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.

Veterans And Family Invited To ‘Debt Of Honor’ Preview

wusf_debt_of_honor_invitationFor veterans living in the Tampa Bay region, WUSF Public Radio invites you to participate in a panel discussion and preview of the new Ric Burns film “Debt of Honor: Disabled Veterans in American History.”

The WUSF Florida Matters Town Hall taping is Thursday, Nov. 5 at the University of South Florida Tampa campus, in the College of Public Health’s Samuel Bell Auditorium (13201 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., Tampa, FL 33612).

Please join us at 5:30 p.m. for an opening reception, and the taping that starts at 6 p.m. Seating is limited and registration is required. Please RSVP at this link, or call 813-905-6901.

A preview of the film will be followed by a panel discussion with:

  • Filmmaker Ric Burns
  • Actor and national veterans’ spokesman JR Martinez
  • Taylor Urruela, a disabled veteran who lives in Tampa

It will be moderated by Carson Cooper, the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show.

 

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.

VA Secretary Wants All Employees to Be Whistleblowers

 VA Secretary Bob McDonald (left) watches as paralyzed Navy Veteran Dwayne Scheuneman (right) demonstrates the Exoskeleton during the new leader's visit Wednesday at the James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center. Credit U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs


VA Secretary Bob McDonald (left) watches as paralyzed Navy Veteran Dwayne Scheuneman (right) demonstrates the Exoskeleton during the new leader’s visit Wednesday at the James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center.
Credit U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs

Secret patient waiting lists, delayed medical care, retaliation against whistleblowers  are all reasons why trust in the VA hit an all-time low this spring especially on Capitol Hill.

The new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert “Bob” McDonald is trying to restore that trust. He’s started by visiting as many VA facilities as possible during his first 90 days in office.

McDonald toured several Florida VA facilities this week and he invited U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Committee of Veterans Affairs, to come along.

”Bob McDonald gets it,” Miller said during a Wednesday afternoon news conference at Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Polytrauma Center. “He came on board at a time when the VA was going through probably the worst crisis that they ever had in the history of its time in the federal government. I would say that he is a hands-on person.”

McDonald says the formality of his position can get in the way of serving veterans. So, he insists that everyone call him “Bob” not “Secretary.” He has publicly shared his cell phone number  and takes calls from veterans at all times of day.

As the retired CEO of Procter and Gamble, McDonald  is all about improving customer service now and better forecasting veterans’ needs.

 A poster inside Tampa's James A. Haley VA announcing Wednesday's Town Hall meeting with the new secretary, Robert "Bob" McDonald. Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media


A poster inside Tampa’s James A. Haley VA announcing Wednesday’s Town Hall meeting with the new secretary, Robert “Bob” McDonald.
Credit Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media

 

He blames a huge influx of veterans seeking benefits and care for many of the VA problems especially when employee evaluations were linked to how fast veterans got scheduled and seen by a doctor. Bottom line, some veterans waited too long to see a doctor while others went without any care.

McDonald said he is waiting on the results of 93 active Inspector General Investigations.

“Some of those investigations are going to result in the Department of Justice being involved, some of them will result in the FBI being involved, and some of them could well result in criminal charges being brought,” McDonald said.

A West Point graduate and veteran Army Airborne Ranger, McDonald said he has no tolerance for employees who don’t embrace a core value of the VA – the veterans come first. But he is equally ready to defend any VA employee who exposes a problem.miller_mcdonald_at_haley

“I celebrate whistleblowers. I want every employee to be a whistleblower,” McDonald said. “I can’t improve, we can’t improve unless every employee is a whistleblower.”

To improve access to medical care, McDonald extended clinic hours, used mobile clinics, and had people work overtime..

“I’ve done some research and this may surprise you, but we don’t see the full effect of a war in terms of impact on Veterans Affairs until 40 years after the war,” McDonald said.

And he wants the VA to be ready when that influx of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans hits in 2054.

New VA Polytrauma Center Holds an Open House

The main therapy pool that is heated by solar panels on the roof the the Polytrauma Center and the wall of doors open the pool to the outside courtyard.

The main therapy pool that is heated by solar panels on the roof the the Polytrauma Center and the wall of doors open the pool to the outside courtyard.

It’s not your father’s VA anymore as evidenced by just one look inside the Department of Veterans’ Affairs new Polytrauma and Rehabilitation Center at James A. Haley VA Hospital at 13000 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., Tampa.

There’s a putting green, a two-story climbing wall, and an aquatic center for recreational therapy. Each of the 56 new private rooms has large windows for natural light, lush wood paneling, wheelchair accessible bathrooms, a desk and a large-screen TV so veterans and active duty personnel have direct access to education programs and entertainment.

“It doesn’t seem so sterile. I can see green grass. I can see Busch Gardens from here,” David VanMeter, an associate director at Haley who is in charge of facilities, said as he gazed out a second-story window. “There are different things to look at instead of just four cold walls.”

A two-story, therapy climbing wall is part of the common area in the Polytrauma Center second floor area known as Main Street.

A two-story, therapy climbing wall is part of the common area in the Polytrauma Center second floor area known as Main Street.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony, which is open to the public, is scheduled Saturday, April 12, 2014, at 1 p.m. followed by an open house.

Bringing the outside indoors is the theme of the new Polytrauma Center. The home-like environment is filled with technology and conveniences to make life easier for patients like a track system in the ceiling so immobile patients can be moved easily from their bed to the bathroom.

And private rooms are carved into neighborhoods with military inspired names such as Duty, Patriot and Valor. The idea is to create a healing environment where patients and their families feel at home.

So beyond the individual rooms along an angled extra-wide corridor, there are day rooms where families can socialize.

Freeze-dried palm trees line the Main Street common area at the Haley VA Polytrauma and Rehabilitation Center where patients can relax at the internet cafe. There are cooking facilities and a children's play area as well as access to an outdoor deck.

Freeze-dried palm trees line the Main Street common area at the Haley VA Polytrauma and Rehabilitation Center where patients can relax at the internet cafe. There are cooking facilities and a children’s play area as well as access to an outdoor deck.

There’s a two-story atrium called “Main Street” that is lined with freeze-dried, 20-foot palm trees. The concept is bringing the outdoors inside.

Main Street is filled with natural light. It’s a place where veterans can relax at the internet café or take a turn at the two-story climbing wall.

“You have to think of the veterans on active duty we’re seeing. One day they are in the field. They are serving in combat. They are active. They are young. They have expectations a different generation of veterans may not have had,” VanMeter said. “And now, we’re trying to tool what we provide here to them.”

The hallways are angled so the design doesn't feel institutional and the 56 private rooms are broken up into neighborhoods with military inspired names like Valor.

The hallways are angled so the design doesn’t feel institutional and the 56 private rooms are broken up into neighborhoods with military inspired names like Valor.

Interior glass walls continue the open feeling allowing a view inside the rehabilitation center and the kitchen of the transitional apartment. And it’s overlooked by a balcony. The third floor is where the general rehabilitation and chronic pain patients call home.

One of the hidden gems on the second floor is an outdoor deck. It’s surrounded on all four sides by buildings. But there is direct access to open sky above complimented by wood planking below and planters filled with greenery to frame the space.

A putting green, basketball court and horseshoe pit are all part of the new, outdoor recreational therapeutic activity courtyard.

A putting green, basketball court and horseshoe pit are all part of the new, outdoor recreational therapeutic activity courtyard.

The aquatic center is a prime example of bringing the outside indoors. The main therapy pool is enclosed on one side with glass doors that can be opened up to the recreational courtyard.

The smaller pool is like a high-tech treadmill that can be raised and lowered for easier patient access.

The recreational space outdoors has a multi-surface area where wheelchair patients can practice traversing stone, brick and gravel surfaces. There’s a putting green, basketball court and a horseshoe pit plus plenty of benches – some of them shaded – for those who want to feel the breeze and sun on their face.

Associate director David VanMeter points to the flat-screen TV that connects patients to everything from education to entertainment.

Associate director David VanMeter points to the flat-screen TV that connects patients to everything from education to entertainment.

You can listen to an audio tour of the new James A. Haley VA Polytrauma and Rehabilitation Center on WUSF 89.7 FM.

Lush wood cabinets and flooring help the private rooms to feel warmer and more like home.

Lush wood cabinets and flooring help the private rooms to feel warmer and more like home.

The exterior of the Aquatic Center.

The exterior of the Aquatic Center.

The circular drive entrance to the James A. Haley VA Polytrauma and Rehabilitation Center.

The circular drive entrance to the James A. Haley VA Polytrauma and Rehabilitation Center.

 

Veteran Athletes Give Super Effort in Super G Event

Veteran athlete Johnnie Alexander at the starting line proves to officials that he can do a wheelie and sustain before he can compete in the Super G event.

Veteran athlete Johnnie Alexander at the starting line proves to officials that he can do a wheelie and sustain before he can compete in the Super G event.

After six days of intense and sometimes grueling competition – the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games came to a close Thursday night in Tampa.

And like the decathlon in the Summer Olympics, the closing day feature what is considered the “to event” for wheelchair athletes at the games.

It’s the “Super G” – a slalom-like course of complex wooden ramps. Some tilt while others are covered with uneven blocks of wood or strips of carpet that can easily tip a wheelchair.

An athlete climbs the uneven ramp on the final obstacle at the Super G event.

An athlete climbs the uneven ramp on the final obstacle at the Super G event.

There are gates that must be maneuvered backwards, others that require a 360 degree spin and still others where the athlete must maintain a “wheelie” through a series of gates.

The athletes must be invited to compete. Only the top performers make the cut for the Super G according to Davis Celestine, president of the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

“To be in the Super G is like a privilege,” said Davis, who won medals in weightlifting, hand-cycling and bowling but was a spectator for this event.

Representing Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Hospital, Stephen Bush made it through the Super G course in 13 minutes.

After climbing the final ramp, the wheelchair athlete had to raise the flag and salute.

After climbing the final ramp, the wheelchair athlete had to raise the flag and salute.

“(It’s) everyday obstacles that you encounter and instead of going around them you go over them,” Bush said. He had the most trouble with the teeter box positioned at the first.

What appeared to be the most dangerous obstacle was the last challenge where athletes had to guide their chairs over two pieces of  lumber – like parallel bars – that were three feet off the ground.

The athlete then  had to make it up 5 inch lip before hitting a down ramp and the finish line.

“The only thing that comes to mind is that a Navy SEAL would be in tears over this. This course is designed to test every possible strength and weakness that you can have in a wheelchair,” said Air Force veteran William Jackson who was recording the competition to show to fellow athletes at the Erie VA in Pennsylvania.

William Jackson, who competed in the motorized wheelchair slalom, takes a video of the Super G to share with veteran athletes back in Pennsylvania.

William Jackson, who competed in the motorized wheelchair slalom, takes a video of the Super G to share with veteran athletes back in Pennsylvania.

“They try to make the last of the obstacles  the most intense,” said Jackson who won a medal in the motorized wheelchair slalom. “You just used your arms to climb up a seven inch curb at the beginning of a course or to pop a wheelie and maintain a wheelie over 7 to 13 cones.”

He said he would gladly lay his medals at the feet of the Super G athletes because it’s such an intense competition.

It does get intense. Several volunteers and officials closely guard each athlete as they traverse the course because there are spills. Wheelchairs tip. Athletes fall out.

But to the delight of the crowd,  the veterans get back into their chairs and continue through the course.

A look at the series of tilting platforms and uneven surfaces that proved most problematic to the wheelchair athletes.

A look at the series of tilting platforms and uneven surfaces that proved most problematic to the wheelchair athletes.

Unlike the other events, medals are not awarded to the top three finishers. Instead, a trophy is presented to the wheelchair athlete with the best time and fewest penalty points.

Army veteran Bryan Price of Leeton, Missouri won the Super G at the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

The other 11 Super G competitors were: Cori Morgan, Enrique Lopez, Jeff Deleon, Johnnie Alexander, Laura Schwanger, Patrick Burns, Raymond Herandez, Rory Cooper, Samuel Hudson, Stephen Bush and Terry Rock.

Watch as veteran athlete Johnnie Alexander spills out of his wheelchair as he takes on the toughest obstacle in the Super G.

Below get a look as an athlete completes the final obstacle in the Super G and crosses the finish line.

Let the Games Begin, Wheelchair Athletes in Tampa

The finish line for the first event, hand-cycling, was an inflatable arch outside the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Photo credit: Bobbie O'Brien

The finish line for the first event, hand-cycling, was an inflatable arch outside the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Photo credit: Bobbie O’Brien

This week, the Tampa Bay region is hosting more than 600 elite athletes, their coaches and families.

Opening ceremonies for the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games were held this weekend at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Outside, under an inflatable arch, the first event, a hand-cycling race for 5K and 10K, started and finished.

The hand-cycling race, 5K and 10K, included crossing the Cass Street Bridge then on to Bayshore Boulevard. Photo credit: Bobbie O'Brien

The hand-cycling race, 5K and 10K, included crossing the Platt Street Bridge then on to Bayshore Boulevard. Photo credit: Bobbie O’Brien

The race included a wide range of athletes many speedsters in sleek, low-riding track chairs and others with more severe physical disabilities cycled in upright chairs.

Their hardest challenge was the rise to get over the Platt Street Bridge. That’s where volunteer Kendra Richgels was explaining to her  two  daughters that hand-cycling isn’t as easy as it looks

“Try to do a push up,” Richgels teased her daughter who admitted she couldn’t. “See you’ve got to have a lot of upper body strength.”

Richgel said she is among hundreds from Citibank employees  volunteering to help with the Games.

The final athlete takes on the rise at Cass Street Bridge as she heads to the finish line. Photo credit: Bobbie O'Brien

The final athlete takes on the rise at Platt Street Bridge as she heads to the finish line. Photo credit: Bobbie O’Brien

“A member of our team, his son is in Afghanistan right now so my whole team has come out for Global Community Day and we support the veterans in general,” Richgels said.

Also stationed on the Platt Street Bridge for the race was Ron Evia, one of several Hillsborough County Fire Fighters volunteering for the Games.

“We definitely support our veterans and I’m a veteran myself,” Evia said. “I feel a need – it’s actually my duty – to help out serve these guys as the served us.”

The National  Veterans Wheelchair Games run through Thursday – all events are free and open to the public.

Monday morning events include air guns at the Marriot in downtown Tampa, track at Tampa’s Jefferson High School and a water skiing exhibition at Pinellas County’s Lake Seminole Park.

The athlete raises her arms in victory having made it over the bridge as she coasts downhill toward the finish line a few blocks away. Photo credit: Bobbie O'Brien

The athlete raises her arms in victory having made it over the bridge as she coasts downhill toward the finish line a few blocks away. Photo credit: Bobbie O’Brien

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