Korean War POW Honored 65 Years Later

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Edward Grady Halcomb,84, just received the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross for his sacrifice and heroism as a Prisoner of War during the Korean War at age 19.

After a delay of 65 years and an Act of Congress, a Polk County soldier has finally been acknowledged for his heroism and sacrifice while a prisoner of war in Korea.

More than 100 friends and family crammed into the Medulla Community Center in Lakeland last week to watch as Edward “Grady” Halcomb was presented the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, an award for valor second only to the Medal of Honor.

Halcomb retired from the Army as a Sergeant First Class in 1968, but he was honored for what he did as a private when taken prisoner in the Korean War. Continue reading

Civil War-Era Law Complicates Veterans’ Disability Claims

Gustavo Nunez, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq, and his daughter, Ava Nunez.

Gustavo Nunez, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq, and his daughter, Ava.

 

Stories about veterans waiting years, decades even, to resolve a disability claim are not uncommon.

“I have a claim from 2003 that’s still not found yet. Nobody knows where it’s at,” said Gustavo Nunez, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq. “I actually gave up on it a long time ago. I was so frustrated with the system.”

It wasn’t until the birth of his 2-year-old daughter that Nunez decided to try again for his disability benefits. Worried about their future, Nunez wants to make sure he’ll have the VA to care for his health problems related to his service because he won’t be able to afford the medical bills.

It’s no surprise that many think the Department of Veterans Affairs automatically takes care of disabled veterans when they leave the military. Continue reading

Sacred Stories And Experiences Shared Among Veterans

WWII veteran and former POW Tracy Taylor was invited to join veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in a gator hunt.

WWII veteran and former POW Tracy Taylor was invited to join veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in a gator hunt.

A 95-year-old World War II POW joined wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans recently for a gator hunt in rural Polk County. But it wasn’t the hunt that made this experience so extraordinary – it was the sharing of stories between the generations that made it special.

There are some things that veterans just don’t feel comfortable talking about, except possibly with another veteran.

That sacred bond, between veterans, can transcend time and different wars – especially among those wounded, disabled or experienced in combat.

Providing a setting that gives veterans a chance to establish those special bonds has become the joint mission of several organizations including the non-profit, community based Wounded Warrior Sportsmen Fund and Operation Outdoor Freedom, a program with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

WWII veteran Tracy Taylor, in the foreground, talked for about an hour with the younger veterans before going on the hunt.

WWII veteran Tracy Taylor, in the foreground, talked for about an hour with the younger veterans before going on the hunt.

In the past year, they’ve sponsored more than 70 hunting, fishing and canoeing trips in Florida for more than 400 wounded veterans.

In December, that included a gator hunt at Lake Hancock. It’s a large lake southeast of Lakeland that’s filled with alligators and surrounded by moss-draped cypress, maple and willow trees.

What made the three-day event extra special was a visit from World War II veteran Jasper G. Taylor, who prefers to be called Tracy.

The 95-year-old veteran survived 3 years, 5 months and 28 days as a prisoner of war in Japan.

“I guess I am, but I’m not, a wounded warrior,” Taylor said as he addressed about a dozen veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “I didn’t have any combat injuries. I don’t have a Purple Heart.”

But he told the younger wounded warriors that maybe he qualified as part of their band because of the abuse he suffered while a POW. Taylor was an Army Air Corps radio operator who was captured after the surrender of Corregidor in the Philippines in May, 1942.

Veterans and volunteers look on as one of the gators is captured and killed on Lake Hancock.

Veterans and volunteers look on as one of the gators is captured and killed on Lake Hancock.

“They couldn’t speak any English and we couldn’t speak Japanese and 90 percent of the time we didn’t understand what they were saying or doing,” Taylor said to the group gathered around a smoldering campfire. “They would enforce their commands with bayonets or anything else.”

Taylor said the POWs were forced to “clean up” Corregidor and then shipped out to an indoctrination camp in Taiwan for weeks and later to Japan where he was forced to work at the Mitsubishi shipyard and later in a copper mine.

“Anybody know anything about the Japanese culture?”  Taylor asked his audience of fresh veteran faces. “Well, every morning they get up and they face the sun, they face east, pledge their allegiance to Emperor of Japan. Well, when we got there we had do the same thing.  The only thing was, all the way down line, the only thing you heard was ‘Go to hell, you son of a b—h. And that kind of made it worthwhile.”

The group laughed at Taylor’s resilient response and at many of his stories that went on for close to an hour.

The three gators from the veterans' hunt.

The three gators from the veterans’ hunt.

Throughout the chat, he routinely sprinkled in a humorous twist or silver lining when describing his life as a POW. For example, Taylor told of convincing the prison camp interrogator that he was a barber instead of a North Carolina farm boy.

“Only hair I ever cut was the mane or the tail on mule or horse,” Taylor said. But he embellished out of necessity to become the prison camp’s barber because he could no longer walk due to malnutrition.

“I wound up with beriberi and was numb from waist down for six months,” Taylor said. “That worked in my favor. I didn’t have to go to the shipyard because I couldn’t walk.”

His weight dropped from 120 to 87 pounds while a POW.

Yet when asked about the abuse he suffered and witnessed, Taylor was sparse with his descriptions. He later shared, privately, that he promised himself a long time ago that he would talk about what happened to him as a POW, but would not talk about the torture because nothing would be gained by it.

It wasn’t all talk. The young veterans and volunteers loaded into ATVs and took Taylor out to “bag” a gator. There were three gators caught and killed.

The veterans ended the morning helping Taylor kneel down to take a photo to remember their successful hunt. The gators were then taken to be processed for their meat and skins which are shared with the veterans afterward.

Veterans from all generations pose for a photo after the successful hunt in December 2015.

Veterans from all generations pose for a photo after the successful hunt in December 2015.

CENTCOM Timeline On Iran’s Seizure of 10 U.S. Sailors

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Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, center, as he briefed news media Jan. 14 during a visit to U.S. Central Command Headquarters in Tampa, FL.

The United States Central Command, based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, FL, has released a detailed accounting of time behind the Jan. 12 seizure of two U.S. Navy Riverine Command Boats and their crew of 10 buy Iranian forces.

There is still no public reason why the two boats ended up in Iranian waters, the sailors are still being debriefed. But an inventory of the two boats reveals that two SIM cards are missing from the boats’ satellite phones.

  • On Jan. 12, 2016 at 9:23 a.m. (GMT) two NAVCENT Riverine Command Boat (RCB) crews were relocating two boats from Kuwait to Bahrain, with a planned refueling en route alongside the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Monomoy.
  • At 2 p.m. (GMT) approximately the two RCBs were scheduled to refuel in international waters.
  • At approximately 2:10 p.m. (GMT) NAVCENT received a report that the RCBs were being queried by Iranians.
  • At approximately 2:29 p.m. (GMT) NAVCENT was advised of degraded communications.
  • At 2:45 p.m. (GMT) NAVCENT was notified of a total loss of communications and an intensive search and rescue operation immediately initiated including aircraft from USS Harry S. Truman and the U.S. Air Force, and U.S. Coast Guard, U.K. Royal Navy and U.S. Navy surface vessels. And attempts to reach Iranian forces made.
  • At 6:15 p.m. (GMT), U.S. Navy cruiser USS Anzio received a communication from the Iranians that the RCB Sailors were in Iranian custody and were “safe and healthy.”
  • Jan. 13, 2016 at 8:43 a.m. (GMT), the U.S. sailors departed Iran’s Farsi Island  aboard the two RCBs and later transferred ashore by U.S. Navy aircraft from the cruiser USS Anzio and the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.
  • At 10:38 p.m. (GMT), the RCBs arrived in Bahrain at 10:38 p.m. with replacement crews.

The full news release detailing the timeline is available and further updates expected.

Top ‘Vet Friendly’ School Refuses Former Green Beret

Clay Alred 12-11-15 cropped

Former Green Beret Staff Sgt. Clay Allred was released from house arrest and only remains on probation after fulfilling all the requirements of his Veterans Treatment Court agreement which included completing treatment for PTSD, TBI and alcohol abuse. And Allred exceeded the number of community service hours required by the court.

The University of South Florida was listed as the most veteran friendly college in the nation by Money Magazine in 2015. But it’s not looking so “friendly” after refusing to re-admit a student veteran expelled because of a PTSD-related incident.

It leads to questions about the “veteran friendly” rankings. What do they mean and who do they serve?

For USF President Judy Genshaft, the  No. 1 ranking is a source of pride.

“As you know Money Magazine rated us No. 1 in the country as veteran friendly, and it was the Veteran Times that listed us number two,” Genshaft said after the December USF trustees meeting. “So, our veterans are clearly, very, very important to us.”

Student veterans also are a reliable source of tuition.

In 2015, USF received more than $7.1 million in GI Bill benefits, according to a letter Veteran Administration Secretary Bob McDonald sent last month to Genshaft.

His letter was responding to a plea from Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder, McDonald’s West Point classmate and head of the Hillsborough Veterans Treatment Court.

Holder is lobbying Genshaft, the USF Board of Trustees and now the VA Secretary to help Clay Allred, a former USF student veteran.

USF expelled the former Green Beret for an off-campus crime. He was 17 credits short of his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. In August 2014, the combat veteran was arrested and charged after threatening a store clerk with a weapon and later firing a revolver into the air after he was not allowed to use the gas station restroom.

The felony convictions landed Allred in veterans’ court and under Holder’s supervision. The court got Allred help from the VA where he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and received treatment.

“Clearly abhorrent behavior triggered as we now know by his PTSD and his TBI,” Holder said after making an appeal to USF trustees in December. “Are we to stigmatize these men and women throughout their lives?”

Holder_USF_TrusteesDespite Holder’s efforts, USF denied Allred readmission again in an letter sent last Friday. The rejection letter stated that “once a student is expelled, they cannot be considered for readmission.” It also stated that Allred was turned down because he is still under felony probation and because of the severity of his crime. Allred has 10 days to appeal.

Allred’s case was not on the radar when Money Magazine ranked USF at the top, according to reporter Kaitlin Mulhere. She said she used metrics like staff levels, support services and graduation rates to create the list that was a merge of Money Magazine’s Best Colleges and Military Times Veteran Friendly rankings.

She said the Post 9-11 GI Bill benefits make veterans desirable students.

“If somebody was maybe a little more cynical, they’d point out that student veterans bring with them considerable tuition money from the federal government,” Mulhere said. “They’re kind of a guaranteed tuition bill for colleges.”

Veterans are valued students but not solely for the GI tuition according to David Vacchi, who is working on his doctorate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst that looks at the success of veterans recently graduated from college.

“The real benefit in bringing in veterans on the GI Bill is you’re graduating students without debt,” Vacchi said. “Alumni that graduate without debt is going to get to towards that ability to donate much faster.”

Vacchi is a retired Army officer and associate director for veteran services at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. He said, in his experience, veterans don’t use the magazine rankings when selecting a school. He’s not a fan of the reports that rely in part on self-reporting surveys.

“I’m wondering if magazines are just trying to capitalize on the popularity of the Post 9-11 GI Bill in order for them to make money or are they truly interested in helping veterans find the best fit for them?” Vacchi said. “There’s nothing in these lists that suggests any attempt to make an individual fit.”

He was unfamiliar with the USF case, but said it is not typical – that most student veterans are not dealing with PTSD.

Yet, Vacchi said he was puzzled that USF didn’t go beyond set policies and reach out to Allred: “Why can’t the director of admissions or a board of people or heck the president sit down and meet with this veteran and make an assessment for themselves?”

Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs McDonald will be doing his own assessment when he sits down with USF President Genshaft on Feb. 12 in Washington D.C. to talk about how to make USF friendlier toward student veterans with legal problems and mental health issues.

Tips For Sending Holiday Packages To Deployed Troops

Care packages being prepared for Citadel Cadets prior to Christmas.

Care packages being prepared for Citadel Cadets prior to Christmas.

The  Blue Star Families blog has five essential tips to send a memorable box of goodies to your loved one overseas. And they throw in some ideas on popular gifts.

  1. Send them holiday traditions. Pack up a DVD of the family’s favorite holiday movie such as It’s A Wonderful Life, or a family favorite holiday food like fruitcake or special cookies.
  2. Check the country’s list of prohibited goods. The military has an agreement to not ship prohibited foods for certain countries. For example in the Middle East or Persian Gulf areas, you should not send anything that would offend people of the Islamic faith, including pork or pork by-products, obscene material, and alcohol.
  3. Take care when packing. Some foods may spoil before they reach their destination and chocolate items melt if being mailed to a hotter climate.
  4. Check shipping dates. The United States Postal Service suggests for priority packages and letters to mail by Dec. 10, 2015 or Dec. 3 for AE ZIP 093.
  5. Send something to share. Deployed troops live, work and survive as teams. So, send enough cookies for their team. Some families even send personalized stockings for team members.

For ideas on what to ship to your deployed loved one, check out the Blue Star Families list and The Military Times.

 

Hunger No Stranger To Veteran And Military Families

 Transitioning Army veteran Keith Norman, his wife Lina Norman and two of their four daughters, Shelia Encheva, 12, and Kiara Norman, 3. Bobbie O'Brien WUSF Public Media


Transitioning Army veteran Keith Norman, his wife Lina Norman and two of their four daughters, Shelia Encheva, 12, and Kiara Norman, 3.
Bobbie O’Brien WUSF Public Media

A 2014 survey found that almost 20 percent of the households using the Feeding Tampa Bay food bank were either veterans or active duty military.

The Norman family is a military family recently arrived from Colorado and transitioning into civilian life in Tampa. Never in a million years did the parents imagine that they would need help feeding their children.

“Everything changed from two, three weeks ago – we have a normal life. I worked. He worked. We’d go to the mall,” Lina Norman said. “Now, it’s nothing like this anymore. My little daughter asks ‘Can we go to the mall, can I have a hamburger? No. We always have to say no for everything now.”

Just a few weeks ago, Keith Norman was still in the Army. But after almost 10 years on active-duty and two deployments to Iraq, he wanted to follow his dream to become a law officer.

“We planned a year out. We made arrangements for housing because that would be the main thing we needed,” he said.

 Keith Norman served almost 10 years in the Army including two tours in Iraq before pursuing his dream to become a law officer. Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media


Keith Norman served almost 10 years in the Army including two tours in Iraq before pursuing his dream to become a law officer.
Credit Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media

They found a house to rent online. Lina said they got photos of the house and assurances from the landlord that it was in a safe neighborhood.

“We sent a security deposit, rent, everything. And we think okay, he has the job interview, we have the house, we’re good,” said Lina, who met and married Keith in Germany about five years ago.

But things weren’t good. They said the house they rented online ended up being in a bad neighborhood, and was infested with roaches and full of trash.

“My kids just get scared,” Lina Norman said. “They say ‘Where are we?’ They never lived in, they never been in situation like this.”

The Normans used up their savings staying in motel rooms while they tried to get a refund and find another house. When their money ran low, they pawned their television, borrowed money from family and then Keith and Lina started skipping meals.

The executive director of Feeding Tampa Bay said about 70 percent of the food they distribute is perishable, vegetables, dairy and frozen foods and supply about 65 percent of the food to soup kitchens and food pantries in a 10 county region.

The executive director of Feeding Tampa Bay said about 70 percent of the food they distribute is perishable, vegetables, dairy and frozen foods and supply about 65 percent of the food to soup kitchens and food pantries in a 10 county region.

“We just buy food for the kids first. They say ‘Mom why you don’t eat?’” Lina Norman said. “They just give us pieces and just say we going to be fine. And we try to don’t lose it completely in front of them.”

The family including the four girls, Shelia, 12; Esli, 9; Jeida, 7; and Kiara, 3 started sleeping in their two cars.

“Basically, we had to stretch our money out,” Keith Norman said. “When we were living in our vehicles, it was a big life changer.”

Both parents were embarrassed and distraught by how quickly their finances disintegrated. And they worried that asking for help might affect their job prospects.

But after sleeping in their cars for about a week, the family got a motel voucher and meals from Metropolitan Ministries and help finding a modest, single-family concrete block home in the Palm River neighborhood.

The three school-aged girls are enrolled in school and Keith said he’s taken his first test in the process of becoming a law officer.

“My daughter (Shelia), she has a birthday on (Nov.) 25th.  She’s going to be 13. We try to save our last money for cake,” Lina said.

But she said they were not planning on celebrating Thanksgiving because they didn’t have a reliable source of food that was until they visited Feeding Tampa Bay.

 Feeding Tampa Bay CEO Thomas Mantz and new employee Marlon Sykes, a 18-year Air Force veteran, stand before a large banner of people's photos, all helped by the food bank. Bobbie O'Brien WUSF Public Media


Feeding Tampa Bay CEO Thomas Mantz and new employee Marlon Sykes, a 18-year Air Force veteran, stand before a large banner of people’s photos, all helped by the food bank.
Bobbie O’Brien WUSF Public Media

“When I hear a story like that, I’m struck by the idea that they’re willing to do whatever is necessary in order to make the life for their children and their family what we would all want it to be. The lengths that they have to go to though are extraordinary,” said Thomas Mantz, Feeding Tampa Bay executive director.

The regional food bank provides an estimated 65 percent of the all food used in the soup kitchens and distributed through food pantries in a 10 county area.

Feeding Tampa Bay did a quadrennial survey that found 19 percent of the households they serve have a veteran or active duty military member.

New employee Marlon Sykes, a  18-year Air Force veteran, was only slightly surprised by that statistic.

“It mostly startles me because I don’t feel like any veteran should be in that category. But it doesn’t surprise me because I’ve seen it,” Sykes said.

What happened to the Norman family is becoming a lot more common.

“It’s particularly awful that veterans who we’ve asked to stand up and guard us and defend us should be hungry. I agree with that 1,000 percent,” Mantz said. “I also believe that no one else should be hungry.”

Feeding Tampa Bay provided the Norman family with a box of food and details on how to find their mobile food pantries.

The loading docks at Feeding Tampa Bay which provides about 65 percent of all the food at soup kitchens, church pantries and other charitable food programs in a 10-county region.

The loading docks at Feeding Tampa Bay which provides about 65 percent of all the food at soup kitchens, church pantries and other charitable food programs in a 10-county region.

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