A Memorial Ceremony For Military Suicide Survivors

This is the third year the American Legion Post 5, 3810 W. Kennedy Blvd, Tampa, is reaching out to family members and friends who have lost a veteran or military member to suicide.

The hope is to give an opportunity to remember loved ones, to honor their service to the country and to erase the stigma surrounding service members who have died by suicide.

“This event and message will focus on family members and friends who silently suffer the lost of their loved one to their battle with their inner demons,” stated Ellsworth “Tony” Williams, a retired Army combat veteran and chair of the American Legion Florida 15th District Veteran Affairs and Rehab.

The ceremony is Sunday, May 21, 2017 at 1 p.m. at Post 5, 3810 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, FL.

Future Unknown For Caregivers Of Post-9/11 Veterans

Ken and Patti Katter have learned to make adjustments to live with his memory loss due to traumatic brain injury.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have drafted more than a million family members into caring for returning wounded and injured troops. They’ve been called “Hidden Heroes” – the military caregivers of Post-9/11 veterans.

They are mostly young spouses with young families or aging parents who never expected to take on the role.

Patti Katter’s world changed the night her husband returned from Iraq. Army Sergeant Ken Katter survived two roadside bombs that hit his truck in May 2007 with what were thought to be minor injuries, a concussion and ruptured eardrums. So, he remained in combat for his full 15-month deployment and didn’t come home until October 2007.

“We had dinner together and probably within an hour, he didn’t remember eating. I thought he was just very sleep deprived because he’d just gotten home. So I just kind of blew it off a bit,” Patti Katter recalled about his first night home from Iraq.

Patti Katter has ordered and managed her husband’s medications for almost 10 years and going.

But that same night, Ken Katter had a seizure while sleeping and without any time to prepare Patti Katter was thrust into the role of military caregiver.

“I really put my foot down and I said you need to go to the doctor,” she said. “He was having not only memory issues but he was in a lot of pain. He was frustrated very easily.”

Her husband saw a doctor about a week later. Over a series of months and medical appointments, Ken Katter was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, a blown disc in his neck, a back injury, hearing loss, the list goes on from complex symptoms such as seizures to simple things like he can no longer remember how to write his name in cursive.

He was medically retired from the military in 2010 after serving in the U.S. Army since 2005 and the Marines from 1990-1994.

Inside the Katter home just northeast of Sarasota, a bouquet of bright red roses sat prominently in the kitchen pass through. Patti bought them for herself.

“It’s important to love yourself,” she said. “Ken’s not, he doesn’t emotionally attach anymore. So I’ve learned. I know he loves me. I have no doubt about that, but I’ve also learned to love myself better.”

Ken Katter took up wood carving as part of his rehabilitation. His wife says his brain injury has made it more artistic.

Ken Katter’s “self portrait” carved into a walking stick.

Ken Katter’s “invisible” injuries also left him with balance problems and other medical issues that prevent him from holding down a job or doing even small household tasks like hanging ceiling fans.

But he counts himself lucky. He has all his limbs and can walk. His seizures are under control so he can drive again – even though he has a tendency to get lost, he now uses GPS to guide his travel.

For the last decade, Patti Katter has managed her husband’s medical appointments, medications and rehabilitation. She initially homeschooled their three children so it was easier to see the myriad of doctors. And she took care of the household too.

Then three years ago, the stress overwhelmed her.

“I wasn’t suicidal, but I was in a dark place. Not only was I dealing with being a caregiver, I had a mom who had cancer and my dad was unhealthy,” she said.

She learned to care for herself and found a job with a non-profit, Hope for the Warriors. She now works from home helping other military caregivers navigate the system. And she is a fellow with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation that advocates for military and veteran caregivers.

“So many of these young spouses in their 20s and 30s (are) suddenly realizing that they’re going to be caregivers probably for the next 50 years if not their entire life and no one was handing them a manual,” said Steven Schwab, executive director of the Dole Foundation.

The Dole Foundation did a scientific survey of military and veteran caregivers to find out what they needed. The Hidden Heroes Report found that respite care topped the list, followed by the need for mental health support and training.

The Katter family: Hunter, Savanna, Patti, Ken, and Ashlay.

“These caregivers – especially the Post-9/11 caregivers – are struggling from high rates of depression and anxiety. They’re incredibly isolated,” Schwab said. “They feel alone and in most cases are alone without a support system.”

That’s why former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole started the foundation. It does research and offers innovation grants to organizations, caregiver fellowships, and a national registry of more than 200 vetted caregiver resources.

The Department of Veterans Affairs also has a special program for caregivers of Post-9/11 veterans severely injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It provides financial help and other services.

“The majority of our veterans in this program do have post traumatic stress, mood disorders and TBI,” said Cynthia Fletcher, a caregiver support coordinator at Tampa’s James A. Haley VA. “So, the caregivers are struggling with those behavioral disturbances, those mood disturbances which can be very challenging.”

Fletcher said the VA also operates a caregiver support line, 1-855-260-3274, for military caregivers of veterans from all eras. She said it received more than 57,000 calls last year.

Ken Katter served four years in the Marines, and more than a decade as a police officer before rejoining the Army.

And the VA secretary asked Congress in March to expand the Post-9/11 caregivers program. Of particular concern to caregivers like Patti Katter is what happens 20 or 30 years from now should her husband’s memory problems worsen and she is unable to cope.

“Or what if something happens to me, who is going to take care of him?” Patti Katter asked. “Our kids have been very resilient. They love their father, but I don’t want that to fall on their plate.”

The VA estimated about 4,000 caregivers would qualify for its Post 9-11 program. But almost 25,000 were enrolled within four years. So, the VA has been scrambling to fill the immediate demand leaving little time to consider the long-term needs of veteran caregivers.

You can listen to their story which aired on WUSF 89.7 FM as part of the American Homefront Project.

VA Secretary Orders Review Of Caregiver Revocations

VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD photo courtesy of VA

Late Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs temporarily stopped, for three weeks, its VA medical centers from kicking family caregivers off its program that provides caregivers of Post-9/11 veterans a stipend and benefits.

NPR’s Quil Lawrence reported two weeks ago that several VA medical centers had revoked the eligibility for hundreds of caregivers’ at the same time other centers were expanding their programs.

The VA will spend the next three weeks reviewing the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC) but it will continue to accept and review applications according to current eligibility criteria.

“VA is taking immediate action to review the National Caregiver Support Program to ensure we honor our commitment to enhance the health and well-being of Veterans,” said Dr. David J. Shulkin, Secretary of Veterans Affairs. “I have instructed an internal review to evaluate consistency of revocations in the program and standardize communication with Veterans and caregivers nationwide.”

There are some exceptions. Revocations will still be done at the request of the veteran or caregiver, for noncompliance, death or long-term hospitalization of the veteran or caregiver. For more on the program, go to the Caregiver Website  or call the Caregiver Support Line at  855-260-3274.

Bay Pines Stand Down for Homeless Veterans

Bay Pines VA – C.W. Bill Young Medical Center. Photo Courtesy: VA.gov

Pinellas County veterans without a place to stay or those at risk of losing their home can tap into a wide range of services and resources Saturday, April 8, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System in the courtyard at the C.W. Bill Young Medical Center.

Along with housing and employment information, legal experts will be available for veterans with legal obligations or active misdemeanor cases. In 2016, more than 80 veterans were helped by the Stand Down Court.

In addition, veterans can get a medical screening, free meals, toiletries, haircuts and clothing items. Veterans are asked to bring a copy of their DD214 “Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty,” birth certificate, social security card and two documents that can verify their mailing address. Even without documentation, veterans will be assisted.

Call 727-398-6661 extension 17829 for more details or with questions about the Stand Down.

Veterans Get Free Training For “New Collar” Jobs

About a dozen veterans took part in the intense week-long training and certification offered for free by IBM. The first session of 2017 was offered in Tampa, FL.

It’s estimated the high tech industry will create more than 200,000 “new collar” jobs in the next three years. To fill those positions, IBM is tapping into a workforce that’s already well trained – veterans.

“We need to get people to hit the ground running and be productive,” said Tampa IBM executive Stuart Bean. “And you just can’t fill them unless you have people who are already disciplined, already trained, mature enough, (and) can hit the ground running.”

Tampa IBM hosted the first veterans session of 2017 followed by a free veterans’ session this week in at Asher College in Las Vegas and April 3 in Pittsburgh, The Tower at PNC Plaza, 300 Fifth Avenue. Additional sessions are available in Philadelphia, Houston and Fort Hood, Texas and several other cities. Continue reading

Artist, Author, Former President Bush Visits MacDill AFB

Former President George W. Bush painting one of 66 portraits he produced for his new book. Photo courtesy of The Bush Center.

Former President George W. Bush painting one of 66 portraits he produced for his new book. Photo courtesy of The Bush Center.

The 43rd president appeared on the Today Show Monday to kick off his book tour and is following that with an appearance at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base in the afternoon with a book signing.

He won’t take questions from media. However, former President George W. Bush will autograph pre-purchased copies of his book at MacDill’s Surf’s Edge Club.

It’s been eight years since Bush has occupied the White House. And among his many pursuits he has picked up brush and started painting.

He has become rather prolific producing 66 portraits of military veterans for his book, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors. Many of the men and women are wounded physically or with traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress. Bush paints their portraits and writes the story of their service.

The book’s title riffs off of the Pulitzer-winning book, Profiles in Courage, written in 1956 by former President John F. Kennedy while he was a U.S. Senator and after his distinguished career as a U.S. Naval officer during World War II. Kennedy’s book features eight profiles of men he felt showed extraordinary political courage.

Proceeds from Bush’s book will be given to his foundation, the George W. Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative, which supports transitioning military members offering help with employment and resources.

The Veterans Garden In Tampa Officially Opens

Solar panels are the sole power for the sustainable garden project that was expanded to include veterans. It's a place where veterans can learn gardening techniques as well as solar power, raising chickens, bees and tilapia.

Solar panels are the sole power for the sustainable garden project that was expanded to include veterans. It’s a place where veterans can learn gardening techniques as well as solar power, raising chickens, bees and tilapia.

A ceremonial seed planting will be part of the official opening of the Veterans’ Garden, 918 W. Sligh Avenue, Tampa across from Lowry Park Zoo.

The event is set for Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, 10:30 a.m. and will include recognition of USAA which provided  a grant to expand the sustainable garden for veterans.

It’s a place where veterans can volunteer, learn agriculture techniques and the produce will be donated to veterans at risk of homelessness.

“Veterans found that since they started community agriculture initiatives that they were more comfortable talking with civilians and more comfortable talking to strangers and people that didn’t have a military background,” said VA researcher Karen Besterman-Dahan, “Those were really important things.”

She said researchers are just beginning to study the therapeutic value of  agriculture and gardening to help veterans manage depression, anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

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