Remembering Army Ranger and NFL Player Pat Tillman


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


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.


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.

Have A Heart: Help A Mom With A Son Soon To Deploy

Cadet Nelson Lalli After being Recognized with his mother, Dorie Griggs and sister, Chelle.

Cadet Nelson Lalli After being Recognized with his mother, Dorie Griggs and sister, Chelle.

Some of the most popular postings to Off the Base have been written by Dorie Griggs. She chronicled her journey as a mother, new to military jargon and life, from when her son entered the Citadel to later joining the U.S. Army.

One entry, written in July 2013, has received a lot of traffic: Lessons Learned from a Son’s First Deployment. And that’s where I found this comment and plea for help from today, Feb. 14, 2017.

My son is set to deploy in two weeks. He is married and has two children. His wife is his first priority and I support that wholeheartedly but is there a way for me to keep up with what is going on? Can I still be on his Family List to receive updates? I don’t want to ask him or his wife because they are already under enough stress.

I am uncertain which military branch her son is serving, but I’m hoping all current active-duty, experienced military parents and veterans can share some insight.

Thanks to the military family, ahead of time, for coming through.

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.”



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.


Tips For Sending Holiday Packages To Deployed Troops

Care packages being prepared for Citadel Cadets prior to Christmas.

Care packages being prepared for Citadel Cadets prior to Christmas.

The  Blue Star Families blog has five essential tips to send a memorable box of goodies to your loved one overseas. And they throw in some ideas on popular gifts.

  1. Send them holiday traditions. Pack up a DVD of the family’s favorite holiday movie such as It’s A Wonderful Life, or a family favorite holiday food like fruitcake or special cookies.
  2. Check the country’s list of prohibited goods. The military has an agreement to not ship prohibited foods for certain countries. For example in the Middle East or Persian Gulf areas, you should not send anything that would offend people of the Islamic faith, including pork or pork by-products, obscene material, and alcohol.
  3. Take care when packing. Some foods may spoil before they reach their destination and chocolate items melt if being mailed to a hotter climate.
  4. Check shipping dates. The United States Postal Service suggests for priority packages and letters to mail by Dec. 10, 2015 or Dec. 3 for AE ZIP 093.
  5. Send something to share. Deployed troops live, work and survive as teams. So, send enough cookies for their team. Some families even send personalized stockings for team members.

For ideas on what to ship to your deployed loved one, check out the Blue Star Families list and The Military Times.


Army Ranger Cory Remsburg Returns to Haley VA

 Dr. Steven Scott, director of the Polytrauma Center at James A. Haley VA Hospital, talks with his former patient, Army Ranger Cory Remsburg. Bobbie O'Brien WUSF Public Media

Dr. Steven Scott, director of the Polytrauma Center at James A. Haley VA Hospital, talks with his former patient, Army Ranger Cory Remsburg.
Bobbie O’Brien WUSF Public Media

Army Ranger Cory Remsburg returns each year to James A. Haley VA Hospital in Tampa to show the staff his progress. He was severely injured in 2009 and spent two years recovering at Haley’s Polytrauma Center.

Remsburg was on his tenth deployment when he was injured by an IED in Afghanistan. His teammates found him face down in a water-filled canal with shrapnel in his brain.

He was in a coma when he arrived at the Haley.

More than 800 patients have come through the polytrauma system according to Haley Chief of Staff Dr. Edward Cutolo, but he remembers Remsburg.

“He’s not a hard one to forget. He was very ill when he came here, very ill,” Cutolo said.

And Remsburg has not forgotten them, the therapists, nurses and doctors.

He returned this year with one goal in mind, to walk, unassisted to Dr. Steven Scott, director of the Haley Polytrauma Center.

Trailed closely by his stepmother, Annie Remsburg, Cory Remsburg successfully navigated about a 10-foot stretch, unaided, and was greeted with a handshake from Dr. Scott and applause from onlookers.

“One of the things that’s so interesting about Cory’s story is he was told by so many, so many people said he couldn’t do things. ‘You’re not going to walk, you’re not going to do this. You know what I mean,’” Scott said. “So, Cory always said, ‘Yes, I’m going to, yes I can.’”

Cory Remsburg responds slowly, “Being a Ranger, I had the mental part down. It’s the physical part I’m learning to overcome.”

His speech is labored because he had to learn to speak all over again. That’s just one of many things he’s had to overcome: dozens of surgeries, blindness in his right eye, a partially paralyzed left side.

He was in a coma more than three months. The treatments and people at Haley brought him back.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-R), on the left, made a special trip to meet Army Ranger Cory Remsburg (right) and his father, Craig Remsburg (center) when they visited the medical staff at Haley.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-R), on the left, made a special trip to meet Army Ranger Cory Remsburg (right) and his father, Craig Remsburg (center) when they visited the medical staff at Haley.

Craig Remsburg, credits a combination of ‘the man above’, Haley’s Emerging Consciousness Program, family and familiarity for bringing his son back.

“We knew that he loved vanilla extract, so we would burn that aroma. We would play Scrubs, he loved Scrubs. So, we had that playing always on a reel,” Craig Remsburg said.

There was no great awakening like in a movie. Instead, it was gradual and took a lot of hard work every day for two years.

As soon as Cory could eat solid food, Dr. Scott would sneak him two Boston Cream doughnuts each morning as incentive.  And even though Cory now lives in Arizona – Dr. Scott is still motivating his prized patient.

He asked Cory for his goals which are to walk independently for a sustainable distance and then run.

“That’s what I hoped you would say. I’ll give you a third,” Dr. Scott said. “Run up hill. Alright? The reason why you run uphill is because the view is better.”

At that suggestion, Cory smiled, held up his large cup of coffee as a toast affirming his new goals and said, “He knows me.”

You can listen to the story which is part of he WUSF Veterans Coming Home project on WUSF 89.7 FM.

Dr. Steven Scott (left) shows off the Haley Trauma Center's treadmill pool to former patient Cory Remsburg (center) and his dad, Craig Remsburg.

Dr. Steven Scott (left) shows off the Haley Trauma Center’s treadmill pool to former patient Cory Remsburg (center) and his dad, Craig Remsburg.

Deployed Troops at Risk of Accidents Back Home

 A U.S. military cargo truck bypasses a charred vehicle destroyed by a roadside bomb while moving building materials to Forward Operating Base Leatherneck in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Nov. 24, 2009. Credit U.S. Army photo by Spc. Elisebet Freeburg

A U.S. military cargo truck bypasses a charred vehicle destroyed by a roadside bomb while moving building materials to Forward Operating Base Leatherneck in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Nov. 24, 2009.
Credit U.S. Army photo by Spc. Elisebet Freeburg

Evasive driving maneuvers like speeding and sudden lane changes are a must for troops driving in dangerous environments where there may be roadside bombs, like Afghanistan.

But the driving habits that can save a soldier’s life when deployed can cause an accident and maybe death when the soldier returns home.

A 2012 study, by the insurance company USAA, showed that deployed military members have a 13 percent higher risk of being in an accident after returning stateside.

There are other risk factors for at-fault accidents according to the USAA Returning Warriors Driving Safety Report 2012:

  • Army Veterans accidents increased 23 percent; Marines 12.5 percent; Navy 3 percent and Air Force 2 percent.
  • Drivers younger than 22 are more at risk (a 25 percent increase) while those over 29 have a 7.5 percent increase
  • Drivers with 3 or more deployments are most at risk with a 36 percent increase in at-fault accidents; 2 deployments saw 27 percent increased; 1 deployment had a 12 percent increase.

The insurance company that only serves military and their families created an online survey for members returning from deployment. It has a dual purpose, to gather additional data about risk factors and to alert combat veterans of the driving dangers and offer safety tips such as:

  • Don’t start out driving at night or in heavy traffic
  • Plan out your route ahead of time
  • Avoid things that might cause you concern like narrow roads

The online assessment asks simple questions and is short according to John Bird, a retired Navy admiral and senior vice president for military affairs at USAA. He quelled any concerns that the data would be used against the driver.

“I will tell you our whole company business is built on trust. We absolutely are not using this data to raise rates or to affect policies for those military members,” Bird said. “In sharp contrast, we’re using this data as we do so much data across all insurance areas to go toward prevention.”

Additionally, USAA is offering a $25 incentive to a spouse or military member within six months of returning from deployment.

Bird said the company estimates that about 5,000 of its members return monthly.

EDITORS NOTE: The original version of this  story has been changed. There is no accurate estimate on the number of USAA members who have participated in the survey.


USO Cool Idea: Homemade Ice Cream for Troops

Troops enjoy making homemade ice cream at USO Camp Marmal. Courtesy USO Blog

Troops enjoy making homemade ice cream at USO Camp Marmal. Courtesy USO Blog

Homemade ice cream is a treat no matter where you are. But it’s an extra treat if you’re in an arid climate far away from home like the troops at Camp Marmal, Afghanistan.

Thanks to the ingenuity of the USO and a little shaking action, those service members were treated to homemade ice cream.

Here’s a story from the official USO Blog and the recipe:

After hearing that the base cafeteria only served ice cream once a week, USO Camp Marmal staff members decided to start monthly homemade ice cream nights.

“We gave it a try and it’s been a big hit since then,” said USO Camp Marmal Center Manager Michael Eyassu.

With a few zip bags, milk, ice and a lot of shaking, troops can whip up a batch of homemade ice cream within a matter of minutes. USO Camp Marmal even provides service members with a number of syrups and toppings to enhance their homemade ice cream creations.

“Troops love it because it’s a fun and interactive event they can participate in with their fellow troops,” Eyassu said. “The end result is delicious, so it’s a win-win!”

If you want to try making homemade ice cream like the troops, check out the recipe below:

In a gallon zip bag:
1/2 cup salt
Ice to fill bag 2/3 of way full

In a quart zip bag:
1 cup of half and half
2 table spoons of vanilla extract
Flavored syrup (optional)

Place ice and salt in a large gallon zip bag. Set aside. Place half & half and vanilla in quart zip bag. Seal tightly and place inside gallon zip bag. Seal gallon zip bag. Shake until ice cream is solid or at consistency of your choice — roughly 10 minutes. Remove quart zip bag from gallon zip bag. Scoop contents of quart zip bag into bowl, add desired toppings and serve immediately.

It Takes a Family to Keep the U.S. Military Strong

Jackie and Brian Dorr prior to his graduation as an Army Warrant Officer.

Jackie and Brian Dorr prior to his graduation as an Army Warrant Officer.

Putting a new twist on the old adage “It takes a village to raise a child” – “It takes an entire family to keep the U.S. Military strong.”

And today, I want to introduce you to one family in particular.

It’s a proud day for the Dorr Family as Brian Dorr graduates as new Warrant Officer and is pinned by his wife Jackie Dorr, the former president of the MacDill Enlisted Spouses Club.

That’s where I met Jackie and recruited her to write for my Off the Base blog. The headline of her first entry:

Five Years, Two Kids and Four Deployments Later

That’s a good summary of the sacrifice made by spouses, children, parents and other family members like siblings when a member of the military is deployed whether active-dut, or called up Reservists and National Guard. The entire family serves during a deployment – some stay at home but are no less involved, in fact, their responsibilities increase along with their stress.

Brian Dorr holding his daughter Anastin who was an infant when he deployed. March 2011

Brian Dorr holding his daughter Anastin who was an infant when he deployed. March 2011

So, a huge congratulations to Brian and Jackie for this milestone and an even larger thank you for your service.

You can read more of Jackie’s writing and view her exquisite photographs here. My favorite two photographs that epitomize a deployed father staying connected to his daughters: one shows Brian making snow angels in the snows of Afghanistan and the second is Ana falling asleep in his arms when he returned from deployment.

And I’ll revive a favorite video produced for 2012 Military Child Month. The video includes a lot of parents with their children as they deploy or return home. At about 3:18 into the video is a photo of Paisley Dorr, Brian and Jackie’s oldest daughter, holding onto her “Daddy Doll” which she did quite a lot when Brian was in Afghanistan.

The video was produced in remembrance of U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Jared C. Monti, Medal of Honor (posthumous) 2009.




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