Looking To Help Veterans Exposed To Open Burn Pits

Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

Sharing an update for veterans exposed to the burn pits while serving in Iraq. The  story on proposed congressional action is by my fellow journalist Howard Altman, Tampa Bay Times.

For years, tens of thousands of veterans suffering from their exposure to the burning of toxins in military trash pits across Afghanistan and Iraq sought official acknowledgement of a connection between the smoke and their health issues.

Their long march for recognition is gaining some traction.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, the Tarpon Springs Republican, is developing legislation requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs to assume that certain diseases arise from burn pit exposure when it makes decisions on compensating veterans. The legislation mirrors connections formally established to the defoliant Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War.

Read Altman’s full update here.

Add your name to the VA Burn Pit Registry.

Learn more about proposed legislation, H.R. 1279,  that would establish a VA center of excellence in the prevention, diagnosis, mitigation, treatment, and rehabilitation of health conditions relating to exposure to burn pits.

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Field Of Honor Recognizes The Fallen From All Eras

A small American Flag is planted in the Field of Honor plaza as the name of each newly fallen service member is read aloud – the ritual now includes those killed in action in previous wars who were recently identified through DNA.

The ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere rarely make the headlines nowadays. Yet, men and women in the United States military continue to serve there and some die there.

Their numbers may be smaller, but those casualties are not overlooked at Hillsborough Veterans Memorial Park.

A solitary bulletin board, protected by a glass pane, stands at the entrance of the park’s Field of Honor. It prominently displays the number of service members killed in action.

2,407 – Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan)
4,460 – Operation Iraqi Freedom
68 – Operation New Dawn (Iraq)

The current military casualty list from October through December 2017 is pinned in the upper left corner.

It is here that the fallen become more than a number.

FH bulletin board

The bulletin board at the entrance to the Field of Honor at Hillsborough Veterans Memorial Park.

Every three months, each new name is read aloud in a ceremony. As it’s read, a volunteer steps forward and plants a small American flag in the “Field of Honor”, a stone plaza in a semi-circle that is inscribed with the names of local military killed in action.

It was a blustery, cold January morning as former Navy Chief Walter Raysick addressed the dozens of volunteers, families and veterans at the ceremony. He explained that 86 names had been added to the ritual. They are the names those killed in previous wars but only recently identified through DNA. But many more remain unidentified.

“World war II missing are approximately 72,964 and Korea still missing is 7,715,” Raysick said.

Recognition for the fallen, however belated, is a comfort to many Gold Star families. That’s the designation given to those who have lost an active-duty military member of their family.

FH Lil Sis

Cathy Goldie is a Gold Star family member who volunteers with the Patriot Riders.

“I’m a Gold Star sister myself. And it is an honor to stand for these being honored today,” said Cathy Goldie, her brother was in the Navy during Vietnam and died in a training accident.

Goldie comes to these “Field of Honor” ceremonies as part of the Patriot Riders, a group whose members attend the funerals of veterans, military, and first responders. She said this one is extra special because it recognizes the recently identified military – killed in Vietnam, Korea and World War II.

There ceremony is also an opportunity to salute local Gold Star families.

FH Gold Star Mothers with Yellow Rose

Yellow roses were presented to the Gold Star mothers Barbara Wade, right, and Nitaya Rubado, left, in between is Gold Star father Charles Rubado.

Charles and Nitaya Rubado of Clearwater lost their son, 2LT Charles R. Rubado with the Army Third Calvary Regiment. He was killed in action August 29, 2005.

“When you lose a son like that, it’s devastating and you never go through a day without remembering,” Charles Rubado said. “This lets us know that other people care.”

Also recognized was Barbara Wade of Lakeland, a 27 year Army veteran and a Gold Star mother. Her son, Army SSG Maurice Tucker, was killed in motorcycle accident while serving in Alaska.

FH Barbara Wade Gold Star Mother

Army veteran and Gold Star mother Barbara Wade wears a t-shirt that honors her son.

“I’ve been a Gold Star mom for a year now,” Wade said. “We’re family. We keep saying their name. We keep doing things in their honor.”

That’s the idea behind the Field of Honor – to keep saying the names – to continue to honor the fallen – lest we forget the sacrifice that unites those who died while serving their country.

 

Field Of Honor Ceremony For Military Killed In Last 3 Months

The Field of Honor where names of the fallen are etched at the Hillsborough Veterans Memorial Park.

The Veterans Council of Hillsborough County holds a brief ceremony every three months to read aloud the names of the fallen and to mark their contribution and sacrifice in the fight against terrorism. To be recognized on Jan. 13, 2018, are those who were killed in October, November, and December of 2017:

  • Four personnel killed during Operation Inherent Resolve (Iraq, Syria and Yemen)
  • Four personnel killed during Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (Afghanistan)
  • Three sailors lost in a C-2A Greyhound transport plane in the Philippine Sea
  • Four Special Forces soldiers killed in Niger
  • 74 previously unidentified remains of military members from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam (military personnel formerly listed as missing-in-action now identified through advancements in mitochondrial DNA research).

The tribute also will include law enforcement officers lost in the line of duty.

The ceremony is planned Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018 at 10 a.m. at Veterans Memorial Park and Rear Admiral LeRoy Collins, Jr. Veterans Museum, 3602 U.S. Highway 301 N., Tampa, FL.

Plans for the public event include a banner presentation by Blue Star Mothers of Tampa Bay Inc., the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club color guard, Missing Man Formation flyover by Ye Mystic Airkrewe, Gold Star Families, patriotic music by Cody Palmer/VFW Post 8108, and a traditional rifle salute and taps by the Sgt. Walter P. Ryan Detachment 1226 Marine Corps League of Riverview.

Details are available by calling the Veterans Memorial Park and Museum at (813) 744-5502 or (813) 246-3170.

67 Percent Question If Military Absentee Ballots Get Counted

The Golden Knights fly a Federal Voting Assistance Program banner promoting absentee voting. Credit: FVAP

The Golden Knights fly a Federal Voting Assistance Program banner promoting absentee voting. Credit: FVAP

In 2000, the Florida ballots of overseas service members were a key point of controversy in the Bush vs. Gore election.  Now, 16 years later, little has changed for most overseas troops, who still have to vote absentee mostly through international mail.

Florida lawmakers did create a task force this year to study developing an online voting system for military and overseas voters. But task for members aren’t expected to meet until after the 2016 November election.

However, a handful of other states are experimenting with more modern electronic ballot return.

If you’re active duty military on base, aboard ship or in a combat zone, absentee voting can be a complex process because each state has its own regulations.

So, the Department of Defense created the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) to simplify access. But director Matt Boehmer said many service members remain frustrated with the process.

“One of the things that our active duty military told us was the fact that 67 percent of them weren’t confident that their ballot was counted,” Boehmer said referring to a 2014 post-election survey. “Certainly that 67 percent number gets people’s attention and it certainly got my attention.”

Courtesy: Army.mil

Courtesy: Army.mil

All states are required to provide overseas voters an electronic ballot. All 50 do so by email and online. Most offer faxed ballots and paper ballots can still be requested.

But returning a voted absentee overseas ballot is where it gets tricky. Eighteen states require ballots to be returned only through the mail. The other 32 allow some form of electronic return but it varies widely.

For instance, Florida accepts overseas ballots only by mail or fax.

“If you’re in a Forward Operation Base in the middle of the mountains in Afghanistan there’s no option to fax,” said U.S. Army veteran Diego Echeverri. “And you’re not going to have a scanner, you’re not going to have these devices.”

Echeverri served in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2004 and is Florida director for the advocacy group, Concerned Veterans for America (CV4A).

Dan Caldwell, CV4A vice president of communications and policy, is an Iraq War veteran. He said their generation expects the ease of electronic voting.

“If troops can Skype overseas in most locations now with their family members, then they should be able to find a way to securely and secretly vote,” Caldwell said. “And I think that can work. I think we have the technology to do it. It just requires some government bureaucrats to get off their butts and actually do it.”

Courtesy: FVAP and MacDill Air Force Base

Courtesy: FVAP and MacDill Air Force Base

But it’s not just bureaucrats; state lawmakers decide their states’ election rules.

And it’s a balancing act between giving voters the convenience of online access versus protecting the integrity of their ballot.

“We’ve got legislators who are very interested in meeting the needs of military members,” said Wendy Underhill, program director for elections and redistricting with the National Conference of State Legislatures. “They are younger. They are used to using electronic interactions for every single thing in their life, and so, there is that push against the security.”

Four states do provide online voting to limited groups like military personnel in combat zones. Alaska is the first state to allow everyone to vote online. Yet, Underhill says the Alaska process is not all that simple.

“Not only do they cast their ballot online, they have to printout a voter identification certificate and something else and get it signed by themselves and a couple of witnesses. And then, scan that back in and send it too. And so it’s not that it’s an easy process,” Underhill said.

Looking at the bigger picture, 56 percent of active duty military, in the 2014 FVAP survey, said the process to get an absentee ballot was too complicated and confusing.

FVAP_image_montage

A Tale of Two Guide Dogs

Michael Jernigan poses with his companion and guide dog for the past eight years, Brittani, at her retirement ceremony in February.

Michael Jernigan poses with his companion and guide dog for the past eight years, Brittani, at her retirement ceremony in February at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

This is a story of two dogs serving their country’s veterans through the Southeastern Guide Dogs Paws for Patriots program.

There’s the “old girl” Brittani who has eased into retirement and the youngster Zak just graduated from “boot camp” still filled with puppy exuberance.

Brittani is a Goldador, a mix of Labrador and Golden Retriever, and was the longtime companion of Michael Jernigan of St. Petersburg, a Marine wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2004.

Jernigan lost both his eyes, had his forehead crushed, his right hand, left knee and leg torn up. When he was paired with Brittani in 2007, he said the attraction was immediate.

“Brittani just came in the room and was ‘Hey – how you doing? I guess I’m here to work with you today. Let’s go. What are we doing?’” Jernigan laughed. “Brittani loves me no matter what, no matter who I am, no matter what’s wrong with me, no matter the stress I’m under. Brittani loves me and in turn I love her.”

An unidentified admirer pets Brittani at the guide dog's retirement ceremony February 2015.

An unidentified admirer pets Brittani, age 10, at the guide dog’s retirement ceremony February 2015.

They had quite a life together making a total of 66 cross-country journeys for speaking engagements and conferences as well as earning a college degree at University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

“College is stressful. With all those kids walking around and I can’t see and I’m trying to find my classes,” Jernigan said. “Brittani was right there with me every step of the way.”

Zak, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador, is one of the newest Paws for Patriots graduates. (June 2015)

Zak, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador, is one of the newest Paws for Patriots graduates. (June 2015)

Brittani helped Jernigan navigate to classes as well as lessen his anxiety. But their relationship changed in February when Jernigan and others noticed his 10-year-old guide dog was losing her focus.

“Brittani has worked hard. She’s earned her retirement,” Jernigan said. “She’s still very healthy, very active at this point she’s at the point where it’s time for her to retire.”

Brittani now lives one of Jernigan’s best friends. The hardest thing, he said, was going 90 days with no contact so Brittani could bond with her new family.

“It’s all part of the cycle. Brittany is not leaving my life,” Jernigan said. “I’m still going to continue to see Brittany. She’s just not going to be living with me anymore.”

Wounded Marine Evin Bodle with Zak just before their graduation ceremony at the Palma Ceia Country Club, Tampa, June 4, 2015.

Wounded Marine Evin Bodle with Zak just before their graduation ceremony at the Palma Ceia Country Club, Tampa, June 4, 2015.

The two were reunited (after the required period of separation) at this week’s Southeastern Guide Dogs ceremony kicking off the MacDill Puppy Raisers group. Volunteers from the military community are helping to socialize and raise dogs for the Paws for Patriots program which gives free guide and service dogs to wounded veterans.

Jernigan is a co-founder of Paws for Patriots and now works as a donor relations manager with Southeastern Guide Dogs.

So far, Paws for Patriots has paired more than 100 guide and service dogs with wounded veterans. One of the most recent pairings: 2-year-old Zak and his wounded Marine, Lance Corporal Evin Bodle.

“I knew Zak was for me the first time I took him out and he kept up with my pace. It was amazing,” Bodle said just before their graduation ceremony earlier this month at the Palma Ceia Country Club in Tampa.

Mike_small size

Wounded Marine Michael Jernigan and Brittani during their 8 years together. Photo courtesy of Paws for Patriots, Southeaster Guide Dogs.

 

Fallen Pilot’s Portrait Finds Home In Family’s Pub

EDITORS NOTE: The Brush of Honor TV show featuring Capt. James Steel is being rebroadcast this Sunday, June 7, 2015, at 6 and 10 p.m. on INSP Network. You can find the network on your local cable company here.

Retired Major Gen. Robert Steel and his wife, Dee, with the Brush of Honor portrait of their son, Capt. James Steel.

Retired Major Gen. Robert Steel and his wife, Dee, with the Brush of Honor portrait of their son, Capt. James Steel. Photo courtesy of INSP Network.

A father provides the stories and a professional artist the paint to create a portrait of Air Force Capt. James Steel, an F-16 pilot who was born in Tampa and killed in Afghanistan on April 3, 2013.

James and his twin brother Jonathan loved playing on the Bay Area beaches as their father, Major General Robert Steel, flew F-16s with the 61st Fighter Squadron at MacDill Air Force Base.

“Tampa was a very friendly part of Florida to be raising a family,” Major Gen. Steel said. Like many military families, they moved a lot in his 33-year career. And like many sons, James wanted to fly F-16s like his dad.

And father and son got a chance to fly the jets together. It was a rare moment, said Steel, when both were active flyers at the same point in time. But he has many memories of James, “They just don’t stop. It’s like a flood comes to your mind when you look at your son.”

Capt. James Steel. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

Capt. James Steel. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

Like his father and mother, James graduated from the Air Force Academy. He deployed to Korea in 2009 and then was assigned to the 77th Fighter Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2012,where he provided close air support for ground troops.

His parents have received many letters from those ground troops.

“That’s a very rewarding letter to get from people who felt their lives were preserved by someone and in this case our son,” Steel said.

Capt. James Steel died when his F-16 crashed near Bagram Airfield as he was returning from a ground support mission.

Texas artist Phil Taylor in his studio working on one of the more than 180 fallen service members portraits he's created. Photo courtesy of INSP Network.

Texas artist Phil Taylor in his studio working on one of the more than 180 fallen service members portraits he’s created. Photo courtesy of INSP Network.

But the 29-year-old pilot lives on in a portrait by Phil Taylor through the Brush of Honor program. The newest episode of TV show Brush of Honor – features Capt. Steel as the artist visits his family and friends, paints and then presents James’ portrait.

That show premiered Thursday night (June 4, 2015) on INSP Network and is being rebroadcast Sunday night at 6 and again at 10.

Working in his Texas studio, Taylor takes about 70 hours to recreate each likeness. He said he talks to the fallen service member as he works. Taylor has completed more than 180 portraits.

Good friends of the Steel family asked permission to submit James’ name to Brush of Honor. Robert Steel said participating helped his family come to more solid terms with their loss.

The Steels show artist Phil Taylor the pub they built to honor their son, James. Photo courtesy of INSP Network.

The Steels show artist Phil Taylor the pub they built to honor their son, James. Photo courtesy of INSP Network.

The Steel family hang James' portrait in a place of honor inside the family's replicated 1890 English pub. Photo courtesy of INSP Network.

The Steel family hang James’ portrait in a place of honor inside the family’s replicated 1890 English pub. Photo courtesy of INSP Network.

He did have one special request. That Taylor present James’ finished portrait at their home where Steel and his wife, Dee, had bought and installed an 1890 antique English pub in honor of James’ love of European pubs.

“It just brings back so many memories and we know that James would be in awe of a pub like that,” Steel said.

There is a special tradition that their son had mastered and the family continue at large gatherings – sabering – a Napoleonic tradition of using a saber to un-cork a champagne bottle.

“Every time we have a large family gathering,” Steel said. “One of the family members will have the opportunity to complete that sabering act and lop off the top of the bottle. It’s just another connection to our son.”

The Steel family did have one other special request for the U.S. Army, which administers Arlington National Cemetery. When James was interned there, Steel asked that his burial site be placed as close as possible to his grandparents – you see, the elder Steel’s mom and dad are also buried there.

“And sure enough they found James a location that is literally about 5 to 10 steps away,” Steel said.

Capt. James Steel in his F-16. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.

Capt. James Steel in his F-16. Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force.

‘Brush of Honor’ Paints Picture of Fallen Tampa Pilot

Air Force Academy graduate Capt. James Steel was killed two years ago when his F-16 crashed near Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

Air Force Academy graduate Capt. James Steel was killed two years ago when his F-16 crashed near Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

A Tampa F-16 pilot — killed in a crash April 3, 2013 while deployed in Afghanistan — is the focus of a TV series called Brush of Honor which airs tonight at 9 on the INSP Network.

The episode features Air Force Captain James Steel who was born in Tampa while his father, retired Major  Gen. Robert Steel,  flew F-16s at MacDill Air Force Base.

Brush of Honor follows professional artist Phil Taylor as he visits with Steel’s family, friends and colleagues and then paints a portrait of the 29-year old Air Force Academy graduate killed in action. The television show culminates with the special presentation of the portrait to the family.

“When the artist is able to put his heart and soul into the image with every brush,” Robert Steel said, “actually creating the essence of a person, it’s just captivating.”

Taylor has painted more than 180 portraits of America’s fallen heroes and hand-delivered them to surviving family members throughout the country. It’s his way to “honor the sacrifice of our military heroes and offer a heartfelt ‘thank you’ on behalf of a grateful nation.”

You can find the INSP Network channel on your TV by entering your zip code and television provider here.

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