Saint Leo Offers Veterans A Free Transition Course

Tedd "Gunny"Weiser has an impressive display of Marine Corps memorabilia on his office wall.

Tedd “Gunny”Weiser has an impressive display of Marine Corps memorabilia on his office wall.

It’s difficult to define today’s military veteran. But there is one thing they have in common – they don’t like being painted with the same broad brush.

“Just because I’m a veteran, particularly me because I’m a Marine, a combat Marine, don’t think you know my political affiliation, my beliefs, my values,” said Tedd “Gunny” Weiser, short for Gunnery Sergeant. “There is a label and we want to shed that, we want people to know that we are our own person.”

After 20 years in the Marine Corps, Weiser has become a touchstone for the veterans at Saint Leo University where he’s now interim director of Veteran Student Services. He knows what it’s like to have difficulty moving into the civilian world, to hit rock-bottom with post-traumatic stress symptoms “starting to rear their ugly head.”

“It came to a point one day at a traffic stop. I actually put my car in park, got out of the car, ran up two or three car lengths ahead of me to tell the driver who cut me off six miles back what I thought of him and my wife said, ‘That’s enough,’” Weiser said.

The floormat outside Tedd Weiser's door replicates the yellow footprints outside the Marine Corps recruit depots.

The floormat outside Tedd Weiser’s door replicates the yellow footprints outside the Marine Corps recruit depots.

He got help from the VA for his PTS and decided to pursue his passion and his faith which led Weiser to Saint Leo University where he’s working on two masters’ degrees in Religion and Instructional Design.
But Weiser said he found his true calling running the Veteran Student Services office and the student veterans appear to be responding.

When Weiser started as an assistant in December, he said they averaged about one to two veteran visits a week. Now, just weeks into the fall semester and more than 60 have come through the office.
To help with the veterans’ adjust to campus life, a team at St. Leo University including Weiser, developed an online, Veterans Transition Course.

They partnered with Corporate Gray, publishers of The Military to Civilian Transition Guide which is used by the Department of Defense. Saint. Leo created an online version.

“We wanted to make it as easy as possible for our student veterans and their families knowing that their time is limited and their resources are limited,” Weiser said.

The Saint Leo University Veteran Student Services office hands out dogtags celebrating their student veterans.

The Saint Leo University Veteran Student Services office hands out dogtags celebrating their student veterans.

The course is broken into eight modules and is self-paced. So, it can take as little as eight weeks or as much as eight months to complete depending on a veteran’s needs. And the course is geared to more than academics. It also offers guidance on networking, interviewing, resume building and even negotiating salary and benefits.

Weiser encourages the spouses and adult children of the student veteran to take the online course too.

“Because if it helps them, then it helps that veteran because it’s one less thing that veteran has to worry about,” Weiser said.

About one-third of Saint Leo’s 15,000-to-16,000 students are veterans or active duty military and a majority are not on the Pasco County campus. Saint Leo University has a College Online as well as 40 locations, many on military installations, throughout the U.S.

“When others in the 70s were protesting military, Saint Leo went onto its first campus in North Florida and started teaching at a military installation,” Weiser said. “We just celebrated our 40th Anniversary last year.”
That anniversary generated donations that created another program Saint Leo’s Student Veteran Emergency Fund.

 Interim director of Veteran Student Services, Tedd "Gunny" Weiser, stands in Dempsey Plaza home to the sculpture, "For Those Who Serve," that honors the men and women of the armed forces.


Interim director of Veteran Student Services, Tedd “Gunny” Weiser, stands in Dempsey Plaza home to the sculpture, “For Those Who Serve,” that honors the men and women of the armed forces.

Since January, Weiser says they’ve given more than 30 gifts ranging from $200 to $500 to help with a financial crisis. The student veteran fills out an application, answers some questions about their financial problems.

The circumstances are reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Weiser said he tries to give the student veteran a response within 12 hours.

“We’ve given money for, just last week, cancer medications, day care, car repair, unemployment, food, utility bills,” Weiser said.

That isn’t the only gift St. Leo University Veteran Services is distributing.

Their online transition course was initially just for their students. But earlier this month, the course was opened up to all transitioning military and veterans for free whether they’re headed to Saint Leo University, another college or into the job market. You can learn more about the online Veterans Transition Course here.

 

You Are About to Reach the Half-Million Mark

Ana Dorr exploring her fathers combat boots. Photo credit: Jackie Dorr

Ana Dorr exploring her fathers combat boots. Photo credit: Jackie Dorr

Today, Off the Base is dedicated to those loyal readers and dedicated contributors who have helped the blog close in on 500,000 page views. Considering our humble beginnings, it’s quite an accomplishment.

To celebrate and mark the moment, I want to share a few of my favorite entries and some of the most popular since October 2010.

I remember as if it was yesterday when the blog was created. I was sitting in the living room of military spouse, fellow journalist and mentor Liisa Hyvarinen Temple. She taught me everything I needed to know about Word Press and then I dove in.

Number One – So, I’ll start the top 5 list with Liisa’s entry – a perennial favorite: What I wish I had known about military retirement.

Number Two – Dorie Griggs, a military mom, generated such a following with her insights into being a Citadel parent that she eventually created her own blog. Here is one of her more popular entries: The Citadel: Unofficial Tips for Families of Incoming Knobs.

Number Three - Fast forward five years, two kids and four deployments later!  I have slept alone more often than I have next to my love. That sentence comes from the first contribution by military spouse Jackie Dorr who is not only a gifted writer but excellent photographer. Several of the photos, including the baby exploring the combat boot at the head of this blog, were taken and shard by Jackie. She’s also become a fast and dear friend.

Number Four – I learned so much about the strength required to be a military parent from my colleague at WUSF, April Agle. Her son joined the Marines and was picked up for boot camp two weeks before his 18th birthday. April wrote several blog entries. Here’s what she shared after receiving her first letter from her son Jared at boot camp.

Number Five – A former WUSF intern, Alex Cook, is also a friend and Army veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Alex has such a kind heart and beautiful photographic eye. He struggled to reconcile his experiences while deployed. He won that battle. He wrote several entries to help me and others understand the journey: PTSD: An Army Veteran Writes to Find Peace.

There are so many more people and experiences captured in the past four years. I want to thank all who have made Off the Base a success including the The Carter Center and the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism – you made this all possible. I am humbled and ready to reach the 1 million mark.

Bobbie O’Brien – the spouse of a veteran and daughter of a veteran.

 

 

 

 

Deployed Troops at Risk of Accidents Back Home

 A U.S. military cargo truck bypasses a charred vehicle destroyed by a roadside bomb while moving building materials to Forward Operating Base Leatherneck in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Nov. 24, 2009. Credit U.S. Army photo by Spc. Elisebet Freeburg


A U.S. military cargo truck bypasses a charred vehicle destroyed by a roadside bomb while moving building materials to Forward Operating Base Leatherneck in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Nov. 24, 2009.
Credit U.S. Army photo by Spc. Elisebet Freeburg

Evasive driving maneuvers like speeding and sudden lane changes are a must for troops driving in dangerous environments where there may be roadside bombs, like Afghanistan.

But the driving habits that can save a soldier’s life when deployed can cause an accident and maybe death when the soldier returns home.

A 2012 study, by the insurance company USAA, showed that deployed military members have a 13 percent higher risk of being in an accident after returning stateside.

There are other risk factors for at-fault accidents according to the USAA Returning Warriors Driving Safety Report 2012:

  • Army Veterans accidents increased 23 percent; Marines 12.5 percent; Navy 3 percent and Air Force 2 percent.
  • Drivers younger than 22 are more at risk (a 25 percent increase) while those over 29 have a 7.5 percent increase
  • Drivers with 3 or more deployments are most at risk with a 36 percent increase in at-fault accidents; 2 deployments saw 27 percent increased; 1 deployment had a 12 percent increase.

The insurance company that only serves military and their families created an online survey for members returning from deployment. It has a dual purpose, to gather additional data about risk factors and to alert combat veterans of the driving dangers and offer safety tips such as:

  • Don’t start out driving at night or in heavy traffic
  • Plan out your route ahead of time
  • Avoid things that might cause you concern like narrow roads

The online assessment asks simple questions and is short according to John Bird, a retired Navy admiral and senior vice president for military affairs at USAA. He quelled any concerns that the data would be used against the driver.

“I will tell you our whole company business is built on trust. We absolutely are not using this data to raise rates or to affect policies for those military members,” Bird said. “In sharp contrast, we’re using this data as we do so much data across all insurance areas to go toward prevention.”

Additionally, USAA is offering a $25 incentive to a spouse or military member within six months of returning from deployment.

Bird said the company estimates that about 5,000 of its members return monthly.

EDITORS NOTE: The original version of this  story has been changed. There is no accurate estimate on the number of USAA members who have participated in the survey.

 

Help Greet Returning WWII Veterans

World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. Courtesy the National Parks.

World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. Courtesy the National Parks.

If you live in the Tampa Bay region and have an hour to spend this evening, head to the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.

Honor Flight of West Central Florida has sponsored 80 WWII veterans for a day-long visit to Washington D.C. memorials as a way to honor their service.Part of the celebration is a public “hero’s welcome home.”

The welcome home celebration is open to the public and free. Gather at the baggage claim area by 8 p.m.

To date, the West Coast Honor Flight organization has sponsored 1256 veterans’ visits to the nation’s capital and veteran memorials. The next flight is Sept. 30, 2014 out of Lakeland.

For more information contact info@HonorFlightWCF.org.

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.

Launching Careers, Finding Jobs for Vets with ‘Urgent’ Need

Russ Barnes, a retired Air Force colonel, who designed the USF Veterans Employment Project.

Russ Barnes, a retired Air Force colonel, who designed the USF Veterans Employment Project.

Despite the improving economy, finding a job or establishing a career remains a challenge and will be especially so for the million or more military service members expected to transition to civilian life in the next few years.

So, the University of South Florida Office of Veteran Services created the Veterans Employment Project, thanks to a grant from the JP Morgan & Chase Company, to prepare USF student veterans for the competitive civilian market.

Russ Barnes, a retired Air Force colonel with 27 years of service, designed the program. More than 30 student veterans applied, but the sessions need to be smaller to provide one-on-one help.

So, he prioritized the applicants with a survey. Those who scored 10 out of 10 as “urgent” that they find a job in the next three months were accepted first.

“We want to solve that right now,” Barnes said. “They’re urgent. We want to get them right now.”

The employment project he created is not the typical workshop. Barnes turns things upside down. Instead of starting with resume writing, he ends with it. He begins by focusing the veterans on their passion, their ideal career or job.

Then, he guides them working backward, identifying their industry of interest, researching companies, and then honing their resume to fit the job description.

USF student veteran Joshua Gleaton will graduate in May 2015 with a criminology degree.

USF student veteran Joshua Gleaton will graduate in May 2015 with a criminology degree.

By the end of day one, Barnes had the six student veterans in his August session signed up on Linked In. They had to join a professional group in their area of interest, researched companies and made personal connections with people working in their desired profession.

Joshua Gleaton spent more than four years in the Army as a forward observer. The former sergeant is completing a degree in criminology as he works with students at the USF Office of Veteran Services.

“These guys are veterans, they have military experience, there’s still an enormous amount of competition in the work field,” Gleaton said.

His goal is to have a career as a state game warden or work in criminal forensics for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Gleaton said the mock interview process helped him the most.

“One question that caught me off guard is ‘What is my biggest weakness?’ because you don’t want to sound like you have a weakness,” Gleaton said. “You try to turn that into that into a positive answer. “

Student veterans pair off to complete an exercise during a 5-day USF Veterans Employment Project August session.

Student veterans pair off to complete an exercise during a 5-day USF Veterans Employment Project August session.

To prepare the student veterans for interviews, Barnes brought in Crista Shaw, a disability and employment specialist and author of Passport to Education.”

After introducing herself on day four, Shaw, who volunteered to come, started with a couple of questions the veterans may encounter during a job interview.

“Has anybody here been fired from a job, two, three, my hand is up too,” Shaw said, putting them at ease. “I’ve been fired from a job. Let me tell you how to answer this question. “

Shaw did role playing with Franklin Castillo, a Marine going for his MBA. She worked with him on how to shorten his answer and bring the question back around to the present and positives he learned from being dismissed.

“If you leave with one thing today, I would tell you wherever you go you’re in an interview and if you can just be yourself, relax and be yourself,” Shaw advised.

Castillo is one of the student veterans who marked in his survey that it is urgent he find a job in the next three months. He wants to work for a commercial bank in anti-money laundering and fighting fraud.

Russ Barnes conducting the Veterans Employment Project session at the USF student veterans lounge.

Russ Barnes conducting the Veterans Employment Project session at the USF student veterans lounge.

“I came here with a preconceived notion, now as we’ve gone through the week, I’m so desirous to put this to work,” Castillo said.

Barnes said the employment workshop works both ways. Helping veterans adjust to the civilian job market and assisting employers by dispelling common myths about military veterans.

“Some of the misconceptions: in the military they always tell you what to do. They tell you what to eat, where to go what to do. They tell you when to do it, they tell you how to do it. And then you just do it,” Barnes said. “Many business owners say ‘I can’t have someone like that in my company, I need somebody who will be creative and work on their own.’ That is definitely a misconception.”

The workshop ended on the fifth day with mock interviews for the veterans. However,  Barnes said there’s a sixth module – the actual interview and job placement. He plans to stay in touch with all the student veterans until they land their ideal position.

In the interim, a third USF veterans’ employment 5-day session is scheduled to start Sept. 15, 2014.

You can listen to the radio story on WUSF Public Radio.

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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