A Memorial Ceremony For Military Suicide Survivors

This is the third year the American Legion Post 5, 3810 W. Kennedy Blvd, Tampa, is reaching out to family members and friends who have lost a veteran or military member to suicide.

The hope is to give an opportunity to remember loved ones, to honor their service to the country and to erase the stigma surrounding service members who have died by suicide.

“This event and message will focus on family members and friends who silently suffer the lost of their loved one to their battle with their inner demons,” stated Ellsworth “Tony” Williams, a retired Army combat veteran and chair of the American Legion Florida 15th District Veteran Affairs and Rehab.

The ceremony is Sunday, May 21, 2017 at 1 p.m. at Post 5, 3810 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, FL.

Graduating JROTC Cadets Ready And Eager To Serve

JROTC retired Army Lt Col Mo Bolduc shows the display of ribbons and flags that adorn the JROTC room and computer lab

Newsome High JROTC instructor, retired Lt. Col. Mo Buldoc points out the display of ribbons and flags that adorn their computer lab and classroom.
Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media

The teenagers graduating this spring were still in diapers when terrorists attacked the United States September 11, 2001. Yet, many of the high school graduates are stepping up to join the military despite the ongoing “war against terror” and recent tensions in Syria and North Korea.

Graduation starts today at Hillsborough County public high schools. First in line is Newsome High School,  southeast of Tampa in the suburban neighborhood of Fishhawk. As seniors cross the stage at the state fairgrounds to claim their diplomas – many are advancing to college, others moving directly into the workforce and still others are chosing military service.

WUSF talked with several JROTC graduating seniors from Newsome and Steinbrenner high schools about  about their choice of a military life during these times of heightened tensions with North Korea, Syria and the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Toddlers in a Time of Terrorism

JROTC Walter Wahle

Newsome JROTC cadet Walter Wahle

“Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve been there since I was one,” said Walter Wahle, 17. “So, it’s kind of just, I guess my generation’s war. Like in the 60s it was Vietnam. So, that’s just where it is today.”

Wahle is enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, then heading to college, Hillsborough Community College and the University of South Florida, this fall after graduating from Newsome.

The military is the only life Wahle has known.  His dad is a Marine who’s served in Iraq twice.  And this summer, his father will be deploying to Kuwait while Wahle is in boot camp.

“People think that when you join the military you’re signing up to go fight and die” Wahle said. “Most people don’t fight in the military and they only die if they’re in harms’ way and today the number of casualties is so much lower than it has been in past wars and conflicts that people are going to serve, they’re not going to die.”

War Through The Hollywood Lens

JROTC_Destini_Rainey

Newsome JROTC cadet Destini Rainey

The 2005 movie Jarhead, a classic film that provides a deep look into a Marine’s deployment during Desert Storm, is how Destini Rainey was introduced to the military. As a child, Rainey remembers playing military games with her cousin after seeing the film.

“When I watched Jarhead, you see the infantry men shooting people and all the violent graphics,” Rainey said. “But now that I’ve matured, I don’t think that’s the scenario I’m going to be in. That’s kind of why I choose the Navy. They’re less combative than the Marines and Army. So. I’ll be more of the brains instead of the brawn.”

Rainey is scheduled to report on Christmas Day to become a Navy aerographer’s mate. They track the weather and oceans.

“Personally, I hope that we do not go to war,” Rainey said. “I have faith in the president and the other government officials that they make the right decision on what we do with North Korea and Syria. Not my place to say anything about it. So, just if we do go to war, then so be it.”

A Family Military Tradition

JROTC_Nathan_Egli

Steinbrenner JROTC cadet Nathan Egli

The responsibility of war is what Nathan Egli, 18, thought about when he considered his chosen career. He’s headed off to college at Miami of Ohio on a Marine ROTC scholarship. He plans to become an officer, just like his father.

“I’ve realized that wanting to be a leader of Marines in the future is going to be a very difficult task because I’m in charge of multiple things, multiple responsibilities and including other men’s lives. That’s a very difficult thing to grasp  because in the battlefield and just war in general, a lot of things can go wrong,” Egli said.

The Steinbrenner High School graduate said his father, who retired from the Marines in March, supports his decision to follow him in the military and so does his mother.

That support was common among all of the graduates we talked to. One Army recruit said his mom encouraged him to join.  Although she will miss him, she told him he’s doing something he needs to do.

Below are additional voices of young high school graduates who have chosen a military life. They were not part of the broadcast story. We invite you to listen to their thoughts on why they wanted to serve their country and protect all who live here.

VA Chief Resolves Billing Snafu For Up To 600 Vets

AmLegion Vets Roundtable

A Veterans Round-table discussion April 21, 2017 with U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg held at American Legion Post 273 of Madeira Beach, FL.

A new administrator at the Bay Pines Healthcare System is being credited by veterans for resolving a paperwork snafu that had some low income VA clients being billed for medications they should have gotten for free.

And what’s worse, some of the low income veterans, who may have been unaware of the VA charges or thought they were a mistake, ended up having the money taken from their benefits checks, according Bill Dreyer, a veteran and peer counselor.

“I have a lot of problems with, right now, the billing system for the VA,” Dreyer told a veterans’ roundtable at American Legion Post 273 last week.

Dreyer described how a female veteran with military sexual trauma, who he is counseling, was charged for her VA medications, yet she never received a bill.

“The reason I found out about this is I’ve been counseling Megan for a while and she got a letter from the Treasury Department that said we are now docking your Social Security benefits,” Dreyer said.

An unidentified veteran in the audience chimed in, “I got one of those (letters) too.”

veteran red shirt day

American Legion Post 273 sells these t-shirts to remind people about “wear red” Fridays.

Unexplained charges for VA medications that are supposed to be free to qualified, low income veterans is not something new to veteran and advocate Randall McNabb, a ride captain with the Patriot Guard Riders.

McNabb said many low income veterans who qualify for free medications don’t know they are required to verify their income status every year. It’s known as a “means test.”

“If their means test goes out of date, it says they’ll be notified at their next appointment. That next appointment could be 10, 12, 14 months down the line,” McNabb said. “Meanwhile, they’re being charged for their medications unknown to them.”

If the veteran ignores the VA bill, thinking it’s just a mistake, it goes to collections. McNabb said that scenario was happening too often especially among veterans who had gone through the VA homeless programs.

“Most of the low income veterans mistakenly believe that it’s a mistake,” McNabb said “Instead of going and checking on it.”

So, McNabb started speaking up like at the quarterly town hall held by the Bay Pines Healthcare System last fall.

One of the people who heard him was Jonathan Benoit, the new, chief of health administration service at Bay Pines Healthcare Systems.

Benoit dug into the data and found 600 veterans who needed to renew their “means test”. But instead of waiting for the veterans to come in for their appointments, Benoit sent letters to all 600 immediately.

“What’s nice is we started with that 600 and in our recent run, I coincidentally saw the stack of letters and it’s only a little more than 100 right now,” Benoit said. “And that’s all the way out for the entire year and I’m hoping it gets lower and lower to a point where we’re on top of every single one of these veterans and they don’t have to experience that inconvenience of having to pay copays.”

McNabb mentioned Benoit’s efforts at the roundtable and said the solution should be shared nationally. Benoit is working on that.

“This is certainly something that I’m going to share with other chiefs and I actually just transferred from Eastern Colorado and I have already shared the process with them,” Benoit said.

He was gratified to see results within just a few months and he is thankful for the veterans’ feedback because he’s a veteran too. Now, Benoit is moving on to his next VA mission: fixing the scheduling system at Bay Pines.

Future Unknown For Caregivers Of Post-9/11 Veterans

Ken and Patti Katter have learned to make adjustments to live with his memory loss due to traumatic brain injury.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have drafted more than a million family members into caring for returning wounded and injured troops. They’ve been called “Hidden Heroes” – the military caregivers of Post-9/11 veterans.

They are mostly young spouses with young families or aging parents who never expected to take on the role.

Patti Katter’s world changed the night her husband returned from Iraq. Army Sergeant Ken Katter survived two roadside bombs that hit his truck in May 2007 with what were thought to be minor injuries, a concussion and ruptured eardrums. So, he remained in combat for his full 15-month deployment and didn’t come home until October 2007.

“We had dinner together and probably within an hour, he didn’t remember eating. I thought he was just very sleep deprived because he’d just gotten home. So I just kind of blew it off a bit,” Patti Katter recalled about his first night home from Iraq.

Patti Katter has ordered and managed her husband’s medications for almost 10 years and going.

But that same night, Ken Katter had a seizure while sleeping and without any time to prepare Patti Katter was thrust into the role of military caregiver.

“I really put my foot down and I said you need to go to the doctor,” she said. “He was having not only memory issues but he was in a lot of pain. He was frustrated very easily.”

Her husband saw a doctor about a week later. Over a series of months and medical appointments, Ken Katter was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, a blown disc in his neck, a back injury, hearing loss, the list goes on from complex symptoms such as seizures to simple things like he can no longer remember how to write his name in cursive.

He was medically retired from the military in 2010 after serving in the U.S. Army since 2005 and the Marines from 1990-1994.

Inside the Katter home just northeast of Sarasota, a bouquet of bright red roses sat prominently in the kitchen pass through. Patti bought them for herself.

“It’s important to love yourself,” she said. “Ken’s not, he doesn’t emotionally attach anymore. So I’ve learned. I know he loves me. I have no doubt about that, but I’ve also learned to love myself better.”

Ken Katter took up wood carving as part of his rehabilitation. His wife says his brain injury has made it more artistic.

Ken Katter’s “self portrait” carved into a walking stick.

Ken Katter’s “invisible” injuries also left him with balance problems and other medical issues that prevent him from holding down a job or doing even small household tasks like hanging ceiling fans.

But he counts himself lucky. He has all his limbs and can walk. His seizures are under control so he can drive again – even though he has a tendency to get lost, he now uses GPS to guide his travel.

For the last decade, Patti Katter has managed her husband’s medical appointments, medications and rehabilitation. She initially homeschooled their three children so it was easier to see the myriad of doctors. And she took care of the household too.

Then three years ago, the stress overwhelmed her.

“I wasn’t suicidal, but I was in a dark place. Not only was I dealing with being a caregiver, I had a mom who had cancer and my dad was unhealthy,” she said.

She learned to care for herself and found a job with a non-profit, Hope for the Warriors. She now works from home helping other military caregivers navigate the system. And she is a fellow with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation that advocates for military and veteran caregivers.

“So many of these young spouses in their 20s and 30s (are) suddenly realizing that they’re going to be caregivers probably for the next 50 years if not their entire life and no one was handing them a manual,” said Steven Schwab, executive director of the Dole Foundation.

The Dole Foundation did a scientific survey of military and veteran caregivers to find out what they needed. The Hidden Heroes Report found that respite care topped the list, followed by the need for mental health support and training.

The Katter family: Hunter, Savanna, Patti, Ken, and Ashlay.

“These caregivers – especially the Post-9/11 caregivers – are struggling from high rates of depression and anxiety. They’re incredibly isolated,” Schwab said. “They feel alone and in most cases are alone without a support system.”

That’s why former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole started the foundation. It does research and offers innovation grants to organizations, caregiver fellowships, and a national registry of more than 200 vetted caregiver resources.

The Department of Veterans Affairs also has a special program for caregivers of Post-9/11 veterans severely injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It provides financial help and other services.

“The majority of our veterans in this program do have post traumatic stress, mood disorders and TBI,” said Cynthia Fletcher, a caregiver support coordinator at Tampa’s James A. Haley VA. “So, the caregivers are struggling with those behavioral disturbances, those mood disturbances which can be very challenging.”

Fletcher said the VA also operates a caregiver support line, 1-855-260-3274, for military caregivers of veterans from all eras. She said it received more than 57,000 calls last year.

Ken Katter served four years in the Marines, and more than a decade as a police officer before rejoining the Army.

And the VA secretary asked Congress in March to expand the Post-9/11 caregivers program. Of particular concern to caregivers like Patti Katter is what happens 20 or 30 years from now should her husband’s memory problems worsen and she is unable to cope.

“Or what if something happens to me, who is going to take care of him?” Patti Katter asked. “Our kids have been very resilient. They love their father, but I don’t want that to fall on their plate.”

The VA estimated about 4,000 caregivers would qualify for its Post 9-11 program. But almost 25,000 were enrolled within four years. So, the VA has been scrambling to fill the immediate demand leaving little time to consider the long-term needs of veteran caregivers.

You can listen to their story which aired on WUSF 89.7 FM as part of the American Homefront Project.

VA Secretary Orders Review Of Caregiver Revocations

VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD photo courtesy of VA

Late Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs temporarily stopped, for three weeks, its VA medical centers from kicking family caregivers off its program that provides caregivers of Post-9/11 veterans a stipend and benefits.

NPR’s Quil Lawrence reported two weeks ago that several VA medical centers had revoked the eligibility for hundreds of caregivers’ at the same time other centers were expanding their programs.

The VA will spend the next three weeks reviewing the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC) but it will continue to accept and review applications according to current eligibility criteria.

“VA is taking immediate action to review the National Caregiver Support Program to ensure we honor our commitment to enhance the health and well-being of Veterans,” said Dr. David J. Shulkin, Secretary of Veterans Affairs. “I have instructed an internal review to evaluate consistency of revocations in the program and standardize communication with Veterans and caregivers nationwide.”

There are some exceptions. Revocations will still be done at the request of the veteran or caregiver, for noncompliance, death or long-term hospitalization of the veteran or caregiver. For more on the program, go to the Caregiver Website  or call the Caregiver Support Line at  855-260-3274.

Bay Pines Stand Down for Homeless Veterans

Bay Pines VA – C.W. Bill Young Medical Center. Photo Courtesy: VA.gov

Pinellas County veterans without a place to stay or those at risk of losing their home can tap into a wide range of services and resources Saturday, April 8, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System in the courtyard at the C.W. Bill Young Medical Center.

Along with housing and employment information, legal experts will be available for veterans with legal obligations or active misdemeanor cases. In 2016, more than 80 veterans were helped by the Stand Down Court.

In addition, veterans can get a medical screening, free meals, toiletries, haircuts and clothing items. Veterans are asked to bring a copy of their DD214 “Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty,” birth certificate, social security card and two documents that can verify their mailing address. Even without documentation, veterans will be assisted.

Call 727-398-6661 extension 17829 for more details or with questions about the Stand Down.

Some Military Caregivers Lose Benefits While Rolls Grow

More than a million Americans are providing care to disabled Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. About 40 percent of these caregivers are young spouses. Photo Courtesy: Department of Veterans Affairs

A report broadcast this week by National Public Radio’s Quil Lawrence found that certain VA centers were dropping caregivers of severely wounded Post 9/11 veterans from a VA support program.

The Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers was created to provide additional benefits to caregivers of Afghanistan and Iraq combat veterans. The support can include health insurance, respite care and a monthly stipend. But as Lawrence found more than 20 percent of the VA centers are purging their caregiver rolls:

But the VA is infamous for lacking consistency from station to station. And while the program has added 6,300 caregivers since 2014, according to VA data, NPR discovered that 32 out of 140 VA medical centers were cutting their programs during the same period — some drastically.

That included the VA in Fayetteville, N.C., which used to send Alishia Graham a monthly stipend of about $2,000 and offer her health insurance, respite and support.

Fayetteville cut more than half of its caregivers, dropping 314 families from the rolls between May 2014 and February 2017. And while data from the VA in Washington showed seven staff at Fayetteville were coordinating caregivers (a ratio of 37/1), the Fayetteville VA shows only two staff are doing that job, meaning that each coordinator is actually overseeing more than 125 veterans.

Check out the full NPR story and the top eight VA centers that pared down their military caregiver programs and the top eight centers that increased enrollment. At the top of the growing programs is the Phoenix VA with a 208 percent jump in caregiver enrollment between 2014 and 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

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