Remembering the First Fallen from All-Female Team

   1st Lt. Ashley White was a member of the all-female Army Cultural Support Team. She was killed in Kandahar, Afghanistan in October 2011 while supporting a Ranger night mission. Credit Ashley White Family / Memorial Page


1st Lt. Ashley White was a member of the all-female Army Cultural Support Team. She was killed in Kandahar, Afghanistan in October 2011 while supporting a Ranger night mission.
Credit Ashley White Family / Memorial Page

Among those who will be remembered this Memorial Day is 1st Lt. Ashley White, a member of an all-female, all-Army Cultural Support Team attached to a Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan.

White is buried behind her family’s church in Ohio. It’s the same church where she was baptized and where she married Capt. Jason Stumpf six months before she was killed.

The family had the option of burying Ashley at Arlington National Cemetery,

“They wanted to keep her close to home,” said best-selling author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. She tells the story of Ashley and her female teammates in her new book: Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.

“One of the things that always stays for me is the first time I was in Ohio there was a sign in her room written on ripped up notebook paper that said in all block letters ‘YOU ARE MY MOTIVATION’,” Lemmon said. “You realize, it was not this exceptional person’s death that defined her. It was actually her life and the kind of person she was.”

White and two Army Rangers, Sgt. First Class Kris Domeij and Private First Class Christopher Horns, were killed by an improvised explosive device during a night mission in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan October 2011.

One was 29 and on his fourteenth deployment; another was just 20 serving on his first. And one was a National Guard member who answered the call to join a new, all-female, all Army special operations team. – Ashley’s War –

“This story is part of changing the way we see our heroes. And that is really what was so compelling about telling it was it was this team of women who came together and took the call to serve and will be family forever,” Lemmon said.

Ashley's_War_book_coverShe writes that the only comfort Ashley’s teammates could find in her death is that she was treated equally, the same as the two Rangers who died alongside. Just like them, a Ranger coin was placed on her casket before departing Afghanistan and her photo was placed on the wall of Ranger fallen.

“Special Operations commanders here in Tampa said these women may have well laid the foundation for ultimate integration,” Lemmon said. “They were out there every single night on these kinds of combat operations that less than 5 percent of U.S. military sees at the tip of the spear while officially women were banned from combat.”

She added that the White family considers that part of their daughter’s legacy is reminding the country of the courage and valor of this team of women who answered that call to serve.

You can read an excerpt from Ashley’s War here.

Author Lemmon also wrote the New York Times best-seller, The Dressmaker Of Khair Khana, which tells the story of a young Afghan entrepreneur whose business created jobs and hope for women during the Taliban years. Lemmon was in Tampa recently to speak to the Women in International Security Florida Chapter.

You can listen to the WUSF News story with Lemmon and the NPR interview from April.

The Story of the All Female Unit That Served with SOF

Ashley's_War_book_coverGayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of Ashley’s War, a book on the women who served with Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan, is speaking Monday, May 18, 2015 at 3:30 pm at the Port Tampa Library,  4902 West Commerce Street, Tampa, FL

Good Reads calls Ashley’s War “a gripping story of a groundbreaking team of female American warriors who served alongside Special Operations soldiers on the battlefield in Afghanistan—including Ashley White, a beloved soldier who died serving her country’s cause.”

Lemmon’s discussion is sponsored by the Women In International Security Florida WIIS. It will be followed by a book signing.

In Ashley’s War, Lemmon uses on-the ground reporting and a finely tuned understanding of the complexities of war to tell the story of CST-2, a unit of women hand-picked from the Army, and the remarkable hero at its heart: 1st Lt. Ashley White, who would become the first Cultural Support Team member killed in action and honored on the Army Special Operations Memorial Wall of Honor alongside the men of Ranger Regiment with whom she died on mission.

Lemmon also shared details about the book during an interview with National Public Radio in April. You can listen to that interview here. She also authored the New York Times bestseller, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

The author is also scheduled to appear a the US Special Operations Command celebration of the Global SOF (Special Operations Forces) Foundation One Year Anniversary Celebration at the Tampa History Center at 7 pm on Monday, May 18, 2015.

Free Admission for Military Today at Tampa Art Museum

art military appreciateion day COH_logoSmallCropped-267x300It’s hard to find anything more quintessentially American than the artwork of Norman Rockwell.

The Tampa Museum of Art has.

It’s taken Rockwell’s art and is offering free admission to military, veterans and their families to its exhibit American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell today, March 8, 2015, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Complimentary tickets are available for the first 50 additional guests of the military patrons. The schedule of activities design challenge activities, a children’s art spot, docent-let tours and live music.

The Military Appreciation Day at the Tampa Museum of Art, 120 W. Gasparilla Plaza, is in partnership with the Gasparilla Music Festival and Booz Allen Hamilton, a management and technology consulting company to defense and civil markets.

Additional discount tickets will be sold with proof of Military ID at the GMF box office. Children under 12 are free with the purchase of adult tickets.

Winning Appeals for Denied Veteran Benefits Claims

Stetson Veterans Advocacy Clinic director Stacey-Rae Simcox goes over a case file with paralegal Shirley Wells. Both women are Army veterans.

Stetson Veterans Advocacy Clinic director Stacey-Rae Simcox (left) goes over a case file with paralegal Shirley Wells (right). Both women are Army veterans.

There’s no shortage of stories about veterans who have had their disability benefit claims denied by the Veterans Administration, or their appeals paperwork lost.

The VA claims process can be complex, time consuming and downright frustrating.

But there’s help for veterans who have hit a roadblock in their quest for benefits they earned while serving in the military.

The new director at the Stetson University College of Law Veterans Advocacy Clinic has forged some creative partnerships resulting in an 81 percent success rate appealing denied VA benefits claims.

“With this legal-medical partnership and law students bringing evidence to the table for the VA and making it easy to understand, we’ve been able to get the VA to change their mind about 81 percent of the time, the very first time we present evidence to them which is impressive,” said Stacey-Rae Simcox, Veterans Advocacy Clinic director.

Stetson recruited Simcox from William & Mary where she helped establish a veterans’ legal clinic in 2008.

VLI_sign_exterior“My husband, Mark Matthews, actually helped me start that clinic at William & Mary. And the reason we started it was when we got off active-duty, we messed up my husband’s claims with the VA so badly that we missed all the deadlines and the claims died,” Simcox said. “We couldn’t get all the benefits he deserved. We thought “Jeez!” if two JAG officers can’t figure this out, how is the average service member who gets off active-duty going to figure this out. So we decided to become experts.”

And they also became innovators setting up a partnership at William & Mary between the veterans’ clinic and the psychology department. Psychology students did mental health assessments of veterans who had been denied a disability claim. The results were include in their appeal to the VA.

“Any veteran who has gone through the process of veterans benefits will tell you that medical evidence is really important to what they do and if you can’t prove to the VA through medical evidence that your disability somehow has to do with your service, then you’re not going to get that benefit,” Simcox said.

Because of their limited staff, veterans seeking help with a claims appeal are asked to call or contact the clinic through their website.

Because of their limited staff, veterans seeking help with a claims appeal are asked to call or contact the clinic through their website.

At Stetson she’s forged an even broader partnership teaming up with the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine.

“To create a partnership with the medical school for this purpose is a huge boon to the veterans and the VA because not only are we able to help veterans with mental health condition like post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, but now we can collaborate with medicine on the issues that most veterans have: hearing loss, back problems, knee problems,” Simcox said.

By the time a veteran walks into the Stetson Veterans Law Institute – they’ve usually knocked on every door there is to knock on. As soon as they enter the converted one-story home across from the Gulfport campus, they will meet Shirley Wells, a paralegal, and Army veteran who handles intake.

“We have some cases where soldiers have been looked over for 20-30 years,” Wells said.

Eighty-percent of their cases are appeals of denied disability claims, but occasionally they help on unique first-time claims.

Second year law student Daniel Flanagan couldn't join the Marines because of health issues. So, he wanted to serve by helping veterans with their disability claims appeals.

Second year law student Daniel Flanagan couldn’t join the Marines because of health issues. So, he wanted to serve by helping veterans with their disability claims appeals.

Stetson law students are a key to the success of the Veterans Advocacy Clinic. They do much of research and reading of files as thick as 1,000 pages. Daniel Flanagan, a second year student, works 18 hours a week at the clinic.

“This is practical. You don’t get to chew through a case file in any of your other classes. When you get Torts you go through a whole bunch of Supreme Court cases, but you don’t actually sit down with a case file that is a 1,000 pages thick,” Flanagan said.

What are practical lessons for the law students can become life-changing cases for the veterans.

“The people we’re getting are kind of at the end of their rope. They don’t have anywhere else to go,” Flanagan said. “For me, it makes it stressful because ‘Oh my goodness!’ I’m your last hope. Hope I don’t mess this one up.”

That’s not going to happen because their work is supervised by Simcox and other law professors at Stetson

Simcox is working toward the day when the VA and the veterans clinic can have a strong, two-way relationship so they can work together fixing veterans’ benefit claims and getting the assessments right the first time.

Meet the Top NCO from Florida’s 53rd Infantry Brigade

Florida National Guard SSG Aidana Baez with her practice "ruck" weighing 45 pounds - 10 more pounds that in competition - for training marches.

Florida National Guard SSG Aidana Baez with her practice “ruck” weighing 45 pounds – 10 more pounds than what is used in the competition.

The top Non-Commissioned Officers from the Florida Army National Guard this weekend are at Camp Blanding vying for the title of “Florida NCO of the year.”

It is two days of physical competitions, weapons and skills contests, a six-mile “ruck” march and tests on Army regulations.

Representing the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, headquartered in Pinellas Park, is Staff Sergeant Aidana Baez. She won NCO competitions at the company level and battalion level to earn the top brigade honor.

“I like to joke that the Non-Commissioned Officer of the year for the infantry brigade wears a skirt,” Baez said. “Cause I wear a skirt with my uniform and I think that’s fantastic.”

Active Guard Reserves from the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team do PT, physical training, in the parking lot of their Pinellas Park, FL headquarters.

Active Guard Reserves from the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team do PT, physical training, in the parking lot of their Pinellas Park, FL headquarters.

The petite soldier beat out competitors from the two infantry battalions, a field artillery regiment and a cavalry unit.

“They were all men, and I was just another competitor,” Baez said. “Maybe they didn’t see it until the “ruck March” that I meant business. But, it wasn’t like a blowout. They all did really well and we all encouraged each other.”

Baez said her strength in the competition is knowing the Army regulations which is a sweet irony because she almost got thrown out of the regular Army 11 years ago.

“My first duty station was Fort Drum, New York, not an easy duty station and I was not an easy soldier to deal with,” Baez confessed. “I had attitude, I was insubordinate, I got in plenty of trouble. And then, the day had come where I did too much. I was getting kicked out of the Army. My paperwork was done.”

Baez holds some of the ribbons and medals she's earned during 14 years in the military and two deployments, one to Iraq and the other to Kuwait.

Baez holds some of the ribbons and medals she’s earned during 14 years in the military and two deployments, one to Iraq and the other to Kuwait.

But the base chaplain and several NCOs stepped up in her defense. She was given a rehabilitative transfer to a new unit. Baez finished her hitch with the regular Army and then moved back to Florida and joined the National Guard.

She’s now a staff sergeant known for giving second chances to her soldiers, but they have to earn it.

With 14 years of service to her credit, Baez is on a mission to become Florida’s Top Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year. If she wins, Baez will advance to the regional NCO completion in the Virgin Islands.

Sec. Chuck Hagel’s Farewell – ‘People Depend on You’

TAMPA, Fla. (Aug. 28, 2014) -- Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel attends a Change of Command ceremony for U.S. Special Operations Command at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Fla. August 28, 2014. DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt/Released

TAMPA, Fla. (Aug. 28, 2014) — Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel attends a Change of Command ceremony for U.S. Special Operations Command at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Fla. August 28, 2014. DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt/Released

Below is the farewell message from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel – dated – February 13, 2015.

To the men and women of the Department of Defense:

When I joined the United States Army 48 years ago, I could not have imagined one day serving as secretary of defense. It has been a tremendous privilege to serve with you.

As I leave office, I am immensely proud of what we have accomplished together over the past two years.

We have responsibly ended our combat operations in Afghanistan and begun the follow-on mission to preserve our achievements there.

We have bolstered enduring alliances and strengthened emerging partnerships, while successfully responding to crises around the world.

We have launched vital reforms that will prepare this institution for the challenges of the future.

We have fought hard – and made real progress – against the scourge of sexual assault in our ranks.

And after 13 years of war, we have worked to restore our military readiness and ease the burdens on our people and their families.

Through it all, many of you, and your families, coped with shutdowns and furloughs; weathered hiring and pay freezes; and endured long hours and longer deployments. You did so because we each took an oath to defend our nation, our fellow citizens, and our way of life. And you have lived up to your word.

But as you know well, the world is still too dangerous, and threats too numerous. I know you will remain vigilant, continuing your important work under the leadership of Ash Carter.

A special note to our men and women in uniform: of all the many opportunities my life has given me, I am most proud of having once been a soldier. The lessons from my time in uniform about trust, responsibility, duty, judgment, and loyalty – I have carried these with me throughout my life. As your secretary of defense, I have seen those same traits in each of you.

Whether you serve in uniform or as a civilian, you are the reason why our military is the finest in the world and the most admired and most trusted institution in America. Nothing has clarified my thinking, nothing has renewed my hope, and nothing has made me prouder than getting to know, work, and serve with so many of you who have put the nation’s interest above your own.

If I had any parting guidance, it would be the same reminder that my drill sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class William Joyce, gave to me after I finished basic training in 1967: “People depend on you. They’ll always depend on you.”

That was true for me then, and it is true for all of you today. People depend on you – America depends on you – to live up to your oath, to conduct yourselves in keeping with our highest standards, and to perform as the greatest military the world has ever known. After two years serving with you, I am confident you will continue to do so.

You and your families have my deepest gratitude and admiration.

Thank you for your unflagging service and your commitment to this country. May God bless America and each and every one of you.

 

Haley VA Making Strides for Paralyzed Veterans

 (April 2014) Lead therapist Michael Firestone adjusts the Exoskeleton computer backpack for veteran Josh Baker, paralyzed after a motorcycle accident. Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media


(April 2014) Lead therapist Michael Firestone adjusts the Exoskeleton computer backpack for veteran Josh Baker, paralyzed after a motorcycle accident.
Credit Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media

Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Hospital is using cutting edge technology to help injured veterans rehabilitate.

One of the devices, at the Spinal Cord Injury Center, helping paralyzed veterans stand and walk again is the Exoskeleton.

Using a computer backpack, robotic leg braces and a walker, veteran Josh Baker demonstrated the Exoskeleton during the April 2014 ceremonial opening of Haley’s new Polytrauma Center.

Baker said it didn’t require much effort on his part.

“If you get a good rhythm and you’re good upright, you can actually walk right along and the machine simulates it,” Baker said.

His VA therapists were impressed by how quickly Baker advanced after just two weeks of practice. Baker was on the device’s most advanced setting, where the device takes automatic steps once it senses the veteran’s foot is in the correct position.

One of the features of the Exoskeleton is that it can be programmed with each individual’s weight, height and gait which individualizes the simulated walking, therapists said.

For the first time since his motorcycle accident in November 2013, Baker said the ability to walk with the Exoskeleton gave him “a jubilation feeling.”

Witnessing their wheelchair-bound son walk again that day at Haley was emotional for his parents Laurie and Robert Baker.

Courtesy of Ekso Bionics website

Courtesy of Ekso Bionics website

Laurie Baker said anything that makes her son feel better makes her feel better. His father agreed.

“It was incredible,” Robert Baker said. “That’s the first time I got to see him walk since November and it just means so much.”

He said the device also will help other veterans living with disabilities.

“It’s going to help so many other servicemen to just give them the hope that they can stand again when they’re just stuck in a wheelchair,” said Robert Baker. “It’s just a blessing.”

Haley is one of two Ekso Bionic Centers in Florida. The other is located at the University of Miami Project.

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