62nd Anniversary of the Korean Armistice Marked

General Mark W. Clark, Far East commander, signs the Korean armistice agreement on July 27, 1953, after two years of negotiation.(U.S. Navy Museum photo)

General Mark W. Clark, Far East commander, signs the Korean armistice agreement on July 27, 1953, after two years of negotiation.(U.S. Navy Museum photo)

A bipartisan delegation from the House Committee on Veterans Affairs including Florida’s Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman, and Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL), ranking minority member, commemorated the signing of the Korean Armistice July 27, 1953 by the Gen. Mark W. Clark, Far East commander.

Rep. Corrine Brown (FL-D) and Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-R) assist with the wreath presentation Monday, July 27, 2015. Photo courtesy of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

Rep. Corrine Brown (FL-D) and Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-R) assist with the wreath presentation Monday, July 27, 2015. Photo courtesy of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

The two members lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery on Monday.

In a written media release, Miller noted the sacrifice of more than 36,000 Americans who lost their lives during the Korea conflict and that more than 7,000 U.S. military personnel remain missing.

“…Korean War veterans are a shining example of this uniquely American devotion to defending liberty around the globe.” – Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Photo courtesy House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Photo courtesy House Committee on 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.

Florida Puts Out Call To All Women Veterans

Florida has 160,000 women veterans living in the state, yet some of those women do not consider themselves a veteran and many more have never applied for veterans’ benefits.

 Female Veterans in Iraq. A New Resource for Female Vet on VA health care and benefits: 1-855-VA-WOMEN. Credit Department of Veterans Affairs


Female Veterans in Iraq. A New Resource for Female Vet on VA health care and benefits: 1-855-VA-WOMEN.
Credit Department of Veterans Affairs

Matching women veterans with available benefits, resources and support is the goal of the 2nd Annual Women Veterans’ Conference July 30-31, 2015 at the University of South Florida

“Women veterans have a lot of gender specific issues,” said Alene Tarter, director of benefits and assistance for the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs (FDVA). “But often they don’t consider themselves veterans because male veterans or male family members have told them that they are not.”

She said many of the older women veterans are unaware that their veterans or entitled to veterans benefits.

“I’m a veteran. I only served a couple of years in the Air Force and I didn’t know I was a veteran for 25 years,” said Larri Gerson, supervisor of claims for FDVA.

From a previous Operation Stand Down.

From a previous Operation Stand Down.

Raising awareness and then helping women file for their veteran benefits is one reason why the state agency is planning the free, two-day conference in Tampa.

“I’ll be talking about the appeals process having women veterans understand what we can do to help them with their claim for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and MST, military sexual trauma,” Gerson said.

Sessions also will cover employment, vocational training, and an elder law expert along with an opportunity to sit down with benefits experts from the FDVA who will help women vets with their claims.

The 2nd Annual Florida Women’s Veterans Conference is free and open to women vets, their spouses and support. Online registration is available through the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

13 New Veteran-Related Laws In Florida

Zak, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador, is one of the newest Paws for Patriots graduates. (June 2015)

Zak, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador, is one of the newest Paws for Patriots graduates. (June 2015)

Florida’s new law that expands access for service animals used by people with disabilities has received the most attention of the 13 veteran-related laws passed this year.

House Bill 71 not only expands the protected right to use a service dog to people with mental impairments but it also allows for a jail sentence if a public business denies access. And the new law also makes it a second degree misdemeanor for someone to pass off an untrained pet as a service animal.

“When people abuse things like that, it diminishes the service that that patriot has delivered to our country,” said Mike Prendergast, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs. “And it diminishes our community’s ability to sort out and determine who the legitimate person is and who is using an animal and mislabeling that animal for illegitimate purposes.”

Part of the problem, Prendergast said, is that no one authority certifies service dogs and their training. And there’s inconsistency at the federal level on the use of service dogs for veterans with mental health issues like post-traumatic stress.

Mike Prendergast, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs, at a 2012 news conference in Tallahassee. Photo courtesy of Steven Rodriguez, WFSU.

Mike Prendergast, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, at a 2012 news conference in Tallahassee. Photo courtesy of Steven Rodriguez, WFSU.

Prendergast plans to suggest to U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald that the federal VA adopt Florida’s guidelines for service animals.

He’s also pushing to put Florida on the cutting edge to handle future challenges that will confront veterans.

“From the burn pits, the oil fires over in the desert, the other environmental hazards that are over in Afghanistan that are over in the Iraqi desert that we’ve all been exposed to and we’re all going to have health challenges that will manifest themselves,” Prendergast said. “Whether it’s 10 years or whether it’s next year. We still want to be prepared for those health challenges.”

As an example, Prendergast said the Florida Veterans Foundation, established by the legislature, funded hyperbaric oxygen treatments for a limited number of veterans with traumatic brain injuries or TBI. That is despite the fact that the pressurized oxygen treatments are not a recognized treatment for brain injuries and some consider it controversial.

“Whether a peacetime veteran or combat veteran, we’ve managed to get some folks exposed to that and they’ve had remarkable recoveries from it,” Predergast said. “We need to explore the frontiers of medicine to take care of our veterans.”

And he wants that frontier to start with Florida’s 1.6 million veterans.

Florida Veteran-Related Legislation for 2015:

  1. HB 27 – Authorizes replacing the “V” on Florida Drivers Licenses with the word “Veteran”
  2. SB 7028 – Grants in-state tuition to veterans’ spouses and children using Post 9/11 GI education benefits
  3. SB 132 – Allows veterans to use alternative documentation for disabled parking permits renewals
  4. HB 329 – Authorizes military-related specialty license plates Woman Veteran, World War II Veteran and others
  5. HB 185 – Creates a public records exemption for the identification and location of current or former active-duty U.S. Armed Forces service members, Reserves and National Guard who served after September 11, 2001 and their spouses and children.
  6. HB 801 – Adds a memorial to the Capitol dedicated to the 241 U.S. Armed Forces who lost their lives in the Beirut barracks bombing attack October 23, 1983.
  7. HB 277 –Motels and hotels are required to waive minimum age requirements for active-duty military, Reserves and Guard who present valid identification.
  8. SB 184 – Authorizes absent uniformed services voters and overseas voters to use the federal write-in absentee ballot in any state or local election.
  9. HB 71 – Updates on the use of service animals to include people with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits daily activity; makes it a second degree misdemeanor to deny access to a service dog accompanying a person with disabilities or a trainer; prohibits asking about the nature of an individual’s disability in order to determine if the service animal is legitimate; makes it a second degree misdemeanor to misrepresent a pet as a service animal or to misrepresent oneself as a qualified trainer.
  10. SB 686 – Grants a property tax exemption to leaseholds and improvements constructed and used to provide military housing on land owned by the federal government.
  11. HB 225 – Requires the state to only purchase U.S. and other state flags made in the United States and from domestic materials.
  12. HB 1069 – Allows for the expansion of the Veterans Courts program under certain conditions.
  13. HB 471 – Allows vehicles with a Disabled Veterans license plate to park for free in a local facility or lot with timed parking spaces with some restrictions.

Information on the veteran-related legislation was provided by the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

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.

A Tale of Two Guide Dogs

Michael Jernigan poses with his companion and guide dog for the past eight years, Brittani, at her retirement ceremony in February.

Michael Jernigan poses with his companion and guide dog for the past eight years, Brittani, at her retirement ceremony in February at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

This is a story of two dogs serving their country’s veterans through the Southeastern Guide Dogs Paws for Patriots program.

There’s the “old girl” Brittani who has eased into retirement and the youngster Zak just graduated from “boot camp” still filled with puppy exuberance.

Brittani is a Goldador, a mix of Labrador and Golden Retriever, and was the longtime companion of Michael Jernigan of St. Petersburg, a Marine wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2004.

Jernigan lost both his eyes, had his forehead crushed, his right hand, left knee and leg torn up. When he was paired with Brittani in 2007, he said the attraction was immediate.

“Brittani just came in the room and was ‘Hey – how you doing? I guess I’m here to work with you today. Let’s go. What are we doing?’” Jernigan laughed. “Brittani loves me no matter what, no matter who I am, no matter what’s wrong with me, no matter the stress I’m under. Brittani loves me and in turn I love her.”

An unidentified admirer pets Brittani at the guide dog's retirement ceremony February 2015.

An unidentified admirer pets Brittani, age 10, at the guide dog’s retirement ceremony February 2015.

They had quite a life together making a total of 66 cross-country journeys for speaking engagements and conferences as well as earning a college degree at University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

“College is stressful. With all those kids walking around and I can’t see and I’m trying to find my classes,” Jernigan said. “Brittani was right there with me every step of the way.”

Zak, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador, is one of the newest Paws for Patriots graduates. (June 2015)

Zak, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador, is one of the newest Paws for Patriots graduates. (June 2015)

Brittani helped Jernigan navigate to classes as well as lessen his anxiety. But their relationship changed in February when Jernigan and others noticed his 10-year-old guide dog was losing her focus.

“Brittani has worked hard. She’s earned her retirement,” Jernigan said. “She’s still very healthy, very active at this point she’s at the point where it’s time for her to retire.”

Brittani now lives one of Jernigan’s best friends. The hardest thing, he said, was going 90 days with no contact so Brittani could bond with her new family.

“It’s all part of the cycle. Brittany is not leaving my life,” Jernigan said. “I’m still going to continue to see Brittany. She’s just not going to be living with me anymore.”

Wounded Marine Evin Bodle with Zak just before their graduation ceremony at the Palma Ceia Country Club, Tampa, June 4, 2015.

Wounded Marine Evin Bodle with Zak just before their graduation ceremony at the Palma Ceia Country Club, Tampa, June 4, 2015.

The two were reunited (after the required period of separation) at this week’s Southeastern Guide Dogs ceremony kicking off the MacDill Puppy Raisers group. Volunteers from the military community are helping to socialize and raise dogs for the Paws for Patriots program which gives free guide and service dogs to wounded veterans.

Jernigan is a co-founder of Paws for Patriots and now works as a donor relations manager with Southeastern Guide Dogs.

So far, Paws for Patriots has paired more than 100 guide and service dogs with wounded veterans. One of the most recent pairings: 2-year-old Zak and his wounded Marine, Lance Corporal Evin Bodle.

“I knew Zak was for me the first time I took him out and he kept up with my pace. It was amazing,” Bodle said just before their graduation ceremony earlier this month at the Palma Ceia Country Club in Tampa.

Mike_small size

Wounded Marine Michael Jernigan and Brittani during their 8 years together. Photo courtesy of Paws for Patriots, Southeaster Guide Dogs.

 

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