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

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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

World War I Memorial Dedication Saturday In Tampa, FL

Artistic concepts of the World War I Memorial being dedicated at Hillsborough County's Veterans Memorial Park on Saturday.

Artistic concepts of the World War I Memorial being dedicated at Hillsborough County’s Veterans Memorial Park on Saturday.

It was supposed to be “The War To End All Wars.” But World War I lasted more than four years, July 1914 to November 1918. More than 20 million soldiers died, either killed in action or by disease, and another 21 million were wounded.

The red poppy which bloomed on the battlefields in Belgium, France and Gallipoli became the symbol of remembrance for those killed.

But the WWI soldiers from Hillsborough County can rest assured that they will not be forgotten.

On Saturday, May 7, 2016, a World War I Memorial will be dedicated in their honor at the Hillsborough Veterans Memorial Park, 3602 U.S. 301 N., Tampa.

Red poppies will be handed out, a military historian will deliver comments and the colors will be presented at the ceremony scheduled for 11 a.m. The event is open to the public.

Korean War POW Honored 65 Years Later

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Edward Grady Halcomb,84, just received the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross for his sacrifice and heroism as a Prisoner of War during the Korean War at age 19.

After a delay of 65 years and an Act of Congress, a Polk County soldier has finally been acknowledged for his heroism and sacrifice while a prisoner of war in Korea.

More than 100 friends and family crammed into the Medulla Community Center in Lakeland last week to watch as Edward “Grady” Halcomb was presented the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, an award for valor second only to the Medal of Honor.

Halcomb retired from the Army as a Sergeant First Class in 1968, but he was honored for what he did as a private when taken prisoner in the Korean War. 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.

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