Two Men Arrested For Stealing From Homeless Veterans

Two Miami men are charged with stealing items meant for homeless veterans that were worth more than $300,000.

The volunteer, Miami director of the non-profit, Florida Veterans Foundation, Antonio Colmenares, 57, was arrested by Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents on first degree grand theft. Also arrested was Colmenares’ friend, Antonio Sabatier, 60, who did not hold an official position with the organization.

The charges stem from a complaint filed by the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs in March 2015 which was investigated by the FDLE. The two men allegedly had sold 27,000 blankets and 9,700 ready-to-eat meals that were donated to the Florida Veterans Foundation for use by homeless vets.

Money from the sale, according to the FDLE, was deposited into the bank account of a company owned by Sabatier, Nike Management.

The investigation also found that other donated items meant for homeless veterans had been sold for profit. The Florida Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General’s Office assisted in the investigation.

Colmenares and Sabatier are out on a $20,000 bond each after being booked into the Miami-Dade Jail.

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Florida Women Veterans Meeting In Tampa

U.S. Army Sgt. Ashley Hort keeps her weapon at the ready as she provides security for her fellow soldiers during a raid in Al Haswah, Iraq, on March 21, 2007.  Hort is a team sergeant with the 127th Military Police Company deployed from Hanau, Germany.  DoD photo by Spc. Olanrewaju Akinwunmi, U.S. Army.

U.S. Army Sgt. Ashley Hort keeps her weapon at the ready as she provides security for her fellow soldiers during a raid in Al Haswah, Iraq, on March 21, 2007. Hort is a team sergeant with the 127th Military Police Company deployed from Hanau, Germany. DoD photo by Spc. Olanrewaju Akinwunmi, U.S. Army.

This week, women veterans from throughout Florida will meet in Tampa for the 2nd Annual Women Veterans’ Conference. The goal is to sign them up for available benefits and resources.

This is the second year the state is reaching out to women veterans. The conference has expanded to two days, July 30-31, 2015, at the University of South Florida Tampa campus to accommodate demand.

“We had so many women veterans stay behind for hours afterward last year,” said Alene Tarter, director of benefits and assistance for the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs (FDVA). “So, we decided to have it for two days.”

Tarter said all women veterans should attend the free gathering even if they’re already signed up for VA benefits.

“Because benefits change all the time and new benefits are added all the time,” Tarter said.

There also will be workshops on employment, educational opportunities and vocational training.

Florida has 160,000 women veterans and many have never applied for VA benefits.

Helping women veterans apply for benefits is only part of the conference. Larri Gerson, claims supervisor with FDVA, will present a workshop on the VA benefits appeals process.

“And then going through the process of having women veterans understand what we can do to help them with their claim with PTSD, MST (Military Sexual Trauma) before a hearing,” Gerson said. “And they can come in prepared- much better prepared, than if they were to go in by themselves.”

The conference is free and open to women vets, their spouses and support. Online registration is available through the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Florida Puts Out Call To All Women Veterans

Florida has 160,000 women veterans living in the state, yet some of those women do not consider themselves a veteran and many more have never applied for veterans’ benefits.

 Female Veterans in Iraq. A New Resource for Female Vet on VA health care and benefits: 1-855-VA-WOMEN. Credit Department of Veterans Affairs


Female Veterans in Iraq. A New Resource for Female Vet on VA health care and benefits: 1-855-VA-WOMEN.
Credit Department of Veterans Affairs

Matching women veterans with available benefits, resources and support is the goal of the 2nd Annual Women Veterans’ Conference July 30-31, 2015 at the University of South Florida

“Women veterans have a lot of gender specific issues,” said Alene Tarter, director of benefits and assistance for the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs (FDVA). “But often they don’t consider themselves veterans because male veterans or male family members have told them that they are not.”

She said many of the older women veterans are unaware that their veterans or entitled to veterans benefits.

“I’m a veteran. I only served a couple of years in the Air Force and I didn’t know I was a veteran for 25 years,” said Larri Gerson, supervisor of claims for FDVA.

From a previous Operation Stand Down.

From a previous Operation Stand Down.

Raising awareness and then helping women file for their veteran benefits is one reason why the state agency is planning the free, two-day conference in Tampa.

“I’ll be talking about the appeals process having women veterans understand what we can do to help them with their claim for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and MST, military sexual trauma,” Gerson said.

Sessions also will cover employment, vocational training, and an elder law expert along with an opportunity to sit down with benefits experts from the FDVA who will help women vets with their claims.

The 2nd Annual Florida Women’s Veterans Conference is free and open to women vets, their spouses and support. Online registration is available through the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

13 New Veteran-Related Laws In Florida

Zak, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador, is one of the newest Paws for Patriots graduates. (June 2015)

Zak, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador, is one of the newest Paws for Patriots graduates. (June 2015)

Florida’s new law that expands access for service animals used by people with disabilities has received the most attention of the 13 veteran-related laws passed this year.

House Bill 71 not only expands the protected right to use a service dog to people with mental impairments but it also allows for a jail sentence if a public business denies access. And the new law also makes it a second degree misdemeanor for someone to pass off an untrained pet as a service animal.

“When people abuse things like that, it diminishes the service that that patriot has delivered to our country,” said Mike Prendergast, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs. “And it diminishes our community’s ability to sort out and determine who the legitimate person is and who is using an animal and mislabeling that animal for illegitimate purposes.”

Part of the problem, Prendergast said, is that no one authority certifies service dogs and their training. And there’s inconsistency at the federal level on the use of service dogs for veterans with mental health issues like post-traumatic stress.

Mike Prendergast, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs, at a 2012 news conference in Tallahassee. Photo courtesy of Steven Rodriguez, WFSU.

Mike Prendergast, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, at a 2012 news conference in Tallahassee. Photo courtesy of Steven Rodriguez, WFSU.

Prendergast plans to suggest to U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald that the federal VA adopt Florida’s guidelines for service animals.

He’s also pushing to put Florida on the cutting edge to handle future challenges that will confront veterans.

“From the burn pits, the oil fires over in the desert, the other environmental hazards that are over in Afghanistan that are over in the Iraqi desert that we’ve all been exposed to and we’re all going to have health challenges that will manifest themselves,” Prendergast said. “Whether it’s 10 years or whether it’s next year. We still want to be prepared for those health challenges.”

As an example, Prendergast said the Florida Veterans Foundation, established by the legislature, funded hyperbaric oxygen treatments for a limited number of veterans with traumatic brain injuries or TBI. That is despite the fact that the pressurized oxygen treatments are not a recognized treatment for brain injuries and some consider it controversial.

“Whether a peacetime veteran or combat veteran, we’ve managed to get some folks exposed to that and they’ve had remarkable recoveries from it,” Predergast said. “We need to explore the frontiers of medicine to take care of our veterans.”

And he wants that frontier to start with Florida’s 1.6 million veterans.

Florida Veteran-Related Legislation for 2015:

  1. HB 27 – Authorizes replacing the “V” on Florida Drivers Licenses with the word “Veteran”
  2. SB 7028 – Grants in-state tuition to veterans’ spouses and children using Post 9/11 GI education benefits
  3. SB 132 – Allows veterans to use alternative documentation for disabled parking permits renewals
  4. HB 329 – Authorizes military-related specialty license plates Woman Veteran, World War II Veteran and others
  5. HB 185 – Creates a public records exemption for the identification and location of current or former active-duty U.S. Armed Forces service members, Reserves and National Guard who served after September 11, 2001 and their spouses and children.
  6. HB 801 – Adds a memorial to the Capitol dedicated to the 241 U.S. Armed Forces who lost their lives in the Beirut barracks bombing attack October 23, 1983.
  7. HB 277 –Motels and hotels are required to waive minimum age requirements for active-duty military, Reserves and Guard who present valid identification.
  8. SB 184 – Authorizes absent uniformed services voters and overseas voters to use the federal write-in absentee ballot in any state or local election.
  9. HB 71 – Updates on the use of service animals to include people with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits daily activity; makes it a second degree misdemeanor to deny access to a service dog accompanying a person with disabilities or a trainer; prohibits asking about the nature of an individual’s disability in order to determine if the service animal is legitimate; makes it a second degree misdemeanor to misrepresent a pet as a service animal or to misrepresent oneself as a qualified trainer.
  10. SB 686 – Grants a property tax exemption to leaseholds and improvements constructed and used to provide military housing on land owned by the federal government.
  11. HB 225 – Requires the state to only purchase U.S. and other state flags made in the United States and from domestic materials.
  12. HB 1069 – Allows for the expansion of the Veterans Courts program under certain conditions.
  13. HB 471 – Allows vehicles with a Disabled Veterans license plate to park for free in a local facility or lot with timed parking spaces with some restrictions.

Information on the veteran-related legislation was provided by the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Florida Hosts Women Only Veterans Conference

Courtesy: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Courtesy: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

There are more than 160,000 women veterans living and working in Florida.

“Many of them don’t even realize – they’re veterans. They feel they’re not recognized as veterans,” said Alene Tarter, director of benefits and assistance for the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs (FDVA) based at Bay Pines.

Larri Gerson used to be one of those women veterans. She now supervises benefits claims at the FDVA.

“I didn’t know I was a veteran for 25 years because I didn’t grow up in a military family,” Gerson said.

“It wasn’t until I came here working at the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs that I realized how important it is to have that knowledge.”

So, Florida is sponsoring its first Women’s Veterans Regional Conference, March 7 from 9 am to 1 pm, at the Veterans Affairs Regional Office, 9500 Bay Pines Blvd, St. Petersburg.

Dr. Betty Moseley Brown is the scheduled keynote speaker.

Dr. Betty Moseley Brown is the scheduled keynote speaker.

Navy veteran Cynthia Brown, a claims examiner and state women veterans’ coordinator, is organizing the conference around the current issues affecting women vets.

“Employment issues, homelessness, mental health and obviously health care and benefits,” Brown said.

One of those benefits rarely used by women is the government hiring preference extended to all veterans according to Jacquelyn Consentino, the FDVA veterans’ preference administrator.

“Men use it. They use it all the time, but for some reason when the women fill out their applications they just glide over it and don’t seem to use it,” Consentino said.

Consentino is one of several panelists who will field questions at the end during an open-microphone session.

“What I want them to know when they come to the conference, I’m here to help them,” Consentino said.

The conference is for women veterans only.

“A lot of times services are geared towards men and their needs and their health issues. But for women, we have separate needs and health issues and this allows for a forum for us to come together,” said Chava Grier, a former U.S. Army military police officer.

The keynote speaker is Dr. Betty Moseley Brown, associate director of the VA Center for Women Veterans of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Online registration is not required, but it is preferred. You can find more information at www.floridavets.org and register here.

Listen to the voices of some of Florida’s women veterans in a WUSF 89.7 FM news story.

Women Veterans: Military Sexual Trauma and Resources

womenVetsFlorida has an estimated 142,000 women veterans and many likely had their eyes on the Pentagon this week.

First, there was the deadline for the services to submit plans on how to integrate women into combat units or explain why women should remain banned. Many women already are serving in units exposed to combat but aren’t officially acknowledged.

And there is more news related to the growing problem of military sexual trauma.

We talked with an Air Force woman veteran, Larri Gerson, who now serves as a claims examiner with the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs and is a member of the federal, VA Advisory Committee on Women Veterans.

Courtesy Dept. of Defense

Courtesy Dept. of Defense

“I’m glad to talk about how important right now the topic of military sexual trauma (is) because if we had this year 29,000 cases, they estimated suffer from military sexual trauma, that’s going to be too much to wait for next year to talk about it,” Gerson said.

Recently allegations of sexual misconduct have been brought against two military members who are part of the military sexual trauma prevention programs.

Gerson said congress is taking testimony and considering legislation

She said the issue of women in combat also is important but is being addressed over a longer period of time.

Gerson provided several resources for women veterans and contacts.

For Florida women veterans issues, contact Florida’s State Women Veterans’ Coordinator Cynthia T. Brown at brownc@fdva.state.fl.us.

For national women veterans issues, contact Larri Gerson at gersonl@fdva.state.fl.us.

 

A Florida Voice for Women Veterans Goes to Washington

gerson2Florida women veterans have a new voice in Washington D.C. It’s Larri Gerson, a veteran claims examiner with the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs.

Gerson is a new appointee to the federal, VA Committee on Women Veterans which advises VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

She believes her frontline status – as a claims examiner and as a former women veteran coordinator for Florida – earned her appointment to the federal committee.

“They wanted us women who are on the front-lines, the benefits front-lines, so that we can come up there and really speak to the problems that women veterans are facing around the country,” Gerson said.

Gerson has already met in Washington with the 12-member committee. She listened and learned but also came prepared with some priority items. Her top issue is getting a full time women veteran coordinator for each state. She says only three of the 50 states have a full time coordinator to advocate and educate.

“The federal government could fix this problem by funding the position in each state directly,” Gerson said. “I went up to Washington with my mindset this would create a consistent service for female veterans no matter where they live.”

However an under-secretary with the VA used statistics to argue that a women veteran coordinator in every state was not needed.

“I disagree,” Gerson said. “The purpose of a women’s coordinator should not be based only on numbers. I’m not a bean counter.”

She’s not given up on that issue and is bringing up others.

“Whether women veterans were getting equal consideration for service connection when they file for PTSD under the relaxed legislation for combat exposure and MST (Military Sexual Trauma),” Gerson said. “Do women veterans have to work harder to make their case at the regional level.”

As a veteran claims examiner, she’s noted discrepancies in the processing and ratings of claims, especially women veterans

Gerson doesn’t expect women veteran issues to be resolved overnight. She is just happy to be a member of an advisory committee and get the women’s issues before VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

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