Using A Military Mindset To Create Business Start Ups


Alex Hill, right, and Justin Duhe, left, walk through the coconut groves at Coco Rico, Homestead, FL.
Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media

As he transitions out of the military this fall, Justin Duhe is going into business for himself. The 28-year-old Army linguist and cyber specialist bought a five acre coconut grove in Homestead, Fla. last year – sight unseen. He knew nothing about coconuts at the time.

“I farmed before in Texas, but it was all vegetable farming, nothing like this,” Duhe said. “But I saw the potential of money, you know, that they were growing fruit and it was an investment.”

Justin Duhe bought his 5 acre coconut farm as an investment as he transitions out of the Army.

But while his new career running Coco Rico Farms will be vastly different from what he did in the Army, Duhe said his military experience will still be an asset.

Noting that he learned Farsi in 47 weeks in the Army, Duhe said he’s not afraid of challenges. And his time in the military has helped him build a business network. He wasn’t in Florida long before crossing paths with a veteran in the food business who was looking for a fresh coconut supplier. The two Army men bonded instantly.

“That’s part of the military mindset,” Duhe said. “You see each other and you pick up your battle buddy and they pick you up and you both have a vision, a goal and you keep on moving forward.”

Duhe and Alex Hill, owner of Florida Coconuts, became “business” battle buddies – not partners, but supplier and vendor.

Alex Hill, Army veteran and owner of Florida Coconuts, met Duhe online while searching for a new supply of fresh Florida coconuts.

Hill, who was in the Army Airborne, sells fresh coconut water to tourists along the beach. He said it’s not the first time he’s done business with other people who’ve been in the military.

“They have a similar work ethic as you and also uphold those similar values that you have. It’s hard to find people that have the same values outside the military,” Hill said.

Green coconuts are the best source for fresh coconut water.

Agencies target “Vetrepreneurs”

About 2.5 million veterans own businesses. According to the Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Families, veterans own 13 to 15 percent of small businesses, though they’re only eight percent of the population.

Women veterans are driving the trend, according to Misty Stutsman, the director of entrepreneurship and small business at the institute.

“Women veteran entrepreneurship has grown over 300 percent since 2007, which is insane,” Stutsman said. “If you look at these entrepreneurs, not only is the start-ups great, but they’re out earning their civilian counterparts.”

To offer veterans the option of self-employment, the Institute developed several entrepreneurship programs including some that are specifically for women veterans, active-duty, and military spouses.

“Communities are investing in these programs to make sure that the next generation of entrepreneurs is supported,” Stutsman said.

Alex Hill, second from left, accepts his $7,500 second place winnings at the first Veterans Florida “Batttle of the Pitches.”

Veteran-owned startups have attracted the attention of states, universities, and other agencies.

The success record among veteran-owned startups has attracted the attention of states, universities, and other agencies.

The US Small Business Administration Veteran Business Outreach Centers offer a range of resources and training in conjunction with more than 20 partners. There are non-profit organizations like Bunker Labs, created by military veterans for veterans interested in a start-up.

Veterans Florida – a non-profit corporation created by the state of Florida – offers free classes, mentors, and an annual “Battle of the Pitches” where “vetrepreneurs” compete for cash prizes.

Florida Coconuts, Hill’s company, won second prize – $7500 – at the 2018 competition. The first prize was awarded to Axon Motor Company in Clearwater, Fla.

Hill’s prize came at a good time. A drop in the coconut supply and a seasonal dip in tourism hurt his business, so he’s pursuing a new entrepreneurial idea. He is working to design a better coconut opener.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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Does Military Service Prepare Veterans For Politics?


Congressional candidates MJ Hegar (right) and Gina Ortiz Jones speak at the LBJ Presidential Library in June. Both are military veterans seeking their first political office.
Jay Godwin / LBJ Library

Dozens of military veterans – many of them with recent service in Afghanistan and Iraq – are offering themselves as an antidote to Washington’s partisan rancor.

Veterans now make up less than 20 percent of Congress, compared with about 75 percent in the 1960s, according to the non-partisan organization, With Honor. Some high-profile candidates are trying to reverse that trend.

They’re running for Congress, often as political newcomers challenging longtime incumbents. Their campaign ads and websites play up their military experience and their service to the country.

“We’re at a record low number of veteran representatives in Congress, and it’s no coincidence that we’re at a record level of toxic, hyper-partisanship,” said Texas congressional candidate MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran who is running as a Democrat in a historically Republican district that includes Fort Hood.  “I have a record of putting this country ahead of myself.”

Hegar is challenging eight-term incumbent John Carter, a non-veteran with an extensive background in military affairs. She kicked off her campaign in June with an autobiographical video that earned more than 4 million views online and raised upwards of $750,000. It puts her combat experience front and center, starting with the day she earned the Purple Heart.

“I was on a rescue mission in Afghanistan as a combat search and rescue pilot. I heard the windshield crack and realized I’d been shot,” Hegar tells viewers as the scene unfolds onscreen. “But I continued the mission and airlifted the patients out. After taking even more fire, we crashed a few miles away.”

Grounded by the attack, Hegar tried to get a different job in air support, but Pentagon policy at the time barred women from combat roles. With assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, Hegar challenged the policy in court and won.

Now, as she runs for Congress, Hegar says she put her military service at the center of her campaign not as a strategic move but as a reflection of who she is.

She argues that, while military experience isn’t the only thing that defines a candidate, veterans are uniquely equipped to deal with socially and politically divisive issues.

“I think that veterans have been thrust into a melting pot of people, have had to take on large-scale obstacles, and have been all around the world and immersed in other cultures,” she said.

At a campaign event in Austin, Democrats Debra Coe said Hegar has the kind of background that can help their party win control of Congress.

“She’s not afraid of anything” Coe said. “She’s fierce, and that’s what we need.”

Female veterans run in several states

Hegar is one of more than 400 veterans who’ve run for Congress this year, though some have already lost their primaries. As of mid-August, about 80 had won their party nominations; ten of those are women.

In addition to Hegar, they include fellow Texas Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer; Kentucky Democrat Amy McGrath, a former Marine pilot; and New Jersey Democrat Mikie Sherrill, who served as a Navy helicopter pilot.

For former military members, it’s not always easy to transition to politics.

“You’re out there in a very nasty and polarized political environment; that’s a big change from what most of our constituents saw in the military,” said Norm Bonnyman of  Veterans Campaign , a non-partisan organization that trains veterans to run for office.

Among the challenges facing veterans: As newcomers to politics, they often have little experience raising money and may lack the political connections they need to get party support. Many also lack deep ties to a community because they moved around a lot during their years in the service.

“While they have the discipline, while they have drive, while they have the leadership traits that a lot of folks are interested in seeing in their elected officials, those barriers to entry are very high,” Bonnyman said.

Then there are the gerrymandered, less competitive districts that make it hard for anybody to beat an incumbent.

“You can run a very compelling candidate with a military biography, but you can’t move a plus 20 Republican district into the Democrats’ column with merely changing the biography of your candidate,” said Jeremy Teigen, a political scientist from Ramapo College of New Jersey who wrote the book Why Veterans Run.

Rep. John Carter (R-TX) has been serving in Congress since 2003. Though he’s not a veteran, he’s talked a lot during his campaign about his support of the military. Credit Carson Frame / American Homefront

Incumbents stress their military support

Carter, the Republican incumbent in Texas’ 31st District, has said little during his reelection campaign about the military service of Hegar, his Democratic challenger. But he’s played up his own support of the military.

Carter wrote and championed the Veterans Transplant Coverage Act, a newly-passed piece of legislation that allows veterans to receive organ transplants from non-veterans with their VA coverage. He also pushed to get additional funding for Fort Hood as part of the defense budget.

“By their very nature, soldiers and the military demand more attention, and I’m glad to give it to them,” Carter said. “My overall congressional experience has been heavily centered on veterans affairs.”

Carter has run against veterans before and never lost.

“I think we rise or fall on our accomplishments of our lives,” Carter said. “That’s generally how I run my race, whoever I’m running against. ”

During a recent appearance by Carter at an American Legion post, many voters in the heavily Republican district said they didn’t know much about Hegar, and that her veteran status was unlikely to make them vote across party lines.

“I won’t vote for a Democrat,” said American Legion member American Legion member Larry Gossett. “Their philosophies and their beliefs are nothing close to what mine are.”

The Cook Political Report in August ranked the seat “Likely Republican” in the November election.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2018 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC.

West Point Women Reflect On Marines’ Nude Photo Scandal


Laura Westley and Carol Barkalow are both West Point graduates and authors of memoires about their military experiences.
Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media

The recent scandal over Marines sharing nude photos of female Marines online hasn’t demoralized some women veterans. Two female West Point graduates from Florida refuse to let it overshadow recent gains women have made in the military. And they have some ideas on how to prevent similar incidents.

The United States Military Academy at West Point didn’t even accept women in their ranks until 1976. Carol Barkalow was in that first class. She graduated in 1980 and served 22 years in the Army.

Barkalow remembers how female cadets were hazed and harassed back then. But she said women have made progress since, even in light of the nude photos.

“There is some good news with this, even though what they did was horrible,” Barkalow said. “Now, we have the social media and the interest to try at last to get the military to understand that we are a vital part of this force. We are never going away and some very basic things have to change within our military.”

West Point has come a long way over the last 40 years, she said. It now has a female dean of students and female commandant.

“But what we have to have – we have to have women, general officers admirals in every rank in each of the services. So much so that, when you walk in a room, it’s not just one woman, it’s not just two women, it’s a number of women sitting at the table and have the ability to influence our future,” Barkalow said.

Barkalow, who lives in Pinellas County, is friends with 2001 West Point graduate Laura Westley, who grew up in New Port Richey. Continue reading

WWII Women Pilots Can Now Rest In Peace At Arlington

Women Airforce Service pilots Frances Green, Margaret "Peg" Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn, leave their B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft, "Pistol Packin' Mama," during ferry training at Lockbourne Army Airfield, Ohio, 1944. Air Force photo

Women Airforce Service pilots Frances Green, Margaret “Peg” Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn, leave their B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft, “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” during ferry training at Lockbourne Army Airfield, Ohio, 1944. Air Force photo

More than 70 years after the end of World War II, Congress finally passed a measure that President Barack Obama signed on Friday allowing Women Airforce Service Pilots the honor of having their ashes buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The law overturns an Army decision that exclude the female pilots. According to the Military Times nearly 1,100 women served from 1942 to 1944, ferrying airplanes, training combat pilots and towing airborne targets. Thirty-eight died during training and support missions.

Their recognition and cause became one of the few bipartisan congressional efforts so far this year. You can read the full article here.

2015 Veterans Day Events In Tampa Bay

flag_homeThroughout the Tampa Bay region, Florida and the nation, special ceremonies are planned to recognize the sacrifice of those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces and those who are currently serving. You can find the Veterans Day events nearest you at a Department of Veterans Affairs website or check the listings below.

And if you can’t make it to a ceremony or parade, there are alternative opportunities to honor a veteran year-round, check them out.

Wednesday, Nov. 11 – Veterans Day

ALL FLORIDA STATE PARKS – To celebrate Veterans Day on Nov. 11, entry into all state parks is free to veterans and the general public (with the exception of the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park) as a tribute to Veterans Day. Here’s an interactive map to locate the state parks nearest you: https://www.floridastateparks.org/interactive-map

PINELLAS COUNTY PARKS – how The parking fees at county parks on Veterans Day is beign waived to show appreciation for local veterans and their families. The offer applies to all visitors: all county boat ramps, Howard Park in Tarpon Springs, Sand Key Park in Clearwater and Fort De Soto Park in Tierra Verde. Other county managed parks offer free parking daily. A list of Pinellas County parks is available at www.pinellascounty.org/park.

SARASOTA – ROBARTS ARENA – 7 AM – The 2nd Annual Veteran’s Day Breakfast, at 3000 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota, FL, features keynote speaker retired General Charles Shugg, a music medley and Vietnam Vets who will receive a commemorative pin in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. The breakfast benefits the Sarasota Kiwanis Foundation and Goodwill Manasota’s Veterans Services Program. $25 per person. Register at 941-925-2970 or SRQKiwanisVeterans-DayBreakfast@gmail.com.

ST. PETERSBURG – WILLIAMS PARK – 8 AM – The 2nd Annual Veterans Day Celebration featuring patriotic songs from the Gibbs High School Pinellas County Center for the Arts Choir, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and honored military veteran Willie Rogers, who served as a Master Sergeant for the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. The ceremony is planned in front of the Veteran’s Memorial at Williams Park, 1st Avenue and 4th Street N., St. Petersburg, FL.

NEW PORT RICHEY – RIVER RIDGE CENTER FOR THE ARTS – 9 AM – The Pasco County School District is holding a district-wide Veterans Day Ceremony featuring keynote speaker U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, the River Ridge ROTC, Pasco County Schools veteran alumnus and music provided by River Ridge Middle and High Schools, and the Cypress Elementary School Chorus. Winner of the Pasco Constitutional Officers Essay Contest will be announced. The event to honor and celebrate is at River Ridge Center for the Arts, 11646 Town Center Rd., New Port Richey.

TAMPA – PORT TAMPA BAY TERMINAL #2 – 9 AM-1 PM – Operation: REVEILLE – an event for veterans who are homeless – brings together a range of resources and organizations to help veterans with housing, employment, health benefits and other services. The goal is to connect 50 homeless veterans with housing on Veterans Day. The event is planned at Terminal #2, 651 Channelside Drive, and cosponsored by Hillsborough County, the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative and the city of Tampa. Details on the program are available at THHI.org/operation-reveille-2015

SARASOTA – DOWNTOWN – 10 AM – The Sarasota Veterans’ Day Parade with the theme “When Duty Calls,” starts at Main Street and Osprey Avenue and proceeds down Main Street to J. D. Hamel Park on Gulfstream. A Veterans Day Ceremony is planned around 11:00 a.m. after the completion of the parade. The special guest speaker is Army Col. (retired) Stephan D. Cork, the original commandant of Sarasota Military Academy. Sponsored by the Sarasota Patriotic Observance Committee.

TAMPA – JAMES A. HALEY VA10 am – The 8th Annual Veterans Day ceremony and parade, classic car show and Welcome Home event, on the hospital campus, 13000 Bruce B Downs Blvd, Tampa, FL. There will be a brief ceremony in front of the Fisher House. The parade follows immediately after. The parade has 70 units. Col. Daniel H. Tulley, Commander, 6th Air Mobility Wing, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida is the key note speaker and former Army Paratrooper and military contractor Rick Cicero, is this year’s grand marshal. After the parade, Operation Helping Hand is sponsoring a cookout with hamburgers, hotdogs, potato salad and chips, and USF is sponsoring the desserts. http://www.tampa.va.gov/

VENICE – PATRIOT’S PARK – 10 AM – A ceremony, sponsored by the Marine Corps League 643 of Nokomis, will include the presentation of the colors, the Venice Police, Venice H.S. Marine Corps JROTC plus the Sun Coast Wind Ensemble. The observation is at 800 Venetia Bay Blvd., just off Route 41 south of Roberts Bay on the east side. Following the ceremony all veterans are invited back to the American Legion NO-VEL Post 159 in Venice for the Veteran’s Day Open House. 1770 E. Venice Ave., Venice.

BAY PINES VA 11 AM – The Bay Pines VA Healthcare System  will host its annual Veterans Day Ceremony in the courtyard located buildings 2 and 37 on the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center campus, 10000 Bay Pines Blvd, Bay Pines, FL.  The event is open to all Veterans, their family and friends, and the general public. Highlights include guest speakers from VA, MacDill Air Force Base and U.S. Rep. David W. Jolly, and musical performances by the Florida Orchestra and the Keswick Christian School Choir; a special parade of colors provided by local Veteran Service Organizations; and traditional military including a taps performance. A shuttle service will be available to provide transportation for guests from parking lots to the ceremony area. www.baypines.va.gov/locations/directions.asp

BUSHNELL – FLORIDA NATIONAL CEMETERY – 11 AM – Keynote speaker Don Hahnfeldt, a retired Navy veteran and chairman of the Sumter County Commission, is a highlight of the Veterans Day Ceremony moderated by Steve Jerve of WFLA-TV and with music by the Pasco High School Band. Seating is limited so you’re encouraged to bring chairs or blankets. Florida National Cemetery, 6502 SW 102nd Ave., Bushnell, FL.

HILLSBOROUGH VETERANS MEMORIAL PARK – 11 AM – The Annual Veterans Day of Remembrance ceremony will highlight JROTC students from several high schools including Bloomingdale, Chamberlain, Hillsborough, Middleton, Newsome and Riverview scheduled. The presentation includes students performing exhibition drills, presenting poems, and leading participants in the Pledge of Allegiance. The event at the Veterans Memorial Park, 3602 N. U.S. Highway 301, Tampa, FL, is free and open to the public.

SAINT LEO UNIVERSITY – 11 AM to 4 PM – A ceremony and service projects will mark Veterans Day starting with a ceremony with keynote speaker Major General James S. Hartsell, USMC, at the Student Community Center followed by several student service projects: the Peace Paper Project from 12:30-4 PM; Theta Phi Alpha sorority “Sending Kisses to the Troops” care package project 12:30-4 PM; The Circle of Veterans providing resources and information for veterans 12:30-4 PM. A performance by the J2 Band will run from 1:30-4 PM. The campus is located at 33701 State Road 52, four miles east of Interstate 75 (Exit 285) in the town of Saint Leo. Parking is available in the campus garage.The events are free and open to all veterans, active military, and the local community.

SARASOTA – ISLAND PARK – NOON – Florida Veterans for Common Sense will participate in the Sarasota Veterans Day Parade and Ceremony and follow it up with a picnic to build camaraderie among its members at Island Park, 5 Bayfront Dr, Sarasota, FL, Set-up is on the south side of the park. Bring your own picnic food and some to share as well as seating and portable tables. Contact Mike Burns at : Mtburns44@gmail.com

LONG BOAT KEY – 2:30 PM – A Veterans Day Parade, starting at Bay Isles Road (behind the Publix) to Temple Beth Israel, 567 Bay Isles Rd, will feature a VFW Color Guard, Fire Truck, and Marching Band. A program of “Memorable Moments” is planned at the end of the parade followed by refreshments for participants. More info at: jackrozance@att.net, eugenelu@comcast.net.

SARASOTA NATIONAL CEMETERY – 2:45 PM – Opening ceremonies followed by the Annual Veteran’s Day Mass at 3 p.m. with Bishop Frank J. Dewane.  The service honors the men and women who have served our country and are serving us today. There will be ample seating and parking. Sarasota National Cemetery, 9810 State Road 72 (Clark Road), Sarasota, FL.

LARGO CENTRAL PARK – 5 PM – The city of Largo is presenting a ceremony with a keynote speaker, music and a color guard presentation is free and open to the public at the Central Park, 101 Central Park Drive, Largo.

TAMPA – WATER WORKS PARK – 5:30 PM – A free Veterans Day Observance and Patriotic Concert, hosted by the city of Tampa, 1710 Highland Ave., Tampa, FL. It will feature members from MacDill Air Force Base, U.S. Central Command and entertainment by the Eastern Hillsborough Community Band, as well as a salute to veterans and local Medal of Honor recipients. The event will also feature a display of several pieces of vintage military equipment stationed within the park.

SARASOTA HIGH SCHOOL – 7 PM – The Singing Sailors from Sarasota High School host a free, Veterans Salute concert with a guest choir from Booker Middle School. The public concert is at Sarasota High Auditorium, admission. 1000 S. School Ave., Sarasota, FL.

TAMPA – UNIVERISTY OF TAMPA – 7:30 PM – A free concert of American music featuring organist Ryan Hebert and celebrating those who served in the Armed Forces is planned at the UT Sykes Chapel, 401 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.

SAINT LEO UNIVERSITY – 8-10 PM – Moonlight Madness highlighting a student veteran color guard, a national anthem soloist and a mental toughness challenge game is planned on campus at the Marion Bowman Activities Center, 33701 State Road 52, four miles east of Interstate 75 (Exit 285) in the town of Saint Leo. The event is free and open to all veterans, active military, and the local community.

Thursday – Nov. 12

TAMPA – PORT TAMPA BAY TERMINAL #2 – 9 AM-1 PM – A Job Fair and free classes on how to conduct a job search are open to veterans and persons with disabilities. The Mayor’s Alliance for Persons with Disabilities is sponsoring the event with 29 employers that are looking to hire veterans. It’s being held at Port Tampa Bay Terminal 2, 651 Channelside Dr., Tampa, FL. You can pre-register at www.tampagov.net/jobfair.

SARASOTA HIGH SCHOOL – 7 PM – The Singing Sailors from Sarasota High School host a free, Veterans Salute concert with a guest choir from McIntosh and Sarasota middle schools. The public concert is at Sarasota High Auditorium, admission. 1000 S. School Ave., Sarasota, FL.

Friday, Nov. 13

NEW PORT RICHEY – VET CENTER 8:45 AM-4:15 PMA full day of free sessions for veterans and their family members is being offered at the Pasco County Vet Center, 5139 Deer Park Drive in New Port Richey, FL.  The seminar starts with a session on Readjustment Counseling Services, followed every hour with a new topic: VA Home Based Primary Care/Medical Foster Homes, Veteran Burial Benefits, Elder Law & Changes to Caregiver Benefits, a free lunch, VA Claims, Veteran Preference and How to Use It, Employment, VA Mortgage/Real Estate. There’s only room for 30 at each session so pre-registration is requested. Call 727/372-1854.

Saturday, Nov. 14

TAMPA – RAYMOND JAMES STADIUM – 7 PM – The University of South Florida Tillman Scholars and other military veterans will be recognized at half-time at this year’s Salute to Service Football Game featuring the University of South Florida vs Temple. The USF Office of Veterans Services has partnered with USF’s Athletic Department to sponsor this event.

Free Offerings for Veterans & Active-Duty Military

RESTAURANTS – From Applebee’s to Village Inn – Military.Com has a full, national listing of restaurants offering free meals or discounts to veterans and active-duty military on Nov. 11, 2015 Veterans Day. You can check-out the list and links.

HART BUS RIDES – Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) will offer free rides to U.S. military veterans on Veterans Day, and to all members of the armed services, both active and retired, as well as to their family members and dependents. Riders are asked to show a valid military or veterans ID card when boarding any HART bus to qualify for a free ride. This offer is not valid for use of HARTPlus service or the TECO Line Streetcar System.

ATTRACTIONS & MUSEUMS – Several museums and local attractions are offering free admission to military personnel from active-duty to retired veterans and discounts for additional guests and family. You can check-out the Veterans Day admission offerings.

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.

 

Online Survey For Women Veterans To Make A Difference

Kiersten Downs "takes the wheel."

Kiersten Downs “takes the wheel” as she prepared for her cross-country cycling ride to raise awareness of student veterans and money for the Student Veterans of America.

Women are the fastest growing group within the veteran population according to the Veterans Health Administration. Yet female vets may not identify themselves as a veteran or use their VA benefits.

Why women vets avoid mentioning their military service is one of several questions being explored by University of South Florida doctoral student Kiersten Downs.

Her dissertation, “Women Veterans and Re-Entry after Military Service- A Research Study,” will include information from an anonymous, online survey of women veterans from all eras. She’ll also interview both female and male veterans and community stakeholders.

“Probably one of the biggest hurdles is just finding people to participate,” Downs said. “But I think the message I want to communicate to my fellow veterans is that in order for legislators and people in Washington DC to make policies that are going to serve us as military and veterans, they need to understand us.”

After eight years in the Air Force and Air National Guard and as the former president of the University of South Florida Student Veterans Association, Downs knows there’s a lot to learn about the changing world of women veterans

Bringing the veterans’ experiences to elected officials and policy makers is the mission of her dissertation research.

“My overall goal is to really advocate for our population for greater representation in Washington DC and also at the state and local levels and to use the experiences that I’m gathering from other women veterans to ultimately change policy so that it serves us and our population,” Downs said.

Women veterans are invited to take the online survey. There’s also an opportunity to volunteer for an additional phone interview. She will also maintain, a blog, a Facebook page on her women veterans re-entry dissertation and has a Twitter handle, @WmnVetsResearch..

If Downs sounds like a familiar voice, she also served as the community outreach coordinator for WUSF’s Veterans Coming Home project in 2014. She is the former president of the USF Student Veterans Association and the summer of 2013 she cycled across the United States to raise awareness of student veterans. Her ride also raised more than $50,000 in donations for the national Student Veterans of America.

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