripes.

While McDonald – who corrected a reporter who referred to him as Mr. Secretary by saying, “I’m Bob, really” — may be a little easier to reach now, the effectiveness of a 90-day plan he unveiled to fix a badly-broken program VA health care system is likely how veterans and observers will assess the beginning of his tenure.

McDonald is trying to make the VA culture more veteran centric. His initiative “Road to Veterans Day” focuses on reforming the department over the next 90 days.

He said there are three steps to the reform: regaining the trust of veterans, improving service to veterans and developing long-term excellence in the system.

You can read the secretary’s full comments here.

McDonald acknowledged there are currently more than 100 investigations into cases at VA facilities by the VA and outside agencies.

Another Veterans’ Town Hall Set for Today

James A. Haley VA Medical Center, Tampa, FL.

James A. Haley VA Medical Center, Tampa, FL.

Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Medical Center, 13000 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., is inviting veterans and their families to voice their concerns about service and share their ideas on how to improve at a town hall today, Sept. 4, 2014, at 3:30 p.m.

It is the second such veterans’ town hall held in as many days in the Tampa Bay region.

The Bay Pines VA Health Care System held a town hall Wednesday. About 60 veterans attended the Bay Pines event seeking updates and explanations on their specific cases, reports the Tampa Bay Times.

The town halls, reaching out to veterans, are among the steps outlined by the new Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald to improve access to care for veterans.

The Haley town hall is planned in the second floor auditorium on the main campus.

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