Hunger No Stranger To Veteran And Military Families

 Transitioning Army veteran Keith Norman, his wife Lina Norman and two of their four daughters, Shelia Encheva, 12, and Kiara Norman, 3. Bobbie O'Brien WUSF Public Media


Transitioning Army veteran Keith Norman, his wife Lina Norman and two of their four daughters, Shelia Encheva, 12, and Kiara Norman, 3.
Bobbie O’Brien WUSF Public Media

A 2014 survey found that almost 20 percent of the households using the Feeding Tampa Bay food bank were either veterans or active duty military.

The Norman family is a military family recently arrived from Colorado and transitioning into civilian life in Tampa. Never in a million years did the parents imagine that they would need help feeding their children.

“Everything changed from two, three weeks ago – we have a normal life. I worked. He worked. We’d go to the mall,” Lina Norman said. “Now, it’s nothing like this anymore. My little daughter asks ‘Can we go to the mall, can I have a hamburger? No. We always have to say no for everything now.”

Just a few weeks ago, Keith Norman was still in the Army. But after almost 10 years on active-duty and two deployments to Iraq, he wanted to follow his dream to become a law officer.

“We planned a year out. We made arrangements for housing because that would be the main thing we needed,” he said.

 Keith Norman served almost 10 years in the Army including two tours in Iraq before pursuing his dream to become a law officer. Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media


Keith Norman served almost 10 years in the Army including two tours in Iraq before pursuing his dream to become a law officer.
Credit Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media

They found a house to rent online. Lina said they got photos of the house and assurances from the landlord that it was in a safe neighborhood.

“We sent a security deposit, rent, everything. And we think okay, he has the job interview, we have the house, we’re good,” said Lina, who met and married Keith in Germany about five years ago.

But things weren’t good. They said the house they rented online ended up being in a bad neighborhood, and was infested with roaches and full of trash.

“My kids just get scared,” Lina Norman said. “They say ‘Where are we?’ They never lived in, they never been in situation like this.”

The Normans used up their savings staying in motel rooms while they tried to get a refund and find another house. When their money ran low, they pawned their television, borrowed money from family and then Keith and Lina started skipping meals.

The executive director of Feeding Tampa Bay said about 70 percent of the food they distribute is perishable, vegetables, dairy and frozen foods and supply about 65 percent of the food to soup kitchens and food pantries in a 10 county region.

The executive director of Feeding Tampa Bay said about 70 percent of the food they distribute is perishable, vegetables, dairy and frozen foods and supply about 65 percent of the food to soup kitchens and food pantries in a 10 county region.

“We just buy food for the kids first. They say ‘Mom why you don’t eat?’” Lina Norman said. “They just give us pieces and just say we going to be fine. And we try to don’t lose it completely in front of them.”

The family including the four girls, Shelia, 12; Esli, 9; Jeida, 7; and Kiara, 3 started sleeping in their two cars.

“Basically, we had to stretch our money out,” Keith Norman said. “When we were living in our vehicles, it was a big life changer.”

Both parents were embarrassed and distraught by how quickly their finances disintegrated. And they worried that asking for help might affect their job prospects.

But after sleeping in their cars for about a week, the family got a motel voucher and meals from Metropolitan Ministries and help finding a modest, single-family concrete block home in the Palm River neighborhood.

The three school-aged girls are enrolled in school and Keith said he’s taken his first test in the process of becoming a law officer.

“My daughter (Shelia), she has a birthday on (Nov.) 25th.  She’s going to be 13. We try to save our last money for cake,” Lina said.

But she said they were not planning on celebrating Thanksgiving because they didn’t have a reliable source of food that was until they visited Feeding Tampa Bay.

 Feeding Tampa Bay CEO Thomas Mantz and new employee Marlon Sykes, a 18-year Air Force veteran, stand before a large banner of people's photos, all helped by the food bank. Bobbie O'Brien WUSF Public Media


Feeding Tampa Bay CEO Thomas Mantz and new employee Marlon Sykes, a 18-year Air Force veteran, stand before a large banner of people’s photos, all helped by the food bank.
Bobbie O’Brien WUSF Public Media

“When I hear a story like that, I’m struck by the idea that they’re willing to do whatever is necessary in order to make the life for their children and their family what we would all want it to be. The lengths that they have to go to though are extraordinary,” said Thomas Mantz, Feeding Tampa Bay executive director.

The regional food bank provides an estimated 65 percent of the all food used in the soup kitchens and distributed through food pantries in a 10 county area.

Feeding Tampa Bay did a quadrennial survey that found 19 percent of the households they serve have a veteran or active duty military member.

New employee Marlon Sykes, a  18-year Air Force veteran, was only slightly surprised by that statistic.

“It mostly startles me because I don’t feel like any veteran should be in that category. But it doesn’t surprise me because I’ve seen it,” Sykes said.

What happened to the Norman family is becoming a lot more common.

“It’s particularly awful that veterans who we’ve asked to stand up and guard us and defend us should be hungry. I agree with that 1,000 percent,” Mantz said. “I also believe that no one else should be hungry.”

Feeding Tampa Bay provided the Norman family with a box of food and details on how to find their mobile food pantries.

The loading docks at Feeding Tampa Bay which provides about 65 percent of all the food at soup kitchens, church pantries and other charitable food programs in a 10-county region.

The loading docks at Feeding Tampa Bay which provides about 65 percent of all the food at soup kitchens, church pantries and other charitable food programs in a 10-county region.

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Saint Leo Offers Veterans A Free Transition Course

Tedd "Gunny"Weiser has an impressive display of Marine Corps memorabilia on his office wall.

Tedd “Gunny”Weiser has an impressive display of Marine Corps memorabilia on his office wall.

It’s difficult to define today’s military veteran. But there is one thing they have in common – they don’t like being painted with the same broad brush.

“Just because I’m a veteran, particularly me because I’m a Marine, a combat Marine, don’t think you know my political affiliation, my beliefs, my values,” said Tedd “Gunny” Weiser, short for Gunnery Sergeant. “There is a label and we want to shed that, we want people to know that we are our own person.”

After 20 years in the Marine Corps, Weiser has become a touchstone for the veterans at Saint Leo University where he’s now interim director of Veteran Student Services. He knows what it’s like to have difficulty moving into the civilian world, to hit rock-bottom with post-traumatic stress symptoms “starting to rear their ugly head.”

“It came to a point one day at a traffic stop. I actually put my car in park, got out of the car, ran up two or three car lengths ahead of me to tell the driver who cut me off six miles back what I thought of him and my wife said, ‘That’s enough,’” Weiser said.

The floormat outside Tedd Weiser's door replicates the yellow footprints outside the Marine Corps recruit depots.

The floormat outside Tedd Weiser’s door replicates the yellow footprints outside the Marine Corps recruit depots.

He got help from the VA for his PTS and decided to pursue his passion and his faith which led Weiser to Saint Leo University where he’s working on two masters’ degrees in Religion and Instructional Design.
But Weiser said he found his true calling running the Veteran Student Services office and the student veterans appear to be responding.

When Weiser started as an assistant in December, he said they averaged about one to two veteran visits a week. Now, just weeks into the fall semester and more than 60 have come through the office.
To help with the veterans’ adjust to campus life, a team at St. Leo University including Weiser, developed an online, Veterans Transition Course.

They partnered with Corporate Gray, publishers of The Military to Civilian Transition Guide which is used by the Department of Defense. Saint. Leo created an online version.

“We wanted to make it as easy as possible for our student veterans and their families knowing that their time is limited and their resources are limited,” Weiser said.

The Saint Leo University Veteran Student Services office hands out dogtags celebrating their student veterans.

The Saint Leo University Veteran Student Services office hands out dogtags celebrating their student veterans.

The course is broken into eight modules and is self-paced. So, it can take as little as eight weeks or as much as eight months to complete depending on a veteran’s needs. And the course is geared to more than academics. It also offers guidance on networking, interviewing, resume building and even negotiating salary and benefits.

Weiser encourages the spouses and adult children of the student veteran to take the online course too.

“Because if it helps them, then it helps that veteran because it’s one less thing that veteran has to worry about,” Weiser said.

About one-third of Saint Leo’s 15,000-to-16,000 students are veterans or active duty military and a majority are not on the Pasco County campus. Saint Leo University has a College Online as well as 40 locations, many on military installations, throughout the U.S.

“When others in the 70s were protesting military, Saint Leo went onto its first campus in North Florida and started teaching at a military installation,” Weiser said. “We just celebrated our 40th Anniversary last year.”
That anniversary generated donations that created another program Saint Leo’s Student Veteran Emergency Fund.

 Interim director of Veteran Student Services, Tedd "Gunny" Weiser, stands in Dempsey Plaza home to the sculpture, "For Those Who Serve," that honors the men and women of the armed forces.


Interim director of Veteran Student Services, Tedd “Gunny” Weiser, stands in Dempsey Plaza home to the sculpture, “For Those Who Serve,” that honors the men and women of the armed forces.

Since January, Weiser says they’ve given more than 30 gifts ranging from $200 to $500 to help with a financial crisis. The student veteran fills out an application, answers some questions about their financial problems.

The circumstances are reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Weiser said he tries to give the student veteran a response within 12 hours.

“We’ve given money for, just last week, cancer medications, day care, car repair, unemployment, food, utility bills,” Weiser said.

That isn’t the only gift St. Leo University Veteran Services is distributing.

Their online transition course was initially just for their students. But earlier this month, the course was opened up to all transitioning military and veterans for free whether they’re headed to Saint Leo University, another college or into the job market. You can learn more about the online Veterans Transition Course here.

 

Minnesota Guard Starts Civilian Hiring While Still Deployed

minnesota_natl_guardLast spring, a group of corporate recruiters in business-casual attire traveled to Kuwait to help hundreds of Minnesota National Guard members find civilian jobs weeks before the soldiers headed home.

A specialized team from government, education and business were flown in to prepare the troops. An NPR report says that every soldier got one-on-one help with mock interviews, resumes and career planning.

The program appears to have proven successful. NPR reports:

Of the more than 500 service members who needed jobs, officials say only about 35 are still looking for work.

Minnesota National Guard Capt. Ron Jarvi explained to NPR that the program helped troops focus on getting a job before they got overwhelmed with coming home.

“The reality is that you’re trying to reintegrate with your spouse or with your kids or getting paperwork filed with the state and reinstating your license and doing all of the different things that you have to do to reintegrate,” says Jarvi.

Guard and Reserve members split their time between civilian and military jobs. So, finding work after a long deployment is particularly difficult for them because employers are concerned about the Guard member being deployed again and may hesitate to hire them.

You can hear more about the Minnesota National Guard hiring program HERE.

Pilot Program to Turn Military Skills into Civilian Credentials

Aircraft Systems Inspector Steve Zerbato fires up the twin engines of an F/A-18F Super Hornet, as Aircraft Mechanic Kirk Hale sits behind during a pre-induction maintenance inspection Dec. 9. On the ground Aircraft Electrician Rob Peterson, Sr. (left) and Aircraft Systems Inspector Phillip Yates provide ground and safety support outside the Fleet Readiness Center Southeast maintenance hangar at Cecil Commerce Center. (U.S. Navy photo by Vic Pitts/Released)

There will soon be help for some service members transitioning from military to civilian jobs. The Department of Defense has pilot program for five occupations that cover 17 military specialties:

  • aircraft mechanic
  • automotive mechanic
  • health care
  • supply and logistics
  • truck driver.

The program began in October, Frank C. DiGiovanni told the American Forces Press Service, and will determine if additional, external training is necessary to meet civilian credentialing.

 “Some of these licenses and credentials require a certain level of experience to qualify,” he said. So, the program will eventually assess service members at various stages in their military careers, he said.

The pilot program is one of several credentialing and licensing initiatives at the federal level.

In Florida, streamlining credentialing and professional licensing is the goal of the director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, Mike Prendergast. He plans to ask Florida lawmakers to start the process in the coming 2013 legislative session.

What I wish I had known about military retirement

Retiring from the military is a huge change – not just for the service member but also for the family. So many things are changing at once that the stress in the months preceding the retirement ceremony can be quite overwhelming. My husband SMSgt Rex Temple is getting ready to hang up his uniform after 28 years in the Air Force – watching him go through the process compels me to write a few words of encouragement and advice for other spouses who are getting ready to help their loved one go through this major transition.

Starting early …..  WAY EARLY

When your military member is encouraged to start the separation process early – they mean it. If you start the process 12 months before, it’s not soon enough. You need to make sure you’ve crossed all your T’s and dotted all your I’s by the time you serve the

This was a Naval Retirement Cake which was a very large 18x24 sheet-cake, about 60 servings. Made of Vanilla/Chocolate marble cake with butter-cream frosting. Photo by Jennifer Shockley of Shockley's Sweet Shoppe.

retirement cake. There are so many steps you have to take, so many classes you have to schedule to take, so many medical appointments you have to have, so many forms you have to fill out – you will need all that time to properly prepare. Can you do it in less time? Absolutely, but starting early will help minimize the stress and it will allow the service member to have time to react to unexpected problems that will come along when you least expect them. (Sometimes the computer program for military retirement will schedule appointments for you on a Sunday when the office for that particular part of the retirement process is not even open. And you will get “nasty-grams” via email from that same computer program for having missed your appointment …. It takes time to fix such bureaucratic stupidities.)

Medical records

Depending on where you serve and what military branch you serve with, getting your medical records copied for the transition to the VA system can take weeks or sometimes even months.  Remember that you want to make sure all those medical records have been updated to include all service related medical issues so that those will be covered under the VA system once your spouse makes the transition. This is where deployment related “aches and pains” that could be nothing or could be something significant are worth some extra “bitching.” Document everything – you never know whether things like being exposed to burn pits in Iraq or being in the vicinity of an IED blast will come back to haunt your loved one. So ask a lot of questions and help your service member go through his or her medical file to make sure everything has been properly included in the official record.

The dreaded resume

Start writing the resume for the post-military job search early. It takes days and days to translate military job descriptions into something that civilian employers understand and can appreciate. You have to be able to take out all the military jargon and also “translate” what you did in the military into functional skills that a civilian employer will understand and value.

The military offers lots of classes on resume preparation and on job searching techniques. These are open to spouses and we decided to go through them together so that I could help my husband with his job search. It helps when you have two sets of eyes and ears paying attention to the presentations and taking notes. Plus the courses also offer lots of advice for the spouses about job searching and how to fix your resume so that all those gaps you have in your resume because of frequent military moves are less obvious and don’t hurt your chances of being hired.

These classes offer you access to special books for free that will also help you and your service member write federal resumes (totally different from civilian). It took us at least two full weeks (working on weekends and at night) to make Rex’s federal resume.  There were tons of steps along the way and a steep learning curve – but thanks to the Family Readiness Center on base we got through it and now Rex has a great “base” resume to use as part of every application he submits online.

You really need to be realistic and keep these sobering numbers in mind. In January, the national unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans hit its highest level since the government began collecting the data in 2008 —15.2 percent, compared with 9 percent for the entire workforce. The veterans’ rate dropped to 12.5 percent in February as the overall rate also dropped, to 8.9 percent. So make sure your spouse takes advantage of all the free programs offered during the separation process – they are well worth the time.

Retirement ceremony

We started to prepare for Rex’s retirement ceremony about 8 weeks before the actual date. We did not really have a choice to start earlier but if you can start earlier, I highly recommend it. Just booking the venue, sending the invites and getting different people to commit to being part of the ceremony can take weeks. And since you are probably asking people to travel to the ceremony (family and close friends) they need time to book flights etc.

And sometimes military service will interfere and whoever you asked to officiate will get called away. So make sure you have your number 1, 2 and 3 choices for all the different roles that are in your ceremony. For our’s, we needed a narrator, someone to sing the National Anthem, someone to say the prayer, someone to actually officially retire Rex, and someone to be the guest speaker.  How many close friends do you have who can sing beautifully and are available in the middle of the workday to be part of your ceremony? (You can get more advice about retirement ceremony specifics here.)

 

 

Getting the shadow box done takes a long time. You need to find all the medals, ribbons and other memorabilia and have the shadow box made in time for the ceremony. Remember that it takes anywhere from 5 to 10 weeks to have a special flag flown above the U.S. Capitol.

Producing your photo montage

Most retirement ceremonies we’ve been to always include a photo montage of the service member’s career; this photo montage is often set to the favorite songs of the military member. And it appears that it’s quite often the spouse who gets asked to put this together in the last few days before the ceremony – and that can be a herculean task when you’re also juggling the food order, the RSVPs to the ceremony, picking up visitors from the airport and figuring out how all your civilian friends will access the base without military IDs.

The first step in producing the photo montage is simply to locate all the photos you want to use. The last few years will be easy since all the photos will be digital. However, you need to set aside time to go through old photo albums and carefully scan the images from the early years. We have about 20 years worth of photos that are not digital that we need to go through and scan so that we can edit them.

Then you need to figure out what music you want to use and what order the photos will be shown. But before you do that, check with the venue you booked for the ceremony. You need to know what format the finished montage needs to be in so that you can successfully play it at the ceremony. You don’t want to spend hours and hours editing this project on some software program that ultimately isn’t compatible with whatever playback method you have at the ceremony. Most places will be able to play a regular DVD (remember, no jump drives in military computers).

I would highly recommend you don’t plan to play it off the Internet because if you suddenly have no Internet access the day of the ceremony, then you obviously can’t play your photo montage. So having the montage on a DVD and having a back-up DVD in your purse is a good idea (what if the original gets scratched and at the last-minute you need the back-up?).

You can use common video editing software programs such as I-Movie or Windows Movie Maker to create the photo montage. Or you can hire a professional to put it together for you. If you hire a professional, make sure you hire someone reputable. Ask to see work samples and ask for references. Make sure the professional will agree to review the finished product with you and that you are allowed to have at least one round of changes before the project is considered final. This way you can make sure the photos are in the right chronological order and that you are happy with the final length of the photo presentation.  Who really wants to have a 30-minute photo montage set to “Eye of the Tiger” playing seven times back to back?

You can’t possibly cover all the advice for military retirement in one blog entry. Look for a Part 2 in the coming weeks.

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