The Mission Continues for Wounded and Disabled War Vets

Eric Greitens in Fallujah. After he returned from Iraq, Greitens founded the nonprofit group, The Mission Continues. He is author of the new book, The Heart and the Fist. Photo courtesy of the author.

After the United States entry into WWI, there was a song that focused on returning veterans. The refrain: “How are you going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?”

A century later there’s a different refrain being repeated by many of the wounded or disabled war veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan: ” .. an unwavering desire to continue serving (their) country, even if (they can) no longer do so in the military.”

That’s a void being filled in part by Eric Greitens, author of  the new book, The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL.

Greitens talked with NPR’s Scott Simon on why the author believes humanitarianism and military missions need each other and that knowledge of local cultures is a key to the effectiveness of any operation.

A former U.S. Navy SEAL who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, Greitens founded a group called The Mission Continues, which works with wounded or disabled war veterans to contribute to their communities at home.

Military Retirement = Going Back to School for Both of Us

Rex Temple and Liisa Hyvarinen Temple, April 22, 2010, the day he returned from a year's deployment in Afghanistan.

When they tell you retiring from the military is a gateway to a whole new life – they mean it. These last few months going through my husband’s separation from the United States Air Force after 28 years of service has at times felt like we moved to a new country and learned a whole new society and a language – and we stayed in the same town where we’ve been since 1996!

I am the first to say we are incredibly blessed to have awesome retirement benefits. But learning to navigate them has been quite interesting. Just getting my husband’s entire medical record transferred from the military to the Veterans Administration has taken months coupled with multiple medical evaluation appointments. Fortunately my husband is currently using his educational benefits and attending graduate school fulltime so we don’t have to worry about taking time off from a civilian job to go to all these appointments. He also transferred 28 months worth of educational benefits to me so I will be able to go back to school and update my skills. That transfer will not only pay for my tuition and help with my books but it will also pay a housing allowance, which will help with our mortgage payment. (The housing allowance varies based on location and is higher if you attend a physical “brick and mortar” school versus take courses just online.)

Being able to access your spouse’s educational benefits is a great benefit for military spouses who may need updated skills to help spruce up a resume that reflects all those mandatory PCS (Permanent Change of Station) moves as they followed their spouse from one duty station to the next. (For more information about transferring education benefits to your dependents, check here: http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2009/0409_gibill/ ) Keep in mind also that this fall you can use these benefits to pursue non-college degrees, on the job and apprenticeship training, flight programs and correspondence training.

(More on that here: http://www.gibill.va.gov/benefits/post_911_gibill/Post911_changes.html – be sure to scroll down the page to heading “Effective October 1, 2011)

SMSgt. Rex Temple with his parents, Raymond "Skip" Temple and Maxine Temple, and his wife, Liisa Hyvarinen Temple, during his retirement ceremony, April 6, 2011, at the MacDill Air Force Base Officers' Club.

The hardest part about retirement is of course deciding what you will do now and where you will go. Many retiring military families face the decision about whether to stay in the area where their last duty station is at or moving to someplace else – for example closer to their families. In our case my husband has not been home for Christmas in 26 years and ultimately it would be nice to get closer to his family (my family lives overseas in a very cold climate so that’s not an option).  But mix in the current tight job market and the high unemployment among veterans – and deciding where you will enjoy your retirement is not so simple. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobless rate for veterans who have served since September 2001 was 13.3% in June, up from 12.1% the month before. In June 2010 it was 11.5%.

Another hurdle has been dealing with friends and family. Retirement is a difficult process for anyone who has had an active career – whether it’s a civilian career or one in the military. Making the transition can take an emotional toll especially these days when you may have “survivor’s guilt” for being able to leave the service and your buddies and their families are still facing many more deployments and night and days filled with worry and separation from their loved ones.  Many friends and family are eager to spend time with you and constantly ask what your plans are for the future. When you don’t have an answer, having that conversation gets old quite quickly.

One of the most amazing blessings about retirement has been the ability to spend true quality time together. We recently were separated for 15 months when my husband first trained for a deployment out-of-state and then spent a year in Afghanistan. Although my husband returned from Afghanistan in the end of April 2010, life has not really returned to “normal” until a few weeks ago. Decompressing as a couple after a combat tour takes time and getting used to being together is also a time-consuming process. We have enjoyed gourmet cooking together, going on long walks with our dogs and getting into a routine of working out together at the gym.  Surprisingly this last deployment brought us much closer together as a couple because it was so incredibly demanding on our relationship and it’s been great to build on that strong bond even further. Now we get to go back to school together although we are studying vastly different subjects. But it will be fun to see just who has the higher GPA!

Troops to Energy Jobs Program

The unemployment rate among post-9/11 Veterans is in double digits. Couple that with the statistic that in the next five years 40 percent of the workers in the nation’s energy workforce are set to retire or leave through attrition and you come up with the national program: Troops to Energy Jobs.

The jobs program is managed by the Center for Energy Workforce Development (CEWD) and is designed as an ongoing process of outreach, recruiting, education, and training to create a pathway for military personnel to transition from the service into civilian careers in the energy field.

Steve Dunwoody, a Veteran and Department of Energy employee, recently wrote about the pilot program. The partnership hopes to bridge the Veteran employment gap and increase opportunities for Veterans in the energy sector.

Learn about energy careers, job match-ups and training at Get Into Energy Military.

Helping Homeless Veterans, Identifying Homelessness Risks

There are a significant number of military veterans who are homeless in the Tampa Bay area. The region was selected as one of five in the nation for a collaborative project that focused on preventing and eventually ending homelessness among veterans. The demonstration project is focused on:

— veterans returning from Iraq (OEF) and Afghanistan (OIF),

— female veterans

— veterans with families especially with a single head of household

— National Guard and Reserve

The other demonstration projects are in San Diego, California; Kilien, Texas; Watertown, New York; and Tacoma, Washington – all near military bases.

A recent homeless count in just Hillsborough County found more than 7,000 people living on the streets and an estimated 20 percent or 1,400 are veterans.

Photo courtesy of the Houston VA.

The pilot project brings together the services and know-how of the local Homeless Coalition, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development (HUD ) and the Department of Labor.

Their new approach is designed to identify veterans before they lose their housing prevent it or those newly homeless, within 90 days.

Mark Johnston is with HUD which provided a $2 million grant for the Veterans Homelessness Prevention Project in Tampa Bay. Each of the five regions  received a $2 million grant, and each project is designed specifically to fit the needs of their area’s veterans.

“The key is to really identify people who are at risk of homelessness. This is not just a program to provide rent. This is a program to target veterans who are literally at imminent risk of becoming homeless,” said Johnston.

Those risk factors include poverty, disability and substance abuse. The three-year project is will identify veterans, help them and then track the veterans over time to find out what prevention measures work best.

To find out more about eligibility, in the Tampa Bay area (Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties) you can call the VHPD Coordinator – (813) 979-3536.

The VA has a National Call Center for Homeless Veterans or a homeless veteran can call 1-877-4AID VET (1-877-424-3838).

One-Stop Videos for Afghanistan and Iraq Veterans

I am not a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom, so I can only listen to those who have been there and share what they find is helpful for transitioning home. Several such voices can be heard on videos at My Reboot Camp .  For instance in the video above, veterans talk about their struggles to get over “the hump” in returning to civilian life.

Returning veterans struggle with a sense of guilt when they leave the military because others have stayed. Many go through multiple tours and upon returning to civilian life find few are aware of their sacrifice.

The website gives individuals a chance to explore those and other feelings, but it also offers suggestions on how to move forward. Veterans, family and friends can self-navigate through the support page with topics ranging from finding your learning style to finding your education benefits. There also is a resources page. The My Reboot Camp website is funded by a grant from the Florida BRAIVE Fund and Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice.

I encourage you  to explore the videos, listen to the stories. Even if you do not know an Iraq or Afghanistan war veteran, as a citizen it is important to understand their experiences and sacrifices. “It’s a shock to kind of go back to your life … my life was a time warp … you stand there with your bags and say okay what do I do now?”

Army Physical Training Changing for Wounded Soldiers

I’m sharing part of a story by Blake Farmer that aired this morning on NPR. He takes a look at changing fitness requirements for injured soldiers who stay in the service and for others who transition out.

A soldier moves into the crescent pose at a daily yoga class offered at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. Photo courtesy of NPR.

By Blake Farmer of WLPN

The Army is famous — or perhaps infamous — for its high-octane drill instructors. But for many soldiers who have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, push-ups, pull-ups and platoon runs have become impossible, so the Army has been developing what it calls “enhanced” physical training.

For soldiers taking a yoga class at the Warrior Transition Unit — which serves war-wounded soldiers — at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, the gentle commands of instructor Hylan Hampton have replaced the yelling of Army physical training.

“Remember that there’s no judgment, no competition with yourself or with anyone around you,” Hampton tells veterans taking the class, leading them through poses — child’s, sunflower, cat and cow.

The men and women taking the class have sustained visible as well as invisible injuries.

Spc. Michael Stefan is a combat medic who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Seeing soldiers get killed, and working on them and the memories and flashbacks that go along with that, this is the outcome,” he says. “But now I’m at my point in life where I’m transitioning out of the Army, and I have a wife and three kids and one on the way, so now I need to better take care of myself.”

Taking care of himself is more complicated than it used to be. Because of his medication, Stefan is not supposed to get very sweaty.

But a good sweat is just what Stefan needs, says Lauren Geddis, his occupational therapist. She says yoga combines fitness and stress relief for her PTSD patients.

You can listen to the story or read the rest of it here.

An Airman of Integrity Retires after 28 Years of Service

A man of integrity even when it was inconvenient and unpopular – a moral compass – a humanitarian: that’s how U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Rex Temple was described at his retirement ceremony.

During his retirement ceremony, Maj. Susy Bogdan (Ret.) formally presents SMSgt. Rex Temple with the Army Bronze Star he and nine other members of his ETT team were awarded for their Afghanistan service.

Temple leaves the Air Force after more than 28 years of service which included 10 overseas assignments. His last deployment was to Afghanistan as part of an Embedded Training Team. It was a unique tour because he was an Airman under Army control and in combat situations that aren’t typical for Air Force personnel at least not when he joined almost three decades ago.

But then, Temple did a lot of atypical things while on his last tour in Afghanistan. He created a blog, Afghanistan: My Last Tour, where he chronicled his year training Afghan National Army soldiers, handling logistics and supplies for U.S. troops and going out on humanitarian village missions. The blog continues to get tens of thousands of visits despite Temple’s return a year ago. He also started a school supplies drive for Afghan children which he continued after returning to the states.

SMSgt. Rex Temple presents his father with a flag that he carried on more than 180 combat missions in Afghanistan. Temple's wife, Liisa Hyvarinen Temple, looks on.

I had the privilege to work SMSgt. Temple professionally during his deployment. He agreed to talk with WUSF 89.7 FM weekly while in Afghanistan. A commitment that he took seriously waiting in line for a  phone or patiently working with sketchy internet connections just to get in touch. But, he never missed a week unless he was on a mission.

Our My Last Tour news series brought the Tampa Bay community an understanding of what life was like on the ground in Afghanistan for the U.S. military and what life was like for Afghans. Between May 2009 and April 2010, our relationship – a seasoned reporter and veteran Airman – developed into a friendship.

I have learned so much from him and now see the world through new eyes.

Maj. Susy Bogdan (Ret.) gave the opening remarks and presentation of decorations for SMSgt. Rex Temple's retirement ceremony.

In an interest of full disclosure, you should know SMSgt. Temple included me in his retirement ceremony. An honor I wish my father, a WWII and D-Day veteran, was alive to witness. And he gave me a framed presentation of uniform patches: a US Flag, his name patch, his rank and the ETT patch, all worn by him while Afghanistan. It is a treasure more valuable than any journalism award.

But of even more significance is the time and effort SMSgt.Temple gave me and WUSF listeners. The Tampa Bay community that heard our stories and read his blog are the richer for it. Here’s wishing SMSgt. Temple a fruitful and joyous retirement. He’s certainly earned it.

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