Post 9-11: It’s 15 Years And Counting


Photo credit: Jackie Dorr

Sunday is the 15th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks and as National Public Radio reports, the United States has been fighting every day since:

The U.S. has carried out airstrikes, sent in ground forces, or both, in seven countries stretching from Pakistan in the east to Libya in the west. None of these conflicts has been resolved, and all signs point to years of strife ahead.

Sept. 11 has reshaped the U.S. in countless ways, but perhaps the most profound has been the transformation from a country where peacetime was the norm into one seemingly locked into a permanent state of war. Yet strangely, the country doesn’t feel much like it’s at war.

But that sentiment – “the country doesn’t feel much like it’s at war” – does not hold true for those in the military, nor for their families and friends. They have fought the battles and borne scars for the never ending war against terrorism.

This blog, Off the Base, was created in part to bridge that gap between the civilian community and active-duty military, veterans and their families.

Off the Base, which will be six years old next month, owes its creation to First Lady Rosalynn Carter and the Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowships she inspired.

If the stories shared here have lifted the stigma of seeking mental health help for even one Airman, Sailor, Soldier or Marine or a spouse or military child, then it has been a good six years.

My deepest appreciation with humility and awe is extended to all the blog contributors and to all those who allowed me to tell their story. Their wisdom and willingness to serve no matter the sacrifice is inspiring and significant.

And of course – I am overwhelmed by Mrs. Rosalynn Carter’s graciousness and generosity of spirit. I am forever changed and grateful to have been selected a Carter Fellow 2010-2011.9-11_screenshot_cropped



67 Percent Question If Military Absentee Ballots Get Counted

The Golden Knights fly a Federal Voting Assistance Program banner promoting absentee voting. Credit: FVAP

The Golden Knights fly a Federal Voting Assistance Program banner promoting absentee voting. Credit: FVAP

In 2000, the Florida ballots of overseas service members were a key point of controversy in the Bush vs. Gore election.  Now, 16 years later, little has changed for most overseas troops, who still have to vote absentee mostly through international mail.

Florida lawmakers did create a task force this year to study developing an online voting system for military and overseas voters. But task for members aren’t expected to meet until after the 2016 November election.

However, a handful of other states are experimenting with more modern electronic ballot return.

If you’re active duty military on base, aboard ship or in a combat zone, absentee voting can be a complex process because each state has its own regulations.

So, the Department of Defense created the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) to simplify access. But director Matt Boehmer said many service members remain frustrated with the process.

“One of the things that our active duty military told us was the fact that 67 percent of them weren’t confident that their ballot was counted,” Boehmer said referring to a 2014 post-election survey. “Certainly that 67 percent number gets people’s attention and it certainly got my attention.”



All states are required to provide overseas voters an electronic ballot. All 50 do so by email and online. Most offer faxed ballots and paper ballots can still be requested.

But returning a voted absentee overseas ballot is where it gets tricky. Eighteen states require ballots to be returned only through the mail. The other 32 allow some form of electronic return but it varies widely.

For instance, Florida accepts overseas ballots only by mail or fax.

“If you’re in a Forward Operation Base in the middle of the mountains in Afghanistan there’s no option to fax,” said U.S. Army veteran Diego Echeverri. “And you’re not going to have a scanner, you’re not going to have these devices.”

Echeverri served in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2004 and is Florida director for the advocacy group, Concerned Veterans for America (CV4A).

Dan Caldwell, CV4A vice president of communications and policy, is an Iraq War veteran. He said their generation expects the ease of electronic voting.

“If troops can Skype overseas in most locations now with their family members, then they should be able to find a way to securely and secretly vote,” Caldwell said. “And I think that can work. I think we have the technology to do it. It just requires some government bureaucrats to get off their butts and actually do it.”

Courtesy: FVAP and MacDill Air Force Base

Courtesy: FVAP and MacDill Air Force Base

But it’s not just bureaucrats; state lawmakers decide their states’ election rules.

And it’s a balancing act between giving voters the convenience of online access versus protecting the integrity of their ballot.

“We’ve got legislators who are very interested in meeting the needs of military members,” said Wendy Underhill, program director for elections and redistricting with the National Conference of State Legislatures. “They are younger. They are used to using electronic interactions for every single thing in their life, and so, there is that push against the security.”

Four states do provide online voting to limited groups like military personnel in combat zones. Alaska is the first state to allow everyone to vote online. Yet, Underhill says the Alaska process is not all that simple.

“Not only do they cast their ballot online, they have to printout a voter identification certificate and something else and get it signed by themselves and a couple of witnesses. And then, scan that back in and send it too. And so it’s not that it’s an easy process,” Underhill said.

Looking at the bigger picture, 56 percent of active duty military, in the 2014 FVAP survey, said the process to get an absentee ballot was too complicated and confusing.


Twin Brothers Share The Healing Power Of Storytelling


Mark and Matt Fetterman are co-founders of The Homefront Foundation – a non-profit organization dedicated to helping service members, veterans and their families learn the power of storytelling as a tool for coping and community outreach.

Next month, it will have been 15 years since the United States went to war in Afghanistan and then later, into Iraq. It’s estimated 2.5 million men and women have served during that time and each has a story to tell.

Helping those service members and veterans shape and share their story is why Tampa brothers Matt and Mark Fetterman started the non-profit organization, The Homefront Foundation.

“While I was pursuing my degree at Columbia University, I was exposed to storytelling as a business tool,” Matt Fetterman said, who earned an master’s degree in organizational psychology.

That’s when he said he learned the power of storytelling, not only for business but for veterans and service members can use it as a coping tool and an opportunity to bond with their communities.

Matt Fetterman shares his story as an example. It begins on the parade deck the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York.

“When I was a freshman or a plebe at the Academy, I remember raising my right hand. I took my oath on Saturday. I swore into the Navy,” Matt Fetterman said. And three days later, on a Tuesday, he and his section of plebes were marching to class, stopped and watched across the water as terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

During his last 15 years of service, he only had three days when the U.S. has not been at war.

“It’s a long time and it’s very trying,” Matt Fetterman said. “I think that we are all tired.”

Matt Fetterman volunteered in 2010 to serve in Afghanistan as did his twin brother, Mark Fetterman, also an engineer and graduate of the Merchant Marine Academy.

“Before we had gone to Afghanistan, a good friend of mine and Matt’s who went to college with us, he was shot and killed in Afghanistan,” Mark Fetterman said. “Shortly after we found ourselves in country, another one of our friends was dead. This time he had stepped on a land mine. And knowing this is part of my story makes me believe that other veterans have stories to tell and in their stories there are lessons.”

homefrontfoundation_posterMark Fetterman said the lesson he learned from his story, “You’re not alone.”

“When you transition back home away from the battlefield you feel alone,” Mark Fetterman said. “I know when I got home, I was not transitioned back with a unit, and I found myself living in a hotel room for three weeks by myself, drinking too much, making some bad decisions.”

But Mark Fetterman said his brother came knocking on his door to make certain he knew he was not alone. Also, storytelling helped.

“I was a skeptic. Didn’t think storytelling had anything to do with me as a person,” Mark Fetterman said. “But it had so much and when I finally learned how to tell my story and felt comfortable and get past that vulnerable stage, I found it was relieving.”

The Fetterman brothers hope to bring that same relief to others and at the same time create a bond with the community. Last fall, they both moved to Tampa to be closer to family and start The Homefront Foundation, a non-profit set up to help teach service members, veterans and first responders storytelling  as a tool for coping and outreach.

Unwritten Letters is their first workshop in Tampa. Matt says veterans from all service branches and some first responders have signed up.

“This is not a theatrical performance. This is a story,” Matt Fetterman said.

After the daylong workshop, there’s a community event for the public to share in the stories on August 27, 2016 at 6 p.m. at the University of South Florida Tampa Campus, Theater 2, 4202 E. Fowler Ave.

Mark Fetterman said they hope that people with no links to the military will attend, as will family and friends of active-duty members and veterans.

“I think what they’re going to see, when they start to hear these stories come out, is the value in these individuals and the value they can bring back to their communities again,” Mark Fetterman said.

New Report: Suicide 21 Percent Greater Risk For Veterans

veteran_suicide_crisisline_graphicAfter releasing a summary in early July, the Department of Veterans Affairs today released its  full report on veteran suicides.

The Suicide Among Veterans and Other Americans 2001-2014 is a comprehensive analysis that looked at more than 55 million veterans’ records  from 1979 to 2014 from every state in the nation.

Some key findings from this year’s report include:
  • In 2014, an average of 20 veterans died by suicide each day. Six of the 20 were users of the VA Health services.
  • In 2014, veterans accounted for 18 percent of all adult deaths by suicide in the U.S. but only make up 8.5 percent of the population age 18 or older.
  • In 2014, about 67 percent of all suicides by veterans a firearm was used.
  • Approximately 65 percent of all veterans who died from suicide in 2014 were 50 years of age or older.
  • Since 2001, U.S. adult civilian suicides increased 23 percent, while Veteran suicides increased 32 percent in the same time period. After controlling for age and gender, this makes the risk of suicide 21 percent greater for Veterans.

A fact sheet is available and the VA is taking several measures to increase prevention programs and access to care and the Veterans Crisis Line: 800-273-8255.


Tiny Homes For Vets Teach Huge Lessons To Students


Celebrate Outreach president Reggie Craig looks over USF students’ construction documents. Bobbie O’Brien/WUSF Public Media

There’s a growing movement to help homeless veterans by providing tiny houses – structures of only a couple hundred square feet. The idea has taken root in Eugene, OR, Kansas City and Huntsville, AL. Now, you can add St. Petersburg to that list.


The interfaith group, Celebrate Outreach, is embracing the tiny house concept and building on it.

For a start, their tiny houses are custom designed by students at the University of South Florida School of Architecture and Community Design. Continue reading

VA Researchers Seek Volunteers for Engagement Council

2-shot upper w backpack

(April 2014) Lead therapist Michael Firestone adjusts the Exoskeleton computer backpack for veteran Josh Baker, paralyzed after a motorcycle accident. Credit Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media

Veterans and their family members in the Tampa Bay region have an opportunity to help guide VA research at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital, Tampa, FL.

The Haley VA is looking for 10 volunteers to serve on a Veteran Engagement Council. The council will bring a veterans’ perspective and help shape VA research that studies things like the effectiveness of new technologies on veterans’ care.

Council members will have the opportunity to interact with primary investigators and the research center staff to develop ideas for future research and provide feedback on current proposals.

To serve on the Veteran Engagement Council, you need to be a veteran, a family member or caregiver of a veteran and want to bring about meaningful change in VA research.

Volunteers should have good communication skills, have received VA care or have a family member under VA care, and be willing to look beyond personal experiences.

The terms are two years and require attending a monthly meeting of up to two hours in person or through phone conferencing.

A copy of the application and details are available here.

10 Things The VA Wants You To Know About Agent Orange

Photo courtesy of the VA website.

Photo courtesy of the VA website.

The official blog for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, VAntage Point, has produced a “Top 10 List” of important information all veterans should know about the herbicide Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War. It was sprayed on trees, vegetation, forests and waterways along boarders in Cambodia, Laos, and in South Vietnam.

The list is below, and you can read the full details on today’s VAntage Point.

  1. Agent Orange was a herbicide and defoliant used in Vietnam.
  2. Any Veteran who served anywhere in Vietnam during the war is presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange.
  3. VA has linked several diseases and health conditions to Agent Orange exposure.
  4. Veterans who want to be considered for disability compensation must file a claim.
  5. VA offers health care benefits for Veterans who may have been exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides during military service.
  6. Participating in an Agent Orange Registry health exam helps other Veterans and the VA.
  7. VA recognizes and offers support for the children of Veterans affected by Agent Orange who have birth defects.
  8. Vietnam Veterans are not the only Veterans who may have been exposed to Agent Orange.
  9. VA continues to conduct research on the long-term health effects of Agent Orange.
  10. VA contracts with an independent, non-governmental organization to review the scientific information on Agent Orange.

The VA blog entry is written by Dr. Ralph Erickson, a 32-year Army Veteran of the Gulf War (1990-91) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003) who has also served as Commander of The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research; Command Surgeon, US Central Command; and Director, DoD Global Emerging Infections and Response System (DOD-GEIS).

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