Florida Puts Out Call To All Women Veterans

Florida has 160,000 women veterans living in the state, yet some of those women do not consider themselves a veteran and many more have never applied for veterans’ benefits.

 Female Veterans in Iraq. A New Resource for Female Vet on VA health care and benefits: 1-855-VA-WOMEN. Credit Department of Veterans Affairs


Female Veterans in Iraq. A New Resource for Female Vet on VA health care and benefits: 1-855-VA-WOMEN.
Credit Department of Veterans Affairs

Matching women veterans with available benefits, resources and support is the goal of the 2nd Annual Women Veterans’ Conference July 30-31, 2015 at the University of South Florida

“Women veterans have a lot of gender specific issues,” said Alene Tarter, director of benefits and assistance for the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs (FDVA). “But often they don’t consider themselves veterans because male veterans or male family members have told them that they are not.”

She said many of the older women veterans are unaware that their veterans or entitled to veterans benefits.

“I’m a veteran. I only served a couple of years in the Air Force and I didn’t know I was a veteran for 25 years,” said Larri Gerson, supervisor of claims for FDVA.

From a previous Operation Stand Down.

From a previous Operation Stand Down.

Raising awareness and then helping women file for their veteran benefits is one reason why the state agency is planning the free, two-day conference in Tampa.

“I’ll be talking about the appeals process having women veterans understand what we can do to help them with their claim for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and MST, military sexual trauma,” Gerson said.

Sessions also will cover employment, vocational training, and an elder law expert along with an opportunity to sit down with benefits experts from the FDVA who will help women vets with their claims.

The 2nd Annual Florida Women’s Veterans Conference is free and open to women vets, their spouses and support. Online registration is available through the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

13 New Veteran-Related Laws In Florida

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)

Florida’s new law that expands access for service animals used by people with disabilities has received the most attention of the 13 veteran-related laws passed this year.

House Bill 71 not only expands the protected right to use a service dog to people with mental impairments but it also allows for a jail sentence if a public business denies access. And the new law also makes it a second degree misdemeanor for someone to pass off an untrained pet as a service animal.

“When people abuse things like that, it diminishes the service that that patriot has delivered to our country,” said Mike Prendergast, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs. “And it diminishes our community’s ability to sort out and determine who the legitimate person is and who is using an animal and mislabeling that animal for illegitimate purposes.”

Part of the problem, Prendergast said, is that no one authority certifies service dogs and their training. And there’s inconsistency at the federal level on the use of service dogs for veterans with mental health issues like post-traumatic stress.

Mike Prendergast, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs, at a 2012 news conference in Tallahassee. Photo courtesy of Steven Rodriguez, WFSU.

Mike Prendergast, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, at a 2012 news conference in Tallahassee. Photo courtesy of Steven Rodriguez, WFSU.

Prendergast plans to suggest to U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald that the federal VA adopt Florida’s guidelines for service animals.

He’s also pushing to put Florida on the cutting edge to handle future challenges that will confront veterans.

“From the burn pits, the oil fires over in the desert, the other environmental hazards that are over in Afghanistan that are over in the Iraqi desert that we’ve all been exposed to and we’re all going to have health challenges that will manifest themselves,” Prendergast said. “Whether it’s 10 years or whether it’s next year. We still want to be prepared for those health challenges.”

As an example, Prendergast said the Florida Veterans Foundation, established by the legislature, funded hyperbaric oxygen treatments for a limited number of veterans with traumatic brain injuries or TBI. That is despite the fact that the pressurized oxygen treatments are not a recognized treatment for brain injuries and some consider it controversial.

“Whether a peacetime veteran or combat veteran, we’ve managed to get some folks exposed to that and they’ve had remarkable recoveries from it,” Predergast said. “We need to explore the frontiers of medicine to take care of our veterans.”

And he wants that frontier to start with Florida’s 1.6 million veterans.

Florida Veteran-Related Legislation for 2015:

  1. HB 27 – Authorizes replacing the “V” on Florida Drivers Licenses with the word “Veteran”
  2. SB 7028 – Grants in-state tuition to veterans’ spouses and children using Post 9/11 GI education benefits
  3. SB 132 – Allows veterans to use alternative documentation for disabled parking permits renewals
  4. HB 329 – Authorizes military-related specialty license plates Woman Veteran, World War II Veteran and others
  5. HB 185 – Creates a public records exemption for the identification and location of current or former active-duty U.S. Armed Forces service members, Reserves and National Guard who served after September 11, 2001 and their spouses and children.
  6. HB 801 – Adds a memorial to the Capitol dedicated to the 241 U.S. Armed Forces who lost their lives in the Beirut barracks bombing attack October 23, 1983.
  7. HB 277 –Motels and hotels are required to waive minimum age requirements for active-duty military, Reserves and Guard who present valid identification.
  8. SB 184 – Authorizes absent uniformed services voters and overseas voters to use the federal write-in absentee ballot in any state or local election.
  9. HB 71 – Updates on the use of service animals to include people with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits daily activity; makes it a second degree misdemeanor to deny access to a service dog accompanying a person with disabilities or a trainer; prohibits asking about the nature of an individual’s disability in order to determine if the service animal is legitimate; makes it a second degree misdemeanor to misrepresent a pet as a service animal or to misrepresent oneself as a qualified trainer.
  10. SB 686 – Grants a property tax exemption to leaseholds and improvements constructed and used to provide military housing on land owned by the federal government.
  11. HB 225 – Requires the state to only purchase U.S. and other state flags made in the United States and from domestic materials.
  12. HB 1069 – Allows for the expansion of the Veterans Courts program under certain conditions.
  13. HB 471 – Allows vehicles with a Disabled Veterans license plate to park for free in a local facility or lot with timed parking spaces with some restrictions.

Information on the veteran-related legislation was provided by the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

World War II Vet Says VA Denied His Mustard Gas Claim

World War II Navy veteran John Tedesco holds up a newspaper article that details when he and several Navy buddies from his basic training filed VA claims in 1991 after the mustard gas testing they were subjected to was declassified.

World War II Navy veteran John Tedesco holds up a newspaper article that details when he and several Navy buddies also exposed to mustard gas filed VA claims in 1991 after the testing was declassified.

This week, NPR has revealed that the U.S. military conducted chemical weapons experiments on American soldiers and sailors during World War II.

It also found the Veterans Administration did little to help the thousands of veterans exposed to mustard gas.

John Tedesco, 88, is a Tampa Bay area veteran who said he was exposed to mustard gas in basic training — before he shipped out to the Pacific in 1944.

Like many who enlisted during World War II, Tedesco was young when he signed up for  the Navy in November 1943. It was less than a month after he turned 17 years old.

John Tedesco while serving in the Navy during WWII. In the left corner, a photograph of his then girlfriend, now, wife of 67 years.

John Tedesco while serving in the Navy during WWII. In the left corner, a photograph of his then girlfriend, now, wife of 67 years.

By January 1945,  Tedesco and several friends from Erie, Pennsylvania were in boot camp together at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station just north of Chicago.

That’s where Tedesco said he and a couple of his buddies were exposed to mustard gas. He said no one objected – at the time – you did what you were told to do.

“We were all young, 17 years old – 18 years old. You know,” Tedesco said.

He doesn’t remember the specifics of the mustard gas test — but he recalls what came next.

“The day after, I remember, they used to have two doctors and corpsmen come at noon and they checked us over,” Tedesco said. “For about a week, they did this and then we never seen them no more. That was it.”

In a few months, Tedesco was on his way to the Solomon Islands in the Pacific and later New Guinea. He would serve 21 months overseas. He was discharged May 2, 1946 in California.

“I’ve had breathing problems ever since I went into the Navy,” Tedesco said. “I don’t know if it was because I started smoking while I was in the Navy or if it was the mustard gas. But something’s bothered me ever since.”

Tedesco said he suffers from asthma and had to retire early from his job as a carpenter and building contractor, at age 57, because of chronic breathing problems.

A photo of the July 1991 newspaper article that gives details from four WWII sailors who say they were subjected to mustard gas experiments while in basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1944.

A photo of the July 1991 newspaper article that gives details from four WWII sailors who say they were subjected to mustard gas experiments while in basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1944.

He said he and some of his friends filed claims with the VA in 1991 when the mustard gas experiments were declassified. Their quest was written up in the local Erie newspaper.

But Tedesco said his claim was denied. He said he tried again when he got more proof – a copy of a letter a friend wrote while they were in boot camp together.

“And in that letter, he mentioned that we were mustard gassed and he had my name mentioned that we were there,” Tedesco said.

But again, the VA denied his claim, Tedesco said.

That’s when  he just let it go because he didn’t want to jeopardize the disability payment he does receive for hearing loss and a leg wound suffered in the war.

The VA has responded to NPR’s series on Broken Promises To Vets Exposed To Mustard Gas and lawmakers are promising take action including U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, vice-chairman of the US House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Bilirakis’ office has reached out to Tedesco to offer help getting his VA claim reviewed.

Run for Jamie Goal Reached, Awareness Mission Continues

Alex Estrella reached to 0 mile marker of US 1 in Key West on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. after running and walking 405 miles from Tampa. Photo by Monica Kim.

Alex Estrella reached to 0 mile marker of US 1 in Key West on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. after running and walking 405 miles from Tampa. Photo by Monica Kim.

Alex Estrella, a former Army Ranger and Gulf War veteran, achieved his goal running 405 miles from the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base to Key West.

He optimistically hoped to complete the personal challenge in eight days. However, it took more than 12 days to reach the 0-mile marker on U.S. 1 which happened Tuesday at 1:30 p.m.

But his mission was about more than mileage. He wanted to honor Air Force Reserve Capt. Jamie Brunette, also of Tampa, who committed suicide in February and to raise awareness of veteran suicide and PTSD.

In addition, Estrella wanted to raise the visibility of two organizations helping veterans, Hope for the Warriors, a non-profit organization that provides veterans services, and the Elk Institute for Psychological Health and Performance where veterans and active-duty military can obtain free help with PTSD.

Veterans can get help by calling the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, go online to chat live or text message to 838255.

Airman’s Suicide Spurs Run from Tampa to Key West

Jamie Brunette, an Air Force Reserve captain and Afghanistan War veteran, killed herself in her car February 9, 2015 in Tampa. Photo courtesy of Jamie Brunette Facebook.

Jamie Brunette, an Air Force Reserve captain and Afghanistan War veteran, killed herself in her car February 9, 2015 in Tampa. Photo courtesy of Jamie Brunette Facebook.

Air Force Reserve Captain Jamie Brunette is described by friends as a vivacious athlete with a huge smile who loved people and loved to run.

Malia Spranger, an Air Force Reserve colonel, served with Brunette, was her friend and business partner. They were going to open a fitness center together in March.

But Brunette, an Afghanistan War veteran, took her own life February 9, 2015.

“She was (like) a daughter to my husband and I,” Spranger said. “She is obviously terribly missed by so many people out there.”

Jamie’s “raspy laugh” is what her roommate, Heather Milner, misses most.

“The way I remember Jamie is being super goofy. She was always dancing around and smiling and laughing. Like, every day was always a good day,” Milner said.

Milner was among the dozens of friends, airmen and community members standing outside the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base to honor the war veteran and support “The Run for Jamie.”

Gulf War veteran and former Ranger Alex Estrella holds onto the photo of Jamie at the kick-off ceremony outside MacDill Air Force Base's main gate for his 405-mile run to Key West.

Gulf War veteran and former Ranger Alex Estrella holds onto the photo of Jamie at the kick-off ceremony outside MacDill Air Force Base’s main gate for his 405-mile run to Key West.

Alex Estrella after the start of his 405-mile trek to raise awareness about PTSD and veteran suicide. Photo by: Valerie Bogle Photography

Alex Estrella after the start of his 405-mile trek to raise awareness about PTSD and veteran suicide. Photo by: Valerie Bogle Photography

The solo run from Tampa to Key West was the idea of former Army Ranger and Gulf War veteran Alex Estrella, 56. Although the Tampa resident never met the promising young airman, Brunette’s suicide inspired him to do the 405-mile run to honor her, raise awareness about veteran suicide and post-traumatic stress.

“For those vets out there that may be suffering or something, speak to someone,” Estrella said just prior to starting his journey May 21, 2015. “Hope is a key word for me and God willing I’m going to finish this run for Jamie.”

Wearing combat boots, a 40-pound rucksack and escorted by Tampa Police volunteers, Estrella left MacDill hoping to make it to Key West in eight days. Within a few miles, the 90 degree temperatures forced him to change into running shoes and shed the rucksack.

Checking in with Estrella at the eight-day mark found him walking alone on Tamiami Trail about to turn south to Homestead just over halfway to his goal.

Hampered by the heat, blisters and cramping muscles, Estrella chuckled when asked if he considered abandoning his quest.

“I have 22 reasons why not to give up and those of course are the 22 vets a day that take their lives,” Estrella said.

Alex Estrella wore combat boots for the first few miles of his run but blisters forced him to switch to running shoes.

Alex Estrella wore combat boots for the first few miles of his run but blisters forced him to switch to running shoes.

According to the Veterans Administration, 22 veterans on average commit suicide every day. And that number only reflects those in the VA system. Those who have never used VA, along with active-duty military, reservists and National Guard are not included.

Despite his first chase vehicle having to turn back and getting only a couple of hours rest each night, Estrella continues.

Midday Thursday, he optimistically estimated that he will reach Key West on Sunday, May 31, 2015.

In addition to honoring Brunette, Estrella also hopes to raise the visibility of two organizations helping veterans, Hope for the Warriors and the Elk Institute for Psychological Health and Performance.

Veterans can get help by calling the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, go online to chat live or text message to 838255.

A couple dozen friends, airmen and veterans turned out for the start of The Run for Jamie just outside the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa.

A couple dozen friends, airmen and veterans turned out for the start of The Run for Jamie just outside the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, on May 21, 2015.

Haley VA Making Strides for Paralyzed Veterans

 (April 2014) Lead therapist Michael Firestone adjusts the Exoskeleton computer backpack for veteran Josh Baker, paralyzed after a motorcycle accident. Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media


(April 2014) Lead therapist Michael Firestone adjusts the Exoskeleton computer backpack for veteran Josh Baker, paralyzed after a motorcycle accident.
Credit Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media

Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Hospital is using cutting edge technology to help injured veterans rehabilitate.

One of the devices, at the Spinal Cord Injury Center, helping paralyzed veterans stand and walk again is the Exoskeleton.

Using a computer backpack, robotic leg braces and a walker, veteran Josh Baker demonstrated the Exoskeleton during the April 2014 ceremonial opening of Haley’s new Polytrauma Center.

Baker said it didn’t require much effort on his part.

“If you get a good rhythm and you’re good upright, you can actually walk right along and the machine simulates it,” Baker said.

His VA therapists were impressed by how quickly Baker advanced after just two weeks of practice. Baker was on the device’s most advanced setting, where the device takes automatic steps once it senses the veteran’s foot is in the correct position.

One of the features of the Exoskeleton is that it can be programmed with each individual’s weight, height and gait which individualizes the simulated walking, therapists said.

For the first time since his motorcycle accident in November 2013, Baker said the ability to walk with the Exoskeleton gave him “a jubilation feeling.”

Witnessing their wheelchair-bound son walk again that day at Haley was emotional for his parents Laurie and Robert Baker.

Courtesy of Ekso Bionics website

Courtesy of Ekso Bionics website

Laurie Baker said anything that makes her son feel better makes her feel better. His father agreed.

“It was incredible,” Robert Baker said. “That’s the first time I got to see him walk since November and it just means so much.”

He said the device also will help other veterans living with disabilities.

“It’s going to help so many other servicemen to just give them the hope that they can stand again when they’re just stuck in a wheelchair,” said Robert Baker. “It’s just a blessing.”

Haley is one of two Ekso Bionic Centers in Florida. The other is located at the University of Miami Project.

Senate Passes the Veterans Suicide Prevention Act

Chairman Jeff Miller calling for a vote to subpoena the VA Secretary's emails pertaining to an "alternate wait list" at the Phoenix VA Medical Center.

Chairman Jeff Miller calling for a vote to subpoena the VA Secretary’s emails pertaining to an “alternate wait list” at the Phoenix VA Medical Center.

A bill aimed at improving veteran accessibility to mental  health care has passed the US Senate and now only needs President Obama’s signature to become law.

The US House passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act on January 12, 2015 for a second time.

The House also passed the Clay Hunt SAV Act in early December 2014. But the bill was killed in the Senate by outgoing, US Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma.

The bipartisan legislation not only embraces new ideas to improve the effectiveness of VA mental health care it also requires annual reviews of program effectiveness.

“The Senate did the right thing today by passing the Clay Hunt SAV Act. The bill is an important step toward helping stop the epidemic of veteran suicides,” said US Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, in a news release.

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