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.

New Twitter Hashtag – #VetQ – for Veterans’ Questions

vetq1Do you want to learn more about veteran benefits or are you curious about adaptive sports?

If you can ask your question in 140 characters or less, tweet it to #VetQ on Twitter.

The new social media campaign is a collaborative effort between the Department of Veterans Affairs and seven Veteran Service Organizations which includes  Paralyzed Veterans of America.

The hashtag – #VetQ – will identify the question and allow the VA and partner organizations to answer it and promote their services. The idea is that more than one of the veteran service organizations will answer questions giving veterans a range of possible answers for their individual needs.

“I am excited at the prospect of using social networking to educate veterans, dependents, and caregivers on VA benefits,” Sherman Gillums, Jr., associate executive director of veterans benefits for Paralyzed Veterans of America, stated in the VA blog. “The #VetQ initiative will provide a dynamic forum to engage stakeholders in real time, which will help VA deliver timelier services. Additionally, it gives veterans service organizations like Paralyzed Veterans of America an opportunity to partner with VA in the effort to close transition gaps for Post-9/11 service members and their families.”

The VA digital team said over time, common questions and answers will likely be categorized on a frequently asked questions page.

The other VSOs collaborating on #VetQ are Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, the Home Depot Foundation, Student Veterans of America, Team Red, White & Blue, and the American Legion.

Teens Spend Summer Vacation at Tampa’s Haley 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.

When teachers ask this fall: “What did you do on your summer vacation?” Nearly four dozen Tampa teenagers will answer: “I spent it at the James A. Haley VA Hospita.”

For more than a decade, Haley has been operating a summer Youth Volunteer program that gives teenagers insight into health care careers while at the same time helping veterans.

Mairyn Harris will be a ninth grader at Wharton High School this fall. She is spending five days a week this summer at Haley. On Monday through Thursday she helps with clerical work in the administrator’s office. On Sunday she comes back and volunteers with her mother in the long-term unit.

“We work in in the nursing home part with veterans taking them to church, getting them to lunch, coffee, doughnuts that sort of thing,” Harris said.

She also helps with the pet therapy taking care of the therapy dog, Simon.

“Well that’s our future right?” said Kathleen Fogarty, director of James A. Haley VA Medical Center. “She gets exposure to the whole gamut of the acuteness of an illness all the way to the long term care of it. She’s working in our office, so she really sees everything that could possibly happen. She’s great.”

Forgarty sees a lot of herself in Harris.

“I don’t know if Mairyn knows this, but that’s how I started my career was a teen volunteer a hospital in Denver Colorado. And I took care of the CEO. I answered her phones while her secretary went to lunch,” Fogarty said.

Haley’s Youth Volunteer program accepts teens ages 14 to 18 and starts recruiting in April for up to 50 positions.

Camilla Thompson, chief of Voluntary Services, said the teens are asked to volunteer from 80-100 hours, must have a TB test and go through a full day of training. They are then assigned to one of more than 20 different services at Haley like nursing services or the recreational therapy department.

“They get an opportunity to provide like a buddy program where they read to veterans or they may get the newspaper for them or they may assist them with meal prep,” Thompson said. “They get an opportunity to interact with veterans by playing games.”

The volunteers also help take veterans on outings. Thompson said they do limit the teenagers’ exposure to veterans and service members with more severe injuries in the Spinal Cord Injury unit and Polytrauma Center.

“We really tread lightly with that and have open discussions and gain feedback from youth whether or not that’s an experience they’re comfortable with,” Thompson said.

The 47 Haley youth volunteers will finish their summer of service in August with a reception sponsored by veteran service organizations. The teens get a chance to share what they liked most about their summer vacation at Haley. You can listen to the story at WUSF News.

A Look at the Highest Paid VA Employees in Florida

James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

Six of the region’s 10 highest-paid Veterans Affairs employees are physicians who work at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, according to The Tampa Tribune.

All six physicians earn more than $350,000 annually at the Tampa facility, one of the nation’s largest and busiest VA facilities. A total of 40 Haley employees and 11 at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center are doctors earning at least $300,000, The Tribune reports.

Several of the highest-paid employees earned salaries and controversial performance awards, The Tribune reports. The House Veterans Committee pointed out that performance pay continued to be paid without a clear link to performance, according to The Tribune.

Veterans’ VA Issues Go Beyond Medical Delays

U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross (left) fields a question during his news conference from Army veteran Luis Canino Mas (standing on the right).

U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross (left) fields a question during his news conference from Army veteran Luis Canino Mas (standing on the right).

Recent months have shown that there is no shortage of veterans who have had problems with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

More than two dozen of them brought their issues to the Temple Terrace City Hall for a veterans’ intake event July 2, 2014 organized by Congressman Dennis Ross (R- Lakeland).

Ross said his office has received complaints about delays getting VA medical appointments but also they’re also hearing a lot about problems with VA benefit claims

“What we’ve seen is when the veterans administration would receive claims, if they denied them and in many cases they denied them, they would consider them closed,” Ross said during a news conference after the intake.

There’s supposed to be an appeals process for veterans denied benefits, but Ross said many veterans have experienced undue delays with their appeals.

U.S. Rep. Ross with veteran Luis Canino afterward.

U.S. Rep. Ross with veteran Luis Canino afterward.

“For those on the benefits side, due process is everything,” Ross said. “We have multitude of cases where they have recouped retroactively payments that were due for years past.”

His congressional staff is currently working on than 100 cases involving veterans.

Ross said he is open to outsourcing the claims process and offering private medical care as an option if it would speed up service to the veterans.

Other Tampa Bay members of congress have held recent “intake” days to give veterans direct access to VA representatives, congressional staff and state veterans advocates including U.S. Rep. David Jolly (R-Seminole), U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Tarpon Springs) and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Tampa).

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.

Sarasota National Cemetery Dedicates Amphitheater and Art

The $12 million Patriot Plaza and art installations were paid for in full by the Patterson Foundation.

The $12 million Patriot Plaza and art installations were paid for in full by the Patterson Foundation.

Nearly 3,000 people are expected to gather in Sarasota Saturday morning to remember and honor veterans for their sacrifice and service.

It’s not Veterans Day that’s five months off and Memorial Day was more than four weeks ago.

The Sarasota community is gathering to dedicate Patriot Plaza, the first of its kind, privately funded amphitheater and art installation at the public Sarasota National Cemetery.

Sitting on almost two acres of land just north of the columbarium, Patriot Plaza can seat up to 2,800 people shaded by a space-frame glass structure that soars 50 feet high. The design is such that there are no columns obstructing views of the rostrum or stage which can hold a 55-piece orchestra.

Patriot Plaza with its 80-foot stainless steel flag pole sits on 1.8 acres adjacent to the Sarasota National Cemetery columbarium.

Patriot Plaza with its 80-foot stainless steel flag pole sits on 1.8 acres adjacent to the Sarasota National Cemetery columbarium.

It cost an estimated $10 million to build and was paid for in full by the Patterson Foundation. The philanthropic group spent another $2 million on the art installations and established a $1 million endowment for maintenance and structural replacement.

Debra Jacobs, president and CEO of the Patterson Foundation, said there’s a back-story on why the foundation wanted to partner with the federally run veterans’ cemetery.

“We actually traced back the roots of the wealth that created the Patterson Foundation,” Jacobs said. “We traced back to the mid-1800s when Joseph Medill bought into the troubled Chicago Tribune for two reasons: one to make money and two to create Republican Party to get Lincoln elected.”

It was under President Abraham Lincoln that Congress authorized buying land for the first national cemetery in 1862.

But the connections don’t stop there. Two of Medill’s grandsons served in World War I and his great grandson, James J. Patterson, graduated from West Point. Patterson’s widow, Dorothy Clarke Patterson, created the foundation.

Fast forward to 2008 and the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sarasota National Cemetery.

“They anticipated 1,000 people going to the groundbreaking and 3,000 showed up in the middle of July, hot summer days, to turn a spade of dirt,” Jacobs said. “That speaks to the military service in the region with over 100,000 veterans living in this area.”

The seals from all five branches of service and Pablo Eduardo's "Guardian Eagle" sculpture greet visitors at the west entrance to Patriot Plaza.

The seals from all five branches of service and Pablo Eduardo’s “Guardian Eagle” sculpture greet visitors at the west entrance to Patriot Plaza.

Where there was no shade, Jacobs saw opportunity to honor those who have served the country and their families.

Jacobs worked with Steve Muro, the Under Secretary of Memorial Affairs with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration, to create the private-public partnership that allowed the enhancement of the Sarasota National Cemetery.

That included seven public art installations.

“Public art sparks thinking, reflection. It helps you ponder what has happened, what could happen. So we thought let us bring art into Patriot Plaza and then it becomes a place of deep experience beyond any performance or exhibit,” Jacobs said.

As the son of a veteran, the Sarasota National Cemetery director John Rosentrater is especially excited about the photographic  art installation.

“I’m just hoping that the conversations that can get started by the artwork that takes place where children or grandchildren or spouses are asking their loved ones, ‘Do these pictures depict for you what happened?’” Rosentrater said.

The former Sarasota National Cemetery director, Sandra Beckley, retired after 39 years with the VA. She served as the consultant on the project.

President Lincoln's famous quote about veterans and a bronze depiction of an empty nest by artist Ann Hirsch adorn the east entrance to Patriot Plaza.

President Lincoln’s famous quote about veterans and a bronze depiction of an empty nest by artist Ann Hirsch adorn the east entrance to Patriot Plaza.

She read a quote from President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address that is posted at the east entrance to Patriot Plaza.

“Let us strive on … to care for him who shall have borne the battle for his widow and his orphan,” Beckley said. “That is part of the whole VA as well as NCA (National Cemetery Administrtaion). It’s their motto and their mission.”

Beckley was part of the selection committee that chose four artists after a national search to help create the seven art installations define Patriot Plaza. Among the artworks are two spires and mosaics by Ellen Driscoll, bronze eagle sculptures at the east entrance by Ann Hirsch called “Home” and two “Guardian Eagles” at the west entrance by Pablo Eduardo.

Larry Kirkland has two installations “Testimonies” and “Witness to Mission” where photographs are mounted in marble columns or plinths.

The same marble used for head stones was used by artist Larry Kirkland in his art installation "Testimonies" and is based on themes like conflict, military life and work.

The same marble used for head stones was used by artist Larry Kirkland in his art installation “Testimonies” and is based on themes like conflict, military life and work.

“They cut a small frame out of the marble and inserted these pictures,” Beckley said. The “Witness to Mission” exhibit features 44 photographs Kirkland and Kenny Irby, founder of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies  photojournalism program, selected and paired for display along the northern perimeter sidewalk.

On the plaza above is Kirkland’s other display which features photos pressed between glass  and suspended in a whole cut from the marble columns. Each column is inscribed with a word such as “Service” or “Conflict” and with a passage from a veteran or family member.

“Larry Kirkland picked this marble because it’s the same marble used in the headstones that we see right adjacent to us,” Beckley said. “When he was here for the installation, he said there was no way to separate Patriot Plaza from Sarasota National Cemetery or Sarasota National Cemetery from Patriot Plaza. Now that they are together they are one.”

The Sarasota National Cemetery and Patriot Plaza are open from sun up to sun down seven days a week and you don’t need to be a veteran or have someone interned there to visit, experience the art and contemplate the sacrifice of the veterans now at rest there.

One of two glass mosaic spires designed by artist Ellen Driscoll from her watercolor "Night to Day, Here and Away."

One of two glass mosaic spires designed by artist Ellen Driscoll from her watercolor “Night to Day, Here and Away.”

 

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