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.”

 

 

World War II Vet Says VA Denied His Mustard Gas Claim

World War II Navy veteran John Tedesco holds up a newspaper article that details when he and several Navy buddies from his basic training filed VA claims in 1991 after the mustard gas testing they were subjected to was declassified.

World War II Navy veteran John Tedesco holds up a newspaper article that details when he and several Navy buddies also exposed to mustard gas filed VA claims in 1991 after the testing was declassified.

This week, NPR has revealed that the U.S. military conducted chemical weapons experiments on American soldiers and sailors during World War II.

It also found the Veterans Administration did little to help the thousands of veterans exposed to mustard gas.

John Tedesco, 88, is a Tampa Bay area veteran who said he was exposed to mustard gas in basic training — before he shipped out to the Pacific in 1944.

Like many who enlisted during World War II, Tedesco was young when he signed up for  the Navy in November 1943. It was less than a month after he turned 17 years old.

John Tedesco while serving in the Navy during WWII. In the left corner, a photograph of his then girlfriend, now, wife of 67 years.

John Tedesco while serving in the Navy during WWII. In the left corner, a photograph of his then girlfriend, now, wife of 67 years.

By January 1945,  Tedesco and several friends from Erie, Pennsylvania were in boot camp together at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station just north of Chicago.

That’s where Tedesco said he and a couple of his buddies were exposed to mustard gas. He said no one objected – at the time – you did what you were told to do.

“We were all young, 17 years old – 18 years old. You know,” Tedesco said.

He doesn’t remember the specifics of the mustard gas test — but he recalls what came next.

“The day after, I remember, they used to have two doctors and corpsmen come at noon and they checked us over,” Tedesco said. “For about a week, they did this and then we never seen them no more. That was it.”

In a few months, Tedesco was on his way to the Solomon Islands in the Pacific and later New Guinea. He would serve 21 months overseas. He was discharged May 2, 1946 in California.

“I’ve had breathing problems ever since I went into the Navy,” Tedesco said. “I don’t know if it was because I started smoking while I was in the Navy or if it was the mustard gas. But something’s bothered me ever since.”

Tedesco said he suffers from asthma and had to retire early from his job as a carpenter and building contractor, at age 57, because of chronic breathing problems.

A photo of the July 1991 newspaper article that gives details from four WWII sailors who say they were subjected to mustard gas experiments while in basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1944.

A photo of the July 1991 newspaper article that gives details from four WWII sailors who say they were subjected to mustard gas experiments while in basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1944.

He said he and some of his friends filed claims with the VA in 1991 when the mustard gas experiments were declassified. Their quest was written up in the local Erie newspaper.

But Tedesco said his claim was denied. He said he tried again when he got more proof – a copy of a letter a friend wrote while they were in boot camp together.

“And in that letter, he mentioned that we were mustard gassed and he had my name mentioned that we were there,” Tedesco said.

But again, the VA denied his claim, Tedesco said.

That’s when  he just let it go because he didn’t want to jeopardize the disability payment he does receive for hearing loss and a leg wound suffered in the war.

The VA has responded to NPR’s series on Broken Promises To Vets Exposed To Mustard Gas and lawmakers are promising take action including U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, vice-chairman of the US House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Bilirakis’ office has reached out to Tedesco to offer help getting his VA claim reviewed.

Winning Appeals for Denied Veteran Benefits Claims

Stetson Veterans Advocacy Clinic director Stacey-Rae Simcox goes over a case file with paralegal Shirley Wells. Both women are Army veterans.

Stetson Veterans Advocacy Clinic director Stacey-Rae Simcox (left) goes over a case file with paralegal Shirley Wells (right). Both women are Army veterans.

There’s no shortage of stories about veterans who have had their disability benefit claims denied by the Veterans Administration, or their appeals paperwork lost.

The VA claims process can be complex, time consuming and downright frustrating.

But there’s help for veterans who have hit a roadblock in their quest for benefits they earned while serving in the military.

The new director at the Stetson University College of Law Veterans Advocacy Clinic has forged some creative partnerships resulting in an 81 percent success rate appealing denied VA benefits claims.

“With this legal-medical partnership and law students bringing evidence to the table for the VA and making it easy to understand, we’ve been able to get the VA to change their mind about 81 percent of the time, the very first time we present evidence to them which is impressive,” said Stacey-Rae Simcox, Veterans Advocacy Clinic director.

Stetson recruited Simcox from William & Mary where she helped establish a veterans’ legal clinic in 2008.

VLI_sign_exterior“My husband, Mark Matthews, actually helped me start that clinic at William & Mary. And the reason we started it was when we got off active-duty, we messed up my husband’s claims with the VA so badly that we missed all the deadlines and the claims died,” Simcox said. “We couldn’t get all the benefits he deserved. We thought “Jeez!” if two JAG officers can’t figure this out, how is the average service member who gets off active-duty going to figure this out. So we decided to become experts.”

And they also became innovators setting up a partnership at William & Mary between the veterans’ clinic and the psychology department. Psychology students did mental health assessments of veterans who had been denied a disability claim. The results were include in their appeal to the VA.

“Any veteran who has gone through the process of veterans benefits will tell you that medical evidence is really important to what they do and if you can’t prove to the VA through medical evidence that your disability somehow has to do with your service, then you’re not going to get that benefit,” Simcox said.

Because of their limited staff, veterans seeking help with a claims appeal are asked to call or contact the clinic through their website.

Because of their limited staff, veterans seeking help with a claims appeal are asked to call or contact the clinic through their website.

At Stetson she’s forged an even broader partnership teaming up with the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine.

“To create a partnership with the medical school for this purpose is a huge boon to the veterans and the VA because not only are we able to help veterans with mental health condition like post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, but now we can collaborate with medicine on the issues that most veterans have: hearing loss, back problems, knee problems,” Simcox said.

By the time a veteran walks into the Stetson Veterans Law Institute – they’ve usually knocked on every door there is to knock on. As soon as they enter the converted one-story home across from the Gulfport campus, they will meet Shirley Wells, a paralegal, and Army veteran who handles intake.

“We have some cases where soldiers have been looked over for 20-30 years,” Wells said.

Eighty-percent of their cases are appeals of denied disability claims, but occasionally they help on unique first-time claims.

Second year law student Daniel Flanagan couldn't join the Marines because of health issues. So, he wanted to serve by helping veterans with their disability claims appeals.

Second year law student Daniel Flanagan couldn’t join the Marines because of health issues. So, he wanted to serve by helping veterans with their disability claims appeals.

Stetson law students are a key to the success of the Veterans Advocacy Clinic. They do much of research and reading of files as thick as 1,000 pages. Daniel Flanagan, a second year student, works 18 hours a week at the clinic.

“This is practical. You don’t get to chew through a case file in any of your other classes. When you get Torts you go through a whole bunch of Supreme Court cases, but you don’t actually sit down with a case file that is a 1,000 pages thick,” Flanagan said.

What are practical lessons for the law students can become life-changing cases for the veterans.

“The people we’re getting are kind of at the end of their rope. They don’t have anywhere else to go,” Flanagan said. “For me, it makes it stressful because ‘Oh my goodness!’ I’m your last hope. Hope I don’t mess this one up.”

That’s not going to happen because their work is supervised by Simcox and other law professors at Stetson

Simcox is working toward the day when the VA and the veterans clinic can have a strong, two-way relationship so they can work together fixing veterans’ benefit claims and getting the assessments right the first time.

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.

Senate Passes the Veterans Suicide Prevention Act

Chairman Jeff Miller calling for a vote to subpoena the VA Secretary's emails pertaining to an "alternate wait list" at the Phoenix VA Medical Center.

Chairman Jeff Miller calling for a vote to subpoena the VA Secretary’s emails pertaining to an “alternate wait list” at the Phoenix VA Medical Center.

A bill aimed at improving veteran accessibility to mental  health care has passed the US Senate and now only needs President Obama’s signature to become law.

The US House passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act on January 12, 2015 for a second time.

The House also passed the Clay Hunt SAV Act in early December 2014. But the bill was killed in the Senate by outgoing, US Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma.

The bipartisan legislation not only embraces new ideas to improve the effectiveness of VA mental health care it also requires annual reviews of program effectiveness.

“The Senate did the right thing today by passing the Clay Hunt SAV Act. The bill is an important step toward helping stop the epidemic of veteran suicides,” said US Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, in a news release.

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