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.

 

Veterans Show Up for Pasco’s Stand Down

A Marine Corps helicopter door gunner in Vietnam, Maurice Buff, said the Veterans Treatment Court judge at the Stand Down was very fair dealing with his court costs and fines.

A Marine Corps helicopter door gunner in Vietnam, Maurice Buff, said the Veterans Treatment Court judge at the Stand Down was very fair dealing with his court costs and fines.

There’s a military tradition called a “Stand Down.” It’s when soldiers get a temporary break from combat for a shower, hot meal and peaceful night’s sleep.

Recently, Pasco County held a Stand Down for veterans in our community who are fighting a different kind of battle with homelessness, substance abuse or mental health issues.

This is the fourth year One Community Now (OCN), a group of local churches, sponsored the event according to Mary Miller, a member of the OCN Stand Down Core Team and St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Pasco County.

Army veteran Ira James Holt, who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, gets a free haircut from a Great Clips volunteer.

Army veteran Ira James Holt, who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, gets a free haircut from a Great Clips volunteer.

What started as a one-day event to connect homeless veterans has grown into three days with 500 volunteers from the community at Veterans Memorial Park in Hudson.

“This is the first year we have two dental buses,” Miller said, adding that the dentists and dental hygienists were kept busy with extractions and teeth cleaning.

Portable hot showers were set up next to the concession stand where veterans could get a free haircut.

A donations tent where homeless veterans could shop for free clothing, shoes and food was set up on one ballfield next to the tent housing the temporary Pasco Veterans Treatment Court.

Pasco Circuit Judge Shawn Crane brought the Veterans Treatment Court to the Stand Down to assist veterans with pending cases.

Pasco Circuit Judge Shawn Crane brought the Veterans Treatment Court to the Stand Down to assist veterans with pending cases.

That’s where Sixth Circuit Judge Shawn Crane presided over 52 cases handling issues like overdue fines and court fees and suspended drivers’ licenses.

“Things we take for granted and probably shouldn’t, they are very important for folks homeless or veterans,” Crane said. “We have to understand and appreciate the sacrifices our veterans have made for our country and appreciate some of the things they come back with.”

Crane helped Vietnam veteran Maurice Buff with his legal problems.

“The judge was very fair to me,” Buff said.  “I figured if I got my fines and court costs taken care of I’d be able to get my license back and be able to support myself.”

He landed in Pasco county jail after a dispute with his long-time girlfriend. When he got out, all his possessions were gone and he was homeless.

“I’m a proud person, but I actually went to St. Vincent DePaul Veterans Department and they’re helping me find a home,” Buff said.

He was one of 181 homeless or at risk veterans at Pasco’s 2015 Stand Down. That’s 60 more veterans than in 2013.

Foxtrot, Echo, Delta, Charlie were the tent names for the Stand Down sleeping quarters.

Foxtrot, Echo, Delta, Charlie were the tent names for the Stand Down sleeping quarters.

Chairmen Call for Wholesale Change in VA Health Care

The official  photo of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

The official photo of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs has set a hearing Oct. 7 at 10 a.m. to discuss A Call for System-Wide Change: Evaluating the Independent Assessment of the Veterans Heath Administration.

The 168-page Independent Assessment was also the focus of a joint statement released Friday, Sept. 18, 2015 by Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-R), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (GA-R), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

“When we requested an independent assessment over a year ago, many of the failures at individual hospitals were well-documented. However, we all feared that they were just the tip of the iceberg. This in-depth review justifies those fears, and validates Congress’ efforts for years to investigate and uncover the many serious issues preventing the Department of Veterans Affairs from providing America’s veterans with quality, timely healthcare. The VA can no longer deny that its problems, as outlined in this report, are deep-seated and systemic. From delays in care and scandal cover-ups, to rampant unaccountability and a lack of leadership, the VA is an organization challenged at every level.

“This is not just another report to sit on a shelf collecting dust. Failing to act on its findings would be a great disservice to the men and women who have worn the uniform and to the values that make our nation great.

“We know that the Commission on Care will be closely examining these assessments and recommendations, and we look forward to the commission’s plan to end this continuing national tragedy. As the assessment confirms, fixing the VA will require a lot of time and hard work. This report is yet another reminder that it is far past time for President Obama to come to the table and work with Congress to transform the VA into an organization worthy of those it serves.”

New VA Director Sets Priorities for Tampa’s James A. Haley

The new medical center director at Tampa's James A. Haley VA, Joe Battle, is an engineer who has served with the VA for more than 32 years.

The new medical center director at Tampa’s James A. Haley VA, Joe Battle, is an engineer who has served with the VA for more than 32 years. He stands before the seal of the Veterans Administration and photographs of President Obama and VA Secretary Bob McDonald.

A new medical director is at the helm of Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Medical Center. Joe D. Battle has only been on the job seven weeks but already has a long “to do” list.

“We’re trying to get a new bed tower here and authorized for construction,” said Battle, an engineer who started working for the VA more than 32 years.

The plan is to provide individual rooms for veterans now housed in hospital wards that are almost 50 years old.

“My personal belief is every veteran deserves a private room to be in when they come to the hospital, and unfortunately at Haley we don’t have that in all cases,” Battle said.

He has other priorities such as consolidating VA services back onto the main campus at 13000 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., Tampa.

“Right now we have a lot of facilities within a 5 mile radius of this campus,” Battle said. “I was joking the other day, it felt like every corner I drove by had a VA clinic of some kind on it.”

In the director's seat less than two months, Joe Battle invited the Tampa Bay news media in for a round-table.

In the director’s seat less than two months, Joe Battle invited the Tampa Bay news media in for a round-table.

The Haley service area of Hillsborough, Hernando, Pasco and Polk counties includes more than 90,000 veterans currently being treated by the VA.

Battle, who said he loves technology and innovation, also is working the phone system so callers get a response in less than 30 seconds. Right now, he said, it takes on average about a minute. Providing public Wi-Fi to patients and visitors is another priority.

When it comes to concerns over wait times for medical appointments, Battle said right now 96 percent of veterans get an appointment within 30 days or less. But he’s aiming to make that 99 percent.

Battle hosted a news media roundtable Monday as part of his outreach to get acquainted with the community. He’s already met with several members of congress, visited MacDill Air Force Base, held a mental health summit with local leaders and a town hall with veterans and met with officials from Tampa and Hillsborough County.

Florida Women Veterans Meeting In Tampa

U.S. Army Sgt. Ashley Hort keeps her weapon at the ready as she provides security for her fellow soldiers during a raid in Al Haswah, Iraq, on March 21, 2007.  Hort is a team sergeant with the 127th Military Police Company deployed from Hanau, Germany.  DoD photo by Spc. Olanrewaju Akinwunmi, U.S. Army.

U.S. Army Sgt. Ashley Hort keeps her weapon at the ready as she provides security for her fellow soldiers during a raid in Al Haswah, Iraq, on March 21, 2007. Hort is a team sergeant with the 127th Military Police Company deployed from Hanau, Germany. DoD photo by Spc. Olanrewaju Akinwunmi, U.S. Army.

This week, women veterans from throughout Florida will meet in Tampa for the 2nd Annual Women Veterans’ Conference. The goal is to sign them up for available benefits and resources.

This is the second year the state is reaching out to women veterans. The conference has expanded to two days, July 30-31, 2015, at the University of South Florida Tampa campus to accommodate demand.

“We had so many women veterans stay behind for hours afterward last year,” said Alene Tarter, director of benefits and assistance for the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs (FDVA). “So, we decided to have it for two days.”

Tarter said all women veterans should attend the free gathering even if they’re already signed up for VA benefits.

“Because benefits change all the time and new benefits are added all the time,” Tarter said.

There also will be workshops on employment, educational opportunities and vocational training.

Florida has 160,000 women veterans and many have never applied for VA benefits.

Helping women veterans apply for benefits is only part of the conference. Larri Gerson, claims supervisor with FDVA, will present a workshop on the VA benefits appeals process.

“And then going through the process of having women veterans understand what we can do to help them with their claim with PTSD, MST (Military Sexual Trauma) before a hearing,” Gerson said. “And they can come in prepared- much better prepared, than if they were to go in by themselves.”

The conference is free and open to women vets, their spouses and support. Online registration is available through the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

WWII Vet’s Mustard Gas Claim Gets A New Review From VA

Navy veteran John Tedesco holds up a newspaper article from 1991 when he and several buddies from the Great Lakes Naval Training Station filed claims for VA benefits related to their mustard gas exposure.

Navy veteran John Tedesco holds up a newspaper article from 1991 when he and several buddies from the Great Lakes Naval Training Station filed claims for VA benefits related to their mustard gas exposure.

More than 70 years after being exposed to mustard gas at boot camp – a World War II veteran’s claim for VA benefits is being reconsidered.

It was not until 1991 that the Department of Defense declassified information on its mustard gas experiments using U.S. soldiers and sailors in training.

Veteran John Tedesco was exposed to mustard gas in January 1944 at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station along with some of his buddies from his hometown of Erie, PA.

Navy veteran John Tedesco while serving during WWII. A photo of Joan, his future wife, is tucked into the frame.

Navy veteran John Tedesco while serving during WWII. A photo of Joan, his future wife, is tucked into the frame.

Joan and John Tedesco married more than 67 years.

Joan and John Tedesco married more than 67 years.

So, when the testing became public, Tedesco and his friends from boot camp went down to their local veterans’ office and filed VA claims.

“They were all kind of sick too,” said Tedesco, who has asthma and says he’s had breathing problems ever since he enlisted at age 17. “We had to go up to the VA and get tested. It took two days and I never heard anything from that. That was the first time we tried to get something.”

Tedesco would try again with more evidence – a copy of a letter written home about the mustard gas tests by a friend in the same company at Great Lakes. But that claim was denied too.

“I’ve been turned down every time I’ve tried. Even though when I got that letter and it said in there we were mustard gassed, they still turned me down,” Tedesco said. “So then, I said the heck with it.”

He wasn’t the only veteran to disillusioned after being exposed to mustard gas and denied benefits.

“Big promises were made to these men by the federal government decades ago,” said Caitlin Dickerson, a reporter with the NPR Investigations Desk. “And it was very clear that those promises weren’t upheld. And that there wasn’t a whole lot of time left to tell their stories.”

A copy of the 1944 letter that mentions the company's mustard gas testing at Great Lakes Naval Training Station.

A copy of the 1944 letter that mentions the company’s mustard gas testing at Great Lakes Naval Training Station.

Dickerson spent months digging through documents and the 1991 congressional testimony when those promises were made to care for the thousands of WWII veterans exposed to mustard gas by their own government.

And that NPR investigation has refocused attention on veterans who were exposed but did not receive VA benefits.

It’s hard finding evidence because the mustard gas experiments were kept secret for almost a half century after WWII ended. But Dickerson said the vets could be helped by a ruling in 2006 that allows a veteran’s testimony to serve as evidence.

A veteran has to prove that they were injury in the military, that their disability or illness is service related and still affecting them today.

Dickerson said the VA is now handling all mustard gas claims through one office.

“These mustard gas claims are very specific because, again, they in many cases, they lack that essential evidence. And they’re more nuanced,” Dickerson said.

John Tedesco's wall of memorabilia from his WWII service in the Pacific.

John Tedesco’s wall of memorabilia from his WWII service in the Pacific.

Several members of congress responded to the NPR series.

Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) is one of a dozen senators who wrote the VA Secretary requesting that the VA immediately contact exposed veterans and review all pending and denied mustard gas claims.

“They didn’t have an option to say no just like the soldiers in Vietnam who were exposed to Agent Orange didn’t have an option to say no,” Nelson said. “There’s an obligation of the United States government to take care of our veterans.”

By mid-July, Tedesco had received a VA letter offering to review his denied claim. The 88-year-old retired carpenter and contractor filled out the VA form again requesting benefits for his mustard gas exposure from 71 years ago.

You can read Sen. Nelson’s full letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald here.

Help Promised to WWII Vets Subjected To Mustard Gas Tests

John and Joan Tedesco stand before a wall filled with World War II memorabilia including John's service photograph.

John and Joan Tedesco stand before a wall filled with World War II memorabilia including John’s service photograph.

This week – NPR revealed that 60,000 World War II veterans were exposed to mustard gas while training in the U.S. and some are currently living in the Tampa Bay region.

The NPR investigation found that the Department of Veterans Affairs failed to keep its promise to help any of the mustard gas veterans who had permanent injuries. After the NPR investigation, the VA is again pledging to reach out to ensure exposed veterans are getting the benefits they’ve earned.

And the vice-chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, has called for a hearing and offered his assistance to one of his constituents, John Tedesco of Pasco County.

John Tedesco as a  US Navy Seaman First Class in WWII - notice the photo of Joan tucked into the left corner.

John Tedesco as a US Navy Seaman First Class in WWII – notice the photo of Joan tucked into the left corner.

Tedesco said he was part of the Navy’s mustard gas experiments conducted at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in early 1944. He was 17 years old.

“We really didn’t know what was going on. We were young,” Tedesco said. “We got all kinds of shots. But I figured it was just normal, you know, routine.”

Now 88 years old, Tedesco doesn’t remember specifics of the mustard gas test, he does remember being checked by doctors and corpsmen at noon each day after the test for more than a week.

Some of his buddies from Company 92 at Great Lakes were able to give detailed accounts in a 1991 Erie, Pennsylvania newspaper article. It was published shortly after the U.S. Department of Defense declassified the mustard gas experiments.

“When I was back in Erie and I met some of the fellas, they said they were going to go put a claim in because they were all kind of sick too,” Tedesco said adding that his group went to the local veterans affairs office together to fill out paperwork and then to the VA for two days of tests. He said his claim was denied.

John Tedesco holds up the 1991 newspaper article that details how he and some of his friends from Erie, PA were used for mustard gas experiments while at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1944.

John Tedesco holds up the 1991 newspaper article that details how he and some of his friends from Erie, PA were used for mustard gas experiments while at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1944.

Tedesco said he developed breathing problems shortly after joining the Navy. He got out in May 1946 but didn’t go to the VA about his health issues until 1991 – more than four decades later.

“I was a carpenter and I was a builder, a small builder and I did that up until I quit,” Tedesco said. He retired at age 57. “You know I couldn’t stand – like if they’d be bulldozing on the job and making dust, I’d have to go home because I’d get sick. If they’d paint, I’d have to go home. Smells and that, they bother (me), my wife don’t wear perfume or anything because it bothers me.”

A photo of Joan and John Tedesco's wedding in October 1947.

A photo of Joan and John Tedesco’s wedding in October 1947.

His wife of 67 years, Joan Tedesco, said her husband’s health problems were really bad when they lived in California in the 1960s.

“I used to rush him to the hospital all the time, he couldn’t breathe. Here they found out he was allergic to the redwood,” said Joan Tedesco. “We just loved it out there but there was no way we could stay, so we ended going back to Erie.”

Their son, Dr. John Tedesco, is a family physician practicing in Wesley Chapel. He also has vivid memories of when they lived in California.

“My father was in construction. They said he was having allergy problems but what it was it was asthma,” Dr. Tedesco said.

“His breathing was absolutely horrible. One time they had to call paramedics to come to the house because he couldn’t breathe and I remember them doing an intra-cardiac epinephrine shot,” Dr. Tedesco said. “As a little kid watching somebody stick a big needle into your father’s chest while he was lying on the ground because he can’t breathe, I’ll never forget that.”

A high school yearbook photo of John Tedesco on the golf team when he was in eleventh grade. His health issues limited his ability to play sports with his children.

A high school yearbook photo of John Tedesco on the golf team when he was in eleventh grade. His health issues limited his ability to play sports with his children.

He said his dad’s breathing problems prevented him from even simple joys like playing sports with his children.

Dr. Tedesco believes his father’s asthma is not due to allergies but instead related to his mustard gas exposure. He even wrote a letter to the VA to help his father file another mustard gas claim – that too was rejected.

After a while, the World War II veteran who spent 21 months in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea just gave up.

“You know, I feel they should have done something and they didn’t do anything,” Tedesco said.”We tried. They turned me down so many times I figured just let it go.”

Hearing of Tedesco’s plight, his member of congress, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, promised to help.

“We’re going to reach out to him and if he gives me permission to advocate on his behalf, I certainly will,” Bilirakis said.

The vice-chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs, told NPR he’s working on bringing in VA officials to testify, and has already requested a hearing.

Knowing what he knows now — Tedesco says he’d volunteer to serve today if asked.

“It’s a good country. Yes, I would,” Tedesco said. “It’s the best country in the world.”

 

 

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