Laura Westley and Carol Barkalow are both West Point graduates and authors of memoires about their military experiences. Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media
The recent scandal over Marines sharing nude photos of female Marines online hasn’t demoralized some women veterans. Two female West Point graduates from Florida refuse to let it overshadow recent gains women have made in the military. And they have some ideas on how to prevent similar incidents.
The United States Military Academy at West Point didn’t even accept women in their ranks until 1976. Carol Barkalow was in that first class. She graduated in 1980 and served 22 years in the Army.
Barkalow remembers how female cadets were hazed and harassed back then. But she said women have made progress since, even in light of the nude photos.
“There is some good news with this, even though what they did was horrible,” Barkalow said. “Now, we have the social media and the interest to try at last to get the military to understand that we are a vital part of this force. We are never going away and some very basic things have to change within our military.”
“But what we have to have – we have to have women, general officers admirals in every rank in each of the services. So much so that, when you walk in a room, it’s not just one woman, it’s not just two women, it’s a number of women sitting at the table and have the ability to influence our future,” Barkalow said.
Barkalow, who lives in Pinellas County, is friends with 2001 West Point graduate Laura Westley, who grew up in New Port Richey. Continue reading →
Major Misty Posey leads a 2016 class for Marine Corps leaders about integrating women into combat roles. Credit: Lance Cpl. Harley Robinson/U.S. Marine Corps
My colleague with the American Homefront Project, Jay Price, reports on efforts to change the culture within the Marine Corps after revelations that hundreds of Marines shared lewd photos of women.
The Marines are famous for their close-knit team spirit, a cohesion that Marine leaders say the Corps’ recent photo sharing scandal has undermined.
Photographs of female Marines, some of them explicit, were passed around on social media by male Marines and veterans. Some of the women apparently did not know they were being photographed. The images were shared in a Facebook group which has more than 30,000 members.
The existence of the photos was revealed by Thomas Brennan, a North Carolina investigative journalist.
In a video posted by the Pentagon after the revelations, Marine Commandant General Robert Neller was blunt.
“We are all-in 24/7,” Neller said, “and if that commitment to your excellence interferes with your ‘me time,’ or if you can’t or are unwilling to commit to contributing 100 percent to our Corps’ war fighting ability by being a good teammate and improving cohesion and trust, then I have to ask you, ‘Do you really want to be a Marine?'”
But comments posted under online stories about the scandal make it clear that some Marines disagree, like this one in the Marine Corps Times:
“How bout giving homage to a female that takes care of her body and looks good? We can do that anymore?” Continue reading →
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, 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)
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.
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.
Wounded Marine Michael Jernigan and Brittani during their 8 years together. Photo courtesy of Paws for Patriots, Southeaster Guide Dogs.
I am sharing a message from one of my favorite Marines (and I know I’m not supposed to have favorites … but). He is now in the private sector and currently overseas working with a private contractor.
Because he is not in the U.S., it makes his message even more powerful to his fellow Marines and the general public:
I wish all my fellow Veterans a great and safe Veterans Day and may you all take a few minutes to reflect on they days of past and really look at what you have and how if not for those that came before, we may not have those things today.
Every day I see Americans take the freedom they have for granted.
All I ask is for you to take a minute or two to reflect on sacrifices made by those who answer the call to serve. I’ll stand and fight with my fellow warriors so my family, friends, and our way of life will never cease to exist.
Fly those Flags everyday and paint our country in those beautiful colors.
SEMPER FI devil dogs happy belated birthday and to my brothers and sisters in other branches push on and never give up.
Marines and sailors with Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan load onto a KC-130 aircraft on the Camp Bastion flightline, Oct. 27, 2014. The Marine Corps ended its mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan, the day prior and all Marines, sailors and service members from the United Kingdom withdrew from southwestern Afghanistan.
Another chapter in the Afghanistan War closed today as U.S. Marines, sailors and British forces left Helmand Province and transferred Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion to the Afghan National Army 215th Corps.
Regional Command Southwest is the first of the International Security Assistance Force commands to transfer authority to the Afghan national security forces as ISAF moves toward the Resolute Support mission that begins in 2015 according to a Department of Defense news release.
During the past year, Bosnia, Estonia, Denmark, Georgia, Jordan and Tonga ended their operations in Regional Command Southwest.
The U.S. military passed a tragic milestone in 2012: more active-duty service members died by suicide, than in combat.
And while military families grieve over a loved one killed in combat, families who have a loved one return from the battlefield only to die by suicide have to deal with even more complex feelings like anger and guilt.
And there was very little help or support for family survivors of military suicide when it hit Kim Ruoco’s family in February 2005.
“One of reasons I really started talking about my husband’s death was a fear that the way he died would wipe out the way he lived,” she said. “He had worked so hard to get to be who he was and that was part of the reason why he didn’t get help because he feared losing that.”
It is important to her that people know her husband: a man eager to serve his country who joined the Marine Corps right out of college. He wanted to be in the infantry but the Corps convinced him to train as a helicopter pilot because of his high test scores. He played rugby, loved football and Halloween was his favorite holiday.
The Ruoco Family, Kim, John and their two sons, Billy and Joey. Courtesy of Kim Ruoco, TAPS.
Kim said John had his first major depression after losing several Marines in training accidents in the 1990s when they were stationed in North Carolina. But back then, she said, he didn’t let people know for fear it would hurt his career as a Marine helicopter pilot.
“His identity as a pilot was everything,” she said. They did confide in one of his trusted leaders who told them “it happens to everybody … take a break and push through it.”
And Major Ruoco ‘pushed through it,’ successfully, until Super Bowl Sunday night in 2005.
Kim was in Massachusetts with their two sons and John was in California with his Marine unit. When they talked on the phone, she knew he was having trouble, he hadn’t watched the game, wasn’t eating or sleeping. He promised to get help.
She knew asking for help would be harder for him than going to war. So that night, she boarded a plane to be with him when he went to the base clinic the next day.
“By the time I got there he had already killed himself. He had killed himself a few hours after he’d hung up the phone,” Kim said. “I learned really quickly that there’s a lot of stigma around suicide and that people don’t have really good answers about how to recover and how to have a healthy grief process after suicide.”
Her biggest concern was what do I tell their sons, Joey, 10, and Billy, 8.
“At the time, I thought, how do you tell two little kids that their dad went to a combat zone and went to war, made it back safely, and then took his own life?” Kim said.
A trauma specialist advised her to tell her boys their father died in an accident. So that’s what she did, not trusting her own instincts at that time. She said not trusting yourself is a common experience of many suicide survivors.
But two weeks later, she found out that her son was blaming himself for his dad’s “accident.”
“He said mom I think I killed Dad. I said what do you mean honey?” Kim said. “He said, ‘When Dad was home for Christmas we were eating nachos and I said, ‘Can we salt the nachos Dad?’ And he said, ‘No because too much salt is not good for your heart.’ And when Dad wasn’t looking, I salted them. So, he must have had a heart attack and that’s why he had an accident.”
At that moment, Kim said, she and her sons started over. She told them that their father was really sick, that he had war injuries and his brain wasn’t working the way it should and he killed himself.
Kim found a brochure for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, TAPS, a non-profit organization that offers support to all grieving the death of a loved one serving in the Armed Forces. It is a peer-based support group for adults and provides military mentors for children.
Nine years ago, TAPS did not have a specific program for survivors of military suicide. So, Kim had to build her own support group.
But, she said TAPS did provide military mentors for her boys. Her older son, Joey, was paired with an Airman who had a sense of humor and personality similar to her husband.
A Marine pilot, who flew 70 combat missions with her husband in Iraq, mentored her younger son, Billy, and has kept in touch even as both sons have gone off to college.
“We need to start talking about mental illness,” Kim said. “Ninety percent of these guys are suffering from severe mental illness that they’ve battled for years and it’s treatable.”
She said TAPS is working with the Department of Defense, the VA and the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, SAMHSA, to develop a tool kit to share with local health providers, emergency room physicians and primary doctors on how to recognize and deal with military members and veterans at risk of suicide.
For more information go to www.taps.org . If you or a loved one are in crisis, Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Tedd “Gunny”Weiser has an impressive display of Marine Corps memorabilia on his office wall.
It’s difficult to define today’s military veteran. But there is one thing they have in common – they don’t like being painted with the same broad brush.
“Just because I’m a veteran, particularly me because I’m a Marine, a combat Marine, don’t think you know my political affiliation, my beliefs, my values,” said Tedd “Gunny” Weiser, short for Gunnery Sergeant. “There is a label and we want to shed that, we want people to know that we are our own person.”
After 20 years in the Marine Corps, Weiser has become a touchstone for the veterans at Saint Leo University where he’s now interim director of Veteran Student Services. He knows what it’s like to have difficulty moving into the civilian world, to hit rock-bottom with post-traumatic stress symptoms “starting to rear their ugly head.”
“It came to a point one day at a traffic stop. I actually put my car in park, got out of the car, ran up two or three car lengths ahead of me to tell the driver who cut me off six miles back what I thought of him and my wife said, ‘That’s enough,’” Weiser said.
The floormat outside Tedd Weiser’s door replicates the yellow footprints outside the Marine Corps recruit depots.
He got help from the VA for his PTS and decided to pursue his passion and his faith which led Weiser to Saint Leo University where he’s working on two masters’ degrees in Religion and Instructional Design.
But Weiser said he found his true calling running the Veteran Student Services office and the student veterans appear to be responding.
When Weiser started as an assistant in December, he said they averaged about one to two veteran visits a week. Now, just weeks into the fall semester and more than 60 have come through the office.
To help with the veterans’ adjust to campus life, a team at St. Leo University including Weiser, developed an online, Veterans Transition Course.
They partnered with Corporate Gray, publishers of The Military to Civilian Transition Guide which is used by the Department of Defense. Saint. Leo created an online version.
“We wanted to make it as easy as possible for our student veterans and their families knowing that their time is limited and their resources are limited,” Weiser said.
The Saint Leo University Veteran Student Services office hands out dogtags celebrating their student veterans.
The course is broken into eight modules and is self-paced. So, it can take as little as eight weeks or as much as eight months to complete depending on a veteran’s needs. And the course is geared to more than academics. It also offers guidance on networking, interviewing, resume building and even negotiating salary and benefits.
Weiser encourages the spouses and adult children of the student veteran to take the online course too.
“Because if it helps them, then it helps that veteran because it’s one less thing that veteran has to worry about,” Weiser said.
About one-third of Saint Leo’s 15,000-to-16,000 students are veterans or active duty military and a majority are not on the Pasco County campus. Saint Leo University has a College Online as well as 40 locations, many on military installations, throughout the U.S.
“When others in the 70s were protesting military, Saint Leo went onto its first campus in North Florida and started teaching at a military installation,” Weiser said. “We just celebrated our 40th Anniversary last year.”
That anniversary generated donations that created another program Saint Leo’s Student Veteran Emergency Fund.
Interim director of Veteran Student Services, Tedd “Gunny” Weiser, stands in Dempsey Plaza home to the sculpture, “For Those Who Serve,” that honors the men and women of the armed forces.
Since January, Weiser says they’ve given more than 30 gifts ranging from $200 to $500 to help with a financial crisis. The student veteran fills out an application, answers some questions about their financial problems.
The circumstances are reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Weiser said he tries to give the student veteran a response within 12 hours.
“We’ve given money for, just last week, cancer medications, day care, car repair, unemployment, food, utility bills,” Weiser said.
That isn’t the only gift St. Leo University Veteran Services is distributing.
Their online transition course was initially just for their students. But earlier this month, the course was opened up to all transitioning military and veterans for free whether they’re headed to Saint Leo University, another college or into the job market. You can learn more about the online Veterans Transition Course here.