Army ROTC Hosts Annual Golf Scramble

USF ARMY ROTC golf scrambleAs we near Veterans Day, a lot of people are looking for ways to honor veterans and those currently serving. If you play golf or just have fun on the links, here’s an opportunity to support young men and women training to become Army officers.

It’s the 11th Annual University of South Florida Army ROTC Golf Scramble – a rich tradition that helps fund Army ROTC current and future programs.

The event is scheduled Nov. 14, 2014, at Heritage Isles Golf and Country Club, 10630 Plantation Bay Drive, Tampa, FL. The Golf Scramble begins at 7:30am.

In addition to contributing to an organization that strives to build competent and confident cadets, it’s also an opportunity to meet our future 2nd Lieutenants that will be leading our sons and daughters in the U.S. Army. You can register and find more information about teams and sponsorships at USF Army ROTC Golf Scramble website.

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.

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.

Mud Run to Benefit Saint Leo Student Veterans

Sometimes you’ve got to get down and dirty to raise money for your charity. And that’s exactly what Saint Leo University is doing.

One several mud obstacles at the Mud Endeavor course in Brooksville, FL.

One several mud obstacles at the Mud Endeavor course in Brooksville, FL.

To raise money for the veteran student emergency fund (now known as Military Education Excellence), the Saint Leo Veteran Student Services office is partnering with Mud Endeavor to sponsor the Mud Endeavor V Saturday, Oct. 4, at 29251 Wildlife Lane, Brooksville, FL.

The event is planned on the site of an old dirt mine and promises a 100-foot water slide, plenty of mud obstacles, challenging hill climbs and a spectator viewing area where you can see 75 percent of the course.

The dirtier and tougher, the better for military veteran Christopher Burke, incoming president of the Saint Leo Student Veterans Association.

“Sometimes, we need to get the blood pumping,” Burke said. “So things like the mud run, I believe that is going to be a huge thing. A lot of veterans – a lot of veteran organizations are tied to those events.”

Anyone who pre-registers for the Mud Endeavor V – using the promotional code: STLEOVETS will get a discount to $45 and their registration will benefit the Saint Leo Military Education Excellence fund.

The competitive runners start at 9 a.m. and participants continue in waves through 11 a.m. There’s a $5 charge for spectators.

 

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.

 

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