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 93-Year-Old Veteran Turned Away at Early Voting

vote-hereWith stricter voting identification laws in place, an election judge in Texas reports he had to turn away a 93-year-old veteran because his driver’s license was expired and the veteran had never applied for a VA identification card, according to a report from Think Progress.

Election judge William Parsley on Sunday said he has only seen one potential voter turned away at his polling location, the Metropolitan Multi-Services Center in downtown Houston.

“An elderly man, a veteran. Ninety-three years old,” Parsley, an election judge for the last 15 years, told ThinkProgress. “His license had expired.”

Under Texas’ new voter ID law, one of the strictest in the nation, citizens are required to present one of seven forms of photo identification to vote. The identification can be a Texas-issued driver’s license, a federally-issued veteran’s ID card, or a gun registration card, among other forms. Licenses can be expired, but not for more than 60 days.

… And though he had “all sorts” of other identification cards with his picture on it, they weren’t valid under the law — so the election judges told him he had to go to the Department of Public Safety, and renew his license.

“He just felt real bad, you know, because he’s voted all his life,” Parsley said.

It was earlier this month that the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the new, Texas voter ID laws to stand.

A Veteran’s Voice: The Real Meaning of Community

Team Red, White and Blue and the Tampa Strong Dogs. Photo courtesy of Thomas Martineau.

Team Red, White and Blue and the Tampa Strong Dogs. Photo courtesy of Thomas Martineau.

Thomas Martineau Air Force SSGT Ret.,

Tampa Bay Strong Dog, Team Red White and Blue Eagle

I joined the Air Force at the age of eighteen and knew from day one that serving in the enlisted ranks was what I wanted to do with my life. I was in an accident that left me paralyzed from the chest down and was medically discharged from the Air Force at the end of 2008.

It was hard to find purpose in my life when I had put all of my eggs into one basket, that basket being my military career.

Adjusting to life in a wheelchair was definitely not “a walk in the park.” I faced a lot of challenges along the way as I learned to get used to my post accident body and my new way of doing things. When I found the Tampa Bay Strong Dogs, I finally found a lot of people in a similar situation to myself.

The Strong Dogs is not specifically a veteran based organization, but we have vets that play on the team. Family, comradery, teamwork, competition; I found everything with this team that I was missing since having to leave my Air Force family.

One thing my team needs is a place to work on physical conditioning and team bonding off the court. It is rare to find a military and/or veteran organization that is willing to open its doors to non-veterans.

Team Red, White and Blue is a veteran’s organization that is breaking down those types of barriers. One of Team RWB’s pillars is community. They mean what they say. While we do have a few vets on my team we are a minority and if we had no veterans I believe the end result would still be the same.

Blayne Smith and Jeni Donovan opened the doors of the new Firebase and Team RWB to the Tampa Bay Strong Dogs. Team RWB believes in lifting up not only vets but everyone in the community. They turn talk into action and that shows with allowing anyone, regardless if you are a veteran or not, to be a part of Team RWB.

It’s great that The Strong Dogs have a new place to workout. But more importantly, the Strong Dogs have some new family members and Team RWB has some new family members of the non-veteran variety. When veterans come together for the overall good of the whole community, everybody wins.

If you would like to contribute to Vets Voices and the WUSF Veterans Coming Home project, email Veterans@WUSF.org or Tweet @WUSFveterans.

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.

Chili Cook-Off Connects Veterans to Campus

Naming the chili is half the fun of participating in the Annual USF Office of Veterans Services Chili Cook-Off. Photo courtesy of OVS.

Naming the chili is half the fun of participating in the Annual USF Office of Veterans Services Chili Cook-Off. Photo courtesy of OVS.

Over the last five years the University of South Florida Office of Veterans Services has worked to raise its visibility among the estimated 1,400 student veterans on campus and provide them resources.

One way USF Veterans Services has gained a lot of notice is its annual Chili Cook-Off.

This year, the Office of Veterans Services 5th Annual Chili Cook-Off is scheduled 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Nov. 5, 2014 at the Marshall Center Amphitheater on the Tampa Campus, 4202 E. Fowler Ave.

Evan Itle, associate director of the USF Office of Veterans Affairs, says the Chili Cook-Off has grown in popularity and may hit their maximum of 24 participants this year.

“There actually could be people we’ve got to tell no,” Itle said. “And we don’t want to tell people no.”

In fact, they’re excited about bringing in new participants from beyond the USF Tampa Campus such as the Temple Terrace Chamber of Commerce which plans to enter a chili dish.

The cook-off also works as an outreach event for both student veterans and other students on campus. More than 400 students, faculty and USF staff attended the free 2013 event to taste-test the entries.

Royce Thomas, last year's winner of the chili cook-off.

Royce Thomas, last year’s winner of the chili cook-off.

Last year’s winning recipe came from the home kitchen of Royce Thomas, location manager for the Fresh Foods Company USF Dining facility. He didn’t divulge his recipe, but did share a major secret to “great chili” is cumin.

“The way that I like my chili profile to come across is a little sweet up front and a little hot in the back,” Thomas said.

It’s a matter of pride to Thomas that he used his own home recipe to beat out 19 other competitors because to him, chili is a comfort food.

“We used to have chili night in college and everybody would come with a bunch of ingredients and make chili and have a good time,” Thomas said. “You can make chili a thousand different ways and that’s what I love about it, there is no one, great chili.”

He was surprised to win the competition in 2013 and declined to enter this year so others from his dining facility could try their hand.

“It’s really about the cause. It’s not about the competition, it’s not about the chili,” Thomas said.

Royce Thomas shows off his trophy for last year's winning chili recipe.

Royce Thomas shows off his trophy for last year’s winning chili recipe.

And that cause is the USF Office of Veterans Affairs. Director Larry Braue said the office has grown in visibility along with the contest that went from about 200 the first year to more than 400 participants in 2013.

“We have a vision to go beyond this and not just tie our veterans to the USF community, but to tie them to the Tampa Bay community,” Braue said.

The 5th Annual USF OVS Chili Cook-Off is one of several events planned for Veterans Week at USF. Student veterans will be honored at a football game that includes a tailgate graduation bash. There’s an expo of veteran services and a Veterans Day Ceremony on Nov. 4, 2014 that will feature Medal of Honor Recipient Army Ranger Master Sergeant Leroy Petry.

Braue said the wounded warrior will speak to USF student veterans about life after the Army and life after the military and to USF student athletes.

“He’s a typical student veteran, although he’s not a typical man, he will be on a campus just like all of our student veterans going to school and earning his degree,” Braue said.

You can learn more about the 5th Annual Chili Cook-Off, the Veterans’ Week Ceremony and Expo and the USF Office of Veterans Affairs.

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

Military Suicide Survivors Gather at St. Pete Beach

Kim Ruoco helped start the TAPS Military Suicide Survivor program after her husband, Marine Maj. John Ruoco, killed himself on Super Bowl Sunday 2005.

Kim Ruoco helped start the TAPS Military Suicide Survivor program after her husband, Marine Maj. John Ruoco, killed himself on Super Bowl Sunday 2005.

This weekend marks the 6th annual National Military Suicide Survivors Seminar and Good Grief Camp for Young Survivors organized by TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. About 500 adults and 170 children will participate in workshops, art therapy, and outdoor activities learning skills to cope with the suicide of a loved one who served in the military.

The U.S. military passed a tragic milestone in 2012:  more active-duty service members died by suicide, than in combat.

And while military families grieve over a loved one killed in combat, families who have a loved one return from the battlefield only to die by suicide have to deal with even more complex feelings like anger and guilt.

And there was very little help or support for family survivors of military suicide when it hit Kim Ruoco’s family in February 2005.

After more than a decade of service, her husband, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. John Ruoco, died by suicide. It turned Kim into an advocate.

“One of reasons I really started talking about my husband’s death was a fear that the way he died would wipe out the way he lived,” she said. “He had worked so hard to get to be who he was and that was part of the reason why he didn’t get help because he feared losing that.”

It is important to her that people know her husband: a man eager to serve his country who joined the Marine Corps right out of college. He wanted to be in the infantry but the Corps convinced him to train as a helicopter pilot because of his high test scores. He played rugby, loved football and Halloween was his favorite holiday.

The Ruoco Family, Kim, John and their two sons, Billy and Joey. Courtesy of Kim Ruoco, TAPS.

The Ruoco Family, Kim, John and their two sons, Billy and Joey. Courtesy of Kim Ruoco, TAPS.

Kim said John had his first major depression after losing several Marines in training accidents in the 1990s when they were stationed in North Carolina. But back then, she said, he didn’t let people know for fear it would hurt his career as a Marine helicopter pilot.

“His identity as a pilot was everything,” she said. They did confide in one of his trusted leaders who told them “it happens to everybody … take a break and push through it.”

And Major Ruoco ‘pushed through it,’ successfully, until Super Bowl Sunday night in 2005.

Kim was in Massachusetts with their two sons and John was in California with his Marine unit. When they talked on the phone, she knew he was having trouble, he hadn’t watched the game, wasn’t eating or sleeping. He promised to get help.

She knew asking for help would be harder for him than going to war. So that night, she boarded a plane to be with him when he went to the base clinic the next day.

“By the time I got there he had already killed himself. He had killed himself a few hours after he’d hung up the phone,” Kim said. “I learned really quickly that there’s a lot of stigma around suicide and that people don’t have really good answers about how to recover and how to have a healthy grief process after suicide.”

Her biggest concern was what do I tell their sons, Joey, 10, and Billy, 8.

“At the time, I thought, how do you tell two little kids that their dad went to a combat zone and went to war, made it back safely, and then took his own life?” Kim said.

A trauma specialist advised her to tell her boys their father died in an accident. So that’s what she did, not trusting her own instincts at that time. She said not trusting yourself is a common experience of many suicide survivors.

But two weeks later, she found out that her son was blaming himself for his dad’s “accident.”

“He said mom I think I killed Dad. I said what do you mean honey?” Kim said. “He said, ‘When Dad was home for Christmas we were eating nachos and I said, ‘Can we salt the nachos Dad?’ And he said, ‘No because too much salt is not good for your heart.’ And when Dad wasn’t looking, I salted them. So, he must have had a heart attack and that’s why he had an accident.”

At that moment, Kim said, she and her sons started over. She told them that their father was really sick, that he had war injuries and his brain wasn’t working the way it should and he killed himself.

TAPS_LOGOKim found a brochure for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, TAPS, a non-profit organization that offers support to all grieving the death of a loved one serving in the Armed Forces. It is a peer-based support group for adults and provides military mentors for children.

Nine years ago, TAPS did not have a specific program for survivors of military suicide. So, Kim had to build her own support group.

But, she said TAPS did provide military mentors for her boys. Her older son, Joey, was paired with an Airman who had a sense of humor and personality similar to her husband.

A Marine pilot, who flew 70 combat missions with her husband in Iraq, mentored her younger son, Billy, and has kept in touch even as both sons have gone off to college.

Kim was invited to help TAPS create a support program for military suicide survivors. She’s now manager for Suicide Outreach and Education programs at TAPS.

“We need to start talking about mental illness,” Kim said. “Ninety percent of these guys are suffering from severe mental illness that they’ve battled for years and it’s treatable.”

She said TAPS is working with the Department of Defense, the VA and the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, SAMHSA, to develop a tool kit to share with local health providers, emergency room physicians and primary doctors on how to recognize and deal with military members and veterans at risk of suicide.

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 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

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