Looking For Future Air Force Leaders In Technology

Middleton High School JROTC cadet Lt. Col. Carlos Martinez and Coast Guard pilot Justin Neal during STEM Day at MacDill AFB.

Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base put on an impressive show of skill and threw in a bit of fun for some 1200 school students who visited the base this month to check out military careers linked to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“Never before in our nation’s history have we depended more on technology and the application of technology to win – not only in the air – but in space and in cyber space,” said MacDill Commander Col. April Vogel. “You know our mission is to fly, fight and win. So, we need to create people who can do that. And there are some amazing young minds here today which is why this is so special.” Continue reading

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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.

Airman’s Suicide Spurs Run from Tampa to Key West

Jamie Brunette, an Air Force Reserve captain and Afghanistan War veteran, killed herself in her car February 9, 2015 in Tampa. Photo courtesy of Jamie Brunette Facebook.

Jamie Brunette, an Air Force Reserve captain and Afghanistan War veteran, killed herself in her car February 9, 2015 in Tampa. Photo courtesy of Jamie Brunette Facebook.

Air Force Reserve Captain Jamie Brunette is described by friends as a vivacious athlete with a huge smile who loved people and loved to run.

Malia Spranger, an Air Force Reserve colonel, served with Brunette, was her friend and business partner. They were going to open a fitness center together in March.

But Brunette, an Afghanistan War veteran, took her own life February 9, 2015.

“She was (like) a daughter to my husband and I,” Spranger said. “She is obviously terribly missed by so many people out there.”

Jamie’s “raspy laugh” is what her roommate, Heather Milner, misses most.

“The way I remember Jamie is being super goofy. She was always dancing around and smiling and laughing. Like, every day was always a good day,” Milner said.

Milner was among the dozens of friends, airmen and community members standing outside the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base to honor the war veteran and support “The Run for Jamie.”

Gulf War veteran and former Ranger Alex Estrella holds onto the photo of Jamie at the kick-off ceremony outside MacDill Air Force Base's main gate for his 405-mile run to Key West.

Gulf War veteran and former Ranger Alex Estrella holds onto the photo of Jamie at the kick-off ceremony outside MacDill Air Force Base’s main gate for his 405-mile run to Key West.

Alex Estrella after the start of his 405-mile trek to raise awareness about PTSD and veteran suicide. Photo by: Valerie Bogle Photography

Alex Estrella after the start of his 405-mile trek to raise awareness about PTSD and veteran suicide. Photo by: Valerie Bogle Photography

The solo run from Tampa to Key West was the idea of former Army Ranger and Gulf War veteran Alex Estrella, 56. Although the Tampa resident never met the promising young airman, Brunette’s suicide inspired him to do the 405-mile run to honor her, raise awareness about veteran suicide and post-traumatic stress.

“For those vets out there that may be suffering or something, speak to someone,” Estrella said just prior to starting his journey May 21, 2015. “Hope is a key word for me and God willing I’m going to finish this run for Jamie.”

Wearing combat boots, a 40-pound rucksack and escorted by Tampa Police volunteers, Estrella left MacDill hoping to make it to Key West in eight days. Within a few miles, the 90 degree temperatures forced him to change into running shoes and shed the rucksack.

Checking in with Estrella at the eight-day mark found him walking alone on Tamiami Trail about to turn south to Homestead just over halfway to his goal.

Hampered by the heat, blisters and cramping muscles, Estrella chuckled when asked if he considered abandoning his quest.

“I have 22 reasons why not to give up and those of course are the 22 vets a day that take their lives,” Estrella said.

Alex Estrella wore combat boots for the first few miles of his run but blisters forced him to switch to running shoes.

Alex Estrella wore combat boots for the first few miles of his run but blisters forced him to switch to running shoes.

According to the Veterans Administration, 22 veterans on average commit suicide every day. And that number only reflects those in the VA system. Those who have never used VA, along with active-duty military, reservists and National Guard are not included.

Despite his first chase vehicle having to turn back and getting only a couple of hours rest each night, Estrella continues.

Midday Thursday, he optimistically estimated that he will reach Key West on Sunday, May 31, 2015.

In addition to honoring Brunette, Estrella also hopes to raise the visibility of two organizations helping veterans, Hope for the Warriors and the Elk Institute for Psychological Health and Performance.

Veterans can get help by calling the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, go online to chat live or text message to 838255.

A couple dozen friends, airmen and veterans turned out for the start of The Run for Jamie just outside the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa.

A couple dozen friends, airmen and veterans turned out for the start of The Run for Jamie just outside the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, on May 21, 2015.

Student Veteran Calls for Action in Huffington Post Article

kiersten_3800_miles_for_stu_vetsUniversity of South Florida doctoral student and Air Force veteran Kiersten Downs cycled across the United States this summer to raise visibility for student veterans. And even though her wheels stopped turning August 5th when she arrived in Washington D.C., it doesn’t mean her campaign has ended.

Instead, her “Bike America: Student Veterans Ride for Education” is gaining more national attention. Kiersten just wrote a piece for the Huffington Post:

I am devoted to this cause because I see student veteran organizations as vehicles of social change. Public policy is supposed to be influenced by public discourse, and yet veterans themselves are on the sidelines.

We cannot be passive.

A national discussion is unfolding about who we are, what we need to succeed, and how our past experiences shape our futures. But we must never forget: We are the narrators of our own history. If we do not take control over how the story is written, then it will be written for us, and like in so many cases, work against us.

Kiersten’s journey also was chronicled by MTV-U and was covered by various media outlets. You can read her full Huffington Post article, We Are the Narrators of Our Own History, here.

Kiersten Downs celebrating the end of her two-month ride across the USA to raise awareness for student veterans. Photo credit: Biking USA

Kiersten Downs celebrating the end of her two-month ride across the USA to raise awareness for student veterans. Photo credit: Biking USA

A Girl Scout Who Does More than Sell Cookies

Jacqueline Parker with her "Veterans Heroes" project that earned her the Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest honor given by the organization.

Jacqueline Parker with her “Veterans Heroes” project that earned her the Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest honor given by the organization.

A love of flying isn’t the only thing that links an 18-year-old Tampa Girl Scout and an Air Force Brigadier General who retired here.

Ben Nelson Jr.’s dad flew B-29s, B-17s and B-24s for the Army Air Corps in World War II. So it’s not surprising that he ended up in the pilot’s seat for the Air Force flying more than 200 combat missions in Vietnam.

“We all got shot up every once in a while,” Nelson said in a recorded interview for the “Veterans Heroes” project. “I’ve got a picture of me standing and a hole in my wing looking up through it. You know sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not.”

Nelson’s luck held for a full and distinguished career in the Air Force. He retired as a brigadier general in September 1994 as deputy commander of NATO’s 5th Allied Tactical Air Force, Vicenza, Italy.

Air Force Brigadier Gen. Ben Nelson Jr. Credit: Dept. of Defense

Air Force Brigadier Gen. Ben Nelson Jr. Credit: Dept. of Defense

Nelson is one of 12 veterans who shared their military stories for Jacqueline Parker’s Girl Scout project “Veterans Heroes” that earned her the highest award given by Girl Scouts, the Gold Award.

The interviews she collected became part of the Library of Congress Veterans History Project and are also available at the St. Petersburg Museum of History and Girl Scout Leadership Center.

Parker is proof that Girl Scouts do more than sell cookies. The Plant High School senior said scouting gave her the foundation to try things like Junior ROTC where she will serve as the executive officer this school year. She’s also deputy commander of the Civilian Air Patrol at Plant.

“My main goal is to be in the military but also preferably as a pilot,”

It’s an interesting choice because no one in her immediate family is in the military and most of her high school friends aren’t interested in serving.

“My friends respect the fact that I want to do this. I’ll tell them about a camp I went to and they’re like ‘you actually did that?” Parker said.

Jacqueline Parker holds a "dummy" M16 while at the Marine summer leadership camp 2013.

Jacqueline Parker holds a “dummy” M16 while at the Marine summer leadership camp 2013.

This summer,  besides participating in Girls State and a cross country camp, Parker was one of 500 chosen  nationally to attend the Marine Summer Leadership and Character Development Academy held at Quantico.

“We were wearing full Marine uniform. It was as if we were deployed,” she said. “Each squad was 12 people approximately. My group didn’t do so well. We quote-unquote killed our civilians. We had dummy M16s and if you wanted to shoot you go bang, bang, bang.”

She said the course was designed to help the squads learn from unpredictable situations.

“It was very hands on and if you were to do something wrong, you weren’t penalized for it. It was okay here’s how you fix it, now do it right,” Parker said. Whereas in high school, you do something wrong then it just effects your grade and it just tumbles down from there.”

At yet another camp, this one was a week at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., she learned she could tolerate a “boot camp” setting with yelling instructors and tough physical training.

Her love of flying is in full display as Jacqueline Parker enjoys one of her "orientation" flights with the Civil Air Patrol.

Her love of flying is in full display as Jacqueline Parker enjoys one of her “orientation” flights with the Civil Air Patrol.

She survived and even thrived in that environment where she was  treated like a swab, an incoming Coast Guard Academy freshman. It strengthened Parker’s confidence that she belongs in the military.

She applying to the Coast Guard and Air Force academies.

“I’ve accepted the fact that I’m not going to have a regular college experience if I go to an academy, but because I am giving that up I’m getting something much better,” Parker said.

Her definition of “much better”: “an opportunity to lead others and help this nation be a better place to live.”

You can listen to the WUSF radio story featuring Jacqueline Parker HERE.

An Air Force Master Sergeant Sends a Valentine’s Day Email

Erik and Jennifer Johanson will celebrate 12 years of marriage on Father's Day.

Erik and Jennifer Johanson will celebrate 12 years of marriage on Father’s Day.

Valentine’s Day is just days away, but what about when your sweetheart is thousands of miles away?  The ultimate test of a long-distance romance is having a military spouse.

Do you know the secrets to a successful military marriage? Share your experiences with others in the comment section or email me directly at bobrien@wusf.org and I’ll compile a list.

Earlier this week, I chatted with a military couple married more than a decade to learn their secrets to a lasting relationship. It wasn’t happenstance how I found Air Force Master Sgt. Erik Johanson and his wife Jennifer.

Erik sent me an email a few weeks back with the subject line: Amazing Military Wife.

It was an early Valentines’ Day surprise for Jennifer. Continue reading

Air Force Assigns New KC-46 Tankers, None East of Kansas

KC-46 tanker Photo Credit: Air Force.mil

KC-46 tanker Photo Credit: Air Force.mil

The Air Force evaluated 54 active sites to become home to the new KC-46 tankers. Congresswoman Kathy Castor of Tampa announced in a late Wednesday afternoon release that her hometown MacDill Air Force Base lost its bid for the new planes.

In fact, no Air Force base east of Kansas received any of the new KC-46 tankers.

Instead, the Air Force is assigning the new tankers to active duty bases in Oklahoma, North Dakota, Kansas and Washington State.

However, five Air National Guard bases have been selected for the first KC-46 tankers: Forbes Air Guard Station, Kan.; Joint-Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.; Pease Air Guard Station, N.H.; Pittsburgh International Airport Air Guard Station, Pa.; and Rickenbacker Air Guard Station, Ohio.

MacDill is home to the 6th Air Mobility Wing which flies an aging fleet of KC-135 refueling Stratotankers.

Castor, members of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and other civic leaders lobbied for the new planes to be based at MacDill

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told Castor during a phone call that the KC-135 tankers like the ones based in Tampa will remain an Air Force priority for decades.

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