Graduating JROTC Cadets Ready And Eager To Serve

JROTC retired Army Lt Col Mo Bolduc shows the display of ribbons and flags that adorn the JROTC room and computer lab

Newsome High JROTC instructor, retired Lt. Col. Mo Buldoc points out the display of ribbons and flags that adorn their computer lab and classroom.
Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media

The teenagers graduating this spring were still in diapers when terrorists attacked the United States September 11, 2001. Yet, many of the high school graduates are stepping up to join the military despite the ongoing “war against terror” and recent tensions in Syria and North Korea.

Graduation starts today at Hillsborough County public high schools. First in line is Newsome High School,  southeast of Tampa in the suburban neighborhood of Fishhawk. As seniors cross the stage at the state fairgrounds to claim their diplomas – many are advancing to college, others moving directly into the workforce and still others are chosing military service.

WUSF talked with several JROTC graduating seniors from Newsome and Steinbrenner high schools about  about their choice of a military life during these times of heightened tensions with North Korea, Syria and the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Toddlers in a Time of Terrorism

JROTC Walter Wahle

Newsome JROTC cadet Walter Wahle

“Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve been there since I was one,” said Walter Wahle, 17. “So, it’s kind of just, I guess my generation’s war. Like in the 60s it was Vietnam. So, that’s just where it is today.”

Wahle is enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, then heading to college, Hillsborough Community College and the University of South Florida, this fall after graduating from Newsome.

The military is the only life Wahle has known.  His dad is a Marine who’s served in Iraq twice.  And this summer, his father will be deploying to Kuwait while Wahle is in boot camp.

“People think that when you join the military you’re signing up to go fight and die” Wahle said. “Most people don’t fight in the military and they only die if they’re in harms’ way and today the number of casualties is so much lower than it has been in past wars and conflicts that people are going to serve, they’re not going to die.”

War Through The Hollywood Lens

JROTC_Destini_Rainey

Newsome JROTC cadet Destini Rainey

The 2005 movie Jarhead, a classic film that provides a deep look into a Marine’s deployment during Desert Storm, is how Destini Rainey was introduced to the military. As a child, Rainey remembers playing military games with her cousin after seeing the film.

“When I watched Jarhead, you see the infantry men shooting people and all the violent graphics,” Rainey said. “But now that I’ve matured, I don’t think that’s the scenario I’m going to be in. That’s kind of why I choose the Navy. They’re less combative than the Marines and Army. So. I’ll be more of the brains instead of the brawn.”

Rainey is scheduled to report on Christmas Day to become a Navy aerographer’s mate. They track the weather and oceans.

“Personally, I hope that we do not go to war,” Rainey said. “I have faith in the president and the other government officials that they make the right decision on what we do with North Korea and Syria. Not my place to say anything about it. So, just if we do go to war, then so be it.”

A Family Military Tradition

JROTC_Nathan_Egli

Steinbrenner JROTC cadet Nathan Egli

The responsibility of war is what Nathan Egli, 18, thought about when he considered his chosen career. He’s headed off to college at Miami of Ohio on a Marine ROTC scholarship. He plans to become an officer, just like his father.

“I’ve realized that wanting to be a leader of Marines in the future is going to be a very difficult task because I’m in charge of multiple things, multiple responsibilities and including other men’s lives. That’s a very difficult thing to grasp  because in the battlefield and just war in general, a lot of things can go wrong,” Egli said.

The Steinbrenner High School graduate said his father, who retired from the Marines in March, supports his decision to follow him in the military and so does his mother.

That support was common among all of the graduates we talked to. One Army recruit said his mom encouraged him to join.  Although she will miss him, she told him he’s doing something he needs to do.

Below are additional voices of young high school graduates who have chosen a military life. They were not part of the broadcast story. We invite you to listen to their thoughts on why they wanted to serve their country and protect all who live here.

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VA Chief Resolves Billing Snafu For Up To 600 Vets

AmLegion Vets Roundtable

A Veterans Round-table discussion April 21, 2017 with U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg held at American Legion Post 273 of Madeira Beach, FL.

A new administrator at the Bay Pines Healthcare System is being credited by veterans for resolving a paperwork snafu that had some low income VA clients being billed for medications they should have gotten for free.

And what’s worse, some of the low income veterans, who may have been unaware of the VA charges or thought they were a mistake, ended up having the money taken from their benefits checks, according Bill Dreyer, a veteran and peer counselor.

“I have a lot of problems with, right now, the billing system for the VA,” Dreyer told a veterans’ roundtable at American Legion Post 273 last week.

Dreyer described how a female veteran with military sexual trauma, who he is counseling, was charged for her VA medications, yet she never received a bill.

“The reason I found out about this is I’ve been counseling Megan for a while and she got a letter from the Treasury Department that said we are now docking your Social Security benefits,” Dreyer said.

An unidentified veteran in the audience chimed in, “I got one of those (letters) too.”

veteran red shirt day

American Legion Post 273 sells these t-shirts to remind people about “wear red” Fridays.

Unexplained charges for VA medications that are supposed to be free to qualified, low income veterans is not something new to veteran and advocate Randall McNabb, a ride captain with the Patriot Guard Riders.

McNabb said many low income veterans who qualify for free medications don’t know they are required to verify their income status every year. It’s known as a “means test.”

“If their means test goes out of date, it says they’ll be notified at their next appointment. That next appointment could be 10, 12, 14 months down the line,” McNabb said. “Meanwhile, they’re being charged for their medications unknown to them.”

If the veteran ignores the VA bill, thinking it’s just a mistake, it goes to collections. McNabb said that scenario was happening too often especially among veterans who had gone through the VA homeless programs.

“Most of the low income veterans mistakenly believe that it’s a mistake,” McNabb said “Instead of going and checking on it.”

So, McNabb started speaking up like at the quarterly town hall held by the Bay Pines Healthcare System last fall.

One of the people who heard him was Jonathan Benoit, the new, chief of health administration service at Bay Pines Healthcare Systems.

Benoit dug into the data and found 600 veterans who needed to renew their “means test”. But instead of waiting for the veterans to come in for their appointments, Benoit sent letters to all 600 immediately.

“What’s nice is we started with that 600 and in our recent run, I coincidentally saw the stack of letters and it’s only a little more than 100 right now,” Benoit said. “And that’s all the way out for the entire year and I’m hoping it gets lower and lower to a point where we’re on top of every single one of these veterans and they don’t have to experience that inconvenience of having to pay copays.”

McNabb mentioned Benoit’s efforts at the roundtable and said the solution should be shared nationally. Benoit is working on that.

“This is certainly something that I’m going to share with other chiefs and I actually just transferred from Eastern Colorado and I have already shared the process with them,” Benoit said.

He was gratified to see results within just a few months and he is thankful for the veterans’ feedback because he’s a veteran too. Now, Benoit is moving on to his next VA mission: fixing the scheduling system at Bay Pines.

World War I Veterans Remembered With Wreaths

American gunners battle through the Argonne Forest.
(NARA, 111-SC-95980)

I had an interview this morning at Tampa’s James A. Haley VA on a topic far removed from the United States’ entry into World War I.

But I couldn’t help but reflect on the 100th anniversary of the day the U.S. officially entered that global conflict in 1917. At the VA, I passed by the bus stop where two WWII veterans were waiting for a ride. They were easily identified by their ball caps declaring their veteran status.

I over heard one veteran say to the other, “Well they’re about to get back in it again over there, from what I hear.”

I can only speculate that the veteran was referring to Syria or somewhere else on the globe. But it reminded me that the subtitle to World War I was “The war to end all wars.” That’s a variation of an H.G. Wells’ article according to Mental Floss.com:

… the British futurist writer H.G. Wells wrote in an article titled “The War That Will End War,” published in The Daily News on August 14, 1914. Commonly cited as “the war to end all wars” or a similar variant, the phrase was quickly adopted as a slogan to explain British and later American participation in the war…

But no matter the war, there will always be veterans and casualties. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) National Cemetery Administration is hosting wreath-laying ceremonies the week of April 6 to commemorate the 353,082 World War I Veterans interred in VA sites across the country. A list, by state, of the ceremonies planned at National Cemeteries is available here.

On April 6, 1917, Congress voted to declare war on the German Empire. When the war ended Nov. 11, 1918, more than 2 million Americans had served.

VA To Expand Care To ‘Other-Than-Honorable’ Discharges

veteran_suicide_crisisline_graphicAnd estimated 500,000 former military service members with “Other-Than-Honorable” (OTH) discharges could receive mental health treatment through the VA.

Dr. David J. Shulkin, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary,  testified Tuesday, March 7, 2017, that he intended to expand urgent mental health care needs to OTH service members.

“The president and I have made it clear that suicide prevention is one of our top priorities,” Shulkin said in a VA news release. “We know the rate of death by suicide among Veterans who do not use VA care is increasing at a greater rate than Veterans who use VA care. This is a national emergency that requires bold action. We must and we will do all that we can to help former service members who may be at risk. When we say even one Veteran suicide is one too many, we mean it.”

You can read full details in the VA news release.

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

Florida VA Nursing Homes Only Meet 20 Percent Of Need

One of Florida's existing VA sponsored nursing homes. Photo courtesy of FDVA.

One of Florida’s existing VA sponsored nursing homes. Photo courtesy of FDVA.

By its own analysis, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs calculates that Florida only has 20 percent of the VA-sponsored nursing home beds it needs to serve aging veterans. And it’s put the state on a “critical” list when it comes to building VA nursing homes.

“I need nursing homes,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Glenn Sutphin, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs. “The VA says there are two states that have critical needs Texas and Florida. I’m supposed to have 4,049 beds. That’s what they say I should have. I’ve got like 810. I’ve got two nursing homes I’m trying to build. We need to keep building them. But they changed the design. They went from $38 million to $58 million.”

The cost of the nursing home planned for Port St. Lucie, jumped $20 million because of design changes according to an online video, “We have taken a concept of creating a home environment for our residents, for our veterans who live with us. We create an environment where it’s not as institutional as your traditional nursing home creating small neighborhoods where possible.”

That includes private rooms for veterans, a necessity for today’s military according to VA Secretary Bob McDonald. Continue reading

USA Today Opens Up VA ‘Secret’ Ratings System

VA Sec McDonald visit to Phoenix VA

Bob McDonald’s first visit as VA Secretary was to the Phoenix VAMC where he met with veterans and employees like Medical Support Assistant Michael Logie. He also visited the Las Vegas VAMC during the trip. Photo courtesy of the VA blog Vantage Point

Reporter Donovan Slack with USA Today reveals internal ratings from the 2015 fourth quarter where the VA ranked the quality of care at 146 VA medical centers. But when she

But VA Undersecretary for Health David Shulkin told USA Today that the rating system p that uses from one to five stars – might not be understood if it was made public because it was designed to only be an “internal improvement tool.”

But without the star ratings, members of the public — including patients, members of Congress and others outside the agency who could hold it accountable — have no way of knowing whether VA medical centers are improving or declining, except to plow through a dizzying array of hundreds of spreadsheets on the agency’s website.

“The data’s there, but you’d have to be an expert to get through it,” Shulkin conceded.

He said 120 of the 146 medical centers that the VA rates on the star scale have shown improvement since he began overseeing the Veterans Health Administration in July 2015.

The newspaper has set up a searchable

Bob McDonald’s first visit as VA Secretary was to the Phoenix VAMC where he met with veterans and employees like Medical Support Assistant Michael Logie. He also visited the Las Vegas VAMC during the trip. Photo courtesy of the VA blog Vantage Point

database if you want to checkout the star rating of your the VA medical center nearest you. You can read the full USA Today article here.

The VA has published a response to the Dec. 7, 2016 USA Today article about their internal ratings tool called Strategic Analytics for Improvement and Learning (SAIL). The VA said it worked with the reporter for more than a month on the story and wanted to explain what the ratings represent.

All of us at VA care very much about the quality of care our patients receive. We are committed to continuously improving that quality. In fact, our latest SAIL data indicates that 82% of VA medical centers (120 of 146) have made improvement between the 4th Quarter of FY2015 and the 3rd quarter of FY2016.

You can read the full response and Dr. Shulkin’s comments here.

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