Dedications Recognize Men of Service

Col. Merchant on the right receiving the Bronze Star.

Lake Renamed for “Bo”

The City of Tampa renamed the lake in Gadsden Park today after a Special Operations paratrooper who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Korea among many overseas assignments.

Known as “Bo,” Col. James L. Merchant III, 46, died in the Gadsden park lake during a training parachute jump in 2009.

A photo of Merchant on the river he loved from an online "legacy" dedicated to his memory.

He was commissioned in the Army through the Citadel ROTC program served more than two decades being awarded many honors including the Bronze Star, a Defense Meritorious Service Medal, a Meritorious Service Medal and the Joint Service Commendation Medal. He was stationed with the U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base at the time of the accident.

An online “legacy” page dedicated to the memory of Col. Merchant stated that his favorite place in Tampa was on the river below his house. He is survived by his wife, parents and brother.

 

Veterans Museum to be Named after Rear Admiral

LeRoy Collins, Jr. at a Collins Center Board of Trustees meeting in Tampa, September 2009.

Next week, Hillsborough County’s Veterans Museum Building will be dedicated to the memory of Rear Adm. LeRoy Collins, Jr. who was killed earlier this year while riding his bicycle near downtown Tampa.

The dedication ceremony will recognize Collins’ life and accomplishments and is scheduled Dec. 8th at  2 p.m. at Veterans Memorial Park and Museum, 3602 Hwy. 301 North, Tampa.

The son of a former governor and Florida native, LeRoy Collins, Jr. received his commission from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1956, and spent the next 10 years on active duty before transferring to the Navy Reserves. He retired from the Navy Reserves as a two-star Rear Admiral in October 1990.

In 2007, Rear Admiral Collins was appointed executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs where he was a fierce advocate on behalf of Florida’s more than 1.6 million veterans and their families.

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Frustrating Federal Job Search

 

Paperwork was part of the job in 2005 when Capt. Krepstekies was commanding 160 soldiers on refueling missions in Iraq.

By Colleen Krepstekies

My Job Search
Having had 11 years of federal government service, I have attempted to obtain a position as a federal civilian employee since I left the military in 2006. Working in this sector permits me to apply my military service toward a federal retirement. However, navigating this system is a tricky, convoluted process. It involves a primary web portal – USAJOBS.GOV – that leads to all the military services’ and government entities’ individualized websites. And while it’s online versus paper, it’s a process that will test nearly anyone’s patience.

However, I’m not one to torture myself for no good reason. A key perk in landing a job as a government-civilian employee is the opportunity to earn federal retirement benefits. In addition, if one is a military veteran, then that person is placed in the “Veteran’s Preference” category. This reportedly means that those with previous military experience receive preference over those without. With these thoughts in mind four years ago, I dedicated myself to the goal of landing a federal-civilian position. But, again, it’s a process so keep reading.

Getting Started Online

First, you register for the website itself. This is essentially an online job listing of tens of thousands of government job openings. The primary web portal prompts you to upload your federal-civilian job resume. (There are multiple agencies that help military personnel translate their experience, but approach this avenue with caution). Once inside, you can narrow your search by zip code, city, or government agency to name a few.

After you tighten your search to requested parameters, you can scroll potential positions scanning each job vacancy announcement. Read each announcement closely because each one contains key points for desired qualifications. It also plays a part in how you should craft your resume for each particular position. Usually when I’ve made it this far, I notice that applicants must have a PhD and/or 20+ years of work experience to be considered qualified, or so it often seems.

Registration Duplication

Once you select a potential position, you can apply online or via fax. Although applying online may be easier than previous application processes, I wouldn’t describe it as user-friendly. Just to get started, you’ll have to register with yet another username and password at another website. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that you record your usernames and passwords immediately. If you don’t, you could get locked out because you forgot what your password was when you applied for the job four months earlier after finally receiving an automated email telling you they filled the position.

Veterans Preference?

This brings me back to Veteran’s preference. I think it’s an urban legend. While veterans might optimistically apply hoping their veteran’s status will put them near the top of the stack, it has yet to give me an edge. What I have heard is that it really is who you know, that the position is posted to fulfill regulatory directives and that someone is already lined up before the job is even posted. I haven’t completely thrown in the towel on this initiative, but I’m going to try my luck in the civilian sector in the meantime.

Colleen Krepstekies is a former Army captain who contributes regularly to this blog. You can read more about her on the contributor’s page.

Some 2,500 Guardsmen Home by Christmas

Posting an article from the Florida National Guard which is celebrating tonight as the first wave of soldiers returns to the U.S. from its largest deployment since WWII. More than 2,500 soldiers are scheduled to come home before Christmas. The 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT) is based in Pinellas Park, FL.

A Soldier from the Florida Army National Guard's 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team gets a hug from a family member after a welcome home ceremony at Fort Stewart, Ga., Nov. 28, 2010. More than 150 Soldiers from the 53rd returned home to the U.S. following a nearly year-long deployment to Southwest Asia. Photo by Debra Cox

By Master Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa
Florida National Guard Public Affairs

FORT STEWART, Ga. (Nov. 28, 2010) – The first group of Soldiers from the
Florida National Guard’s largest overseas deployment arrived in the U.S. this
morning, marking the beginning of the end for a nearly year-long mission in
Southwest Asia.

As temperatures dipped into the 30s more than 150 Soldiers from the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT) landed by plane at Hunter Army Airfield
near Savannah, Ga., and were taken to nearby Fort Stewart for a “welcome home
ceremony.” The Soldiers were the first group to return home from the 53rd
Infantry Brigade Combat Team’s mission supporting Operations Iraqi Freedom
and New Dawn.

A young family member awaits the arrival of the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team at Fort Stewart, Ga., Nov. 28, 2010. Photo by Master Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa

This first group was composed of Inactive Ready Reserve Soldiers, Guardsmen heading to various military schools and members of the 53rd IBCT serving as an “advance party” for the remainder of the nearly 2,500 Soldiers still in
Kuwait. The rest of the 53rd are scheduled to return in groups beginning in
early December, and all members of the 53rd are expected in the U.S. before
Christmas. After a brief demobilization period at Fort Stewart, the groups of
Soldiers will be released home to Florida.

“It’s great to be home,” said Staff Sgt. Mark Miner with 2nd Battalion, 124th
Infantry Regiment, shortly after he stepped off the airplane into the frosty
Georgia morning air. “I think the Brigade did a tremendous job, and we had a
lot of support from the citizens of Florida.”

More than 150 Soldiers from the 53rd returned home to the U.S. following a nearly year-long deployment to Southwest Asia. Photo by Debra Cox

Miner, who is also a commissioner from St. Johns County in Northeast Florida,
noted that the return also marked his one-year wedding anniversary and he was
looking forward to seeing his wife Cheryl later in the morning. A few hours
later the couple was reunited on the parade field at Fort Stewart.

“It’s lucky that he’s getting back today,” Cheryl Miner said, noting their
anniversary. “(The deployment) actually went by pretty fast.”

Deployed since January 2010, more than 150 soldiers are the first from the 53rd to return home to the U.S. following a nearly year-long deployment to Southwest Asia. Photo by Debra Cox

Staff Sgt. Joseph Rappel, a resident of Titusville, Fla., who also served
with the 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, said it felt “wonderful” to
be back in the U.S. before Christmas.

“I look forward to seeing my wife and kids, and I know they’re looking
forward to seeing me,” he said.

Staff Sgt. Mark Miner from the Florida Army National Guard's 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team greets his wife Cheryl after a welcome home ceremony. Photo by Debra Cox

The 53rd IBCT – which is headquartered in Pinellas Park, Fla. – is made up of
Soldiers from around Florida, and includes large contingents based in Miami,
Orlando, Panama City and Lakeland. The Soldiers left Florida in January 2010,
and conducted pre-mobilization training at Fort Hood, Texas, before departing
for Southwest Asia in early March 2010. One of the most high-profile missions
the unit performed during the deployment was escorting convoys of U.S. forces
leaving Iraq as part of the scheduled drawdown of troops and equipment in the
country.

The mobilization and deployment of the 53rd was historic in that it was the
largest single-unit mobilization for the Florida National Guard since World
War II.

Best Thanksgiving

Thank you, Lord, for the courage and selfless service of our military troops. Thank you for their dedication in the face of difficulties and challenges. Thank you for their families. I pray that all of our servicemen and women will experience Your mercy each day, and that You will provide for their every need. Let them feel your presence with them, and your everlasting love. In Christ’s name, Amen.

The prayer above was posted on one of my friend’s Facebook page today in honor of Thanksgiving as she spends yet another holiday without her husband who is deployed. Just seeing that makes me once again appreciate our Thanksgiving this year so much more – this year for us truly is the best Thanksgiving ever.

SMSgt Rex Temple talks to his family from Afghanistan via Skype on Thanksgiving 2009.

We have so many reasons to be thankful. First and foremost is the fact that my husband Rex made it through a year in Afghanistan. He served on more than 180 combat missions, came under fire often and saw things he had never seen despite his three previous deployments and 10 other overseas assignments. But now we know he will be retiring for sure come next year. No more deployments. No more fear. Because for me it’s the never ending fear for your loved one that is the hardest thing to cope with when the center of your entire universe deploys. Today I am thankful that for us that fear is now over.

***

The following was written in June 2009 while Rex was deployed but never published.

Waiting for a call or a knock on the door

My husband Rex left on his convoy mission yesterday about 12:30 am EST our time. I knew his team was headed into “the valley” and had enlisted some additional firepower from the Afghan National Army to help provide security for the two-day convoy.  He was hoping to be out of the valley before nightfall, providing no incidents or breakdowns.  Then he and his team would stay overnight at an outpost before returning the next day.

“It should be an interesting trip,” he wrote in his farewell e-mail as he hurried off to meet his teammates for this humanitarian aid convoy. In an earlier phone conversation he had told me in passing that he expected to be back on Thursday by lunchtime our time – and he would call me as soon as he got back.

I know the worry my husband and his fellow teammates have every time they leave the relative safety of their forward operating base. They know the enemy is out there determined to kill them.

I woke up Thursday morning exited about Rex getting back to his camp today and looking forward to his call. I checked my e-mail on my cell hoping for an early surprise; Internet had gone out the night before at my house due to a thunderstorm. Maybe his convoy was back early and he could send me an e-mail describing his two days away. He had been hoping to be the one tossing out candy to the Afghan children; he had even made a special trip to the camp’s store to get a few bags of candy so that he could pass the treats out at the villages he would visit on this trip.

But there was no e-mail so I went downstairs and got my two dogs Charlie and Sam ready for our morning trip to the dog park. At the last second I grabbed my laptop and decided to pass by Starbucks and check all the other e-mail addresses I had not yet bothered to program into my fancy new phone.

So a few minutes later in the Starbucks parking lot with a Venti Misto in the front seat cup holder and dog cookies keeping the “boyz” busy in the back seat, I logged into Twitter. In my favorites I have saved this address: http://twitter.com/usfora – the official Twitter site of the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. And the site’s latest tweet said: “Three coalition servicemembers killed in IED attack in Kapisa Province.”

My heart dropped. I know enough about my husband’s convoys to know that this is an area he has to travel through often. He has only been in Afghanistan for about a month – he took off from Tampa International on May 5th for this tour that is supposed to be his last tour of duty before retirement. And the first few weeks of his stay there have been bloody – by Rex’s calculations the units close to him have lost eight troops in just the last few days.

The next few hours are sheer agony. I have an idea how fast family notification happens. I know what to expect; Rex has prepared me for both injury notification and also should there be a death. I figure out how to get the Internet back working at our house and I research the news websites for the latest details.

Finally I can’t take it anymore and head to the gym. As I pound through 3 miles on the elliptical I constantly check my cell for incoming e-mails. Nothing. I move to the bike and peddle another 30 minutes. Still nothing. Feeling defeated I head back home – it’s still too early. “They could still notify me” keeps running through my mind.

I get home and check all the news wires again. There’s a bit more detail available but nothing that really eases my mind. I keep looking at the clock calculating what time the incident happened and how soon they would likely be able to get the family if something had happened. I realize that if I make it to 5 pm then probably everything is OK. Because by then they would have already gotten a hold of me – whether it was an injury or something worse.

As the clock ticks closer to 5 I feel claustrophobic stuck in the house as I jump every time I hear the phone ring – and especially when I hear a car door slam outside our house. I say a quick prayer: “Let it not be the notification team. “

So I finally can’t take it anymore and take my husband’s car to the mall to go pick up my engagement and wedding rings, which have been fixed – some of the stones had come loose. Sitting in my husband’s vehicle I feel like his car represents his arms wrapped around me but I feel a massive need to be able to wear my rings. And hour later those two pieces of jewelry are back on my ring finger and I all of a sudden finally feel calm. And I calmly settle in for the wait to hear from him – however long it takes.

Rex finally e-mails home Friday morning. He is safe but four others who were on the same mission have died.

I need to take a deep breath and write a supporting e-mail back not showing my fear. I need to hide my fears and only show my love and support so my husband can keep going for the 40+ more weeks he still has to serve out there in the middle of the enemy’s roadside bombs and ambushes to complete his last tour before retirement. The end of this deployment cannot come soon enough.

****

So on this Thanksgiving I am thankful for all the others who are still out there fighting the fight and keeping us safe. And I am thankful for all the families who support their deployed troops.

I am thankful for those who served bravely and made the ultimate sacrifice. My thoughts are with their families as they sit down on this Thanksgiving with an empty seat at their table. My heart aches for their loss and I am thankful for their service.

I am thankful for my husband Rex and his service of almost 28 years in the U.S. Air Force. I am thankful he is home with us – now and forever.

From Combat Situations to Civilian Uncertainty

Former Army Capt. Colleen Krepstekies stands next to a statute of a queen in Iraq.

What’s it like to rejoin civilian life after leading soldiers on dangerous missions? That’s the journey Colleen Krepstekies is on. The 11-year Army veteran agreed to share her experience in radio interviews and blog entries over the next year as she transitions into her new life and career.

Capt. Krepstekies, responsible for 160 soldiers and a fleet of 5,000 gallon fuel tankers, signs re-enlistment papers for her soldiers who rejoined while serving in Iraq.

Krepstekies will graduate in December from the University of South Florida with a Masters degree in multi-media journalism and is looking for a job.

Just four years ago, Krepstekies was captain of the 40th transportation company stationed out of Ft. Lewis Washington and commanding more than160 soldiers and a fleet of 5,000 gallon fuel tankers on her second tour in Iraq.

Krepstekies shares a moment with an Iraqi girl during her second tour.

In her radio interview, Krepstekies talked about the first night she allowed Iraqi troops to help clear the way for her convoy. Helping her troops develop trust in the Iraqi soldiers is one of her proudest moments during her tours there.

She gave herself only two weeks between leaving the military in 2006 and joining a high-pressure job at a medical device firm. Looking back, Krepstekies said that was a mistake, too rushed. She needed more time to transition.

Krepstekies (center) poses with two Iraq Army soldiers.

She took that time as she studied for her graduate degree. In a few weeks, Krepstekies will receive her post graduate degree. She’s served two, unpaid internships and is excited about the possibility of getting her first fulltime job in public relations.

To read Krepstekies’ blog entry about the highs and lows of job hunting on my blog “Off the Base,” click here.

Adm. Mullen: Fewer Military Moves, More Community Help

Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“I’ve got 40,000 physically wounded, I’ve got hundreds of thousands with [post-traumatic stress] ,” Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the World Congress on Disabilities Friday in Dallas, Texas.

He said the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs need to find new ways for ongoing care of injured warriors because the current “model” has “generated a homeless level, post-Vietnam … that we’re still dealing with 50, 60 years later.”

Mullen applauded advances in treating Traumatic Brain Injury especially in the battlefield and creating better prosthetics for amputees. He said more needs to be done to prevent suicide which is increasing in the military.

He talked about building resilience in the spouses and children of military families. One suggestion he believes could be adopted is to reduce the number of times military families are made to move. Mullen also called on community leaders to help with the education, employment and health care of the returning veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

To read the full article by Karen Parrish of the American Forces Press Service, on Adm. Mullen’s address, click here.

Florida Guard Crew Returns to Brooksville

Awaiting the return of Brookville's National Guard, Detachment 1, Company H, 1st Battalion, 171st Aviation Regiment. Photo by 1st Lt. Cody Starken.

Thanks to the generousity and camera skills of 1st Lt. Cody Starken, we can join in the joy of nine members of Florida’s National Guard returning home to Brooksville. They arrived Thursday evening at the Army National Guard’s Aviation Facility on the north side of the Hernando County Airport.

An unidentified Guardsman is greeted with a hug. Photo by 1st Lt. Cody Starken.

The soldiers were greeted by family, friends and colleagues almost a year after their deployment to Iraq in December 2009.

The pilots and crewmembers were assigned to a C-23 Sherpa aircraft and their mission was to support Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn.

The nine man aviation unit from Brooksville spent almost a year in Iraq. Photo by 1st Lt. Cody Starken.

The unit is Detachment 1, Company H, 1st Battalion, 171st Aviation Regiment. This is the second deployment for this Florida National Guard unit which had a similar mission in Iraq in 2004.

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