Solar panels are the sole power for the sustainable garden project that was expanded to include veterans. It’s a place where veterans can learn gardening techniques as well as solar power, raising chickens, bees and tilapia.
A ceremonial seed planting will be part of the official opening of the Veterans’ Garden, 918 W. Sligh Avenue, Tampa across from Lowry Park Zoo.
The event is set for Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, 10:30 a.m. and will include recognition of USAA which provided a grant to expand the sustainable garden for veterans.
It’s a place where veterans can volunteer, learn agriculture techniques and the produce will be donated to veterans at risk of homelessness.
“Veterans found that since they started community agriculture initiatives that they were more comfortable talking with civilians and more comfortable talking to strangers and people that didn’t have a military background,” said VA researcher Karen Besterman-Dahan, “Those were really important things.”
She said researchers are just beginning to study the therapeutic value of agriculture and gardening to help veterans manage depression, anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
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
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.
“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
“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.
For veterans living in the Tampa Bay region, WUSF Public Radio invites you to participate in a panel discussion and preview of the new Ric Burns film “Debt of Honor: Disabled Veterans in American History.”
The WUSF Florida Matters Town Hall taping is Thursday, Nov. 5 at the University of South Florida Tampa campus, in the College of Public Health’s Samuel Bell Auditorium (13201 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., Tampa, FL 33612).
Please join us at 5:30 p.m. for an opening reception, and the taping that starts at 6 p.m. Seating is limited and registration is required. Please RSVP at this link, or call 813-905-6901.
A preview of the film will be followed by a panel discussion with:
Filmmaker Ric Burns
Actor and national veterans’ spokesman JR Martinez
Taylor Urruela, a disabled veteran who lives in Tampa
It will be moderated by Carson Cooper, the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder with a graduate from Veterans Treatment Court in August.
It was only a few years ago that the Florida legislature gave counties permission to create Veterans Treatment Courts as an alternative to criminal prosecution of former military members charged with misdemeanors and third degree felonies.
And in that time 23 courts have been created, but only nine including Pinellas and Pasco counties are funded by lawmakers.
Others like the Veterans Treatment Court in Hillsborough County get no state money.
“We did this within the resources of our offices. Our bosses committed the resources for this court to work,” said Marie Marino with the Hillsborough Public Defender’s Office who represents many of the veterans.
In addition to carrying a full felony docket, Hillsborough Circuit Jude Greg Holder hears all the cases that come before the Veterans Treatment Court (VTC).
“In defense of the legislature though, until we expanded, perhaps it was thought that we didn’t have the need,” Holder said. “Now that it’s expanded, we have over 50 veterans. That need exists and we can use that money and use it wisely.”
Holder took over the veterans’ court in February from Judge Richard Weis when third degree felony cases were added.
Retired Army Col. D.J. Reyes was the first to volunteer as a mentor for the Hillsborough VTC. He now coordinates 33 other mentors – some retired, some still active-duty – along with handling his own caseload.
“It’s been grass roots campaigning on my part because I have no money, I have no funding, I have nothing except me, my time and my energy,” Reyes said.
The mentors are key to the success of the specialty court. All volunteer, they are considered a veteran’s “battle buddy” someone who provides help and accountability. The veterans must check with their mentor at minimum once a week – more often if needed.
Veterans also are assessed by the VA for service related physical and psychological problems. Many need treatment for things like domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse. The VTC gets them enrolled in programs some at the VA others through public, non-profit or even private providers.
Choosing to go through the Veterans Treatment Court is not the easier route. Veterans will spend anywhere from six to 18 months under its supervision. And just like in regular criminal court, the veterans still have to do community service hours and report to the Department of Corrections if on probation.
“The difference in veterans court is the defendants are here voluntarily,” said Hillsborough assistant state attorney Stephanie Ferlita. “They want to seek treatment. They realize they do have a problem. Most of them are embarrassed to have come in contact with the criminal justice system and we are providing them a way to hopefully have a onetime contact with the justice system.”
Another difference in the veterans court – the judge, prosecution, defense, mentors and caseworkers act as a team.
“Even the defense attorney is the first to say, ‘You’ve got to clean up’ or ‘that’s a violation.’ Where in a traditional courtroom, it’s all about defense and mitigation,” Marino said.
The number of veterans seeking admittance into the VTC is growing. And despite having no direct state funding, the court continues to accept qualified veterans.
State Rep. Dwight Dudley from St. Petersburg recently represented one of the veterans in Hillsborough’s VTC. He believes veterans courts should be funded throughout the state.
“If people say they’re patriots and they believe in the value of the service of veterans, they need to step up and put their money where their mouth is and fund the courts the way they need to be funded,” Dudley said.
But the earliest Hillsborough could see any funding would be after January when the legislature meets.
The Veterans Treatment Courts receiving state money this fiscal year:
· Okaloosa ($150,000)
· Clay ($150,000)
· Pasco ($150,000)
· Pinellas ($150,000)
· Alachua ($150,000)
· Duval ($200,000)
· Orange ($200,000)
· Escambia ($150,000)
· Leon ($125,000)
According to the senate president’s office, at this time, there is no specific criteria that determine how and which veterans’ courts get state money.
The new medical center director at Tampa’s James A. Haley VA, Joe Battle, is an engineer who has served with the VA for more than 32 years. He stands before the seal of the Veterans Administration and photographs of President Obama and VA Secretary Bob McDonald.
A new medical director is at the helm of Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Medical Center. Joe D. Battle has only been on the job seven weeks but already has a long “to do” list.
“We’re trying to get a new bed tower here and authorized for construction,” said Battle, an engineer who started working for the VA more than 32 years.
The plan is to provide individual rooms for veterans now housed in hospital wards that are almost 50 years old.
“My personal belief is every veteran deserves a private room to be in when they come to the hospital, and unfortunately at Haley we don’t have that in all cases,” Battle said.
He has other priorities such as consolidating VA services back onto the main campus at 13000 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., Tampa.
“Right now we have a lot of facilities within a 5 mile radius of this campus,” Battle said. “I was joking the other day, it felt like every corner I drove by had a VA clinic of some kind on it.”
In the director’s seat less than two months, Joe Battle invited the Tampa Bay news media in for a round-table.
The Haley service area of Hillsborough, Hernando, Pasco and Polk counties includes more than 90,000 veterans currently being treated by the VA.
Battle, who said he loves technology and innovation, also is working the phone system so callers get a response in less than 30 seconds. Right now, he said, it takes on average about a minute. Providing public Wi-Fi to patients and visitors is another priority.
When it comes to concerns over wait times for medical appointments, Battle said right now 96 percent of veterans get an appointment within 30 days or less. But he’s aiming to make that 99 percent.
Battle hosted a news media roundtable Monday as part of his outreach to get acquainted with the community. He’s already met with several members of congress, visited MacDill Air Force Base, held a mental health summit with local leaders and a town hall with veterans and met with officials from Tampa and Hillsborough County.
Picture him much younger – in his teens – dressed in a WWII Army uniform on the battle lines in North Africa and Italy.
A relatively new veterans group, Team Red, White & Blue, has issued a social media challenge to its members to help this World War II Army veteran who wants to re-connect with his old war buddies.
He’s looking for anyone who fought in North Africa and Italy with the 34th Infantry Division, 125th Regiment, 3rd Battalion, I-Company.
The quest of Private First Class John Knowles, now living in Georgia, was posted on Facebook August 11, 2015. Since Team RWB took it on, the Facebook entry has had 8 shares and 40,000 views.
But that number can be doubled if you’re willing to share this link and the story of the 91-year-old who hasn’t seen anyone from his unit since he was injured in the war and returned home.
“To meet some of the people from my squad or my company or my platoon, I would love that. I would love to communicate with them. We’re all getting old so I don’t know whether any of them is even living or not,” he told a reporter with WSBTV.com in Atlanta.
Veterans and active-duty military are encouraged to bring family members on the outings. This photo is from the December 2014 fishing trip hosted by the Central Florida Chapter on Lake Jackson in Osceola County.
Just a week ago, the Central Florida Chapter hosted veterans and their families on Lake Jackson in Osceola County. While chapters like New Jersey’s pack in a large number of fishing trips during the summer months.
The idea behind Heroes on the Water is simple in theory and application. It only requires a kayak, fishing gear and a volunteer fishing coach to get a wounded veteran or stressed-out service member on the water.
“Putting them as close to nature as possible, there’s a tranquil effect,” said Tom Welgos, the Eastern United States operations coordinator for Heroes on the Water.
“I like to use Henry David Thoreau’s comment on fishing that: ‘Men spend their whole life fishing only to find out it wasn’t about the fish.’ And by putting them into a peaceful, outdoor environment, we start to see that stress level drop by allowing them to go out and fish they kind of take their minds off day to day problems.”
Welgos is a veteran who struggled with post-traumatic stress symptoms. He was actually a fishing guide that offered free trips to wounded service members, but had few takers. He says that’s because fishing tours on a motorboat do provide the peace offered by kayak fishing.
Two kayakers paddling on Lake Jackson during the December 2014 outing hosted by the Central Florida Chapter of Heroes on the Water.
The quiet solitude of his first kayak fishing trip was such a revelation for Welgos that he started volunteering for Heroes on the Water.
“The realization was that when we put these guys in kayaks and they have to use their body to power this kayak and are selecting the fishing areas with the help of a coach and they’re determining when they come back in, that we’re actually knocking down the overall stress, avoidance behavior and hyper vigilance,” Welgos said.
Their free outings get injured veterans out of their hospital settings and offer quiet retreats to returning active duty service members. Their events are open to veterans of all eras and as well as their families.
The kayaks, equipment and fishing coach are provided for free by Heroes on the Water. And most outings include a free picnic lunch.
He said the organization is all volunteer and many of them have never served in the military. Welgos said that’s the beauty of the program, it gives civilians a chance to give back to those who have served.
“They (civilians) are passionate about this cause because it’s not a fishing club or a kayaking club it is a cause,” Welgos said.
This January, Heroes on the Water will train 35 more volunteer, leadership teams that have already been selected and vetted. Welgos said by late spring, the organization will double in size to 70 chapters across the United States as well as affiliate chapters in the United Kingdom and in Australia.