Remembering Army Ranger and NFL Player Pat Tillman

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Pat Tillman, former NFL player.

The VA marked the start of the 2019 National Football League season with a VAntage Blog entry commemorating the service of Pat Tillman. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Tillman finished his 2001 NFL season and then enlisted in the U.S. Army.

He completed Army Ranger School in late 2003 and deployed. Tillman was killed April 22, 2004 in Afghanistan.

In a previous Off the Base blog post, I shared a portion of Tillman’s “Just In Case Letter” he left his wife, Marie Tillman shared in her new book, The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss, & Life:

  • Just in case I don’t come back I want the money used to put the boys through college.
  • Just in case I don’t come back I want you to know that I was fighting for my country: my country is you and our babies and my mom and my sisters.
  • Just in case I don’t come back I want you to know that you were everything a wife was supposed to be. That you made my life happy. That even though we didn’t have 50 years together, the five we did have were the fullest, richest years anyone could ever want.

But Tillman’s life did not end there.

Marie Tillman created the Tillman Scholars Foundation “empowering the next generation of leaders.”

I’ve had the privilege to interview several Tillman Scholars over the years. They are remarkable military veterans and spouses with even larger dreams and a passion for service and scholarship, among them:

So as you cheer on your favorite NFL team this weekend, you might also consider a “shout out” to the memory of Tillman and the team of Tillman Scholars who contribute daily to better our world.

‘A Little Pink’ Always Colors My Memorial Day

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The American Flag flies above the US American Victory Museum & Memorial Ship, Tampa, FL.

Through almost 40 years of reporting – there are stories and people that never leave you.

A Little Pink In A World Of Camo, a military wife’s blog, is where I discovered such a heart-captivating story titled: I Will Always Be A Marine Wife.

I just need to share some sad news with all of my blog friends.

Sad isn’t even the word to describe it, but honestly at this point I can’t find the words to describe it. Angry, empty, crushed, confused, shocked, alone, unglued, hateful, depressed, beaten down… none of these words can do justice to my feelings.

I am being forced to do something that no 23 year old woman should ever have to do. I am being forced to do something that no one should ever have to do, not at this early in life, especially. I am being forced to lay the love of my life, my saving grace, my entire world to rest. …

– Rachel Porto –

And after reporting on their family’s loss, Ariana Porto, her mother Rachel Porto and grandmothers Evelyn Jewell and Rachel Bernaby (Porto’s mother) forever became a part of my Memorial Day remembrances.

I never met him and Corporal Jonathan Porto never held his daughter Ariana.

The closest he got was kneeling down and talking to her through Rachel’s pregnant belly on the day he deployed. An iconic photo of that moment was snapped by another Marine wife. Rachel was unaware at the time, but she ended up featuring the picture at the top of her blog: A Little Pink in a World of Camo.

Porto was one of 10 men killed in his battalion, the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment from Camp Lejeune, while deployed to Afghanistan. He died in March 2010 just shy of his first wedding anniversary.

What will always stay with me is that photo of Jonathan talking to his unborn daughter and the power of Rachel and Jonathan’s relationship. Jonathan made Rachel promise “no moping” while he was gone. And as difficult as the hours, days, months and years may have been since his death, Rachel continues to keep her promise to Jonathan. And she’s continued to write earning a masters’ degree in writing.

Please on this Memorial Day, keep the promise made by President Lincoln, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” So, take a moment to remember those who have fallen in service to our country.

My eternal appreciation to all who have allowed me to tell their stories.

 

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

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