A Memorial Day For Military, Veterans Killed By Suicide

Ellsworth Tony Williams veterans counseling veterans

Ellsworth “Tony” Williams, founder and CEO of Veterans Counseling Veterans.

The nation will remember those killed while serving their country on Memorial Day in just over a week. But a local group called Veterans Counseling Veterans wants people to think about another kind of Memorial Day – one honoring those who served in uniform and died by suicide — and is planning such as service this Sunday in Tampa at American Legion Post 5.

The Veterans Counseling Veterans memorial service is an example of the many different efforts to eliminate the stigma of suicide and improve veteran suicide prevention from Congress to local counselors.

One of the challenges some advocates say they face is a number: 22. A 2012 VA report estimated 22 vets a day die by suicide, and it’s often quoted in media reports. But that data is questionable because it didn’t include all 50 states. And it’s mistakenly associated with only Post 9-11 veterans. Continue reading

NPR Series Shines Light On VA ‘Choice’ Program

qlawrence-40be02cb27d75e64aa42151a71fa887f87bd3c5a-s400-c85

Quil Lawrence – NPR reporter. Photo courtesy of NPR.

National Public Radio reporter Quil Lawrence took the lead on an investigation into the Veterans Health Administration plan to lessen wait times at VA medical clinics and hospitals by allowing veterans to see private medical providers.

It was called the “Choice Program.”

However, as the title of the first three stories shows, the hastily assembled program left veterans without more medical options: “How Congress And The VA Left Many Veterans Without ‘Choice.'”

Another part of the investigation looked at how attempts to improve the system has instead prolonged wait-times for veterans trying to get a medical appointment: “Despite $10B Fix Veterans Are Waiting Even Longer To See Doctors.”

 

 

Florida Teen Selected To Write Eulogy For WWII Silent Hero

leo k chalcraft

U.S. Army Private Leo K. Chalcraft drowned off the coast of Normandy Christmas Eve 1944, just weeks after turning 19.

The toughest writing assignment 16-year-old Konner Ross will have this year is to write a eulogy for a young man she’s never met. But there’s a part of him the Largo High School junior never forget – his green eyes.

“They have his wallet from when they found it on the beach and on his identification card, it says (he has) green eyes and brown hair,” Ross said. “I didn’t know he had green eyes until then. So, that seems like something small, but it was really cool to learn for some reason.”

Ross is describing U.S. Army Private Leo K. Chalcraft, a St. Petersburg native drafted to serve in World War II. He drowned off the coast of France in 1944 on Christmas Eve, just weeks after turning 19. Continue reading

Civil War-Era Law Complicates Veterans’ Disability Claims

Gustavo Nunez, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq, and his daughter, Ava Nunez.

Gustavo Nunez, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq, and his daughter, Ava.

 

Stories about veterans waiting years, decades even, to resolve a disability claim are not uncommon.

“I have a claim from 2003 that’s still not found yet. Nobody knows where it’s at,” said Gustavo Nunez, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq. “I actually gave up on it a long time ago. I was so frustrated with the system.”

It wasn’t until the birth of his 2-year-old daughter that Nunez decided to try again for his disability benefits. Worried about their future, Nunez wants to make sure he’ll have the VA to care for his health problems related to his service because he won’t be able to afford the medical bills.

It’s no surprise that many think the Department of Veterans Affairs automatically takes care of disabled veterans when they leave the military. Continue reading

Sacred Stories And Experiences Shared Among Veterans

WWII veteran and former POW Tracy Taylor was invited to join veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in a gator hunt.

WWII veteran and former POW Tracy Taylor was invited to join veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in a gator hunt.

A 95-year-old World War II POW joined wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans recently for a gator hunt in rural Polk County. But it wasn’t the hunt that made this experience so extraordinary – it was the sharing of stories between the generations that made it special.

There are some things that veterans just don’t feel comfortable talking about, except possibly with another veteran.

That sacred bond, between veterans, can transcend time and different wars – especially among those wounded, disabled or experienced in combat.

Providing a setting that gives veterans a chance to establish those special bonds has become the joint mission of several organizations including the non-profit, community based Wounded Warrior Sportsmen Fund and Operation Outdoor Freedom, a program with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

WWII veteran Tracy Taylor, in the foreground, talked for about an hour with the younger veterans before going on the hunt.

WWII veteran Tracy Taylor, in the foreground, talked for about an hour with the younger veterans before going on the hunt.

In the past year, they’ve sponsored more than 70 hunting, fishing and canoeing trips in Florida for more than 400 wounded veterans.

In December, that included a gator hunt at Lake Hancock. It’s a large lake southeast of Lakeland that’s filled with alligators and surrounded by moss-draped cypress, maple and willow trees.

What made the three-day event extra special was a visit from World War II veteran Jasper G. Taylor, who prefers to be called Tracy.

The 95-year-old veteran survived 3 years, 5 months and 28 days as a prisoner of war in Japan.

“I guess I am, but I’m not, a wounded warrior,” Taylor said as he addressed about a dozen veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “I didn’t have any combat injuries. I don’t have a Purple Heart.”

But he told the younger wounded warriors that maybe he qualified as part of their band because of the abuse he suffered while a POW. Taylor was an Army Air Corps radio operator who was captured after the surrender of Corregidor in the Philippines in May, 1942.

Veterans and volunteers look on as one of the gators is captured and killed on Lake Hancock.

Veterans and volunteers look on as one of the gators is captured and killed on Lake Hancock.

“They couldn’t speak any English and we couldn’t speak Japanese and 90 percent of the time we didn’t understand what they were saying or doing,” Taylor said to the group gathered around a smoldering campfire. “They would enforce their commands with bayonets or anything else.”

Taylor said the POWs were forced to “clean up” Corregidor and then shipped out to an indoctrination camp in Taiwan for weeks and later to Japan where he was forced to work at the Mitsubishi shipyard and later in a copper mine.

“Anybody know anything about the Japanese culture?”  Taylor asked his audience of fresh veteran faces. “Well, every morning they get up and they face the sun, they face east, pledge their allegiance to Emperor of Japan. Well, when we got there we had do the same thing.  The only thing was, all the way down line, the only thing you heard was ‘Go to hell, you son of a b—h. And that kind of made it worthwhile.”

The group laughed at Taylor’s resilient response and at many of his stories that went on for close to an hour.

The three gators from the veterans' hunt.

The three gators from the veterans’ hunt.

Throughout the chat, he routinely sprinkled in a humorous twist or silver lining when describing his life as a POW. For example, Taylor told of convincing the prison camp interrogator that he was a barber instead of a North Carolina farm boy.

“Only hair I ever cut was the mane or the tail on mule or horse,” Taylor said. But he embellished out of necessity to become the prison camp’s barber because he could no longer walk due to malnutrition.

“I wound up with beriberi and was numb from waist down for six months,” Taylor said. “That worked in my favor. I didn’t have to go to the shipyard because I couldn’t walk.”

His weight dropped from 120 to 87 pounds while a POW.

Yet when asked about the abuse he suffered and witnessed, Taylor was sparse with his descriptions. He later shared, privately, that he promised himself a long time ago that he would talk about what happened to him as a POW, but would not talk about the torture because nothing would be gained by it.

It wasn’t all talk. The young veterans and volunteers loaded into ATVs and took Taylor out to “bag” a gator. There were three gators caught and killed.

The veterans ended the morning helping Taylor kneel down to take a photo to remember their successful hunt. The gators were then taken to be processed for their meat and skins which are shared with the veterans afterward.

Veterans from all generations pose for a photo after the successful hunt in December 2015.

Veterans from all generations pose for a photo after the successful hunt in December 2015.

Hunger No Stranger To Veteran And Military Families

 Transitioning Army veteran Keith Norman, his wife Lina Norman and two of their four daughters, Shelia Encheva, 12, and Kiara Norman, 3. Bobbie O'Brien WUSF Public Media


Transitioning Army veteran Keith Norman, his wife Lina Norman and two of their four daughters, Shelia Encheva, 12, and Kiara Norman, 3.
Bobbie O’Brien WUSF Public Media

A 2014 survey found that almost 20 percent of the households using the Feeding Tampa Bay food bank were either veterans or active duty military.

The Norman family is a military family recently arrived from Colorado and transitioning into civilian life in Tampa. Never in a million years did the parents imagine that they would need help feeding their children.

“Everything changed from two, three weeks ago – we have a normal life. I worked. He worked. We’d go to the mall,” Lina Norman said. “Now, it’s nothing like this anymore. My little daughter asks ‘Can we go to the mall, can I have a hamburger? No. We always have to say no for everything now.”

Just a few weeks ago, Keith Norman was still in the Army. But after almost 10 years on active-duty and two deployments to Iraq, he wanted to follow his dream to become a law officer.

“We planned a year out. We made arrangements for housing because that would be the main thing we needed,” he said.

 Keith Norman served almost 10 years in the Army including two tours in Iraq before pursuing his dream to become a law officer. Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media


Keith Norman served almost 10 years in the Army including two tours in Iraq before pursuing his dream to become a law officer.
Credit Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media

They found a house to rent online. Lina said they got photos of the house and assurances from the landlord that it was in a safe neighborhood.

“We sent a security deposit, rent, everything. And we think okay, he has the job interview, we have the house, we’re good,” said Lina, who met and married Keith in Germany about five years ago.

But things weren’t good. They said the house they rented online ended up being in a bad neighborhood, and was infested with roaches and full of trash.

“My kids just get scared,” Lina Norman said. “They say ‘Where are we?’ They never lived in, they never been in situation like this.”

The Normans used up their savings staying in motel rooms while they tried to get a refund and find another house. When their money ran low, they pawned their television, borrowed money from family and then Keith and Lina started skipping meals.

The executive director of Feeding Tampa Bay said about 70 percent of the food they distribute is perishable, vegetables, dairy and frozen foods and supply about 65 percent of the food to soup kitchens and food pantries in a 10 county region.

The executive director of Feeding Tampa Bay said about 70 percent of the food they distribute is perishable, vegetables, dairy and frozen foods and supply about 65 percent of the food to soup kitchens and food pantries in a 10 county region.

“We just buy food for the kids first. They say ‘Mom why you don’t eat?’” Lina Norman said. “They just give us pieces and just say we going to be fine. And we try to don’t lose it completely in front of them.”

The family including the four girls, Shelia, 12; Esli, 9; Jeida, 7; and Kiara, 3 started sleeping in their two cars.

“Basically, we had to stretch our money out,” Keith Norman said. “When we were living in our vehicles, it was a big life changer.”

Both parents were embarrassed and distraught by how quickly their finances disintegrated. And they worried that asking for help might affect their job prospects.

But after sleeping in their cars for about a week, the family got a motel voucher and meals from Metropolitan Ministries and help finding a modest, single-family concrete block home in the Palm River neighborhood.

The three school-aged girls are enrolled in school and Keith said he’s taken his first test in the process of becoming a law officer.

“My daughter (Shelia), she has a birthday on (Nov.) 25th.  She’s going to be 13. We try to save our last money for cake,” Lina said.

But she said they were not planning on celebrating Thanksgiving because they didn’t have a reliable source of food that was until they visited Feeding Tampa Bay.

 Feeding Tampa Bay CEO Thomas Mantz and new employee Marlon Sykes, a 18-year Air Force veteran, stand before a large banner of people's photos, all helped by the food bank. Bobbie O'Brien WUSF Public Media


Feeding Tampa Bay CEO Thomas Mantz and new employee Marlon Sykes, a 18-year Air Force veteran, stand before a large banner of people’s photos, all helped by the food bank.
Bobbie O’Brien WUSF Public Media

“When I hear a story like that, I’m struck by the idea that they’re willing to do whatever is necessary in order to make the life for their children and their family what we would all want it to be. The lengths that they have to go to though are extraordinary,” said Thomas Mantz, Feeding Tampa Bay executive director.

The regional food bank provides an estimated 65 percent of the all food used in the soup kitchens and distributed through food pantries in a 10 county area.

Feeding Tampa Bay did a quadrennial survey that found 19 percent of the households they serve have a veteran or active duty military member.

New employee Marlon Sykes, a  18-year Air Force veteran, was only slightly surprised by that statistic.

“It mostly startles me because I don’t feel like any veteran should be in that category. But it doesn’t surprise me because I’ve seen it,” Sykes said.

What happened to the Norman family is becoming a lot more common.

“It’s particularly awful that veterans who we’ve asked to stand up and guard us and defend us should be hungry. I agree with that 1,000 percent,” Mantz said. “I also believe that no one else should be hungry.”

Feeding Tampa Bay provided the Norman family with a box of food and details on how to find their mobile food pantries.

The loading docks at Feeding Tampa Bay which provides about 65 percent of all the food at soup kitchens, church pantries and other charitable food programs in a 10-county region.

The loading docks at Feeding Tampa Bay which provides about 65 percent of all the food at soup kitchens, church pantries and other charitable food programs in a 10-county region.

Judge Asks University To Readmit Expelled Veteran

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder with a graduate from Veterans Treatment Court in August.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder with a graduate from Veterans Treatment Court in August.

A Hillsborough Circuit judge is calling on the University of South Florida to live up to its recent ranking as a top “veteran friendly” university.

Judge Greg Holder has asked USF President Judy Genshaft to readmit a student veteran who was expelled after an off-campus incident in August 2014.

Holder said the charges against former Army Staff Sergeant Clay Allred were serious – threatening a store clerk with a firearm and later discharging the firearm into the air – but Allred’s actions were directly related to his combat service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When Allred was accepted in the Veterans Treatment Court, he admitted his guilt, accepted responsibility and was sentence to two years on house arrest followed by three years of probation.

Now after a year of court supervision and treatment for traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that had gone undiagnosed, Holder said the former Green Beret deserves a second chance to complete his degree.

In his letter dated Nov. 13, 2015, the judge requested that USF re-admit Allred as an online student so he can finish his senior year. Holder even offered to amend Allred’s house arrest to prohibit him from going onto USF property.

“I’m providing whatever protections Dr. Genshaft or her personnel might deem appropriate,” Holder said. “So, that hopefully consistent with USF status as the number two veteran friendly school in this nation, we can get this man back as a member of the ‘Bull Nation.’”

A USF spokeswoman said the university has received Holder’s letter, but could not say if Genshaft has read it. The university declined comment on Allred’s status citing federal privacy laws and added that “USF does not offer online exclusive undergraduate programs.”

Along with his letter, Holder included 40 pages of supporting documentation including Allred’s citation for the Army Bronze Star Medal awarded for his service in Afghanistan training members of the Afghan National Police.

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