10 Ways to Recognize Veterans’ Day

flag_homeHave you missed the Veterans’ Day parade or the ceremony at your local VA National Cemetery?

Well, there’s still time to show your appreciation for the men and women who have served or are currently serving in the Armed Forces. Here are a few suggestions you can practice year-round:

  1. Fly the American Flag outside your home.
  2. Teach your children or grandchildren a patriotic song like America the Beautiful.
  3. Volunteer at your local VA facility.
  4. Write a letter or make a card to be delivered by Operation Gratitude which sends messages to active-duty deployed troops as well as veterans.
  5. Accompany a veteran on an Honor Flight, or be there to greet the veterans when they return.
  6. Participate in the Veterans History Project – the Library of Congress makes it easy with a step-by-step process.
  7. Visit Arlington National Cemetery, the Vietnam Veterans Wall, or any of the other War Memorials or spend a quiet hour at your nearest National Cemetery.
  8. Sponsor a wreath for a veteran’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery for its 150th Anniversary or at your local VA cemetery through Wreaths Across America.
  9. Post a message of appreciation or photo from your Veterans’ Day on the WUSF Veterans Coming Home Welcome Wall.
  10. Check out the Military Avenue link on 101 Ways to Thank a Veteran.

A bonus suggestion: if you live with a veteran like I do, give him or her a hug and make their favorite meal for dinner.

VA Secretary Bob McDonald’s 100 Day Message

Newly appointed Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Bob McDonald, posted this YouTube video to talk directly to veterans about his first 100 days in office. He spent much of that time touring VA clinics, hospitals and other facilities to listen directly to veterans and staff.

His one conclusion, “There is no substitute for the VA.”

McDonald also appeared on the CBS show 60 Minutes:

Scott Pelley: How many employees do you think should be fired based on what you know?

Secretary McDonald: The report we’ve passed up to the Senate Committee and House Committee, has about 35 names on it. I’ve got another report that has over 1,000.

Scott Pelley: If 1,000 people need to go, give me a sense of what are some of the things that they did?

Secretary McDonald: We’re simplistically talking about people who violated our values.

You can watch that news segment here.

VA Secretary: Our National Cemeteries Should Be Shrines

Patriot Plaza at night. Photo by Steven Brooke courtesy of The Patterson Foundation.

Patriot Plaza at night. Photo by Steven Brooke courtesy of The Patterson Foundation.

There’s one section of the VA that gets really high marks. The National Cemetery Administration (NCA) is ranked first in the American Customer Satisfaction Index which surveys private businesses as well as other government agencies.

There are 131 national cemeteries. Florida has seven — with others on the way.

Just one of dozens of photographs showing service members from the Civil War through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Just one of dozens of photographs showing service members from the Civil War through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

But VA Secretary Bob McDonald said the Sarasota National Cemetery is a showcase among VA cemeteries because of Patriot Plaza. The $12 million amphitheater and art installations was funded by The Patterson Foundation of Sarasota. The hope is that it will become a model for other communities to turn their veteran cemeteries into a place of honor and contemplation.

“We want our national cemeteries to be shrines,” McDonald said, “Shrines that really demonstrate the care of our American people for our veterans.”

McDonald believes the Sarasota National Cemetery is such a showcase, or shrine, with its Patriot Plaza Amphitheater and numerous art installations worth $12 million, all privately funded by the Patterson Foundation based in Sarasota.

“They have done an outstanding job choosing the artwork in that facility,” McDonald said. “There are photographs- for me as veteran, an airborne ranger, that capture many of the situations I’ve been in.”

The stone plinths that hold the photographic exhibit are carved from the same marble as the veterans' headstones.

The stone plinths that hold the photographic exhibit are carved from the same marble as the veterans’ headstones.

The Patterson Foundation funded Patriot Plaza and the public art to create a place for “deep experience” at the Sarasota National Cemetery, said Debra Jacobs, president and CEO of the Patterson Foundation.

“By having Patriot Plaza, those who come to visit family, those who come now to visit the art, they will each have their own private time and space for reflection and experiencing and affirming why we live in the greatest country on the globe,” Jacobs said.

The Patterson Foundation partnership with NCA is the first of its kind among the 131 cemeteries run by the VA. Jacobs hopes Sarasota’s Patriot Plaza will serve as a model for others to follow.

One of the eagle sculptures that guards a side entrance into Patriot Plaza. Just beyond are the seals for all branches of the Armed Forces.

One of the eagle sculptures that guards a side entrance into Patriot Plaza. Just beyond are the seals for all branches of the Armed Forces.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-R), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, called it a “perfect partnership.”

“That facility down there from start to finish was magnificently designed. And then, to have an organization to come in and put the money behind it, a private organization,” Miller said. “Public-private partnerships work.”

Miller added that Patriot Plaza gives people an opportunity to learn about freedom and the sacrifice of those who serve to defend the country.

To celebrate Patriot Plaza and in honor of Veterans Day, the Patterson Foundation is sponsoring a national, Veterans Legacy Summit Nov. 14-15 which is designed to build connections for veterans and military families.

All the summit events are free from the film festival and discussion panels to performances by the West Point Band and the keynote address by best-selling author Wes Moore. However, registration is required for the Veterans Legacy Summit.

Reporting for the WUSF Veterans Coming Home project is made possible by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Patriot Plaza is integrated into the pastoral setting of the Sarasota National Cemetery.

Patriot Plaza is integrated into the pastoral setting of the Sarasota National Cemetery.

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.

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.

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