Artist, Author, Former President Bush Visits MacDill AFB

Former President George W. Bush painting one of 66 portraits he produced for his new book. Photo courtesy of The Bush Center.

Former President George W. Bush painting one of 66 portraits he produced for his new book. Photo courtesy of The Bush Center.

The 43rd president appeared on the Today Show Monday to kick off his book tour and is following that with an appearance at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base in the afternoon with a book signing.

He won’t take questions from media. However, former President George W. Bush will autograph pre-purchased copies of his book at MacDill’s Surf’s Edge Club.

It’s been eight years since Bush has occupied the White House. And among his many pursuits he has picked up brush and started painting.

He has become rather prolific producing 66 portraits of military veterans for his book, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors. Many of the men and women are wounded physically or with traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress. Bush paints their portraits and writes the story of their service.

The book’s title riffs off of the Pulitzer-winning book, Profiles in Courage, written in 1956 by former President John F. Kennedy while he was a U.S. Senator and after his distinguished career as a U.S. Naval officer during World War II. Kennedy’s book features eight profiles of men he felt showed extraordinary political courage.

Proceeds from Bush’s book will be given to his foundation, the George W. Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative, which supports transitioning military members offering help with employment and resources.

Growing A Community Of Farmer Veterans

Raising chickens is one of many skills veterans will learn at the Veterans Garden under construction in Tampa.

Raising chickens is one of many skills veterans will learn at the Veterans Garden under construction in Tampa.

There’s a growing movement to help veterans transition from the battlefield to a more bucolic setting. Whether it’s a community agriculture initiative or a functioning farm – researchers are finding that raising food can offer veterans both a therapeutic and an economic value.

A garden where veterans can learn to work the land and grow food is under construction at The Sustainable Living Project, on Sligh Avenue, just across from Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. Continue reading

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 Student’s Graveside Eulogy For A WWII Soldier In France

Largo High School student Konner Ross reads her eulogy for Private Leo Chalcraft at his graveside at the Normandy American Cemetery in late June.

Largo High School student Konner Ross reads her eulogy for Private Leo Chalcraft at his graveside at the Normandy American Cemetery in late June.

Largo High School senior Konner Ross was one of 15 students selected for “The Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom Albert H. Small Student & Teacher Institute silent hero project”. Fifteen teams of high school students and their teachers from around the country team up to research a soldier, sailor or airman from their home state, who is buried in Normandy.

The Normandy Institute program also includes an all-expenses paid trip to Normandy to visit important sites from WWII. It culminates with the teens writing a eulogy for their selected, “silent hero” and reading it aloud at their graveside at the Normandy American Cemetery.

Here is the eulogy Ross wrote for one of St. Petersburg’s fallen soldiers from World War II:

BY KONNER ROSS

Born into the Great Depression, Leo Kenneth Chalcraft lived in a family where his father had to work jobs like selling ice just to get by. Leo quit school after the fifth grade to go work as a gas station attendant.

He did not have an easy childhood. He lived in a town where the war was full throttle. St. Petersburg, Florida was a place where many soldiers trained to go overseas.

Private Chalcraft, a black panther in the 66th Infantry Division, was only 19 years old when he died in the sinking of the Leopoldville – a story almost too horrible and tragic to believe.

The Leopoldville was a Belgium transport ship headed toward Cherbourg, France on Dec. 24, 1944. The soldiers destined for the Battle of the Bulge. (The ship was hit by a German torpedo.)

Five miles from the shore the Belgium crew was reported to have taken a soldier’s knife, cut a lifeboat and sailed away, laughing and joking in Flemish.

The crew left the soldiers on the ship. Leaving them to do the only thing they could do, wait for rescue or jump into the frigid water.

Leo and his fellow 66th members stood on a sinking ship, stuck in a situation that certainly called for panic, but they were absolutely calm coming together to sing the national anthem to honor their country one last time.

During a time of war, everyone expects to make sense of death. They understand that people die in war. They understand that many people they know probably will not come home. But they expect that those deaths will be fighting for the cause of freedom.

Leo never had his chance to fight for freedom. For the two-and-a-half hours the Leopoldville was just sitting on the water that Christmas Eve, most of the men could have been rescued. But they were not. Of the 2,235 infantry men on that boat over 700 men could do nothing but walk into the water, including Leo.

Leo once wrote in a letter to his mother, “I think that when this war is over, and I get back home, I will take a trip and come over to see what it looks like after it is fixed up and the lights are lit up.”

I am right now in a place where he wanted to go. He would have loved to see this spot right here. I’m able to see the things that he wanted to see. I’m able to see the lights lit up.

Somehow Leo, I hope you know that everyone remembers you.

You’ve not been forgotten. For the rest of her life, your mother never again celebrated Christmas. Your niece, Albert’s daughter, was close to your mother and knew all about you. Albert’s wife Charlotte still to this day preserves your possessions.

And now I know you and I’ll never forget you.

My brother passed away at the age of 19, the same age as Leo. I have never in my life felt anything so painful. The loss of someone so young, someone who will never experience or see so many things that you can, changes you forever. Everything reminds you of them.

And I know now that this is how Leo’s family felt. I know that they had never felt anything more painful and for that, I am forever heartbroken.

He wasn’t a fighter pilot, a paratrooper, any of those people that are glorified in the movies. He was what most soldiers in WWII were, normal men who were called to serve their country, men who were too young to know yet what they were going to do with their lives. They still traveled thousands of miles away from home to fight for this country. That’s what most of the men were.

And without those men, just like you Leo, we would never have won the war.

WWII Silent Heroes Brought To Life By Younger Generation

Omaha Beach in the background where Pvt. Leo Chalcraft is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, on September 27, 2013, at Colleville-sur-Mer, France. (Photo by Warrick Page - American Battle Monuments Commission)

Omaha Beach in the background where Pvt. Leo Chalcraft is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, on September 27, 2013, at Colleville-sur-Mer, France. (Photo by Warrick Page – American Battle Monuments Commission)

Army Private Leo Kenneth Chalcraft was a green-eyed, brown-haired teen from St. Petersburg, FL when he was killed in action in World War II.

It happened just six days after his 19th birthday.

Today, his grave is among the 9,387 military dead buried in France at the Normandy American Cemetery that overlooks Omaha Beach. There, 72 years ago this June 6, U.S. troops stormed the beaches on D-Day, marking the beginning of the end of World War II.

“He was so young and I feel like he didn’t get to experience a lot of his life,” said Konner Ross, a 17-year-old who lives in Largo, near St. Petersburg. Continue reading

A Memorial Day For Military, Veterans Killed By Suicide

Ellsworth Tony Williams veterans counseling veterans

Ellsworth “Tony” Williams, founder and CEO of Veterans Counseling Veterans.

The nation will remember those killed while serving their country on Memorial Day in just over a week. But a local group called Veterans Counseling Veterans wants people to think about another kind of Memorial Day – one honoring those who served in uniform and died by suicide — and is planning such as service this Sunday in Tampa at American Legion Post 5.

The Veterans Counseling Veterans memorial service is an example of the many different efforts to eliminate the stigma of suicide and improve veteran suicide prevention from Congress to local counselors.

One of the challenges some advocates say they face is a number: 22. A 2012 VA report estimated 22 vets a day die by suicide, and it’s often quoted in media reports. But that data is questionable because it didn’t include all 50 states. And it’s mistakenly associated with only Post 9-11 veterans. Continue reading

World War I Memorial Dedication Saturday In Tampa, FL

Artistic concepts of the World War I Memorial being dedicated at Hillsborough County's Veterans Memorial Park on Saturday.

Artistic concepts of the World War I Memorial being dedicated at Hillsborough County’s Veterans Memorial Park on Saturday.

It was supposed to be “The War To End All Wars.” But World War I lasted more than four years, July 1914 to November 1918. More than 20 million soldiers died, either killed in action or by disease, and another 21 million were wounded.

The red poppy which bloomed on the battlefields in Belgium, France and Gallipoli became the symbol of remembrance for those killed.

But the WWI soldiers from Hillsborough County can rest assured that they will not be forgotten.

On Saturday, May 7, 2016, a World War I Memorial will be dedicated in their honor at the Hillsborough Veterans Memorial Park, 3602 U.S. 301 N., Tampa.

Red poppies will be handed out, a military historian will deliver comments and the colors will be presented at the ceremony scheduled for 11 a.m. The event is open to the public.

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