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We Salute You RIGHTING THE SHIP Q&A with Robert Wilkie

GOING THE EXTRA MILE Colleges bridge transitions

CIVILIAN CAREERS Companies eager to employ vets


Honor Your Service

SWEET SUCCESS Franchises prove right fit
















VETERAN CHAMPIONS Awe-inspiring athletes compete while overcoming injuries




11 16 18

SIT-DOWN WITH WILKIE Veterans Affairs secretary looks to calm agency’s turbulent course


5 receive nation’s highest military honor

HALLOWED GROUND Places that honor military on Veterans Day

VETERANS DAY DEALS Active, former military can save throughout the year











GOING PAPERLESS VA makes strides in automating disability claims process

Decades later, veterans return to theater in search of remembrance, resolution

Organizations help rekindle passion for hunting, fishing


American Hero Adventures is one group of many that provides camaraderie and healing while helping veterans enjoy the great outdoors.

Music therapy gives veterans resources, outlet to find solace





98 68

SISTERS IN ARMS Female veterans honored with memorials around the U.S.





Veteran-turned-journalist chronicles female combat fighters’ compelling stories

WoVeN provides community, sense of purpose for female veterans



52 60 68 78 88


TOOLS OF THE TRADE Bunker Labs helps veterans become entrepreneurs










Final Salute works to get female veterans, families back on their feet



TECH TITANS Veterans enlist in ‘boot camp’ again — this time, to learn software coding


Companies give veterans satisfying franchise opportunities

Mobile carriers lead pack of companies working to attract, retain veteran talent

FROM SERVICE TO STUDENT Universities go extra mile to address special challenges faced by veterans

120 124 126



Disc golf helps Army veteran adjust to civilian life

A PLACE OF THEIR OWN Veterans, Gold Star families connect, heal at recreation camp built just for them

VA therapists use combat simulator to help veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder

GOOD DOGS Groups work to unite military working dogs with men and women they served with





SPLIT DECISION Repercussions of Tet not as straightforward as prevailing narrative

TET TIMELINE Tet Offensive gave U.S. a military victory but also political defeat


TURNING POINT Huê 1968 reconstructs battle that changed opinion on Vietnam





Program gives veterans, military staff chance to connect with horses, find healing

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort gives veterans opportunity to meet new comrades

BROTHER’S KEEPERS Siblings who served reunite as roommates in Florida veterans home


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John Olson took some of Vietnam’s defining photos; now his mission is to tell the stories behind them

Across the country, hundreds of sites continue to pay tribute to Vietnam veterans

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Options for treating lingering phantom limb pain are diverse




Million Veteran Program’s vast DNA database will have benefits for all

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VA’s Stable Force Robert Wilkie looks to calm agency’s turbulent course By Patricia Kime


Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie DOUG KAPUSTIN


named acting secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs in March, following the abrupt departure of Dr. David Shulkin, the nomination (and subsequent withdrawal) of Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson and charges that a previous acting secretary made false statements to Congress. Amid the chaos, Wilkie resolutely attended to business at the 366,000-member department, signing a $10 billion contract for a new electronic health records system, finessing details of a massive reform bill called the Mission Act and identifying issues he thought the next secretary should tackle. In May, President Donald Trump surprised Wilkie by nominating him for the position. The lifelong public servant, who also served as undersecretary for personnel and readiness at the Pentagon, jumped at the chance to bring his unflappable leadership style and exhaustive understanding of Washington’s modus operandi to help the nation’s 20 million veterans. He spoke to USA TODAY about his leadership challenges, strategies and goals for the department:




NEWS Before you arrived at the VA, you probably had some thoughts on what was going on. What were your preconceived notions and did they ring true? WILKIE: Looking at the institution from the outside, not only was it an institution in disarray, it was an institution in which the people we are sworn to serve were permanently unhappy. It didn’t take me very long to be disabused of that latter notion. I have visited … 10 to 12 VA hospitals as secretary and (eight as acting secretary). My conclusion is that once veterans get into the system, the vast majority are very happy with the service and treatment that they get. I’ve found the biggest problem is actually getting them into the system, which means the problems are primarily administrative and bureaucratic, and that is what we have to change. Unlike DOD (the Department of Defense), where the culture is based on very clear lines of authority — what we call a ‘solid line’ organization — there are too many dotted lines at VA. We have to create lines of authority, and part of that is getting a great leadership team in place. The other aspect of this job is telling Congress and the country that we serve a unique culture and we need people who have experienced what our veterans have experienced either on the battlefield or in the system (to work here).


There are some thoughts that the VA is a bloated bureaucracy. Is that your observation? This is probably going to make you laugh, but we actually don’t know how much manpower we have. In the military, we’re used to having something called a manning document, (which tells) you what each job requirement is and the individual assigned to that job. At VA, we don’t have that and we are going to get one. This will allow us the freedom to allocate resources where they’re needed. We have to be able to allow our medical center directors and our network directors to tailor their forces to meet the needs of their constituents, and the only way we could do that is to know who we have. That sounds like a priority. What are your other top goals? We have a 90-day plan. The first job though, is to calm the waters. There’s been too much turmoil in the last few months. Coming from the uniform world, the way you address the leadership


Photographs of leaders Wilkie admires adorn his office. One of his prized possessions is a book about his great-aunt, Lucy Somerville Howorth, a lawyer and stateswoman who became the first female to serve as an administrative judge on the War Claims Commission.

challenges is to walk post, which is why I have visited so many clinics and benefits offices and held numerous town halls. You have to know the people here and you have to reassure them. They have the most noble mission in the federal government, and I want to make sure that’s clear.

You sound like your leadership style is very hands-on. Who do you look to? Eisenhower, Creigh Abrams, Omar Bradley. All three of those leaders had the same really great American style. They were great listeners first. They never knew a stranger. No private was too low on the chain for those generals to seek

out. I’m not gilding the lily. That’s what they did. Eisenhower also had a great line: “The plan is nothing; planning is everything,” and that goes back to what I said about an organization and dotted lines. We CONTI NUED





NEWS have to make them solid. The other aspect of Eisenhower’s leadership is once he had a plan in place, he let his people go. He did not interfere. I think what has happened here … is headquarters tended to issue blanket directives across the department to address the latest headline or anecdote. What that does is freeze people in place so they are afraid to act. You’re not going to get any interference from me. Go out and do your job. (As for) Abrams, the Army was broken (when he became chief of staff). He walked in, reorganized it. The Army we have today is his creation. What he said was that we could never fight again without the entire nation being involved, so he’s the one who said the Reserve and Guard must be with (the Army) so that the entire country has a stake. For VA, I want all the people here to have a stake in caring for veterans. Your style is very different from the president’s. Has he given you any orders on how to proceed? I was stumped by the amount of time the president spent with me. Everything from meetings in the office, phone calls, a dinner; he constantly asked me questions about veterans and military culture and organizational plans. Since becoming secretary, I’ve spent several hours with him. I’m ecstatic at the amount of time that he’s spent. Having worked in a previous White House, the notion that the president would spend that much time with anybody is unusual. What’s your vision for the future of VA health care and the balance between VA and private care? At the DOD, I had the responsibility for the Defense Health Agency, to make DHA a modern health care organization. And the same is true here. It is a question of finding balance. If you start with the foundational premise that veterans’ health is the most important thing, and that you have to come up with the proper mix of VA and private support in order to make that veteran healthy, then you begin to arrive at that balance. The one great change that is coming is the electronic health record, which will take a soldier from the time he or she walks into the military entrance processing center through to the VA but also will be interoperable, so if you go to a local pharmacy, a local doctor or community hospital, that information goes into the VA record. The second part is we cannot continue to force our veterans, particularly in the



He has been a sailor and an airman. Wilkie served as an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve before transitioning to the Air Force Reserve, where he holds the rank of lieutenant colonel.


He’s an Army junior. His grandfather, Army Col. Abram Somerville, served in World War I and was a young lieutenant at the Battle of Meuse Argonne. His father, Army Lt. Col. Robert Wilkie Sr., received the Distinguished Flying Cross and earned three Purple Hearts in Vietnam.

3 Wilkie, right, and Marion Polk, National Commander of AMVETS CAROLYN KASTER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

American West, to make 500-, 600-mile round-trip journeys to go to a VA center when they can avail themselves of health care closer to home. The beauty of (the Veterans Choice Program) is that it gives us choices. We’re going to come up with an approach of waiting time goals, so that if we don’t meet them, it triggers the veteran’s choice to seek care in the private sector. How important is the backlog of veterans’ claims appeals? It’s a massive deal because it goes back to the notion of wait times and keeping people on tenterhooks while you make a decision. We are creating a system called the (Rapid Appeals Modernization Program) for matters that a veteran wants to adjudicate. The other problem is that when it comes to benefits, we are still in some respects suffering the vestiges of a 20thcentury process. Over half of our claims last year were on paper. We’re now up to

82 percent electronic, and that’s going to change the outcomes. Again, it’s a question of modernizing the institution. How is morale? I do believe the institution has calmed down. Certainly at headquarters, there is a much more relaxed atmosphere, which goes to several things, including having a leadership team in place that is involved in the department. When I talk about the state of the VA, my first paragraph is that the state of VA is better. I didn’t say good or great, but it is better. Anything you want to add? When I talk about the mission, I paraphrase Eisenhower: We are here … to remind Americans why they sleep soundly at night, because of the sacrifices of their fellow citizens. If (VA) keeps this in mind, then the institution is on the right track. There’s a reason we’re here, (to serve) the people that allow our citizens to sleep soundly at night.

He has spent more than two decades in Washington. He worked in the administration of President George W. Bush, serving as assistant secretary of defense from 2005 to 2009 and worked as an adviser to Sens. Trent Lott, Thom Tillis and Jesse Helms.


He’s a student of history. Photographs of Gens. Dwight Eisenhower, Creighton Abrams and Omar Bradley adorn his office. But a prized possession is a book about his great-aunt, Lucy Somerville Howorth, a lawyer and stateswoman who became the first female to serve as an administrative judge on the War Claims Commission.


He’s a Demon Deacon, a Wolf and a Hoya. Wilkie earned his undergraduate degree at Wake Forest University, his law degree at Loyola University in New Orleans and a Master of Laws from Georgetown University.







Hallowed Ground 9 places to honor military on Veterans Day By Larry Bleiberg


ETERANS DAY SHOULD BE more than an excuse for a day off work, said retired Marine Maj. Gen. Bob Dickerson. “Americans have the freedoms they have because other people were willing to go forth and fight for them.” He recommended marking the holiday with a visit to a military park or memorial, and shares these suggestions:

NORMANDY AMERICAN CEMETERY AND MEMORIAL Colleville-sur-Mer, France As a military commander, Dickerson was humbled by the Normandy coast where more than 100,000 American and Allied troops landed on D-Day in 1944. “You try to think how you could motivate anyone to walk into a wall of steel and lead put up by the Germans and take the high ground,” he said. “You stand in awe of what they did.” Today the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial offers silent tribute to the sacrifice. uabmc.gov/cemeteries-memorials





LEJEUNE MEMORIAL GARDENS Jacksonville, N.C. A collection of monuments greets visitors outside the Marine Corps’ Base Camp Lejeune. The newest addition, the Montford Point Marine Memorial, honors African-American Marines who trained at a segregated camp during World War II. Other areas include the nation’s second-largest Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a 9/11 Memorial beam from the World Trade Center and a site devoted to the 1983 Beirut bombing that killed more than 273 Marines. “It reflects the devastating loss we suffered,” Dickerson said. ujacksonvillenc.gov




Mobile, Ala. Stretching longer than two football fields, this World War II battleship today welcomes visitors to explore its deck, guns, machinery and bunks. As the previous home to 2,500 sailors, it won numerous battle commendations, and led the American fleet into Tokyo Bay as the war ended. “Thousands of sailors lived and fought there,” Dickerson said. The park also has the World War II USS Drum submarine, the oldest American submarine on public display and a National Historic Landmark. uussalabama.com






Gettysburg, Pa. The military cemetery, established after the 1863 Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, is most famous for its dedication day. It’s here that Abraham Lincoln offered his Gettysburg Address, recognizing the fallen as martyrs, and not mere casualties of war. “We should never forget history for the fear that we’ll repeat the same mistakes,” Dickerson said. Although officials have done their best to identify the dead, hundreds of graves remain marked as unknown. unps.gov/gett

San Antonio Although the soldiers were fighting for the Republic of Texas, not the United States, Dickerson is moved by this former mission where fighters were trapped in 1836. “It was overwhelming odds, and they were cut off and hoping for rescue,” he said. “The Alamo ended up being a rallying cry.” Today, Texans consider the site a shrine to liberty, and hallowed ground. uthealamo.org

Honolulu Dickerson was moved the first time he visited the site where more than 1,100 crew members were killed during the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and more than 900 remain entombed on the sunken battleship — the greatest death toll ever on a U.S. warship. The memorial is located within the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. “If you want to cry, go to Arizona,” Dickerson said. “It’s an entombment site.” unps.gov/valr



NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE MARINE CORPS Triangle, Va. Much more than a memorial, this interactive museum tells the complete story of the Marines. Visitors can even try on a backpack and experience what it’s like to have a drill sergeant yelling in their ears. “Families and new Marines go there to reflect on history. There’s a section for every place Marines fought on the globe,” Dickerson said. uusmcmuseum.com




Concord, Mass. The nation’s military history traces back to Boston, where the opening battle of the Revolutionary War was fought. “Lexington was the first shot,” Dickerson said. “This is where we broke away from England.” Guided tours and musket demonstrations help bring the events to life. unps.gov/mima

San Diego While military installations line the California Coast, Dickerson suggests a visit to San Diego and this scenic cemetery overlooking the ocean. “You have a significant Navy presence. It’s a stepping-off point for the Pacific,” he said. Memorials at the burial grounds honor several battles, including the World War II Battle of Leyte Gulf, Philippines, one of the largest naval engagements in history. uwww.cem.va.gov






Advance Auto Parts: A 10 percent discount on regularly priced items for in-store purchases is available for active-duty, reserve and retired members, all veterans receiving VA benefits, spouses and dependent children up to age 18 with proof of military status. AT&T: Qualified active-duty military, reserves, National Guard, veterans and spouses of activeduty and deceased service personnel can get 25 percent off monthly service charges on eligible plans. Bass Pro Shops: A 5 percent military discount is offered every day at Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s through the Legendary Salute program.


Thank You For Serving Active, former military can save throughout the year




Great Clips: Active, inactive and retired military members of any branch are eligible for a free haircut on Veterans Day or can pick up a free haircut card to redeem by Dec. 31. Home Depot: A year-round 10 percent discount is available for active-duty personnel, reservists, retired or disabled veterans and immediate dependents. Valid military ID required. Lowe’s: Active military personnel and veterans save 10 percent off eligible purchases year-round. Enroll at lowes.com/military. Michaels: Military families get a year-round 15 percent discount.

Blue Star Museums: Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, active military and their families get free admission to more than 2,000 museums.

NFLShop.com: A 15 percent discount is offered to those who served in the military, first responders and their immediate family members.

Busch Gardens: Active-duty military and reservists can take advantage of the Waves of Honor program through Dec. 31. Busch Gardens parks, which include SeaWorld parks, offer discounted admission at wavesofhonor.com. Be sure to sign up online, as tickets are not available on-site.

Nike: Active, veteran, retired and reservists, spouses and dependents of active personnel get a 10 percent military discount at Nike.com and Nike, Converse and Hurley stores. To get the discount, visit nike.com/help/a/militarydiscount.

Denny’s: Some franchised locations offer 10 percent off with a valid military ID year-round. Foot Locker: Save 20 percent on most online purchases after verifying military service on footlocker.com.

By Kelly Tyko UST AS THEY DO on Independence Day and Memorial Day, businesses across the nation are showing retired service members and active-duty military personnel a little love for Veterans Day. To thank them for their service, select stores and restaurants will offer special discounts to individuals with military identification. Some savings extend to spouses and families, and many military discounts are offered year-round or on a regular basis. At some businesses, discharge papers, Veterans Administration cards and veterans organization membership cards also can be used to verify service status. Here’s a small sampling of businesses that show their support by making a difference at the register:


Pep Boys: A 10 percent year-round discount is available for active and retired military with valid military or veteran ID. Rack Room Shoes: A 10 percent discount is offered every Tuesday with a valid military ID.

Ford: Active-duty personnel and veterans can get a Military Appreciation Cash discount of up to $500 on eligible cars. Sign up at fordsalutesthosewhoserve.com.

Sam’s Club: Active and former military service members can join or renew as a Sam’s Club Member for $45 or Sam’s Plus Member for $100 and receive a $30 Military Member Package.

General Motors: The GM Military Discount is offered year-round. Learn more about the program at gmmilitarydiscount.com.

Sherwin-Williams: The company offers a year-round 15 percent discount for active military, veterans, reservists and their spouses.






Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. John Canley CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES

‘Unmatched Bravery’ 50 Years after Tet Offensive, Marine receives Medal of Honor


N OCT. 17, RETIRED Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. John Canley, 80, became the seventh U.S. service member to be awarded the Medal of Honor by President Donald Trump. As a gunnery sergeant in the Vietnam War 51 years ago, Canley led his company through more than three days of fierce fighting during the Battle of Huê. Under heavy enemy fire, and with many members of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines — including the company commander — wounded Canley encouraged 147 Marines to fight against an enemy numbering roughly 10,000. “Despite fierce enemy resistance, (Canley) succeeded in gaining a position immediately above the enemy strong-

point and dropped a large satchel charge into position, personally accounting for numerous enemy killed,” according to the citation for the Navy Cross he initially received. Over the course of days, Canley braved enemy fire numerous times to save wounded troops and fought despite being hit by shrapnel himself, the citation noted. “He was moving from area to area, setting up fields of fire for the guys,” said Mike “Doc” Kerr, a Navy corpsman who was attached to the unit. “Whenever he came across someone who was wounded, he’d tuck him under his arm and bring him to us.” Canley enlisted in 1953 at age 15 using his eldest brother’s birth certificate. He

was shipped to Japan and Korea and eventually deployed to Vietnam several times. After a roadside battle, Canley brought his battered company into Huê, staying in command for several days until officers arrived. He led attacks and repeatedly went out in enemy fire to retrieve injured Marines. For his actions, Canley was awarded the Navy Cross. “With deadly accuracy, he did everything he had to do … in one harrowing engagement after another, John risked his own life to save the lives of others under his command,” Trump said during the ceremony, praising Canley’s “unmatched bravery.” Canley, the 300th Marine to receive the medal, retired from the Corps in 1981 after 28 years of service. The Medal of

Honor is important, he said, because it’s recognition for the men he led. “I know there are other Marines in Alpha 1/1 that should have gotten individual heroic awards, and most of them didn’t even get an end of the tour award that says, ‘You did a good job,’” said Canley, who is leading a drive for awards for Kerr and others. He spoke, too, about the emotion he feels for the Marines, not just in Alpha 1/1 but for all the men he led in war. He called it love. “You would have to be in the Marine Corps and be in combat to truly understand,” he said. Four additional service members have been awarded the Medal of Honor since last November. Here is a look at their heroic deeds:




STAFF SGT. RONALD SHURER II, U.S. ARMY While serving as a Special Forces combat medic a decade ago, Staff Sgt. Ronald Shurer II braved gunfire in the Shok Valley of Afghanistan to save wounded comrades pinned down by Taliban fighters. On April 6, 2008, Shurer and a team of 11 commandos were ambushed by an enemy force of more than 200 militants with sniper rifles, machine guns and rocketpropelled grenades. A senior medical sergeant, Shurer sprinted through enemy fire to treat one downed soldier, then dodged more bullets to catch up with members of his unit closest to the fighting. He fought for more than an hour to reach the group, killing several insurgents along the way, according to his commendation for the Silver Star, which he also received for his actions. Once there, he treated four more critically wounded soldiers and moved through gunfire to treat others. Shurer managed to evacuate the wounded soldiers down a near-vertical 60-foot cliff under fire while shielding them from falling debris. He then loaded the wounded soldiers onto a helicopter, took command of his squad and headed back to the fight. He single-handedly saved all the members of the team. “For more than six hours, Ron bravely faced down the enemy,” Trump said when conferring the honor. “Not a single American died in that brutal battle, thanks in great measure to Ron’s heroic actions.” After Shurer left the Army in 2009, he joined the U.S. Secret Service, where he serves in its Special Operations Division, despite battling lung cancer. “We stand in awe of your father’s courage,” Trump told Shurer’s children during the Oct. 1 ceremony.


TECH SGT. JOHN CHAPMAN, U.S. AIR FORCE For heroism performed on a snowy mountaintop in Afghanistan in 2002, Tech Sgt. John Chapman posthumously became the first airman since the Vietnam War to receive the Medal of Honor. Chapman, an Air Force commando, had received the second-highest honor, the Air Force Cross, for his actions in March 2002, but in 2014, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a review of citations for valor since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and that examination resulted in the upgrade of several medals, including Chapman’s. In the early hours of March 4, Chapman’s helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade on Takur Ghar mountain in Afghanistan. The aircraft crashed after one of the troops was ejected, and Chapman and a joint special operations team returned to rescue him. After landing, Chapman charged into enemy fire, seized a bunker and killed the fighters there, according to the White House. He then burst from cover to quell a machine gun firing on his team from a second bunker. He suffered severe wounds in the second attack, and his teammates believed he was dead. They eventually retreated. But analysis of video from a drone years later showed that Chapman had continued to fight until his death. He is credited with saving the lives of his teammates. During Chapman’s Medal of Honor ceremony on Aug. 22, Trump presented the award to Chapman’s spouse, Valerie Nessel (pictured). “In this final act of supreme courage, John gave his life for his fellow warriors. Through his extraordinary sacrifice, John helped save more than 20 American service members,” Trump said.





FIRST LT. GARLIN MURL CONNER, U.S. ARMY First Lt. Garlin Murl Conner has been celebrated as one of the most decorated soldiers in U.S. history. On June 26, nearly two decades after his death in November 1998, the late officer received the nation’s highest award for heroism, the Medal of Honor. In 1945, on a cold, snowy January day in Houston, France, American troops were under attack by hundreds of German soldiers. Conner, previously injured during his service, volunteered to direct artillery fire on the opposing forces. He ran out of the safety of the forest, straight into enemy fire, armed with only a telephone and yards of telephone wire. Conner directed fire missions on a force of 600 German infantry troops, six tanks and tank destroyers, adjusting round after round of artillery from his prone position until the enemy was halted. He remained in his position for three hours, enduring the onslaught of German soldiers who, at one point, advanced to within 5 yards of his position. When the Germans mounted an all-out attack to overrun the American lines, Conner ordered his artillery to concentrate on his own position, resolving to die if necessary to halt the enemy. His actions stopped the advance. Trump described him as a “Kentucky farm boy who stared down evil with the strength of a warrior and heart of a hero.” “Murl embodied the pure, patriotic love that builds and sustains a nation,” the president said. Conner’s widow, Pauline (pictured), accepted the medal on his behalf. His son, Paul, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and friends also were present at the White House ceremony.


MASTER CHIEF SPECIAL WARFARE OPERATOR (SEAL) BRITT SLABINSKI, U.S. NAVY Master Chief Britt Slabinski was initially awarded the Navy Cross for his heroics in a fight against al-Qaida terrorists to rescue a colleague, but a review of citations for valor by the Defense Department resulted in the upgrade to the Medal of Honor. About 1 a.m. on March 4, 2002, Slabinski’s team, aboard an Army Chinook helicopter, was attacked by militants as it attempted to land on a mountaintop of Takur Ghar in eastern Afghanistan. Navy SEAL Neil Roberts fell from the aircraft as it pulled back from the gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades, and the helicopter crash-landed about three miles away. Slabinski and others returned in a second helicopter to rescue Roberts but were attacked by a more heavily armed force of al-Qaida militants. Slabinski “repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire as he engaged in a pitched, close-quarters firefight against the tenacious and more heavily armed enemy forces,” according to a statement from the White House. The fighting, known as the Battle of Roberts Ridge, raged for hours as Slabinski requested reinforcements, aided fallen members of his team and continued fighting until they could be rescued. It wasn’t until 8:15 p.m. that helicopters whisked all the troops, including the fallen, from the mountain top. “We are free because warriors like (them) are willing to give their sweat, their blood, and, if (they) have to, their lives for our great nation,” Trump said during Slabinski’s award ceremony, held May 24.













Going Paperless

TOTAL: 343,455

Pacific 64,526

Midwest 54,057

VA makes strides in automating the disability claims process

Continental 67,944


FTER VA SAW AN uptick in its disability benefits claims backlog in 2017, the department addressed the issue, instituting mandatory overtime for processors to ensure that claims more than 125 days old were adjudicated. The blitz worked: In 2018, fewer than a quarter of all claims filed were more than 4 months old. But VA officials have been warned to pay close attention to the numbers. In September, the VA Office of Inspector General said thousands of benefits cases have been omitted from the official count — an issue VA leadership said it would address with training and improved standards. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the backlog will decrease further, now that the VA is automating its processing system. “Over half of our claims last year were on paper. We’re now up to 82 percent electronic, and that’s going to change the outcomes,” Wilkie said.

North Atlantic 76,290

Southeast 77,139

Outside U.S. 3,499 (AS OF OCT. 22)


Texas 32,764

California 26,165


PENDING CLAIMS IN 2016, 2017 & 2018*

■ 2016 pending claims ■ 2016 claims over 125 days ■ 2017 pending claims ■ 2017 claims over 125 days ■ 2018 pending claims ■ 2018 claims over 125 days






SOURCE: Department of Veterans Affairs







17,145 13,604

Virginia Ohio


Pennsylvania 9,680

New York

9,104 8,713 (AS OF OCT. 22)


















375,646 2017


90,318 24.5%







362,412 2016















% of claims over 125 days

North Carolina


OCTOBER *Date reflects beginning of each quarter

Find out how to get your claim processed faster at: ubenefits.va.gov/ FDC Applying for Veterans Affairs benefits for the first time? Visit: uebenefits.va.gov

Peacetime (the end of the Vietnam War to the Gulf War)

World War II*

Vietnam War


Korean War*




Gulf War (1990s conflict)


Post-9/11 (Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts)


Other era claims*


*Percentages are rounded up








CHAMPI NS Incredible athletes find their injuries don’t hold them back By Cindy Kuzma




athlete’s diet, you might not expect to see pork rinds, chili and bacon and eggs. But that’s exactly what fueled Marine Corps veteran Rob Jones last fall to one of his most incredible achievements — running 31 marathons in 31 cities in 31 days, all on two prosthetics. After all, he needed to consume upwards of 4,000 calories per day, and those dishes made it easier. Ensuring adequate caloric intake was just one of the logistical challenges. With a support team that included his wife, Pamela Relph (a Paralympic

medal-winner herself, for Great Britain), and mother, Carol Wire, Jones carefully planned his route and locations. He decided not to run officially organized races; instead he logged 26.2 miles per day in city parks and trails. He timed his travel to allow nine hours of sleep per night, adjusted his prosthetics to manage blisters, and kept his pace slow enough to reduce strain on his body. When he completed the last run on Nov. 11 beside the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C., he felt gratitude for the support — and for living in a country worth the effort. “My purpose was to keep fighting for

veterans and to be a positive example of what I was capable of doing,” he said. He and his team also raised more than $200,000 for the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, the Semper Fi Fund and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation. It’s just one of Jones’ major accomplishments since stepping on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan led to his two above-the-knee amputations in 2010. Within two weeks of surgery, he set a goal to compete in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, moving to CONTI NUED







Florida to train. Not only did he make the team, he and his rowing partner, Oksana Masters, won a bronze medal in sculling in London. The next year, he took a 181-day, 5,180-mile bike ride across the country, a journey that raised $126,000 for the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, the Semper Fi Fund and Ride 2 Recovery, all groups that support wounded veterans. For Jones, sports serve a critical role for injured veterans. “It’s a great way to find out what you do when you’re challenged,” he said. “And if you tend to quit, you can work on persevering.” In many ways, sports programs act as an extension of rehab, noted Leif Nelson, a physical therapist and director of the

VA’s Office of National Veterans Sports Programs and Special Events. By training for running, cycling, rowing or other events, veterans build their cardiovascular conditioning, improve their overall health and restore strength and function to their bodies. Then there are the psychosocial advantages. Individual or team sports provide veterans with a community, and perhaps most importantly, they imbue a sense of what’s still possible — even if their abilities have changed. “Life is different after injury, and adaptive sports can be an effective tool in helping folks redefine who they want to be,” Nelson said. When those same activities also give veterans the opportunity to continue

serving, often by fundraising or coaching others, those psychological benefits only multiply.

THE PATRIOT RACER Chicago native and retired Marine Mike Mendoza signed up for the Chicago Triathlon in 2015 at the urging of a friend and without much preparation. Despite the spontaneous decision to enter his first triathlon, he won for his age group and finished seventh overall. Mendoza began to train and compete in more marathons, and in 2017, he accomplished a world-record-breaking feat: completing 24 Ironman 70.3 triathlons (consisting of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run) in

fewer than 12 months’ time, while raising money for the Semper Fi Fund. Giving back brings the journey full circle for Mendoza. In 2006, a grenade thrown close to his reconnaissance mission in Fallujah, Iraq, severely damaged his internal organs. His physical wounds required extensive recovery and made travel challenging. He underwent surgery in a Baghdad hospital and remained there for several weeks battling infections before finally getting cleared to travel to Germany and then to Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. His wife and newborn son scrambled to book travel arrangements to see him. The Semper Fi Fund stepped in with financial support.



Now, through his athletic endeavors, Mendoza has raised more than $60,000 for the organization. The sporting events served other purposes for him, too. Mendoza also needed to heal mentally as he adjusted to civilian life and coped with post-traumatic stress disorder. Antidepressants and therapy — which work for many, he acknowledged — didn’t click for him. Instead, he recalibrated by pushing his body. “Once I started to do that, I felt like the chemical imbalance in my brain started leveling,” he said. He’d felt reserved and distrustful, but could open up when others asked about his racing. Mendoza’s physical limitations do pose some competitive challenges. The blast damaged his hearing, and he can’t wear his hearing aids during races, so because he can’t hear other cyclists approaching, sometimes he nearly crashes into them. And the shrapnel still lodged in his diaphragm sometimes causes the muscle to cramp during intense workouts or races. But overcoming these obstacles has been worth it, he said. After all, the money he raises for other vets provides athletic prosthetics and specialized equipment, and covers race fees. “There’s a new generation of younger service members that are going to need the help of us veterans,” he said. “I just felt like I needed to give back.”

THE MEDAL-WINNING MOM Every April 13, former U.S. Army officer Melissa Stockwell invites her friends to a party. They dance, they eat cake, and they toast to Little Leg. That’s the name Stockwell has given to the remaining portion of her left appendage, the rest of which was taken by a roadside bomb in Baghdad on April 13, 2004. “We actually celebrate the day,” Stockwell said. “It’s easy to get kind of caught up in everything that’s going on, but when you take a moment or a day to step back and think about your life, we’re all very lucky.” Long before she enlisted, Stockwell was a young gymnast with Olympic dreams. She also possessed a strong love for her country, which compelled her to join the ROTC in college. When she graduated in 2002, she was commissioned as an officer and deployed to Iraq two years later. Injury soon changed her plans. “I was 24 years old, and didn’t really know what my life would be,” she said. Once CONTINUED




“ADAPTIVE SPORTS CAN BE AN EFFECTIVE TOOL IN HELPING FOLKS REDEFINE WHO THEY WANT TO BE.” — LEIF NELSON, physical therapist and director of the VA’s Office of National Veterans Sports Programs and Special Events

she learned to walk with a prosthetic, she heard about the Paralympic Games. Instantly, her dreams of competing were revived. She started with swimming and made the U.S. delegation to Beijing in 2008, but wasn’t quite satisfied with her placement. She transitioned to triathlon, trained in all three sports, and not only made the 2016 team in Rio, but took home the bronze medal as part of an American sweep. “I’m very athletically driven,” she said. “I’ve found I have a passion behind sports, the way it makes me feel. It’s proving to myself that I can still have these big goals, whether I have one leg or two.” She’s shared that sentiment through the Dare2tri Paratriathlon Club, which she co-founded in 2011. Now, more than 300 athletes — with disabilities including amputation, spinal cord injury and visual impairment — receive coaching, adaptive equipment and other support. And, Stockwell — who now lives in Western Springs, Ill., — continues to train and compete herself, with her eyes on the 2020 Tokyo team. She’ll be 40 years old with two children, but that’s all the more reason for her to persevere: “To show my kids that you put in the work and dreams can come true.”


FROM THE PODIUM TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD PARK Fit, driven veterans often excel at competitive events, said Derek Daniels, manager of sports and recreation at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, a research hospital in Chicago. However, reaping the benefits of sports doesn’t require medaling on the national stage. Veterans who come to the sports camp the hospital hosts each summer are often drawn in by an aggressive team sport such as ice hockey. But once they’re moving, they add other activities — such as hand cycling, which they can do outdoors with their families — rebuilding bonds at home. And, of course, there’s the connections they form with each other. As they sweat, they discuss the best doctors and share tips on navigating the Department of Veterans Affairs. “The key is that there’s a lot of opportunity,” Daniels said. “Veterans, a lot of times, just need to find those resources and be willing to reach out and ask how they can get involved.” Marine Corps veteran Rob Jones would agree. He said sports offer veterans a way to “use the weight” — not to allow themselves to be crushed by the heft of their challenges, but instead, to gain strength through overcoming them. “The military has already provided all of the qualities and traits and skills that you need to succeed in the civilian world. You just have to recognize what you have,” he said.

TRAINING CAMP Looking to try an adaptive sport? Check out one of these intensive multiday experiences or others organized through your local VA or at va.gov/adaptivesports. National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, March 31 to April 5, Snowmass, Colo. Sample skiing, sled hockey, climbing and other cold-weather activities. A warm weather version, held in the fall in San Diego, offers surfing, sailing, cycling and kayaking. uwintersportsclinic.org Shirley Ryan AbilityLab Military Sports Camp, held annually, in Chicago. Introductory-level athletes are invited. Training includes rock climbing and cycling. usralab.org/article/military-sports-camp Dare2Tri Injured Military Camp, May 30 to June 2, Hammond, Ind. New and experienced multisport athletes learn from top-level coaches, and end the weekend with a triathlon. udare2tri.org/paratriathlon-training-camp





Years after their service, veterans return to theater in search of remembrance, relationships, resolution By Matt Alderton




THOSE WHO ARE ATTRACTED to military service often speak of it as a “calling.” As an impetus for enlistment, however, civic duty tells only part of the story, according to RAND, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based research institute. Earlier this year, it surveyed soldiers and found that many of the participants — 41 percent — enlisted in the Army to pursue travel, adventure and new experiences. As many veterans can attest, however, the romantic notions that attract people to military service don’t always manifest. In addition to meeting people from different cultures, they often must fight them under extreme circumstances. There may be some scenery and sights, but there are also bases and battlefields. There is adventure, but there also is anxiety and fear. But years after their service, some veterans feel an itch they have to scratch. Older, wiser and under much improved circumstances, they return to the theaters in which they fought.

KEN BECKMAN Beckman, a WWII Air Force veteran, took a tour of Britain’s American Air Museum — and a B-17 — to reminisce.

WORLD WAR II VETERAN RELIVES ‘FOND MEMORIES’ World War II veteran Ken Beckman was 18 when he first experienced heartfelt national pride, the source of which was Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. “In 1942, as soon as I was old enough, I decided to go into the Aviation Cadet Program (within the U.S. Army Air Forces),” recalled Beckman, 96, of St. Petersburg, Fla., who flew 48 missions spanning two tours of duty as a navigator aboard a B-17 bomber.

After the war, Beckman spent 30 years as a career airman during which time he flew in both the Korean and First Indochina wars. The Air Force kept him so busy, he said, that he “pretty much came home and forgot about” World War II. Upon retiring decades later, however, his memories loomed larger. He recalled, for example, a mission over Belgium during which his bombardier missed the target: an airport. Months later, Beckman’s plane was hit over Cologne and

had to make an emergency landing at the same airport. One mission’s failure was another’s saving grace. Beckman decided to revisit such memories firsthand in April 2018, when he joined the National WWII Museum’s “Masters of the Air” guided tour of East Anglia, which included lectures by historian Donald L. Miller, author of Masters of Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War CONTI NUED




FRANCIS J. “CHUCK” THEUSCH Theusch, who served in Vietnam, was so moved by the people of the region that he’s built 34 libraries in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos through his nonprofit, Children’s Library International.

Against Nazi Germany. During the weeklong trip, participants toured the English countryside where British and American bombers were stationed, including surviving air bases such as Rougham Airfield, where Beckman spent Christmas Eve 1944. “We had bombed near the Battle of the Bulge and the weather in England was so bad that there was only one base open,” recalled Beckman, whose tour group was greeted by local villagers, including a man who was just 13 years old in 1944. “He remembers 96 airplanes landing at his base because the weather was so poor elsewhere. We had an excellent discussion thinking back to that particular day.” Conversations like that are exactly what lured Beckman back to England. “I just wanted to relive the feelings I had at the time,” he said. “And I did. It rekindled in me some very fond memories.” Beckman’s trip wasn’t about resolution; it was about remembrance. “What (veterans) get out of these trips is a really deep appreciation for what was accomplished in World War II,” said National WWII Museum Director of Educational Travel Nathan Huegen. “It becomes a celebration of the American spirit.”

VIETNAM VETERAN REPLACES WAR WITH WISDOM Kids who grow up on farms learn the value of hard work and the importance of patience. If you ask Milwaukee-based Vietnam War veteran Francis J. “Chuck” Theusch however, the most important thing that his dairyfarm upbringing taught him was empathy. When he deployed to Vietnam in December 1969, Theusch took what he calls his “farmer’s sensitivity.” One night, for instance, he was assigned to guard prisoners of war at Ðúc Phô Base Camp in Quang Ngãi Province, where he was based. “The guys outside the wire were supposed to be our friends, and the guys inside were supposed to be our enemies. But they looked the same to me,” said Theusch, now 67, who was an infantryman in the U.S. Army’s 23rd Infantry “Americal” Division. “At 18 years old, that’s a hard thing to work out.” That he so easily saw others’ humanity left Theusch with a looming regret after the war. “We never had the chance to get to know the people,” he said. “That really bothered me, and it’s what eventually took me back.” Theusch returned to Vietnam for the first time on Dec. 8, 1999 — 30 years to the day

after he first landed there. It was supposed to be the first stop on a world tour. Instead, it turned into something else entirely. Because he wanted to ingratiate himself with locals, Theusch purchased two water buffalo — highly prized by Vietnamese farmers — as a gift for families in Ðúc Phô . When severe flooding delayed their delivery, however, he found himself discussing with his Vietnamese guide other ways to make a difference. What poor villages really needed, he learned, were libraries. So, he canceled the rest of his trip and used the money to design and build a library in Quang Ngãi Province — the first of 34 libraries he’s since funded in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos through Children’s Library International, his nonprofit. Built with individual and corporate contributions, the libraries cost $35,000 apiece and are stocked with books, periodicals and WiFi-enabled computers that empower, educate and enrich the lives of local citizens. “Americans have an ability to bridge the gulf that’s created by war quicker and better than anyone else on Earth,” concluded Theusch, who said the United States has a long history of cleaning up after its wars. “We did it with




TRAVELING WITH TRAUMA the Confederacy after the Civil War. We did it with the Marshall Plan after World War II. We did it in South Korea after the Korean War. I’m just trying to carry on that American tradition.”

ation as a means to world peace by returning to countries where the U.S. has had a military presence — this time as a tourist seeking adventure instead of a soldier engaged in combat. “I want to use the outdoors as a vehicle to IRAQ WAR VETERAN TRADES highlight our common humanity across the WAR FOR WILDERNESS globe,” said Bare, who returned to Iraq with For Stacy Bare, war killed his friends, two other veterans in February 2017. Their branded his mind with horrific images and journey — documented in the film Adventure saddled him with baggage he’ll carry for Not War — took them to the snowy slopes of the rest of his life, Mt. Halgurd, in the including a head Zagros Mountains of injury, anxiety, a northern Iraq. There, substance abuse they skied, hiked and problem and suicidal socialized with locals thoughts. And yet, just a few hours from the Iraq War veteran Mosul, where U.S. doesn’t regret his and Iraqi forces were service; sometimes, engaged in a fierce he actually misses it. military campaign “There’s a lot of against ISIS. amazing things that “It was weird,” Bare happen in war,” said said. “I landed at ErBare, 40, of Sandy, bil International AirUtah. “It gives you port and walked out camaraderie and a into the early mornsense of purpose.” ing air. It looked like When his service Iraq, and it smelled ended, losing those like Iraq, but I didn’t things set him adrift. have a weapon, and “I didn’t know how I wasn’t in protective to adjust,” said Bare, gear. Instead of getwho was an officer ting into a Humvee, I in the U.S. Army hired a cab.” from 2000 until What began 2007, during which with odd feelings time he served in ended with inspiring STACY BARE Germany, Bosnia ones. “The Zagros and Iraq. “That mountain range is a Above, Bare poses with Iraqi children. Below, struggle ultimately gorgeous, beautiful Bare with his team on the top of Mt. Halgurd. was characterized mountain range that as post-traumatic in some ways restress disorder (PTSD).” minded me of the Wasatch Range — my home Bare found that being outside was the best range in Utah, which has given me and my therapy for his PTSD and began rock climbfamily endless hours of peace and frustration ing in 2009. At first, he loved it because it and joy,” concluded Bare, whose perception reminded him of the Army; he felt the same of Iraq was permanently changed by the view fellowship and purpose on mountains that he — sparkling instead of smoldering. “That’s felt in the military. Eventually, however, he ultimately why I went back. To experience realized his attraction to nature was rooted in the beauty of the planet we live on and the peace, not war. humanity we all share. Because the reality is “For me, the outdoors is a place where my these people are incredibly similar to you and perceptions about other people vanish,” said me. They have the same basic dreams and Bare, who subsequently conceived a personal hopes and aspirations. The outdoors breaks project he now calls Adventure Not War. The that down so we can see each other more premise is simple: He promotes outdoor recreclearly, more honestly and more kindly.”



or veterans, “remembrance travel” can heal long-festering wounds. Just as easily, however, it can reopen them — especially for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which could be triggered or exacerbated by visiting the locus of their trauma, according to Drs. Paula Schnurr and Sonya Norman, psychologists at the National Center for PTSD within the Department of Veterans Affairs. Which is why it behooves veterans to pack their mental suitcases before picking up physical ones, advised Schnurr and Norman.

uSet realistic expectations: “You can’t really control what happens once you’re there,” said Norman, director of the center’s PTSD Consultation Program, who recommends discussing with a therapist why you want to go, what you hope to achieve and how things might turn out. uTreat your trauma: Veterans traveling with the intent of resolving past trauma should first seek professional help. “There are evidencebased treatments for PTSD that help people recover from the after effects of trauma,” explained Norman. uTalk to travelers: Seek counsel from veterans who have previously engaged in remembrance travel, or read about their experiences online. uPack coping mechanisms: Think about what helps you cope with stress at home, then do it abroad. “For some people it might be journaling or going for a run. Or maybe there’s a loved one who can go with you to help you deal with difficult situations,” suggested Norman. uStay in touch: Support networks are critical for people facing stressful situations. If yours can’t travel with you, stay in touch by phone, text or email. “Generally, talking is very helpful,” Schnurr said. Veterans experiencing extreme stress also can contact the Veterans Crisis Line by calling 800-273-8255, texting 838255 or visiting veteranscrisisline. net/chat. Keep in mind, however, that the line doesn’t work in some locations overseas. — Matt Alderton






GREAT OUTDOORS Organizations help veterans rekindle their passion for hunting and fishing




Rivers of Recovery supports injured veterans by facilitating fly fishing outings as recreational therapy.


By Jodi Stemler


OR MANY MILITARY VETERANS, hunting and fishing

are activities that were integral to their youth: The skills learned in the field translate well to military service. But being on active duty often means missing hunting or fishing season, and in some cases, returning from deployment with physical or emotional challenges may make rediscovering solace in nature an insurmountable hurdle. Given that

such activities can be healing for veterans, agencies and organizations have stepped up to provide former service members opportunities to reconnect with the great outdoors. “Being on the shooting range is very familiar for veterans, and it allows them to feel relaxed, focused and calm,” said Mark Oliva, public affairs manager with the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) and a retired Marine Corps master gunnery sergeant. “The camaraderie of hunting or shooting allows veterans to be around people who

have similar experiences. It can be very comforting to be in a group of those who also did a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan. Veterans can share their emotions with others who understand.”

WORKING TOWARD A SHARED GOAL Oliva represented NSSF in October 2017 at a meeting for veterans’ groups hosted by the Department of the Interior discussing access to CONTI NUED



federal public lands. The Hunting and Fishing Access for Veterans Roundtable, held during National Hunting and Fishing Month, brought together veterans’ advocates and companies in the hunting and shooting community to meet with the department’s senior leaders, including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a retired Navy SEAL. “This is not a segment of society that we are taking for granted,” Oliva said. “Secretary Zinke implicitly knows this. He loves the outdoors, and he knows what it means to serve.” The Interior Department manages millions of acres of federal public land that provide significant hunting and fishing opportunities. In September 2017, Zinke signed a secretarial order that called for improving hunting and fishing access to federal lands by identifying areas where access is limited or could be expanded, providing better online resources and more. The order also specifically addressed access for veterans, so the department wanted to ensure it was meeting the needs of the veteran community when it considered improvements. The groups attending the roundtable included key organizations with veteran programs, including Honored American Veterans Afield (HAVA), Freedom Hunters and Rivers of Recovery. The Interior Department sent representatives from the U.S. Fish

and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Reclamation — all agencies that manage federal lands and waters. In addition, motivational speakers and combat veterans John Wayne Walding and Mark “Oz” Geist shared how hunting on public lands helped them recover from battlefield injuries and reconnect with family members. According to Benjamin Cassidy, the department’s senior deputy director for external and intergovernmental affairs, roundtable participants outlined issues they would like to see addressed, including improved access to public land and water; better access to mentorship programs; and accessibility issues for people with disabilities. Attendees also recognized the need to build on proven programs that are already available through organizations, state agencies and other partners. Last November, Zinke added two advisers to the department who also are former Navy SEALs: Mike Argo, Zinke’s deputy chief of staff, and Rick May, senior adviser on recreation issues. The relationship continued, when in January, NSSF organized an opportunity for veteran-owned member businesses to meet with Zinke during the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show.

VETERANS AFIELD With backing from the Interior Department,

groups that work with veterans are continuing to provide healing opportunities for them and their families. The NSSF has supported groups including HAVA and Freedom Hunters, and as a veteran himself, Oliva helps maintain the organization’s connection with these groups. Oliva also volunteers with a group started by a man he served with in the Marines. Based in Alabama, AHERO (American Heroes Enjoying Recreation Outdoors) was started by Marine Corps Maj. Lee Stuckey, a Purple Heart recipient who suffers the effects of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress. Stuckey found it difficult to sleep after deployment and began drinking heavily. One night, he found himself with a handgun, ready to end his life, when his mother called and interrupted his plan. After receiving help, he dedicated himself to helping others facing similar challenges. For Stuckey, time spent hunting and fishing brought him peace, and he felt other veterans would find it beneficial, too. AHERO organizes outdoor events and social activities for former troops, providing a support network that helps veterans deal with emotional and physical challenges. “The outdoors provides comfort — when you’re sitting in the woods you can focus on watching the woods wake up and just being. This is a silent part of healing,” Oliva said. “With AHERO, there is something about going on a hunt with other veterans who have been

Dan Harrison leads American Hero Adventures founder Troy Givens and another military veteran during a hunting trip in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.



there too, who understand what they’re going through that allows them to feel comfortable. We often refer to this as ‘screen porch therapy’ because the peace of the woods and spending time with people who get you helps so much. It can provide a point of intervention before a crisis.” While some organizations provide venues and activities to draw veterans out, others focus mainly on helping physically disabled veterans get back into the woods or out on the water. Some veterans with serious injuries may believe hunting is something they can no longer do, but organizations such as American Hero Adventures (AHA) exist to show they can. Retired Army Capt. Troy Givens experienced catastrophic injuries in a roadside bomb blast in Afghanistan and spent months learning to walk again. During his recovery, there were two things that sustained him: time spent outdoors and the loving family and caregivers who helped give him back his independence. As a way to provide similar support to veterans and first responders, Givens founded AHA. Based in Oregon, AHA provides national and international excursions for wounded warriors and their loved ones. As an AHA ambassador, the Outdoor Channel’s Remington Country co-host Dan Harrison has helped plan adventures and hunted alongside veterans and their families. He guided Givens on a November 2016 elk hunt on the Grand Mesa in Colorado, and their relationship continued from there. AHA hunts have been featured on Harrison’s Remington Country shows and as part of Grateful Nation, a program hosted by former Army Ranger Tim Abell that documents the incredible journeys of veterans as they get back afield. Harrison and Givens recently surprised the Army medic who treated Givens by organizing a hunt. The two hadn’t reconnected since the day the medic had pulled Givens from the wreckage. “It was incredibly emotional,” Harrison said. “This is the reason I do this; these men and women and their families have served our nation, and it is truly a blessing to be able to give something back to them when they’ve given so much to us.”


Kryptek co-founder Butch Whiting wears his company’s camouflage during a mule deer hunt.


LESSONS ON THE BATTLEFIELD TAKE FLIGHT IN APPAREL COMPANY When Butch Whiting and Josh Cleghorn served together in northern Iraq, they shared stories of their passion for backcountry big game hunting. They had both grown up spending days in the field with friends and family, but missed many hunting seasons while serving on active duty. Whiting flew AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and commanded a helicopter unit; Cleghorn, also a pilot, was one of his warrant officers. During downtime, conversations always came back to hunting. When they returned from deployment, they fleshed out a business model that integrated the features and functions of special operations apparel into civilian hunting gear. They named their battlefieldto-backcountry company Kryptek. In 2011, the Department of Defense released a solicitation seeking new camouflage for the Army.

Whiting and Cleghorn designed a camouflage based on their knowledge of camo netting. The netting’s hexagon pattern, when stretched and distorted, creates a 3D effect that disguises the shape of the equipment and area it is concealing. Kryptek’s camo used micro and macro layering to transfer this 3D effect to a flat surface. Of the more than 60 camo pattern concepts submitted, Kryptek was among the 24 that met the DOD’s requirements. After Phase I testing, Kryptek’s design was one of four patterns selected for final testing. Unfortunately, after two years, the Army dropped the pursuit and a winner was never announced. However, the Idahobased upstart reaped the benefit of extensive field testing. The fact that Kryptek made it so far through the process made waves, and the company gained visibility with special

operations and military units who started adopting Kryptek camo. From there, Kryptek began to soar. According to Whiting, Kryptek camo can be seen in numerous video games, including Call of Duty Black Ops and Advanced Warfare, and is featured in movies such as American Sniper, Fast & Furious 7 and Jurassic World. By 2014, Whiting and Cleghorn were focused solely on their company. Whiting noted that the transition to a civilian industry has been a bit of a culture shock, but they are adapting. “You see your problems and your opportunities differently after serving in combat. In the military, the difference between success and failure is really a life or death decision. Your decisions in civilian life might affect the brand or the bottom line, but it’s not life or death.” — Jodi Stemler




THAT HEAL Music therapy gives veterans resources, outlet to find solace



By Gina Harkins



finally ready to visit his best friend’s grave. Five years had passed since Sgt. Channing “Bo” Hicks had been killed in an ambush in Afghanistan’s Paktika province. Those years hadn’t been easy for Booth. “I didn’t want to go on,” said Booth, a career infantryman who retired in 2016 after 20 years in the Army. “I had so many things on my mind.” Booth wasn’t getting out of the house much after retirement. He was dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and a divorce. In addition to the emotional scars, traumatic brain injuries sustained as a result of multiple roadside bomb blasts during two yearlong deployments to Iraq left him 100 percent disabled, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Without even realizing it though, he soon began healing emotionally through a form of music therapy, which has historic roots in the veteran community. In the summer of 2017, the lifelong music fan checked out a Nashville, Tenn.-based group he’d heard about on the radio called Operation Song. The organization pairs veterans with professional songwriters who put their stories to music.


Soon, Booth was on a retreat where he teamed up with Chuck Jones, whose music had been recorded by Patti LaBelle, Charlie Daniels and Reba McEntire. Together, the pair wrote the song, My Brother Bo, about Booth’s closest Army buddy who’d been killed in action. “There’s something about putting things to music — it just came out, and it felt so natural,” Booth said. “It’s amazing what you can say in two or three minutes in a song.”

VETERANS AND SONG In the 1940s, the War Department found that doctors were seeing improvements in “shell shocked” World War II veterans at Army hospitals when music was incorporated into their occupational or physical therapy sessions, said Dave Otto, a board-certified music therapist and national program director for the VA’s recreation therapy service. “Really, following World War II is where music therapy grew as a professional discipline,” he said.

Now, the VA employs 73 music therapists at 49 facilities in 29 states, Otto said. And as the department focuses on its wholehealth initiative — which looks not only at veterans’ physical well-being, but also diets, sleep patterns, relationships and more — creative and recreational therapies have a lot to offer, he added. Music therapists aren’t just trained musicians, but also credentialed therapists, said Laura Lenz, assistant director of Metro Music Therapy, who has worked with veterans at the Atlanta VA Medical Center, near where the organization is located, and the Miami VA Medical Center. Music is her tool, she said, but she’s also trained to carefully read people’s reactions and develop a rapport with patients to help them meet their goals. Music therapy can help veterans from all eras, but a successful session could look different CONTINUED

From right, songwriter Chuck Jones, co-writer Ed Cothern and retired Army Staff Sgt. Van Booth perform My Brother Bo in 2017.





Veterans from across the country participate in the 2015 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival in Durham, N.C.

depending on the person’s situation. Lenz has worked with World War II veterans with dementia who suddenly reconnect with loved ones while a certain song is playing. For those few minutes, the veterans recognize those they’d seemingly forgotten, she said, and that means the world to family members. Lenz also uses song lyrics during group sessions to encourage veterans to share their thoughts and experiences. A familiar song, such as Otis Redding’s (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay, can prompt candid discussion once everyone hones in on the lyrics, she said. “When you write out the lyrics, the song is actually a little bit sad,” Lenz said. “All of a sudden you start looking at these words, and you make a connection that if someone else wrote them, I’m not the only one who feels this way.”

Music can quickly bring people back to specific times or places, Otto said, which can elicit strong emotions. That’s what happened when one Vietnam veteran heard that familiar tune about watching ships sail into a bay while at the VA center in Atlanta, said Jaye Budd, a longtime songwriter and executive director of the Alchemy Sky Foundation, a nonprofit that partners with other organizations to provide music therapy to veterans and pairs music therapists like Lenz with the VA. “One veteran said he’d first heard that song on (Armed Forces Radio) in Saigon,” Budd said. “Then all of a sudden, he’s telling this very powerful story about being on a plane flying home from San Francisco after Vietnam and having the flight attendant tell him he should change out of his uniform before they landed

because of Americans’ feelings about the war.” It wasn’t a story the veteran had ever shared in a typical therapy session, he said. “There is a fit here with music and people who want to express themselves.”

A NONINVASIVE APPROACH Music can make it easier for people like Booth to share their feelings because it doesn’t feel like full-on therapy, said Mallory Even, the owner and director of Metro Music Therapy in Atlanta. Music is a part of nearly every culture, and since it’s such a big part of most people’s lives, it doesn’t seem threatening. That creates a more comfortable environment than having to sit down with a therapist and relive tough life moments, she said. “We see these responses and connect




Because music doesn’t feel like traditional therapy to some, it can make it easier for people to share. GETTY IMAGES; VETERANS AFFAIRS

“There’s something about putting things to music — it just came out, and it felt so natural. It’s amazing what you can say in two or three minutes in a song.” — VAN BOOTH, Army veteran to that in order to move it into a therapeutic moment,” said Even, who’s also a licensed music therapist. “That can be a lot easier than walking in and just saying, ‘I’m having a horrible day.’ That’s a hard thing to do to just go in and bluntly have that discussion.” That was one of the reasons Bob Regan founded Operation Song when he saw some of the struggles Iraq and Afghanistan

war veterans were facing. While the songwriters the group uses aren’t typically therapists, they’re great listeners, he said, and he knew they’d be able to help veterans sort out some of their feelings. “A lot of times, they don’t really know what they want their song to be about,” Regan said. “They CONTINUED

Music therapy isn’t just used to treat and improve mental health. Singing, playing instruments or using music during physical therapy sessions can vastly improve speech and motor issues, too. Take a veteran who has experienced a stroke, for example. During recovery, patients might walk with a short gait, meaning they take many small steps to move from one point to another, said Dave Otto, national program director for the VA’s recreation therapy service. “What we’d do is have a veteran walk 15 meters in distance and measure their steps and the time it took them,” he said. “We then design a music program to help them work on their gait.” That means finding out what kind of music the veterans enjoy and having them work on heel strike, rhythm and distance to match a song. If they like reggae, that might mean they’re walking to some Bob Marley during their next session. If they’re into classic rock, the Rolling Stones might set the beat. The goal is to adjust their gait by having them walk to the different tempos. “We eventually fade all of that out, and the music is removed from the setting,” Otto said. “It has helped retrain the brain.”

Laura Lenz, the assistant director of Metro Music Therapy outside Atlanta, works with some veterans whose injuries have harmed their fine motor skills or speech. Picking up different instruments can help refine some of the movements or speech patterns they lost, she said. That’s what helped Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who was shot in the head during a mass shooting at a campaign event in 2011, regain her speech after her language pathways were damaged. “There’s a whole branch of music therapy called neurological therapy, and there’s been a lot of work and research done to map out the areas of the brain that music can target,” Lenz said. “Music and speech therapy basically helped Gabby Giffords rebuild a completely different pathway in her brain. It’s just so powerful.” And focusing on physical skills doesn’t mean some of the other benefits of music therapy are lost during those sessions. Therapists can divide 45-minute or hourlong sessions to help patients meet a host of goals, whether they are physical or emotional, said Mallory Even, Metro Music Therapy’s owner and director. “It doesn’t have to be, ‘today we’re just working on speech and getting you to communicate,’” she said. “All of those clinical goals can be addressed and the progress tracked.” — Gina Harkins





Veterans at the Atlanta VA Health Care System perform with an Alchemy Sky Foundation musician.

just have all these things swirling around after being traumatized or dealing with PTSD or traumatic-brain injury,” Regan said. “You don’t have to know what you want to say, though. Songwriters are like armchair therapists — together we’re going to figure it out.” Now the organization, which the VA doesn’t fund but partners with on retreats and other events, not only helps combat veterans, but families of fallen service members and victims of military sex assault. “I try to measure the distance between the person I sat down with and who they’re showing me as we work on the song,” Regan said. “Have they opened up? Do they seem lighter? Do they seem unburdened? “I want the songs to be as good as they can be, but ultimately I want them to feel like they were heard and that this song represents them.”

FILLING THE GAP Since not every VA center has music therapists on staff, the department leans on organizations such as Operation Song, Alchemy Sky Foundation or Metro Music Therapy, Otto said. He and his team look carefully at the services the organizations offer to make sure they’re a good fit for veterans receiving care. One of the important ways nonprofits and other groups help veterans is by giving them an opportunity to get together — especially as the department fights to combat the troubling number of veteran suicides. “Those social opportunities that these organizations create are important and critical,” Otto said. “We don’t want veterans to isolate.” Budd, Even and Lenz have found that they’re sometimes encouraged to drop the word “therapy” in the hopes describing it differently could encourage more vets to attend. That doesn’t

change what they try to accomplish though, Even said. “We’re still music therapists,” she said. “So, if the word ‘therapy’ is going to be a hindrance, we’ll call it ‘music night’ or whatever they want us to call it.” Regardless of how the programs are labeled, Booth said it’s clear they’re able to help veterans like himself. He now encourages others to consider joining Operation Song or other organizations that help veterans express themselves through music. And when he finally visited Hicks’ grave last year, Booth not only had the chance to meet the fallen soldier’s family he’d heard so much about during the pair’s deployments, but to play My Brother Bo for them. “It was really about closure,” he said. “It has become a lot easier to talk about everything since Operation Song. I guess it was just getting it out after five years’ worth of holding it in.”





Proudly serving our armed forces and supporting their missions with national security products that make the world a safer place.








Tools of the Trade Bunker Labs helps veterans become entrepreneurs By Meg Jones



for a product he would buy — if someone else had made it. A hiker and a major in the Wisconsin National Guard, Kesselring wanted a walking stick that doubled as a survival tool, complete with fishing line, water filter, fire starter and snare wire hidden inside, along with a knife and 25 feet of parachute cord. So he built one and named it the Guardian

Survival Staff. His invention might have ended there, but the veteran of multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan turned to Bunker Labs, a national nonprofit that helps military veterans become entrepreneurs. The company, which has offices in 20-plus cities, has a site in Madison, Wis., where Kesselring found resources. “We help military veterans start and grow businesses. We’re like venture capitalists without the money,” said Michael Ertmer, Bunker Labs’ former

executive director. “We want to be the one source for veterans to help them get their first paying customer. Until you get a paying customer, you’re a hobby, not a business.” Bunker Labs helps veterans review their ideas, letting them know if their brainstorm is viable or likely destined for failure, and connects them with venture capital firms, corporate lawyers who specialize in startups, patent specialists and others who can help start and build a business. The nonprofit also organizes

events throughout several states to connect budding entrepreneurs who served in uniform with companies and business leaders who want to help them realize their dreams. Kesselring ended up manufacturing 20 Guardian Staffs, which are being sold through a small shop in Iowa. He’s working on adding a charging station inside the staff so every time it is moved or strikes the ground, it builds up a CONTI NUED







Billy Kesselring shows three of his inventions: The inflatable TekNeck pillow; an early version of LightsOn, which tests lights on trailers; and the Guardian Survival Staff, which features a hidden compartment with fishing line, fire starter, a knife and more.


Bunker Labs helps veterans turn their ideas into reality by providing valuable feedback and connecting them with experts in the field to facilitate a successful endeavor.

microcharge stored in a battery that can want to answer questions about their be used as an electric firestarter and combat experience, or they worry their small electronic device charger. “We have service might be viewed negatively by one prototype of that carbon fiber staff. prospective employers. It kind of looks like a wizard staff but However, according to Ertmer, shaped so the hand molds in to it,” he veterans and entrepreneurs share many said. traits, including grit and perseverance, Kesselring also invented LightsOn, a hard work and leadership skills to guide handheld device to quickly test lights teams through adversity. They’re not on trailers, and he’s selling those at a clock watchers. They work until the job Missouri marina and in automotive shops is done. They’re adventurers, in a way, in Iowa and Wisconsin. willing to take risks, whether it’s the “I’m focusing more on the light tester dangers of war or the world of startup now,” said Kesselring, who recently built a businesses. prototype for RVs and semitrailer trucks. Bunker Labs aims to bridge the gap for He explained the impetus for creating the veterans who want to become employers tool: “A friend of a friend was killed when by educating them about starting their he drove his motorcycle into the back of a own companies and helping them make trailer without (its) lights on.” connections — something that has been A third invention — an adjustable foam relatively easy, Ertmer said, because pillow Kesselring calls the TekNeck — has many businesses and executives want been accepted into Merlin Mentors, a to help and hire veterans. The nonprofit volunteer mentoring program in Madison, also created an online program called Wis., where he hopes to get help finalizing Bunker in a Box for service members his design. He’s created six deployed around the globe prototypes and is working thinking about their postthrough issues with the military lives or veterans To learn more design, which he plans to who live far from a Bunker Bunker Labs has finish within the next three Labs location and can’t multiple ofmonths and have it ready attend an event. fices across the to sell. “Maybe, in a lot of United States. “With all these ways, we’re what the To find one inventions, I had a ceiling VFW (Veterans of Foreign near you, visit I couldn’t crush through to Wars) or the American bunkerlabs.org/ bring them to market,” said Legion was years ago, our-locations. Kesselring, a 2000 West though probably more Point graduate. “How do I aspirational,” said Ertmer. raise capital? Would people “Veterans these days buy this? Now, through are more interested in Bunker Labs, I’m learning how business LinkedIn than a VFW fish fry.” works, and I’m getting the connections.”

BRIDGING THE GAP World War II veterans returned home from Europe and the Pacific to open businesses that helped fuel the postwar economic boom. An estimated 49 percent of World War II veterans and 40 percent of Korean War veterans became entrepreneurs, according to the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. The Department of Defense estimates roughly 200,000 service members each year transition to the civilian workforce, and although 20 percent say they want to start their own business, only 6 percent will become successful entrepreneurs. Ertmer, a former Army officer who served during the 1990s before spending a decade in Silicon Valley, pointed out that many, including quite a few post9/11 service members, don’t identify themselves as veterans on their resumes or LinkedIn profiles because they don’t

MAKING CONNECTIONS Carla Stephany, an Air Force veteran living in Fond du Lac, Wis., started the construction and engineering firm Riveter Enterprises/Construction and Engineering in 2017, expanding in recent months to include a chief operating officer, Sheldon Smith. Based in Colorado Springs, Colo., Riveter Enterprises opened a second location in Wisconsin. With an architect, project managers and civil and structural engineers on staff, the company has already landed a few small private projects. “Thanks to Sheldon and our team, I’m able to keep the business, as I was considering closing up shop,” she said. “Sheldon was able to help me keep the entrepreneurial dream alive by maintaining operations in Colorado as I made the move back home to Wisconsin.” Bunker Labs helped her meet business CONTI NUED







WEWORK, TOGETHER Veterans in Residence program offers free office space for small businesses


Carla Stephany named her business Riveter Enterprises/Construction and Engineering after Rosie the Riveter and wants to help military spouses and veterans succeed.

leaders and make connections. “We had someone from a venture capital background who talked us through the spreadsheet of how you determined what’s a good candidate for business or not,” said Stephany. “We had an extremely seasoned lawyer who talked to us about small business law.” Stephany named her business after Rosie the Riveter, and her company’s Facebook page features a photo of her dressed like the woman in the famous “We Can Do It!” World War II poster. She is also developing a concept called the Rosie Project to help military spouses, particularly women, get trained in trades so they can more easily get jobs as they frequently move between military bases. “I’m marketing the trainees as ‘Rosies’ but of course we can’t be limited to

women and are hopeful to be able to take anyone interested,” she said. “My dream is to get some abandoned base housing, get some willing military spouses, financing (of course!) a training crew and create beautiful homes our military families deserve.” Thus far, she has procured land to build a home as a test project to build a curriculum and scale from there, though she’s still working on arranging financing for that project. She hopes if this goes well, to build more and work on branding, possibly creating a Riveter Homes or Rosie Homes company. Already, she has created an offshoot project to market a workwear brand for women. In the meantime, she’s determined to find success in helping a group she so believes in: “I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”

When Army veteran Trevor Shirk started his digital marketing company, the reality of civilian business life hit him hard. “In the military, you step into a role, and there’s already a team built around it,” Shirk said. “But when you start a business, you’re an army of one.” The WeWork pilot program — which rolled out nationally on Veterans Day 2017 — has helped Shirk’s Denver-based company, Strattex Solutions, take wing, providing him with free office space, a special networking gathering spot and access to various mentorship programs. “The synergy is really powerful,” said Shirk, who helped search for improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan as a U.S. Army engineer in 2010 and 2011. “I met other veterans and other entrepreneurs in the program, and I felt less like an island.” WeWork’s Veterans in Residence program will give free office spaces and access to its local and global community to a new class of 10 veterans every six months — a national class of 140 veterans spread out evenly between 14 of its U.S. locations, including Los Angeles, Austin, San Francisco, New York City, Seattle, Washing-

ton, D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Denver, Nashville, Houston, Minneapolis and San Diego. The initiative, which will be accepting applications at we.co/ veterans, also includes onsite business counseling from Bunker Labs, a national nonprofit focused on helping veterans and their spouses launch their own businesses. “They gave to us, now we’re giving back to them,” WeWork CEO and co-founder Adam Neumann said. “It’s not just about providing a workspace that hopefully is inspiring; it’s also about sharing ideas and being part of a community.” Although WeWork rents space by the desk and office, its aim is to create the feeling of a hightech incubator where new ideas can spark from random encounters. Some locations feature lounges, pingpong tables and beer on tap, and workers can opt into organized gatherings that include cheese tastings and networking events. WeWork — which was founded in 2010 by Neumann, a onetime Israeli Navy officer, and Miguel McKelvey — now has 287 locations in 77 cities and 23 countries. — Marco della Cava










The Milwaukee-based devCodeCamp program provides a 12-week immersive boot camp. PROVIDED BY DEVCODECAMP; MARK HOFFMAN/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL

Tech Titans Veterans enlist in ‘boot camp’ again — this time, to learn software coding By Meg Jones



bombs from roads in Afghanistan’s Helmand province — a job skill not easily translatable into the civilian workforce

back home. But what made Corey a good soldier — hard work, tenacity, loyalty, problem solving — is helping him and other veterans transform themselves into software developers. DevCodeCamp, a 12-week boot camp based in Milwaukee for people wanting to

become software developers and coders, began reaching out to local veterans after the Forever GI Bill was signed into law in August 2017. The bill allows veterans to use GI Bill education benefits to pay the Joel Corey CONTINUED






LEARN TO CODE Under the Forever GI Bill, veterans can enroll in university technology courses and boot camps. Whether they want to learn online or via in-person classes, the nonprofit Operation Code lists coding groups and campuses that cater specifically to veterans at operationcode. org/code_schools. Operation Code also offers scholarships, a mentorship program and career services. GETTY IMAGES; PROVIDED BY DEVCODECAMP

$17,800 tuition for the full-time devCodeCamp software development course. “Veterans are not interested in spending years reacclimating to civilian life. They want to get in and go to work,” said Paul Jirovetz, vice president of operations at devCodeCamp. Corey served in the Oregon National Guard, including a deployment to Afghanistan handling convoy security and route clearance from 2009 to 2010. He dabbled in computer coding for years as a hobby but decided to develop his skills into a career. “I enjoy playing with stuff, and code is basically like Legos. You can play with stuff, make stuff, break stuff and hopefully at the end of the day, you end up helping someone else,” Corey said. He learned about devCodeCamp through a group of computer-coding veterans

called Operation Code, a nonprofit that helps military members find coding camps. After wrapping up his course, Corey landed a job on the East Coast. There’s a great need for software developers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts 31 percent growth in the next decade for people designing the technology that has become an integral part of our daily lives. In January, U.S. News & World Report ranked software developer as the top technology job in its annual list of 100 best jobs, with a median salary of just over $100,000, and projected that more than 253,000 people would be employed in the field by 2026. More than 230,000 people are estimated to transition out of the military each year, and thanks to their GI Bill benefits, they can attend most postsec-

ondary schools for free or at a reduced cost. Many of them are finding jobs: The 2017 rate of unemployed veterans was 3.7 percent, below the national rate of 4.1 percent. Jirovetz wants to attract veterans to the devCodeCamp program, particularly the post-9/11 veterans who used technology on the battlefield and grew up with apps on smartphones. Plus, he pointed out, veterans typically are used to working hard, completing tasks, taking direction and showing up on time. DevCodeCamp is “not right for everybody,” Jirovetz said. “But what we do know is veterans are typically driven. When they come back (home), a lot of them have already been working in some sort of technology as part of their service, and they want to translate that into working back in the United States.”

A PROBLEM-SOLVING VIBE At the devCodeCamp training center, rock music plays softly as students huddle together to solve a problem or work by themselves on their laptops. A punching bag hangs in the corner, and light bulbs strung across the ceiling to illuminate the hardwood floors and brick walls. The camp starts at 7 a.m. each weekday and, after a 60- or 90-minute lecture reviewing what was taught the day before, students learn something new and then work on a problem. Linda Berez, who served in the Air Force in the late 1980s as a hydraulics mechanic, worked on a flight tracker app she developed as her graduation project. “I travel a lot, and I wanted to do CONTI NUED







Wade Carlson

something I already use,” said Berez, who is the information technology officer for the Civil Air Patrol squadron in Oak Creek, Wis. She earned a computer science degree at San Diego State University and worked in hardware, but wanted to get back into the software side of technology. She learned of devCodeCamp through a highway billboard. Graduating in the same coding class as Berez was Wade Carlson, who served six years in the Marines in the 1990s as a cryptography technician and then in computer repair and software installation. After leaving the military, Carlson worked as a golf pro but decided on a career change, which led him back to

computers. “It’s extremely challenging,” said Carlson. “You dive into a new framework, and you start with the basics of building a website before getting into a more dynamic framework like JavaScript. “They give you a couple of lectures and then you get a project. They tell you, ‘This is what has to be done. Go figure it out.’ They give you the tools to problem-solve.” Jared Burks, who was stationed on the guided missile destroyer USS Mustin, was the first veteran to complete devCodeCamp last fall. He is currently completing his degree. He hopes to someday develop his own business to make apps. DevCodeCamp graduates have been

hired by Rockwell Automation, Lands’ End, the Milwaukee Brewers, U.S. Bank and other businesses in Wisconsin. Northwestern Mutual recently visited the campus to pitch job opportunities to students, as did ETE Reman, a transmission manufacturer. Jirovetz added that there are plans to expand the boot camp to Madison, Wis., in mid-November. Jirovetz said every company, no matter what it does or makes, has become a technology company. “And if technology is not a huge part of your model, you’re not going to be around much longer. If this gap (between the number of technology jobs and workers) continues,” he said, it will “get harder and harder to find good employees.”










Sweet Success Tasty-treat franchises satisfy veterans’ craving for ownership By Adam Stone



franchising hits the sweet spot — sometimes literally. “Veterans in the workplace look for a sense of mission, a job they not only love but find meaningful. With franchising, being your own boss and being responsible for a team of employees — that’s a sense of mission. That makes it a uniquely good fit for veterans,” said Radim Dragomaca, director of VetFran, a group that connects veterans with franchising opportunities. Dragomaca said many find success in running franchises that cater to America’s love of tasty treats. Ice cream, doughnuts, smoothies — veteran franchisees say these kinds of businesses give them a satisfying way to fulfill their craving for business ownership.








“You go to get ice cream either because you are in a good mood, or because you are having a really bad day and you want to make it a good day. Either way, everybody is happy in an ice-cream store.” — TOM ENGLISH, franchise owner


TOM ENGLISH Tom English had a full career. Two, in fact. He served in the Army and then continued his military career for decades as a reservist, retiring in 2015 as a colonel in the Michigan National Guard. In his civilian life, meanwhile, he worked as a state trooper, a federal prosecutor and an administrative law judge. Now, at 62, he’s doing what he’s really wanted to do for a long time: selling Baskin-Robbins ice cream in Okemos, Mich. English got the bug while recuperating from injuries suffered during a deployment to Afghanistan. “I’m sitting in my recliner at home recovering from my second surgery with nothing to do but watch TV and read books,” he said. “And I got to thinking. I grew up with BaskinRobbins. I love Baskin-Robbins. Why can’t I get my Rocky Road in this area?” Research proved him right: Previous area Baskin-Robbins stores had closed,

and there was a void in the local market. Late-life business ownership was tempting. “I thought now that I had ended my military career, I might have a chance to actually do something I wanted to do,” he said. “I’m used to multitasking. I am used to getting things done, and being retired did not seem like a viable option for me. With all the energy and the focus I had learned in the military, I saw this as a great opportunity.” English spent a year visiting ice-cream shops nationwide before deciding on franchising. Although VetFran helped by working with the franchisor to eliminate buy-in fees and lower the ongoing franchise fee, he still invested $200,000. Veterans loan programs backed by the Small Business Administration helped cover some of that cost. Now he’s right where he wants to be, bringing Rocky Road to the local masses. “People are happy here,” he said. “You go to get ice cream either because you are in a good mood, or because you are having a really bad day and you want to make it a good day. Either way, everybody is happy in an ice-cream store.”

BASKIN-ROBBINS Year the company started franchising: 1948 Number of franchises: 8,011 worldwide Standard startup cost: $93,550 to $401,800 Veteran incentives: Waiver of 20-year initial franchise fee on first shop; $25,000-value reduced royalty rates for five years Number of veteran-owned units: 55-plus across BaskinRobbins and Dunkin’ Franchising information: baskinrobbinsfranchising. com/en/opportunities






“A franchise gives you a well-proven track record. They have the tools and systems in place to help you succeed. They have all the processes in place so that you can learn from their successes.” — RAY OMAR, franchise owner


RAY OMAR A stint in ROTC in college led Ray Omar to Army service. He served as a Special Forces signal detachment commander and earned the rank of captain before leaving in 2006 to take a job as a civilian consultant to the Army. Along the way, he developed a desire for business ownership — which was hardly surprising. “The entrepreneurial spirit was strong in my family,” said Omar, 40, who resides in Crofton, Md. “My father immigrated here in 1979 from Afghanistan and started working as a dishwasher in a restaurant. Eventually, he owned one of the largest coffee supply and distribution warehouses in New York City.” Food service seemed a natural fit for his entrepreneurial energies, but he didn’t want to go it alone. “The restaurant industry is really tough, and a franchise gives you a well-proven track record. They have the tools and systems in place to help you succeed. They have all the

processes in place so that you can learn from their successes,” he said. Dunkin’ Donuts, which has recently rebranded as simply Dunkin’, has helped him to succeed in a big way. Since 2011, he and his brother, Zack Omar, have opened six stores in Maryland and another on the Kentucky-Tennessee line, near the Fort Campbell military base. He said he is looking to open five more over the next few years. “Maryland is really pretty saturated with Dunkin’ Donuts, so I want to take this model and apply it to Clarksville, Tenn., where I lived for six years during my military career,” Omar said. “That includes opening a store in Fort Campbell, where I served in my first duty assignment. I’m already familiar with the area, and it gives me a chance to serve a military community that I know well.” As for being in the tasty-treat business, Omar said, the sky’s the limit. “It’s one of the fastest-growing categories out there and will continue growing for the foreseeable future. Everyone wants that quick cup of joe to help them get through the day,” he said.

DUNKIN’ Year the company started franchising: 1955 Number of franchises: 12,676 worldwide Standard startup cost: $228,621 to $1,692,314 Veteran incentives: Qualified veterans who purchase a store development agreement for five or fewer stores receive a 20 percent discount off the initial franchise fee Number of veteran-owned units: 55-plus across BaskinRobbins and Dunkin’ Franchising information: dunkinfranchising.com/ franchisee/en.html






“I wanted something that would allow me ... to be in charge of my life and my destiny. Franchising is a proven model. There are a lot of people who are operating that model and who are being successful.” — EMILY HARRINGTON, franchise owner


EMILY HARRINGTON In her first offing as a franchisee, Emily Harrington hit the ground running. In 2015, she bought 10 Hardee’s restaurants and grew the stake to 42 stores before selling two years later. She had a pretty solid grounding. A graduate of the United States Military Academy, she earned her Master of Business Administration while in uniform and left the Army in 2004 as a captain. Then she spent nine years in the financial industry. Now the 41-year-old Tampa, Fla., resident is back in the franchising game. She owns five Tropical Smoothie Cafe stores and is looking to grow again. “I wanted something that would allow me to quit my corporate job, to be in charge of my life and my destiny,” she said. “Franchising is a proven model. There are a lot of people who are operating that model and who are being successful.”

Franchising offers a natural corollary to her military experience. “When you buy a franchise, you are buying an operating manual. That was very appealing to me because of my background in the military. The Army is full of SOPs — standard operating procedures. Whatever you need to know is in a book,” she said. “That’s also the franchise model.” She has learned how to make the most of this model, especially by leveraging her corporate wisdom. “If I don’t understand something, I will ask,” she said. “As a franchisee, you have to be willing to ask the franchisor for help.” Harrington said she’d like to own 50 smoothie shops across Florida in the next 10 years, and she sees plenty of opportunity to expand the market. “The burger business has been around for 60 or 70 years, and a lot of markets are saturated. The smoothie segment is growing very rapidly, and it’s still underserved,” she said. “There are lots of people who’ve never had this before, who don’t know what it is, and that means that there is a lot of growth potential there, just because it is something modern and new.”

TROPICAL SMOOTHIE CAFE Year the company started franchising: 1997 Number of franchises: 700 Standard startup cost: $222,095 to $569,335 Veteran incentives: 50 percent off initial franchise fee Number of veteran-owned units: 16 Franchising information: tropicalsmoothiefranchise. com










Senior hiring manager Lamont Copeland, left, poses with three veterans who completed the Hiring Our Heroes Corporate Fellowship Program. PROVIDED BY VERIZON

By Brian Barth

Call Me America’s top mobile giants work to attract, retain veteran talent


N 2011, ELEVEN COMPANIES, mostly

of Fortune 500 stature, banded together to form the Veteran Jobs Mission, an initiative to address the employment challenges faced by transitioning service members. The companies involved committed to a collective goal of hiring 100,000 veterans by 2020 — but it seems they underestimated the demand. Seven years later, Veteran Jobs Mission has grown into a coalition of more than 230 companies that have collectively hired

nearly 500,000 veterans to date. Their expanded goal is much more ambitious: to hire 1 million veterans by 2020. The organization’s website, VeteranJobsMission.com, serves as a portal to connect those entering the job force with potential employers. Veterans will find tips on resume-building and other advice. But such resources are widely available elsewhere, which is why the main purpose of the coalition, noted Jason Wright, the vice president for military CONTI NUED







Attendees pose during an AT&T employee resource group meeting for veterans in El Segundo, Calif. The company, a Veteran Jobs Mission member, announced it planned to hire 20,000 veterans by 2020 and is already three-quarters of the way there.

and veteran’s affairs at JPMorgan Chase & Co. and the manager of Veteran Jobs Mission, is to provide what he describes as a missing link: “a platform for companies to share and access resources on best practices in hiring and retaining veteran talent,” he said. “Our role is not so much to link companies directly with hires, but to share tools and resources for determining the veteran recruiting methods that make the most sense for your business.” Researching the best methods to hire and retain veteran talent has become a core focus for the coalition — and applying the lessons learned has produced promising results. “Since the founding of the Veteran Jobs Mission, we’ve seen an encouraging shift from simply recruiting to implementing long-term career development programs for veterans,” said Wright. “We’ve moved beyond simply hiring veterans to focus on performance and retention. We know that a successful transition from the military to the private sector does not happen overnight, and putting resources into developing our veteran employees for success is good for business.”

included six years with the U.S. Army Military experience breeds skills and Corps of Engineers, has taken him from core competencies applicable to any bases in Virginia, Kentucky and Texas to industry. But tellingly, more than half Korea and Afghanistan. He of the 11 companies that began the job hunt many founded Veteran Jobs “Veterans not months before his planned Mission are in the tech sector — indeed, much of only have relevant transition date this past summer. He hoped his the consumer-facing techexperience, they military experience in nology today can trace its engineering roots back to a technolhave an incredible construction, and disaster response ogy developed by the Department of Defense. sense of discipline, would translate well to any number of companies. His And one subset of the dedication and final military role, at the tech industry — mobile 101st Airborne Division in carriers — was particuleadership.” Fort Campbell, Ky., was as larly well-represented — VERONICA VILLEGAS a construction engineering in the initial group of 11. Verizon recruitment tech, but a veteran’s After all, communications fellowship program at systems are integral to Verizon caught his eye. military functions at every level. Verizon, a Veteran Jobs Mission member that employs more than VERIZON Vincent Harvey spent 22 years in the 11,000 veterans, is one of more than U.S. Army before returning to civilian life. 150 companies to participate in the “It’s a very stressful thing to come out Hiring our Heroes Corporate Fellowship of something you have known for so long Program, a nationwide initiative of the and into the unknown,” he said. “Life has U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Designed for changed; society has changed. It’s hard.” active service members who are within Harvey’s military career, which six months of their transition date, the

40-hour-per-week program brings together a small cohort for a three-month immersive experience at a company they wish to apply to. All of this is provided at no charge to the participants, who are given opportunity to visit a variety of business units, attend meetings and receive hands-on training. The Corporate Fellowship Program is very much a recruitment tool, but even more important for Harvey was the opportunity to determine whether Verizon’s culture was a fit for him. “I’ve gone on a lot of interviews, but there was something about the way that Verizon treated me as an individual — they really wanted to understand what my goals were and how we could work together — that determined my choice,” he said. “The culture there really reminds me of the military. They speak the lingo, and there is a real family cohesiveness at the company.” Harvey recalls that around Memorial Day he walked into a Verizon cafeteria and saw that they had a “fallen comrade” table set up to commemorate the holiday — “the single rose, the empty chair, everything,” he said of the military tradition to honor those who do not return from combat. “That’s when I knew I was at the right place.” At the end of the fellowship, Harvey accepted a position as a real estate operations manager at Verizon. The feeling he experienced that day was by design, according to Veronica Villegas, a U.S. Army veteran who now runs military recruiting programs for Verizon. It’s a culture that starts at the top — Lowell McAdam, chairman of the Verizon board, is a Navy veteran — and trickles down into every facet of the business, earning Verizon the title of the No. 1-ranked military-friendly company in the country by MilitaryFriendly.com. “We understand the military, and we understand the value of hiring veterans,” Villegas said. “Veterans not only have relevant experience, they have an incredible sense of discipline, dedication and leadership.”

AT&T AT&T isn’t messing around when it comes to hiring veterans — this Veteran Jobs Mission member has pledged to hire 20,000 by 2020 and is already more than three-quarters of the way there. Bill Blase, senior executive vice president of human resources, said AT&T has actively recruited veterans for more than a century, “not only because it’s the CONTI NUED






RESOURCES FOR TRANSITIONING SERVICE MEMBERS Veterans have access to an extensive support network to help them navigate the job market. Here is a brief guide: Veterans Employment Center: The VA’s one-stop shop for job-related assistance. uvets.gov/employment SkillBridge: The DOD’s program to link transitioning service members with civilian job training. udodskillbridge.com FourBlock: Nonprofit offering a semester-length, university-accredited program intended to empower veterans to maximize their hireability. ufourblock.org

AT&T employee and veteran Edward Morrison tries on military gear during a veterans event in El Segundo, Calif. PROVIDED BY AT&T

Hiring Our Heroes: U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation program offering job assistance for both veterans and military spouses. uhiringourheroes.org VetJobs: An online job board geared exclusively to veterans. uvetjobs.com


right thing to do, but also because it’s good for our business. We recognize their ability to be resilient and agile, as well as their technical, problemsolving and leadership skills.” The company offers free, online weekly job adviser sessions where prospective hires can connect with a “military talent attraction manager” to discuss their career options at AT&T, as well as a transition assistance program to help them get settled once onboard. But the centerpiece of AT&T’s commitment to maintaining a veteran-friendly culture is their veteran employee resource group (ERG). Now in its 35th year, the group boasts more than 10,000 members in 49 chapters spread throughout the company. Besides fostering a sense

of community, the members play starring roles in recruiting transitioning veterans by attending job fairs and other recruiting events where prospective hires have the opportunity to speak with fellow veterans about the challenges they’re facing. “We owe much of our hiring success to the veteran ERGs within the company,” said Blase. For JoHanna Martinez, a former Marine who is now AT&T’s military talent attraction manager, the importance of veterans paving the way for other veterans has been crystal clear ever since 2000, when she arrived at AT&T to interview for a position as a switchboard, wire and radio operator, her first civilian job. “I sat down, noticed there was a

USMC logo on his desk and asked, ‘Do you know someone in the Marines?’ He said, ‘Yes, do you?’ I said, ‘Yes, I just got out.’ His reply: ‘When do you want to start?’ It goes to show that veterans understand very clearly what other veterans bring into our business. Without knowing me, my education or skill set, he knew that I would do what I needed to integrate with the company.” Not that it was easy. Martinez said one of the biggest things she had to learn was how to build her personal brand within the corporate world. “I didn’t know how (the) corporate culture worked in terms of personal brand and networking. Networking CONTI NUED






Tana Avellar, who heads up the network as the manager of T-Mobile’s human resources project delivery team, is also an officer in the Army National Guard.


HEY GOOGLE, FIND ME A JOB Google has new job features for military veterans and their relatives who are looking for work. Military service members and their families can now search “Jobs for Veterans” and then enter specific military codes (MOS, AFSC, NEC, etc.) to find civilian positions requiring skills similar to those they used in the military. “We hope to use our technology to help veterans understand the full range of opportunities open to them across many different fields. Right now those opportunities are getting lost in translation,” wrote Matthew Hudson, a program Google’s job manager for Google Cloud who search tools served as a civil engineer in the for military U.S. Air Force, in a blog post veterans make announcing the feature. it easier for The initiative is part of them to find Google’s five-year, $1 billion civilian jobs commitment to help offset how fitting the technology is rapidly changing skills they used in the the workplace and eliminating military. jobs in the U.S. and globally. Helping veterans find better employment will likely also be good for Google’s business, as it seeks to attract even more jobsrelated advertising for its overall Google for Jobs campaign, launched a year ago. A particular problem for veterans seeking to transition to civilian work is the lack of a “common language” that matches their military experience with civilian jobs, Hudson said. “As a result, one in three veterans — of the roughly 250,000 service members who transition out of the military each year — end up taking jobs well below their skill level.” Job seekers can find out, too, if a business is veteran-owned in a new Google My Business feature, which shows up on Google Maps and search mobile listings. “Google is committed to creating opportunities for everyone,” Hudson said. “We hope our technology can help make transitioning to civilian life a little bit easier.” — Mike Snider


within the military is often referred to as ‘politicking’, which isn’t encouraged or well received.” But fortunately, “As a new hire, the other veterans on my team were quick to help.” Her advice to new recruits? The first is fairly obvious: “Make sure you are applying to roles that you like.” But the second is all too often overlooked: “Make sure that you are looking at veteran presence at the company of your interest to ensure you are joining an organization that is going to appreciate your sacrifice.”

T-MOBILE Donna Wright, the senior manager of military and diversity sourcing strategy at T-Mobile, agrees that company culture may be even more important than skill sets in matching veterans with employers. “It’s not just that veterans need jobs and we have positions to fill,” said Wright, who is not a veteran but was raised in a military family. “I’ve seen my brothers and uncles navigate through very difficult transitions from the military. And I’ve noticed that one of the most critical pieces in that transition is learning how to communicate the ways that their military experience translates into the workplace.” As a recruitment leader at T-Mobile, which has pledged to hire 10,000 veterans by 2023,

Wright’s job is to help prospective veteran hires figure out how to do that. But T-Mobile’s efforts to support veterans doesn’t stop once they’re hired, said Wright, noting that the veteran unemployment rate in the U.S. is actually quite low. “The larger issue beyond veteran unemployment is underemployment, which is why we’re just as focused on providing career development opportunities to our veterans. The idea is that wherever you start at T-Mobile isn’t going to be where you finish. I feel that’s where we make a really valuable contribution in this space.” A big part of the culture of upward mobility for T-Mobile’s veterans is the employees’ Veterans and Allies Network, which currently counts around 9,000 members. “This is really important for helping people coming straight from active duty to find a place where they feel like they belong,” said Tana Avellar, who heads the network as the manager of T-Mobile’s human resources project delivery team. A lieutenant colonel with 20 years of experience in the Army National Guard, Avellar continues to serve on reserve status. “There is a fellow veteran in the department next to me whom I talk to regularly. It’s invaluable to continue that camaraderie on a daily basis.”







Turn your military medical experience into a nursing degree.

Veteran BSN





Brennan Beck runs the Student Veteran Center at Clemson University. KEN SCAR

From Service T to School

By Rina Rapuano

These universities go the extra mile to address challenges faced by veterans


scary enough, but the shift from the military to university life packs extra hurdles that might include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), impostor syndrome, depression and the challenges of translating military experience into classroom skills. The good news is that several universities are making it their mission to accommodate the special needs of veterans. Brennan Beck, who serves as assistant director of military and veteran engagement and runs the Student Veteran

Center at Clemson University in South Carolina, joined the Army right after high school at age 17. He found himself in a combat-heavy deployment to Iraq at age 19, entering his first firefight on the seventh day, losing his best friend by the end of his first month and sustaining injury from an improvised explosive device (IED) blast three months in. Not surprisingly, the Stockton, Calif., native faced numerous difficulties by the time he was finished with active duty and sent home at 22. “My experience coming home was extremely difficult,” Beck said. “A lot of what I dealt with during my initial CONTI NUED







Veterans attending South Carolina’s Clemson University can find helpful resources at the Student Veteran Center, which also strives to provide a sense of community.

“I was a little bit older and thought I would have to go it alone, but I’m not alone here.” — TYRIESE “TY” ROBINSON, Air Force veteran, Clemson University student

deployment, (like) when my best friend was killed ... the next day we had to compartmentalize and get up and not really dwell on it and not really talk about it. That worked — or at least I thought it did — until I got home. Anxiety, depression, flashbacks, nightmares every night. I didn’t have a lot of support.” He said his family wasn’t equipped to handle what he was experiencing; he wasn’t getting a lot of support from the Veterans Affairs department, and the community college he attended left him feeling adrift. “I felt alone dealing with a lot of this,” Beck said. “Thank God that’s not the end of the story. I was an infantryman, so I set a goal: my education.” Beck eventually found a local veterans writing group, which inspired him to pursue his English degree at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif. “I found in that an outlet (and) found a lot of healing in that, too — not only writing and getting it off my chest, but also sharing without the judgment that I was afraid of,” he said. Now, in his role at Clemson, he finds ways to make sure anxiety, depression and helplessness aren’t the end of

other veterans’ stories either. Knowing firsthand about a veteran’s main challenges makes all the difference, such as recognizing the need for community after the military. “Community is such an ingrained part of military culture — your platoon, your squad,” Beck said. “And then you get out, and you’re on your own. You have the freedom, and at first it seems really freeing, but then you miss it. They’re just kind of on their own, just wandering around and looking for community and direction.” At Clemson, he makes sure that vets know from the get-go that there is a support system in place for them. There’s a breakout session for veterans at orientation where they are given resources and tips for success. The center itself provides lockers for veterans who live off campus, as well as computers, printers, free coffee and a student worker ready to help with housing, financing, meal plans or whatever other resources they might need. Beck’s position was created in the fall of 2016, and he helped transition the veterans center from an unused, usually locked office to a vibrant space where

students connect, hang out and study. His efforts have paid off. “Visits per semester went from 192 in spring of 2016 to more than 2,700 during the fall 2017,” he said. Air Force veteran Tyriese “Ty” Robinson, a sophomore and student assistant in the Clemson Student Veteran Center, said he was surprised by all the support systems for student veterans. He went to Clemson for about a year before joining the military, but he was a much different person when he returned to the school four years later. “I was a little bit older and thought I would have to go it alone, but I’m not alone here,” he said. Veterans aiming to enter university life should look for schools with a high level of engagement with students who have served in the military, offering resources and opportunities, plus addressing the challenges of the transition, he added. “The military is more direct and gives you more directives, but the classroom environment is more self-paced and not standard,” he said. “It was a little difficult with that transition.” CONTI NUED







Natoshia Spruill and her husband, Maj. William Spruill, were welcomed into the veteran community at Cornell University, which influenced her decision to enroll.

A veterans center with a sweet TV doesn’t hurt, either. “I’m a big TV person, and they’ve got a big 65-inch TV with PlayStation 4 Pro, Netflix and Roku to just kind of hang out and relax and get away from academic life for a second,” he said. While there, students can bond and reach out for help when they need it — something that he said can be tough for veterans entering school. “Asking for help is not a bad thing,” Robinson said. “That was something I had to learn coming from the military. That’s what people are there for, to answer your questions.”

‘THE THINGS WE’RE ABLE TO BRING’ When Natoshia Spruill was researching MBA programs after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy and serving in the Army, she instantly felt that the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business in Ithaca, N.Y., was the best fit. For starters, the school differentiated itself by making her


When Spruill was researching MBA programs, she instantly felt that the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business in Ithaca, N.Y., was the best fit.

active-duty husband feel just as welcome veterans at the school, prepping her for as they did her. the interview, translating her military “I applied to a handful of schools and lingo into plain English and acting as an made it a point to visit if I was invited advocate when a scholarship deadline isfor an interview,” sue arose. Spruill, Spruill said. who received her “When I was MBA in 2014, now EDUCATION UPDATE visiting (Cornell), serves as associate The Forever GI Bill, signed in the veterans club director of leaderAugust 2017, eliminated the took my husband ship programs use-it-or-lose-it rule for veteran around campus, to for the business education benefits for those whose the bookstore and school. final discharge occurred on or after introduced him to a Like Beck, Jan. 1, 2013. Veterans released few other students. Spruill cited combefore that date still have only 15 Coming here was munity as a crucial years to the use their GI Bill money. the only time that component to her Learn more at militarybenefits. I felt like both my campus success. info/forever-gi-bill. husband and I “I was in the Army were going through for a little over 10 this process years,” she said. together and welcomed into the com“There was camaraderie, shared values, munity together.” a shared mission. I didn’t want to go to a She said the university’s Association school where I felt like I was missing that. of Veterans reached out to her early in Schools I was looking at had a reputation the process, connecting her with other for being community-centric.”

That strong sense of a veteran community helped Spruill when her own transition struggles started to take hold. “I had a huge case of imposter syndrome,” she said. “When you sit next to classmates who are CEOs of their own startups or classmates who manage millions of dollars of product line in a marketing firm — I think there was a lot of fear for me because I didn’t have a lot of these experiences, and I wasn’t supposed to be in these spaces. It was also hard to ask for help.” Thankfully, her fellow vets coached Spruill on leveraging her military skills, helping her realize that although she lacked a background in finance, marketing and accounting, she brought value to the classroom in many other ways. “Being able to work in high-pressure situations, being levelheaded, being confident and comfortable speaking in front of people — those are the things CONTI NUED







While veterans can find a supportive school system on campus, Syracuse University also provides remote degrees for those participating in the Yellow Ribbon program.

“I felt alone dealing with a lot of this. Thank God that’s not the end of the story. I was an infantryman, so I set a goal: my education.”

offers courses in business management, information technology and customer service to military members and their spouses at 17 bases or online up to six months before leaving the service. McDonough, a retired Army colonel, said the program has helped — BRENNAN BECK, almost 11,000 service Army veteran members, veterans and spouses secure their first jobs or receive the “upskills” needed to land better jobs. ONWARD AND UPWARD For Christopher Furton, a U.S. Marine For some students, finding the perfect Corps veteran who received his Master university doesn’t require a move across of Science and Information Management the country. Six years ago, Syracuse from Syracuse through a remote degree University literally went the extra mile program from his home in San Diego, by launching a remote learning program the school’s participation in the Yellow called the Institute for Veterans and Ribbon program was the main reason he Military Families (IVMF), which managchose the university. ing director of programs and services Jim According to Syracuse’s website, McDonough describes as the university’s “The Yellow Ribbon program allows “outside game.” The organization’s early institutions to enter into an agreement efforts focus on entrepreneurship by with the U.S. Department of Veterans training and educating small-business Affairs to cover tuition and mandatory fee owners. costs above those covered by the basic Three years ago, IVMF launched Post 9/11 GI Bill. Syracuse University has Onward to Opportunity (O2O), which entered into a Yellow Ribbon agreement we’re able to bring,” she said of veterans. “We spend years learning the art of leadership, in some instances in very tough scenarios. The admissions committee saw these very specific attributes.” Now the mentee has become the mentor, serving as staff adviser for the school’s Association of Veterans. “If they have roadblocks, I serve as a resource,” she said.


Syracuse University’s Onward to Opportunity program has helped thousands of service members, veterans and spouses succeed in civilian jobs after their military service.

with the VA so that uncovered costs above the basic amount are split 50-50 between SU and the VA, resulting in no tuition obligation for eligible individuals.” “That Yellow Ribbon (program) is by far the only reason I was able to get that master’s degree,” said Furton, who went on to receive an O2O certification for project management through IVMF. He used that certification to land a job as principal consultant at KilPen Technical Services, an information technology services firm in National City, Calif. “It became evident that Syracuse had a significant mission — helping me

apply for the GI Bill and those kinds of services. When I looked at other schools, I was kind of surprised how they left the student to navigate those services on their own.” McDonough said IVMF allows the university to reach well beyond its campus, helping it to fulfill one of its core missions — to support militaryconnected scholars. “It’s really difficult to understand how you could only do that in Syracuse, New York,” he said. “I see this as what American universities could be doing. Ours is doing it.”










Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery BRYCIA JAMES KIEWLAK/GETTY IMAGES

Remembering Sisters in Arms Memorials chronicle, commemorate service of female veterans By Rachel Kaufman


VEN ON A CLOUDY day, sunlight streams into the airy, semicircular building. A few people walk solemnly through the halls, stopping to examine a uniform, a photograph, a medal. This is the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, built out of a stone entry gate at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. It is, the memorial foundation states, the only major national memorial honoring women’s military service in America. The memorial and museum, dedicated in 1997, include exhibits that chronicle women’s military service, from the

American Revolution to the present. A Hall of Honor pays respects to the women who gave their lives in service, and its registry contains the names of more than 200,000 women who served. “That (registry), to me, is one of the most important things we have,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. Dee Ann McWilliams, president of the Women’s Memorial Foundation. “Because it’s a place where a woman who … wasn’t, in her mind, a hero, can tell her story ... that’s there for the generations.” But a few years ago, the memorial’s existence was in jeopardy. A million and a half dollars in debt and struggling with aging infrastructure, the memorial was forced to cut its staff and scale down

office space. By last year, the memorial had wiped out much of its debt, but the organization is not fully in the clear. The HVAC system, more than 20 years old, struggles to heat and cool the building; there are leaks; and the architecturally impressive skylights pose sun-damage hazards to fragile artifacts. “We’ve built a beautiful building, but it’s expensive to run,” added McWilliams. In 2017, the Department of Defense allocated $5 million for maintenance and upgrades, and did so again in 2018, although the memorial needs additional funds for ongoing operating costs as well as maintenance, McWilliams said. About 150,000 people visit the memo-

rial each year, according to McWilliams, and the foundation has plans to increase that. Grants from industry and other groups allowed the foundation to boost its social media presence and create a 360-degree video boosting the site’s profile among younger veterans, she said. The memorial is also upgrading its database to better preserve the stories of women who have served. It all adds up to a promising future. “We’re going to continue to expand our programs to attract not just women,” McWilliams said. “It’s important for those who did not serve and for men to know the stories of women and their contributions to national security over the years.”




REMEMBERING OUR FEMALE VETERANS The historic Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery is one of just a few tributes that honor military women. Here are three others: THE WOMEN’S MEMORIAL BELLTOWER Cathedral of the Pines Rindge, N.H. The belltower is devoted to both civilian and military women, honoring nurses lost in war and women who served in other capacities, as well as USO entertainers and war correspondents and those who worked in factories or on farms during World War II. ucathedralofthepines.org

VIETNAM WOMEN’S MEMORIAL Washington, D.C. Just south of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., is a bronze statue honoring the 265,000 women who served in the Vietnam War, many as nurses. This Veterans Day, the memorial marks its 25th anniversary honoring the service and sacrifice of women veterans from the Vietnam era and beyond. uvietnamwomens memorial.org

WOMEN’S MEMORIAL IN LAS CRUCES Veterans Park Las Cruces, N.M. Dedicated in March 2017, six life-size bronze statues represent Army, Marine, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Army National Guard women in detailed uniforms from World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam eras, the Cold War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. ulas-cruces.org

Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. PROVIDED BY EASTERN NATIONAL






On the Front Lines of War Female combat fighters prompt veteran, journalist to chronicle their stories


ILEEN RIVERS IS AN Army veteran and digital content editor for USA TODAY’s editorial page. In 2011, she was motivated to learn more about female engagement teams (FETs), groups of deployed volunteer service women who develop relationships with local women to gain intelligence. Rivers profiles three of these groups in her recently published book, Beyond the Call: Three Women on the Front Lines in Afghanistan. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

Eileen Rivers

Camp Doha, Kuwait, 1997, 9 a.m. FETs, attempts by infantrymen A man’s voice — deep, panicked, to frisk and interrogate Iraqi and choppy — cut through the static, Afghan women breached cultural and I pressed an old pair of headand religious norms and turned phones firmly against my ears, friendly villages into enemies. straining to catch every word. I At the start of both the war in translated his Arabic into English Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, as quickly as my pen would allow. members of Iraqi terror networks, My workstation, a narrow table, along with the Taliban and other sat in front of a large whiteboard insurgent groups in Afghanistan, that was covered in a jumble of took advantage of religious restricnumbers and hurriedly scribbled tions, hiding important documents notes. What looked like random text — bomb plots, enemy names, to most was the vital data that kept phone numbers — on their mothers, our military intelligence mission sisters, wives and daughters. going — frequencies that allowed us FET members became the to listen in on the phone conversaAmerican military’s secret — and, tions of enemy targets and potential in many cases, most effective — terrorist networks. weapon. I was one of five They were able Arabic linguists the to gain information Army deployed to by doing what Kuwait to gather scientists say for information. women comes much My deployment more naturally than supported operations for men — having that gave the U.S. intimate conversaArmy the chance tions. They gathered to work with and information about train Kuwaiti forces. terrorist activity Notes from listeners not by listening to like me were passed the enemy, but by on to analysts, and talking to the people their reports helped who had observed infantry units the enemy most. The develop missions on HACHETTE BOOK GROUP women who lived the ground. among them were And until the most recent wars victims of their violence, and had in Iraq and Afghanistan, frontline spent years watching insurgents’ combat missions would have been day-to-day activities. carried out almost exclusively by FET members had tea with local men. village mothers and talked to them But a 2010 international directive about their children and their mediensured that infantry units brought cal needs. They brought blankets, a key group of trained women with clothing and feminine hygiene them. The FETs and their work have products, and they talked about been among the most important in when and where insurgents were the modern-day campaigns to push infiltrating their neighborhoods. insurgent forces out of Iraq and They asked whether their children Afghanistan. or their neighbors’ children were In the ground war to win over in danger of recruitment. And in a the hearts, minds and trust of matter of weeks, they would have communities overrun by terrorists, collected more actionable informaFET members fought in a way that tion than I would have in months even the most skilled infantrymen as an Arabic linguist. As a listener, in restrictive Muslim countries my job was a bit like throwing darts couldn’t — by gaining intelligence CONTI NUED from the countries’ women. Before







Capt. Johanna Smoke’s female engagement team (FET) returns to the forward operating base after a mission. Smoke’s FET team operated in Afghanistan.

in the dark. Sometimes frequencies that appeared to belong to targets actually didn’t. But in Afghanistan and Iraq, the faces of FET members became the faces of trust. And trusting communities were willing to share information — the most important weapon for defeating any insurgency. Village women who had previously looked at soldiers with suspicion started welcoming FET members into their homes. Unlike their husbands, local women were willing to spill all they knew about the insurgents for fear their sons would be recruited. Some village elders went out of their way to help FET members once they saw the positive impact American women were having on local women.

Experts in the intelligence community lauded the FETs as one of the primary examples for reshaping methods of information gathering. FETs were among the last females to fight sexism under an American military system that refused to recognize women as combat soldiers. FET programs were clearly making a difference, yet FET members struggled for equal rights and recognition among infantrymen. Officers on the ground have always wanted to use the vital skills females provided, but the institution has rarely given women the protection, credit and compensation they deserve. Even after the government opened full enlistment to females in the Army

in 1948, it took another 20 years for women to get equal promotion and retirement benefits. By that time women had served as Army nurses and worked overseas as bilingual telephone operators as part of the Army Signal Corps. They served in Vietnam as early as 1956 but weren’t required to learn to shoot weapons for another two decades. Military hypocrisy has gotten worse as the roles of women have expanded beyond operating rooms and onto battlefields. By the time FETs landed in Iraq and Afghanistan, women endured public comments that denied they were in combat and exclaimed they didn’t deserve to be. All the while women were committing acts

of heroism that saved fellow soldiers from the rubble of IED (improvised explosive device) blasts and defended men in infantry units during dayslong firefights. And after the battles were over, some FETs were still denied the supplies needed to fulfill female engagement missions.

BEGINNING THE SEARCH We were eight years into our fight against terrorism, and I had been out of the Army for 10. I left the military holding on to one of my childhood goals of investigating political corruption, exposing wrongdoers and bringing the stories of hardworking CONTI NUED






Americans to life as a journalist. By the time I got to USA TODAY, I had covered for the Washington Post the problems faced by veterans returning from war and an alternative treatment used at Walter Reed (National Military Medical Center) to help them. In Georgia, I had received an award for investigating the challenges of the first female firefighters allowed to join the AugustaRichmond County fire department. But despite everything I had read and written about the military, as a veteran I was still unsatisfied with the coverage of the Iraq and Afghan wars. In my mind it was spotty (by 2009, stories about the wars had significantly slowed down), and the little that was published focused mainly on the extremes (desertions, rogue soldiers who took out communities, others who released classified documents) — and extremes never tell the most important parts of any story. The ravages of combat and deployment could best be told by those who were living it. I reached out to every military newspaper that Gannett (USA TODAY’s parent company) then owned to place the following promo in print and online: “From the homefront to the front lines: As action in Iraq begins to unwind, send us your stories of war from Iraq and Afghanistan through photos and words.” Within a week, we had received dozens of photos: black-and-white pictures of final goodbyes between men leaving for Iraq and their families, little girls hugging their fathers’ necks as wives and mothers looked on with tears in their eyes, color shots of tankers headed down desolate desert roads, a photo of an American Marine surrounded by smiling Afghan children. But among all the photos of hope and disaster, among the tragic faces and smiling ones, I encountered nothing that documented the experiences of females fighting in either war. I knew women were there and in as much danger as their male counterparts. A few weeks later, I navigated to the project URL to flip through the newest photo submissions. I sent service members messages requesting answers to the following: Did you send this photo exclusively to USA TODAY? Taken by you? Can

I realized this book had the potential to convey to the public what I already knew: Women are vital when it comes to intelligence collection in the Middle East.


Clockwise: Marine Sgt. Sheena Adams, left, gives a bracelet to an outgoing FET member; Marine Cpl. Samantha Garza trains with Sgt. Nicholas Meche; Capt. Johanna Smoke, center, speaks with her translator Edna Sahdo, left.

you verify your first and last name? Address? Any more details we can use in the caption? It often took several days to hear back from service members in the field, but they all invariably, enthusiastically answered. As soon as they did, I posted the best of their submissions in the project’s photo gallery on USA TODAY’s opinion site. Great photos. All very telling. None of them of women. Until the third photo. Liz Carlin, a Marine combat photographer, stood in front of a desert-colored tanker. She had an M4 rifle in her right hand and a huge smile planted on her face. A thick layer of desert dust covered her uniform.

I rushed to catalog her photos (there were three) and experiences with those I had collected from men. I tracked down Carlin’s number (she had left the war zone and was by then stationed in North Carolina) and called her a week later to get more information for the caption to go with her photo. By the end of the front lines/homefront photo project, I had collected more than 100 photos and had given some of those who served a platform through which to tell their stories of war. But the photos felt like just a beginning. I wanted to know more about the experiences of the Marines, airmen and soldiers who sent them. And I was sure our readers did as well.

My desire to learn more was the first incarnation of my book, Beyond the Call. My goal was to interview all the folks who had sent their photos of war and get the deeper stories. I knew after that first conversation with Carlin that I wanted to hear more from her. I called her again and reached out to several of the men who sent photos so I could begin collecting their narratives. But the more I talked to Carlin about the work of American women in Iraq and Afghanistan, the more I realized there was a much bigger story of females in combat that I, a woman who had served after the Gulf War, wasn’t familiar with. She CONTI NUED







Marine Sgt. Sheena Adams shows young girls how to write Pashtu as she hands out school supplies in a village near Forward Operating Base Shir Ghazay in Afghanistan.

mentioned that American women reached out to women in Afghanistan as part of a new mission using female engagement teams. American women also collected information. I asked her for more details. She seemed shocked. “Wait, you’ve never heard of the FET?” she questioned. “No. I really haven’t.” She recounted stories of missions that prioritized humanitarian aid for abused and impoverished women that I’d never encountered in any narrative I’d heard or read about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They participated in combat missions. Women working in intelligence was nothing new. But the addition of tactics that relied on combat skills

to collect intelligence far surpassed anything I had done in Kuwait.

PLENTY HAD STORIES TO TELL The book began in earnest on a late morning in October. I sat down at the dining room table in my small Maryland condo and opened my laptop. It was the first official call I would make to Carlin for the new version of the book and the first time I would hear the more intense details about the FET. “So when you think back to your time in Iraq and Afghanistan,” I asked, throwing out a softball question just to break the ice, “what’s the thing that sticks out in your mind the most?” “The FET,” Carlin said. “Out there it was women helping women.” A short

statement that speaks to tremendous power. Both Afghan and American women were fighting multiple wars — ones that were entangled in rights to work, to be recognized as combat fighters, to be protected from abuse, to strengthen families, to protect young boys from becoming terrorists. Accomplishing those things hinged on catching and defeating insurgents — and Afghan and American women were helping each other do that in ways no one had expected. As I listened to Carlin talk about the significant work the FET had done, I realized this book had the potential to convey to the public what I already knew: Women are vital when it comes to intelligence collection in the Middle

East. My work in Kuwait proved it 13 years earlier, and the multiple roles women played in fighting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan were proving it again. Her words inspired me to hunt for the stories of other women who have served in FETs throughout Afghanistan. These women were on the front lines of war. Their stories deserve to be told. Adapted from Beyond the Call: Three Women on the Front Lines in Afghanistan by Eileen Rivers. Copyright ©2018. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Learn more at beyondthecallonline.com.






Women Forward WoVeN provides community, sense of purpose for female veterans By Rebecca Alwine


HERE ARE NEARLY 2 million female veterans in the U.S. who account for roughly 10 percent of the veteran population. But there aren’t many veteran organizations that specifically cater to the needs of this minority group. In 2017, researchers Tara Galovski and Amy Street set out to change this. Galovski, the director of the Women’s Health Sciences Division at the Veteran

Affairs Department’s National Center for PTSD in Boston; and Street, the deputy director, wanted to create a nationwide network of peer support for female veterans, who, they’ve found, typically don’t share the same experiences their male counterparts have when separating from military service. Much of Galovski’s research has focused on studying the effects of traumatic experiences and therapies for treating post-traumatic stress disorder; Street has more than 20 years experience treating veterans with




HONORING WOMEN mental health issues. Together they built the Women Veteran Network, or WoVeN. “After (women) separate from service, many tell us that they don’t identify as veterans, aren’t recognized as veterans or even asked about their service,” Galovski said. “They often say they can’t find one another in communities, which makes integration into civilian life more challenging. So, we help them build a social support network.” Galovski, who is also a Boston University associate professor along with Street, was asked by the university’s Office of Foundation Relations whether there was a project she wanted to pitch that centered around female veterans. “From our perspective, social support and connections was not only important to mental health and well-being, such services were relatively sparse for women as compared to male veterans,” Galovski said. Once the idea to build a social support network for women was established and developed, veterans in the pilot programs responded positively and WoVeN was created, connecting female veterans at local and national levels.

‘I DIDN’T THINK I BELONGED’ Air Force veteran Brandy Baxter experienced trouble with her transition to civilian life, although it happened several years after her separation from the military. “I joined the Air Force after college and found the structure and organization suited my personality,” Baxter said. “My transition (to civilian life) was nonexistent as I became a military spouse and was still fully immersed in the culture and community. I solely identified as a military spouse until my husband retired.” That was when Baxter realized that she would probably benefit from being a part of the veteran community. “I didn’t consider myself a veteran — all I saw were white men wounded in war, and as an African-American woman who didn’t go to war, I didn’t think I belonged.” Baxter is now passionate about connecting with other female veterans, so they don’t feel excluded. “Leaving the military is challenging, as the military model rebuilds the person. Veterans must allow themselves the space to be rebuilt as a veteran,” Baxter said. “You can’t go back to being who you were before the military.” She joined WoVeN as a peer group leader in the Dallas area and has led two groups since April. “I was already active in the community, so I was able to share WoVeN with others,” Baxter said.



Peer leaders from chapters in multiple cities attend WoVeN’s second leadership training in March 2018 in New Orleans.

Find an area WoVeN chapter near you or start your own by visiting wovenwomenvets.org. Or connect on Facebook at facebook.com/ wovenwomenvets

Most women she encounters join WoVeN to find support outside therapy or medical care. “They were looking for emotional support in community; they wanted to have healthy conversations,” she said.

‘WE KNOW THEY WILL COME HELP’ Supported by a grant from the Walmart Foundation, WoVeN chapters consist of small groups led by peers who follow a set curriculum that then extends to include book clubs, taking part in parades, sports and philanthropic activities. There are chapters in 19 cities, includCONTINUED


Peer leaders Cat Corchado, left, and Valerie Sullivan attend the first WoVeN leadership training session in August 2017 in St. Louis.





In addition to weekly meetups, WoVeN attendees take part in excursions, book clubs and sports — all centered around encouraging women to embrace the veteran community.









SOURCE: National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics

ing Phoenix; Charlotte, N.C.; and Dallas; with plans to expand. Each chapter typically has six to 12 members who meet weekly for two months. While the groups are local, WoVeN is designed to be a national support network with the goal of connecting female veterans across the country, linking them with other similar organizations and disseminating wellvetted resources, Galovski said. WoVeN has a website and Facebook page, which is where most people start their experience, according to Cat Corchado, an Air Force veteran who joined the Charlotte, N.C., chapter at its inception in May 2017. “WoVeN is so different from other groups I’ve been involved with. These are closed groups of community. No one comes or goes. It’s confidential, and we all use our resources to help each veteran find their way,” Corchado said. Galovski has been encouraged by WoVeN’s successes. Surveys indicate that participating veterans showed increases in hopefulness, social support and community engagement after going through the curriculum. “Many of the members describe that they weren’t identifying as a veteran, but now they do. They are talking about it. They are participating in events and engaging in the veteran community,” she noted. “They just feel

so much more connected.” By focusing on six core themes — transition, balance, healthy living, esteem, connections and stress relief — WoVeN is able to help female veterans work through struggles they have with self-identification, job searches and finding their place in their civilian communities. Each meeting focuses on one of the themes, with additional resources, tools and conversations available online. Amid the challenges that female veterans face, they find solace knowing others have gone through the same trials and come out stronger on the other end, Corchado said. “It’s important before women transition from the military that they have a group of other veterans that they can talk to about what they’re going through. WoVeN is that group. No judgment, we just talk about what’s on our minds.” By participating in WoVeN, Corchado and many others have found their “sisterhood.” “When we first come together, we are strangers, but at the end of the eight weeks we are friends and we stay in touch,” Corchado said. “We are now a group of people who can be called on at any time, and we know they will wcome help.”







Jas Boothe, founder of Final Salute, cuts the ribbon July 17, 2018 for “Karen’s Home,” a large transitional residence in Alexandria, Va., that was renovated and expanded as part of a collaboration between Final Salute, the nonprofit HomeAid Northern Virginia and its partners to provide more space for homeless female veterans and their families.

Forward March Final Salute helps homeless female veterans get back on their feet By Rachel Kaufman


AS BOOTHE WAS A lieutenant in the Army Reserves, living in New Orleans, when her unit was called to serve in Iraq in 2005. While training

in Wisconsin, she watched from afar as Hurricane Katrina destroyed her city — and her home. “I lost everything I owned, and I wasn’t able to go salvage anything,” she said. A month later, the single mother was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and was unable to deploy. She and her

son needed a place to stay. “That left me in limbo … homeless and jobless,” she said. She went to the Department of Veterans Affairs for help but was told that housing options CONTINUED

Jas Boothe, Final Salute founder







Final Salute’s H.O.M.E program provides transitional housing for female veterans and their children. Up to 10 women and their families can live rent-free for two years.

for female veterans with children were limited. They suggested she apply for government benefits. “One day I was a soldier and the next day, I was a homeless veteran,” she said. After extensive cancer treatment, she moved to Missouri to live with an aunt in 2006, taking a job with the Army National Guard. Months later, she transferred to D.C., but she never forgot the state of uncertainty she and her son lived through. In 2010, a report on the Oprah Winfrey Show about homeless female veterans prompted Boothe to take action, and she vowed to help other veterans facing similar challenges after serving their country. “As a soldier, I took an oath to never leave a fallen comrade.” To pursue that goal, in 2010 Boothe

founded Final Salute Inc., an organization that helps female veterans by providing temporary housing, emergency financial assistance and job support. The nonprofit has helped 5,000 women and children in 30 states and territories, Boothe said. Final Salute offers a transitional home in Alexandria, Va., with national counseling services through its Housing Outreach Mentorship Encouragement (H.O.M.E.) program, emergency financial assistance through the Savings Assessment and Financial Education (S.A.F.E.) initiative and career counseling and professional workwear through Next Uniform. Through H.O.M.E., up to 10 women and their families can live rent-free at the residence for up to two years. Two women currently reside at the house, newly reopened following a two-year

renovation. Navy veteran Tanya Venable is one of them. “I feel like I was given a second chance,” said Venable, whose two children live there with her. Venable had a good civilian job, when her mother became ill. Caring for an ailing parent while raising kids on her own was difficult for her to manage. She lost her job and couldn’t find another; one thing led to another and she was evicted. After bouncing between friends’ homes, she “was really out of options,” until her mother saw a public service announcement for Final Salute. Venable applied, was accepted and moved into the home in early September. “My kids have their own room, so they like (the space),” Venable said. “We haven’t had our own area in forever. I

don’t have to worry about me and my kids. I have a place to stay, somewhere stable where I can start over and get myself back on my feet.” Women make up a higher share of the military now than ever; nearly 16 percent of the active-duty force across all branches of the military is female. By 2028, it’s estimated that 17 percent of the total veteran population will be women. And women comprise the fastestgrowing segment of the homeless veteran population, according to the VA. Many female veterans don’t seek help from the VA because they don’t see themselves as veterans, said Ann Elizabeth Montgomery, an investigator with the VA National Center on Homelessness Among CONTI NUED







Many families have benefited from Final Salute’s transitional housing program, including Chiquita and Nayeli, left, and Anne-Marie Dixon and her son, Evan.

Veterans. that 30,000 single To apply for “Many times women mothers had deployed to Final Salute don’t consider themselves Iraq and Afghanistan, and services, or to veterans because they 40 percent of active-duty donate to the weren’t in combat, (but) women as of 2006 had organization, visit most veterans were never children.) At the time, finalsaluteinc.org. in combat,” she noted. three in five organizations Other times, women are that received funding reluctant to go to the VA from VA to house veterans because they were victims of sexual at risk of homelessness, under the VA’s assault in the military (6,700 people, Grant and Per Diem program, “did not mostly women, reported sexual assaults have sufficient resources to provide in 2017) and their trauma understandably housing for the children of veterans.” colors their perceptions of the VA. Others “They’ve really been trying to change have children or stay with friends, and things,” said NCHV spokesman Randy have a difficult time asking for support. Brown. “There’s been a big push to make When they do seek help, resources separate housing available for (women) aren’t always available to them. While and families.” the VA is making changes, the majority In September, VA Secretary Robert of services are geared toward men. Wilkie vowed to make more changes at Women seeking medical care complain his department. At the inaugural meeting that the VA lacks health expertise and of the Military Women’s Coalition, a exam space for female patients. Those 44-organization group of military and seeking help to avoid homelessness veteran women organizations, he said find that many of the temporary beds that “the department will be walking with available to them are in men-only dorms you into the rest of the 21st century.” or don’t have room for their children. (A But it’s going to take time to make 2011 paper from the National Coalition changes: “It’s (an issue) of policy catchfor Homeless Veterans (NCHV) found ing up to reality,” Montgomery said.

HELPFUL RESOURCES Local and national organizations are working to address issues facing female veterans. Here are a few: Center For Women Veterans Monitors and coordinates VA benefits, programs and services for female veterans. uva.gov/womenvet

Lady Veterans Connect Emergency financial assistance and transitional housing for female veterans in Lexington, Ky. uladyveteransconnect.org

Foundation for Women Warriors Career mentoring, emergency financial assistance and child care assistance in North Hollywood, Calif. ufoundationforwomenwarriors.org

Grace After Fire Peer-to-peer support and emergency financial assistance in the greater Houston area. ugraceafterfire.org

Housing Choice Voucher The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and VA Supportive Housing Program provide permanent, supportive housing. uva.gov/homeless/hud-vash.asp

She S.E.R.V.E.D Inc. A resource for female veterans that addresses interpersonal stressors that can include post-traumatic stress disorder, sexual assault, unemployment and underemployment. ushe-served.org











His fatigues shredded by an explosion, Marine Staff Sgt. Bob Thoms directs an attack on the strategic Dong Ba Tower in Huê, Vietnam, in February 1968.

A Split Decision Repercussions of Tet not as straightforward as prevailing narrative By Edward Miller



War have long cited the Tet Offensive as a major turning point. Most scholars assert the wave of attacks launched by Vietnamese communist forces in January and February 1968 resulted in a kind of split decision. Although the communists suffered devastating losses during the fighting, the mere fact that they had mounted those attacks convinced a majority of Americans that the war was unwinnable.

Tet is thus seen as a military victory for the United States and its South Vietnamese allies, and an even greater political victory for the communists. According to this narrative, the communists’ political feat forced U.S. leaders to adopt a strategy of disengagement and withdrawal, paving the way for North Vietnam’s eventual conquest of South Vietnam in 1975. On closer inspection, however, neither the military or the political results of Tet seem as straightforward as this view suggests. Indeed, the “victories” of 1968 may have been far less decisive and far more costly to both sides.

From a military standpoint, the communists fell far short of what they aimed to achieve in the operation they called “General Offensive, General Uprising.” Communist leaders expected that their attacks on high-profile urban targets would trigger a popular rebellion, which would lead to the quick collapse of the South Vietnamese army and of South Vietnam itself. Although the military strikes in Saigon and other urban centers were spectacular, they did not produce the anticipated uprising. In fact, the overall effect of these operations was diminished by rushed planning and poor execution.

In Saigon, the initial assaults were conducted by small “special attack” units that had infiltrated the city in advance. Once the offensive began, these units were supposed to be backed by regular combat forces. But many of the regular units did not receive orders in time to join the fight. Even in Huê, the only South Vietnamese city that was attacked and occupied by large numbers of communist troops during the offensive, the “General Uprising” failed to materialize after the General Offensive. As a senior communist commander later admitted, CONTI NUED






In an era of casual talk about “military solutions” in Korea, Iran and Syria, American leaders would do well to contemplate the human toll of the Tet Offensive for both the United States and Vietnam. They should also reflect on the long years of continued war and bloodshed that came after 1968.

the overall goals of the offensive were to adopt a strategy of withdrawal, thus “completely unrealistic.” handing the Vietnamese communists the No official count of communist losses political victory they desperately needed has ever been published, but the U.S. to offset their battlefield losses. military estimated that about 45,000 Johnson, however, did not take enemy personnel were killed during the concrete steps to disengage from the war. first month of the offensive. These were On the contrary, he continued to escalate the worst losses that the communists it. The number of U.S. military personnel had suffered in the war up to that point. in Vietnam rose by more than 20,000 But the U.S. military also concluded that in the months after his announcement. communist forces in South Vietnam And while he claimed to be “substanat the time of the offensive numbered tially reducing” hostilities by suspending nearly 290,000, suggesting that the bombing raids over most of North enemy was far from defeated. The Vietnam, the total tonnage of bombs offensive caused relatively little damage dropped by U.S. aircraft rose nearly 50 to the Viet Cong’s network of clandestine percent in the year after the offensive. operatives in rural villages. In the Instead of seeing the Tet Offensive immediate aftermath of Tet, the commuas a moment that decisively tipped the nists actually increased their control over Vietnam War in favor of the communists, rural areas, as South Vietnamese army we should see it for what it was: a bloody forces were pulled back and ambiguous episode to defend urban zones. in a long war that was The number of U.S. far from ended. Leaders military personnel on both sides claimed killed during the first victories, yet the warfull month of the ring parties were much offensive, February further from achieving 1968, was 2,124. their military and Although this was a political goals than they small fraction of the dared admit. Although U.S. MILITARY estimated communist U.S. troop levels peaked PERSONNEL WERE losses, it was by far the in 1969 and then KILLED IN THE highest monthly death declined, American FIRST MONTH toll suffered by U.S. soldiers continued forces to date. While to fight and die in OF THE OFFENSIVE the number of AmeriVietnam for a full five cans killed in action years after Tet. Meandeclined in March and while, the communists April, the total spiked to 2,169 in May endured many more setbacks — including 1968 — the worst month of the entire another failed offensive in 1972 — before war for U.S. forces. American casualties they finally prevailed in 1975. remained high throughout the summer. In an era of casual talk about After briefly returning to pre-Tet levels in “military solutions” in Korea, Iran and the fall, the death rate soared above 1,000 Syria, American leaders would do well a month for most of the first half of 1969. to contemplate the human toll of the For the U.S. military, the Tet Offensive Tet Offensive for both the United States was not a brief moment of intense and Vietnam. They should also reflect fighting. It inaugurated a sustained on the long years of continued war and period of heavy combat that lasted nearly bloodshed that came after 1968. a year and a half. That combat may have Military offensives are always conproduced a U.S. military victory, but at a ceived as breakthroughs that will place very high price in American blood. armies and nations on a path to victory. For U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, But Tet ’68 reminds us that offensives Tet was a political disaster. In March often bring increased carnage without 1968, following a run on American gold clear victories or defeats for any side. reserves and a near-defeat in the New In war, a split decision can be the most Hampshire primary, Johnson called for costly outcome of all. peace talks with North Vietnam. He Edward Miller is an associate professor of also declared that he would not run for history at Dartmouth College. He served re-election in November. as an adviser on the documentary The Some scholars have seen Johnson’s Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and stunning announcement as the moment Lynn Novick, and is the author of Misalwhen the U.S. gave up its quest for liance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, victory in Vietnam. The rising tide of and the Fate of South Vietnam. anti-war sentiment had forced Johnson



U.S. Marines climb Dong Ba Tower in Huê, the South Vietnamese city that saw the most intense and protracted fighting of the 1968 Tet Offensive.






Defining Moments



The Tet Offensive timeline

North Vietnamese attackers: 67,000 - 84,000 North Vietnamese deaths: 40,000 - 50,000 American deaths: 4,000 South Vietnamese deaths: 4,000 - 8,000

Fighting in major areas: Demilitarized Zone Quang Tri



Phu Bai

Phu Loc Da Nang Hoi An Duy Xuyen Tam Ky


Bong Son Kontum Ankhe



Nau Bon

Qui Nhon

Tuy Hoa


First Lt. Gary D. Jackson carries a South Vietnamese Ranger on Feb. 6, 1968, after an intense battle in Saigon.

By George Petras


HE TET OFFENSIVE WAS a series of surprise simultaneous attacks carried out by communist North Vietnam in nearly 100 cities across the U.S.-supported South Vietnam beginning in January 1968. The attacks coincided with Tet, the Vietnamese New Year celebration, which gave the offensive its name. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces were taken by surprise but defeated most of the attackers within a few days. The longest battle, for Huê, ended March 2. The offensive shocked Americans, already suspicious of official assurances that the war was going well. The outcome helped turn public opinion against the conflict, brought down Lyndon Johnson’s presidency and eventually led to American withdrawal.


Ban Ma Thuot Nha Trang

Following Tet, public opinion turned strongly against the war. When asked whether the U.S. involvement in Vietnam is: A MISTAKE NOT A MISTAKE

Dalat Tay Ninh Duc Hoa

Bien Hoa

Moc Hoa


Gia Dinh

Chau Phu Su Duc Rach Gia

Phan Rang

Vinh Long Can Tho Soc Trang Bac Lieu Ca Mau

My Tho

Phan Thiet

Phuoc Le

Ben Tre Phu Vinh





60% 50% 40%



30% 20% 10% Aug. 1965 SOURCE: GALLUP

Oct. 1967

Feb. 1968

Jan. 1973




CHRONOLOGY Nov. 17, 1967 North Vietnam announces a cease-fire from Jan. 27-Feb. 3, 1968, for the Tet holiday.

with mortar fire and continue with ground assaults. Johnson orders Westmoreland to hold daily press briefings to reassure the U.S. public. RICK MERRON/ASSOCIATED PRESS


Nov. 19 Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam, tells the news program Meet the Press that the U.S. can win the war in two years. Nov. 21 At a National Press Club gathering, Westmoreland says, “We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view.”

KHE SANH | Jan. 21 Ten days before the Tet Offensive starts, the North Vietnamese army begins intense shelling of the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh, near the Laos border. Ground attacks follow. More than 20,000 North Vietnamese troops surround the base, held by 6,000 Marines. The U.S. responds with heavy airstrikes. Marines repel attackers in hand-tohand combat.

SAIGON | Jan. 31 About 4,000 Viet Cong guerrillas attack six targets in Saigon, including the U.S. Embassy, the presidential palace, the airport, radio station and two South Vietnamese military headquarters. At the embassy, guerrillas breach the walls but are killed. The compound is secured seven hours later, but televised coverage of the fighting in Saigon convinces many Americans the war can’t be won.

ditional soldiers. A White House staff member leaks the request to the press.


Feb. 1 Eddie Adams of the Associated Press photographs South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing Viet Cong captain Nguyen Van Lem on a Saigon street. The picture increases U.S. doubts about the war.

Cronkite Jan. 30 As the battle for Khe Sanh continues, communists attack several cities in the north of South Vietnam.

Jan. 17, 1968 U.S. President Lyndon Johnson voices optimism about the war in his State of the Union address: “America will persevere. Our patience and our perseverance will match our power. Aggression will never prevail.”

Jan. 31 Major conflicts of Tet Offensive begin. North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong forces attack about 100 cities and towns across South Vietnam. The attacks begin

HUÊ | Jan. 31 North Vietnamese easily take the city of Huê and begin rounding up foreigners, civilians and military officers connected to the Saigon regime. Nearly 3,000 people are killed and buried in mass graves. U.S. soldiers, Marines and South Vietnamese forces retake the city after extensive houseto-house combat.


Feb. 27 CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite signs off a special news report on the war by saying the war probably cannot be won and will likely end in a stalemate. Feb. 28 Westmoreland privately asks for 206,000 ad-

March 2 The Battle for Huê is declared over with 221 Americans, 384 South Vietnamese troops and about 5,000 communist fighters dead. March 10 The New York Times prints the story of Westmoreland’s troop request. Though half are for the U.S. military’s strategic reserve, many Americans assume the extra forces are needed because Tet was a defeat.

March 22 Johnson announces that Gen. Creighton Abrams will replace Westmoreland as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Johnson scales down Westmoreland’s request for additional troops and authorizes 13,500 additional soldiers.


March 12 Anti-war candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy, D-Minn., wins 42 percent of the vote as he challenges Johnson in the New Hampshire primary in the Democratic presidential race. Johnson wins 49 percent. March 16 Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-N.Y., says he, too, will challenge Johnson in the Democratic presidential race.

March 31 In a TV appearance, Johnson announces a plan to halt bombing of North Vietnam and de-escalate the war. He adds that he will not run for re-election, a decision that rocks the nation. April 8 The siege at Khe Sanh ends. Approximately 291 Americans and 10,000 to 15,000 North Vietnamese are killed. Early May U.S. and North Vietnam begin peace talks in Paris.

TIMELINE The U.S. wanted to contain communist expansion in Asia and had military advisers in South Vietnam as early as 1959. After North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson began sending combat units to Vietnam in 1965. Length of the Tet Offensive against the war:






1961 - 1963 Number of military advisers rises from 500 to 16,000



Aug. 2 Gulf of Tonkin incident

Mar. 5 First combat troops arrive





Dec. U.S. troops now at 485,600

Jan. 31 March 2. Tet Offensive

Nov. 3 U.S. begins withdrawal





Jan. 27 U.S., North Vietnam sign peace accord



Apr. 30 Saigon falls to North Vietnamese





Turning Point of War Mark Bowden’s ‘Huê 1968’ reconstructs battle that changed the narrative on Vietnam Point of the American War in Vietnam. Bowden, who wrote Black Hawk Down, O THOSE WHO REMEMBER the best-selling account of the 1993 battle the Vietnam War, it may seem between U.S. Army Rangers and Somali incredible that today someone militia fighters, spent five years researchcan be a camera-toting tourist ing the Tet Offensive. He conducted more in a place where 20 years of than 50 interviews with Vietnamese and war killed 3 million people (58,000 of Americans who engaged in combat and them U.S. service members) and left with others who were reporting on it. scars across America that may never Huê 1968 is Bowden’s first combatheal. related work since Black Hawk Down, Perhaps the most which was adapted into significant event of that a 2001 movie of the same long war was the 1968 name. Filmmakers MiTet Offensive, a series chael Mann and Michael of surprise attacks by De Luca plan to develop communist forces to a TV miniseries based on overthrow the U.S.Bowden’s new book. backed South Vietnamese Of Huê and Vietnam, government. Bowden writes: “The The Tet Offensive Battle of Huê is a occurred as U.S. officials microcosm for the entire were telling the public — conflict. With nearly half growing impatient with a century of hindsight, a war that had seemingly Huê deserves to be widely slowed to a stalemate — remembered as the single that the enemy was near bloodiest battle of the ATLANTIC MONTHLY PRESS defeat and the end was war, one of its defining in sight. Fighting took moments and one of the place across South Vietnam, and in most most intense urban combat battles in places the attacks were beaten back American history.” within a few days. The worst was in the The author uses eyewitness accounts city of Huê (pronounced hway), where from both sides to guide us through the the communists were defeated after battle and its aftermath. The story puts nearly a month of vicious urban combat. readers inside U.S. battalions and with But while the Americans could claim teams of North Vietnamese infiltrators. a military victory, the public questioned Bowden provides compelling insight official assurances and began doubting into the North’s infiltration of South the war was winnable. The antiwar Vietnamese society and to the planning movement gained prominence. It’s these and execution of the offensive — and military and public-opinion tipping how the failure of support to materialize points that Mark Bowden examines in his in the South helped defeat it. He details 2017 meticulously analytical and multievents leading to the offensive and the perspective book, Huê 1968: A Turning American military’s reaction — the initial

By George Petras



U.S. Marines hold their position near Huê’s old imperial citadel on Feb. 15, 1968. The U.S. began withdrawing troops from Vietnam in 1969 and was out in 1973. Saigon fell in 1975.

disbelief and denial of commanding officers and the heroism, suffering and deaths of those on the battlefield. The author also takes care to point out that news stories were more accurate than official U.S. accounts, and how the pessimistic broadcast of respected CBS newsman Walter Cronkite helped shift public opinion against the war. The U.S. began withdrawing troops in 1969 and was fully out in 1973. Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, fell in 1975.

The U.S. established diplomatic relations with the unified Vietnam in 1995. Vietnam is still communist, but, like China, has relaxed somewhat to attract international investment. In America, despite shelves of books about the war, Vietnam eludes understanding for many. Huê 1968, however, gives us the clearest picture yet of what happened in a country where today tourists casually shoot photos where murderous shots were once fired.






Focusing Beyond the Lens John Olson’s Vietnam photos captured defining moments. Now he tells stories behind them. By Matt Alderton


As North Vietnamese soldiers surrounded their position inside a villa in the city of Huê, John Olson captured this photograph: One wounded Marine keeps watch, his rifle at the ready, while another recites the Lord’s Prayer.

PUTTING NAMES TO FACES Some of the Marines in John Olson’s photographs have been identified, but others remain nameless. As part of his mission to identify all the men, Olson has set up tet1968.com, a website that allows the public to assist with his research and share their experiences of the Tet Offensive.


Drafted in 1966, John Olson became the only combat photographer in Vietnam for Stars and Stripes.

ANY OF THE YOUNG men who were drafted to serve in the Vietnam War had spent their adolescence hoping and praying to stay home. Instead of acne, college and courtship, they lay awake at night worried about gunfire, homesickness and death. John Olson was not one of those young men. Instead of anguishing over how to avoid Vietnam, he was obsessed with how to get there. Not because he wanted to fight the war, but because he wanted to photograph it. “As a very young man I identified what I wanted to do as a career, and that was to be … a world-class war photographer,” recalled Olson, now 71 and living in Chatham, N.Y. That’s exactly what he became. Drafted into the Army in 1966, 19-year-old Olson was assigned to the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. As its sole combat photographer in Vietnam, he had the autonomy to go nearly anywhere and photograph anything. And in February 1968, he decided to go to Huê (pronounced hway). Part of the Tet Offensive, the Battle of Huê was one of Vietnam’s longest and bloodiest engagements. It began Jan. 31, 1968, and ended four weeks later. More than 200 Americans were killed and hundreds more wounded; there were thousands of North and South Vietnamese casualties.

Olson spent three days embedded with U.S. Marines tasked with retaking Huê from the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong who had seized the ancient city in the opening hours of the Tet Offensive. Fifty years later, the photos he took are the subject of The Marines and Tet: The Battle That Changed the Vietnam War, a special exhibit at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Olson’s work is on display through July 8, 2019, along with exclusive audio interviews and artifacts from the men he photographed. “I don’t know of any other historical story … where you can see the participants and 50 years later hear them analyze the event,” Olson said. The exhibit does more than describe the Battle of Huê; in a visceral way, it re-creates it. Olson’s best-known photo shows wounded Marines atop a mud-crusted tank-turned-ambulance. A bloodied tourniquet hugs one of them above the left knee. Another Marine struggles to sit upright, his face wrapped in bandages. In the foreground, a bare-chested Marine with a bandage over his heart lies on a door that’s been fashioned into a litter; one comrade cradles him, while another holds an IV bottle. Such images became seared in Americans’ collective conscience, yet the man who took the photos remembers almost nothing about them. When he conceived The Marines and Tet in 2015, his research CONTI NUED






“We were all kids. It was an act of God that any of us got out alive, and to be able to sit back and analyze it at this age in life is a blessing. Have I fully processed it yet? No. I don’t know if I ever will. But I wouldn’t trade that time in my life for anything.” — JOHN OLSON, combat photographer


Above, Olson’s photograph of wounded Marines being evacuated from the battlefield atop a tank is one of the iconic images of the Vietnam War. Olson turned that image into a 3D print for the exhibit, The Marines and Tet, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

led him to a 1968 article in which a bystander recounted the horrific scenes he’d witnessed in Huê. The story was both familiar and foreign. Then, Olson realized the bystander was him. “The article described my three days in Huê to a T, but what it described was far more horrific than anything I’d seen,” said Olson, whose photographs appeared in Life magazine, which hired him as its

youngest-ever staff photographer when he returned from Vietnam. “I blocked it all out. Myself and a lot of these men saw such horror that our minds won’t let us go a lot of places.” Although his mental block long protected Olson from his memories, decades later, they began to percolate. “As we approached the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, I began

to wonder what had happened to the proprietary process known as “tactile young men I photographed,” Olson said. printing.” Of the 20 large-format photo“So, I set out to find them and capture in graphs featured in The Marines and Tet, audio how the Tet Offensive in Huê had 10 also are presented in tactile versions affected the rest of their lives.” for the benefit of blind and low-vision Although most remain anonymous, museumgoers. Olson has identified and interviewed “This exhibit is meant to be seen, 10 of the 200 men who appear in his touched, felt and heard,” Rhule said. photographs — including A.B. Grantham, She added that the exhibit also sends the Marine on the door whose chest an important message about the First wound is the emotional Amendment, which center of his famous is the inspiration for tank photo. the Newseum and is “A.B. Grantham engraved on its front TACTILE PRINTS survived,” said Patty facade. “We want to ON DISPLAY Rhule, the Newseum’s remind the American The exhibition, The director of exhibit public about the power development, who Marines and Tet: The of a free press,” she Battle That Changed co-created The Marines said, emphasizing how and Tet with Olson. the Vietnam War, is on Olson’s photographs display at the Newseum “He heard them say, helped shape public ‘This one is not going in Washington, D.C., opinion about the to make it,’ and later and was produced in Vietnam War in a way realized he was the partnership with Stars that ultimately led to one they were talking and Stripes and 3DPhoAmerica’s withdrawal toWorks, which converts about. Once stories like from it. “Photographers that go into your brain, images to 3D tactile and reporters who you can’t forget them.” prints for the blind and cover war are really The stories are just vision-impaired. important, and this as meaningful for their u3dphotoworks.com story really powerfully tellers as for listeners. shows why.” “Each one of these For Olson, what interviews was highly resonates most about emotional, and for many men I think it the exhibit isn’t political in nature; it’s was some sort of closure,” Olson said. personal. “Listening to these men talk was really “We were all kids. It was an act of God powerful.” that any of us got out alive, and to be able Although The Marines and Tet is a to sit back and analyze it at this age in mostly visual exhibit, its effects even life is a blessing,” he said. “Have I fully extend to the blind. Olson is founder of processed it yet? No. I don’t know if I ever 3DPhotoWorks, a company that turns will. But I wouldn’t trade that time in my 2D photographs into 3D prints using a life for anything.”


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The reopening of Veterans Valor Plaza in Long Beach, Calif. LIEZL ESTIPONA/CITY OF LONG BEACH

Paying Tribute Memorials across country honor those who served in Vietnam By Matt Alderton



D.C., is an emotional touchstone that draws more than 5 million visitors a year. Some scour the wall’s 58,318 names for those of friends or relatives. Others simply reflect, wondering what the war was like if they didn’t live through it, and remembering if they did. It’s a powerful place. But it’s not the only place. Memorials in communities across the country pay respect to those who fought and died in the conflict in Vietnam. One is at Veterans Valor Plaza in Long Beach, Calif., where a decommissioned Huey helicopter hovers over the names of 108 local men who died in the war.

Originally dedicated in 2000, the plaza had spent the past several years behind a locked fence, erected to deter vandals. “You couldn’t get up close and experience the memorial the way it was intended to be experienced,” said Long Beach councilmember Rex Richardson. When he took office as vice mayor in 2014, he made it a personal mission to reopen the site to visitors. His office spent $250,000 on fresh landscaping, lighting, sidewalks, seating and signage. The revitalized Valor Plaza was dedicated anew on Nov. 11, 2017 — Veterans Day. “The people I represent care deeply about Vietnam veterans, and in my opinion it’s absolutely critical that we continue to recognize those who sacrificed,” Richardson said. That recognition means a lot to veterans

“People finally stopped blaming the warrior for the war, and that led to a nationwide effort to memorialize those who served and died.” — MARC LEEPSON, Vietnam veteran such as Marc Leepson, arts editor, senior writer and columnist for The VVA Veteran, the national magazine of Vietnam Veterans of America. “When the war was over, the nation turned its back on us,” said Leepson, who remembers that attitudes finally changed after the 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. “Overwhelmingly, people finally stopped blaming the warrior for the war, and that led to a nationwide effort to

memorialize those who served and died. It was a real cathartic thing for the country and for me.” In the 1990s, Vietnam Veterans of America began compiling information on state and local memorials to veterans of the conflict. Although he doesn’t have a comprehensive list, Leepson estimates there are more than 1,500 such memorials nationwide. Here are several that are worth a visit:



ECHOES FROM VIETNAM VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIAL OF GREATER ROCHESTER New York This memorial covers 2.5 acres in Highland Park. Dedicated in 1996, it includes a grove of trees honoring Vietnam-era Medal of Honor recipients and a walkway with 280 bollards bearing the names of Rochester-area service members. TINA MACINTYRE-YEE/ROCHESTER DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE


Oregon Vietnam Veterans Living Memorial, Portland

Scheduled to open by Veterans Day, this will be the only national museum dedicated to honoring U.S. veterans from all services in all eras. Inside, interactive exhibits will narrate veterans’ personal stories. Outside, the 2.5-acre Memorial Grove will offer quiet reflection.


OREGON VIETNAM VETERANS LIVING MEMORIAL Portland Dedicated in 1987, this memorial occupies a hillside at Hoyt Arboretum within Portland’s Washington Park. A spiral path traces the sides of a grassy bowl in the earth, ending at a black granite wall bearing the names of Oregonians killed in the Vietnam War.


KENTUCKY VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIAL Frankfort Dedicated in 1988, this landmark honors 125,000 Kentuckians who served in Vietnam. The names of 1,105 who died in the war are inscribed around a giant sundial. On the anniversary of each veteran’s death, the gnomon’s shadow touches that person’s name in tribute.

Created in 1966, the nation’s first Vietnam veterans memorial is known locally as “the hill that heals.” Occupying a grassy knoll in McIntire Park, the memorial honors 26 fallen servicemen from Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

TEXAS CAPITOL VIETNAM VETERANS MONUMENT Austin The nation’s newest Vietnam veterans’ memorial was dedicated in 2014. Its centerpiece is a 14-foot sculpture of five infantrymen, inside of which are personalized dog tags honoring each of the 3,417 Texas service members who died or went missing in Vietnam.



Located just northeast of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is free to visit and open 24 hours a day. The memorial includes the names of more than 58,000 men and women who gave their lives in service during the conflict.








Genes May Unlock Cures VA’s Million Veteran Program’s vast DNA database will benefit future generations By Patricia Kime



every disease and illness seen in veterans and translate the information to the population at large,” she added. “We really wanted to dedicate the resources to being able to answer questions that no one else may be able to ask,” Muralidhar said, referring to the fact that research sometimes can’t be pursued because of a dearth of genetic material to study.

to discern deadly cancers from non-life-threatening ones, dissecting the genetics of diabetes, and examining whether certain gene anomalies are a risk factor for suicide and numerous other health conditions affecting U.S. veterans. At the heart of these pursuits is TAILORED TREATMENTS the world’s largest genetic databank, Veterans make excellent donors for a collection of DNA from more than scientific research because they have 700,000 vets used by scientists pursuing detailed medical records, including Xbreakthroughs in rays, dental records, precision medicine. prescriptions and Such research is lab results, that precisely why the accompany their U.S. Department samples, with some of Veterans Affairs records dating Office of Research back more than 40 and Development years, according to established the VA officials. Being biobank, called the able to compare Million Veteran genetic material Program, or MVP, with documented in 2011 — to unlock incidences of the mysteries of disease or environgenetic variation mental exposures and develop treatgives researchers ments for currently an understanding incurable diseases. of genetic factors in “Without a the role of disease massive resource development, of genetic mateFRANK CURRAN which could lead to rial to review, most Dr. Don Humphries checks blood samples advanced treatgenetic studies at the Massachusetts Veterans Epidemiments tailored to an are limited by the ology Research and Information Center. individual’s DNA, sample size and environment and don’t include the statistical power to overall health. detect genetic variations,” explained MVP Ray Lay had been in the Marine Corps program director Sumitra Muralidhar. for a little more than a year in 1978 But with nearly three-quarters of a when he had a psychotic episode and million veterans enrolled in MVP, the VA’s CONTINUED databank could “provide information on







CREATING A DATABASE With data spanning several decades, the Million Veteran Program is one of the most diverse genetic repositories: 3.19% .97%

.11% 1.25%

7.22% 21.5% 10.78%


22.72% 48.74% 23.04%

Sample collection time frame n Sept. 2001 or later n Aug. 1990 to Aug. 2001 (Gulf War) n May 1975 to July 1990 n Aug. 1964 to April 1975 (Vietnam War) n Feb. 1955 to July 1964 n July 1950 to Jan. 1955 (Korean War) n Jan. 1947 to June 1950 n Dec. 1941 to Dec. 1946 n Nov. 1941 or earlier n Multiple service eras n Missing date information

Million Veteran Program coordinator Chad Gallien speaks with a veteran during the 2018 American Legion National Convention in Minneapolis, where the VA enrolled more than 150 participants.

SOURCE: research.va.gov


subsequently left the service. Undiagnosed and untreated, he spiraled into substance abuse and homelessness and even spent time in jail. But 10 years ago, a diagnosis of schizophrenia helped to transform his life. Today, he is married, owns a house and serves as a certified recovery specialist and VA peer support provider in Indiana. He largely credits the VA for his recovery, which is one of the reasons he decided to donate his DNA to the MVP. He hopes it will help other veterans get the care they need before their lives unravel. “I’ve experienced it all because of my mental health condition. I do hope more will be learned — a cure, treatments or maybe even some preventions — as a result of the program,” Lay said.

ENCOURAGING FINDINGS In 2015, the Obama administration announced the launch of the Precision Medicine Initiative, an effort the White House asserted would be “an innovative approach that takes into account individual differences in people’s genes, environments and lifestyles.” MVP has played a key role in the precision medicine research that has followed that launch, allowing scientists from government and nonprofit institutions, private entities and universities, to access data on specific diseases and use the information to accelerate their research. The goal is to develop personalized care, including prevention strategies, therapies, medical devices and cures. Already, the program has yielded results. In 2017, VA researchers found

that patients with resistant hypertension are at increased risk of heart attack (23 percent higher) and kidney failure (144 percent higher). The research didn’t explain why the condition contributes to end stage renal disease, but it could help doctors identify kidney issues in patients with high blood pressure and be more aggressive in controlling it. Thirty-one more studies are underway, including research into the genetics of osteoarthritis, breast cancer in female veterans, tinnitus, diabetes and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “The study on PTSD is specific to combat-exposed veterans, and we are looking at the genetics of re-experiencing symptoms so that’s really going to be significant (to veterans),” Muralidhar said. “We also are studying body mass

index, lipids, high blood pressure.” Shanda Taylor Boyd joined the MVP program in 2016 at a Disabled American Veterans convention. The former Army nurse who served for 23 years experienced a head injury in a car accident and has PTSD. She said she joined, in part, to pay the VA back for the care she received. “VA changed my life,” Taylor Boyd said. “I was asking God to take my life. I used to be a hard-charger and there I was; I couldn’t be a mom; I couldn’t be a wife … but the programs the VA offered — when I got to my first (traumatic brain injury) clinic, that is when I knew I could get help.” Taylor Boyd signed up for the MVP program at about the time the program CONTI NUED






Navy veteran Jonathan Brewer prepares to give a blood sample drawn by LeAnne Pomeroy at the Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Milwaukee. MARK HOFFMAN/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL

ENROLL IN THE PROGRAM Funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Research and Development, the Million Veteran Program (MVP) is a national, voluntary initiative. MVP is rolling out at VA medical centers, and veterans who are users of the VA health care system are eligible to participate. To find out if a center near you is accepting new participants, call 866-441-6075 or visit www.research.va.gov/mvp/ all-clinics.cfm.

was surpassing a half-million participants that include former VA Secretary Bob McDonald, who in July 2016 became the 441,196th person to join.

CONTINUING TO SERVE Nearly 9 million veterans are enrolled in VA health care, a requirement for participating in the MVP program. About 49 percent of MVP members are from the Vietnam era, 23 percent are Gulf War-era veterans and 11 percent are post-9/11 service members. Because the biorepository of genetic profiles skews male, which can affect studies, MVP administrators are actively recruiting women, who make up 9 percent of participants. Organizers also

continually seek minority participants, although from an epidemiological standpoint, the program is one of the most diverse genetic repositories: 18 percent of participants are African-American, 7 percent are Hispanic and 2 percent are Native American, Muralidhar said. Members enroll in the program by donating blood and filling out a questionnaire at a VA clinic or hospital with an MVP collection site. The donation takes about 20 minutes. Samples are assigned a number independent of the veteran’s personal information and are stored at a biorepository at the VA New England Healthcare System in Bedford, Mass. Seven Bridges, a biomedical data

analysis company, facilitates release of the information to private and academic researchers who need access to the vast database. According to the VA, the data cannot be traced back to individual patients, although all information on the patient is linked to the barcode number. The goal is to store 1 million samples, but the VA doesn’t plan to stop there if more veterans want to join. And Muralidhar suspects they will: “Veterans really look at this as another chance to serve their country. They are very altruistic, and it’s very humbling to see why they want to join the program. The VA is an ideal place to take on a project like this because it’s not only helping veterans, it’s helping everyone else.”











Managing the Mystery Diverse options for treating phantom limb pain By Rebecca Alwine



Gadson had no understanding of phantom limb pain before 2007, when both his legs were amputated above the knee after he was wounded in Iraq by a roadside bomb. Now, he lives with that pain every day. “It’s not constant 24/7. It’s not always debilitating, but it’s a daily battle and sometimes results in painful, sleepless nights,” he said. “Sometimes I have sleepless nights where the pain hovers in the 7-8-9 (range on a scale of 0 to 10), but usually I have pain that’s at a 2-3 about half a dozen times a day. There are moments when it hits a 10, but they don’t last long.” In the United States, nearly 2 million people live with limb loss, according to the Amputee Coalition, a Virginia-based organization that estimates there are

185,000 new extremity amputations each year. Veterans Affairs medical facilities treat nearly 90,000 patients with amputations a year, and 1,650 service members lost limbs as a result of injuries in Iraq or Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, many of these patients experience related pain, with nearly 80 percent reporting phantom pain, according to recent research. When amputees experience phantom limb pain, they often describe it as though the limb feels distorted or twisted. Such sensations originally were thought to be psychiatric in nature, but studies of patients experiencing traumatic amputations, such as limb loss from a land mine, indicate that the feelings may be related to physical changes in the peripheral and central nervous systems. Amputees know their limbs are no longer there, but their brains keep trying to reconcile the loss, causing patients to feel pain where

Retired Army Col. Greg Gadson in 2014 SGT. MIKKI L. SPRENKLE/U.S. ARMY

the brain thinks the limbs remain. Despite the overwhelming number of amputees in the U.S., physicians still lack understanding of the physiology behind phantom pain. And not every amputee experiences it, adding to the mystery. Phantom limb pain typically starts in the first few months following the amputation, starting out at its most severe. After six months to a year, the pain gradually subsides. But for many, like Gadson, it can reappear without warning and may be intense. To help patients experiencing initial or recurrent phantom limb pain, the VA works with them to identify the origins of the pain and develop treatments to manage it. Dr. Joseph Webster, national medical director for the VA’s Amputation System of Care, recommends that amputees and their caregivers understand and accept CONTI NUED






Occupational therapy is an important part of recovery after limb loss. SEAMAN APPRENTICE JOSEPH BOOMHOWER/U.S. NAVY


Retired Army Col. Greg Gadson had both legs amputated in 2007 and said he lives with pain every day.



that phantom pain has no typical or predictable pattern. “There is a large amount of variability depending on the individual — both when it starts and how long it lasts,” he said. It’s integral, he added, that when VA physicians talk to veterans about what to expect, letting them know that they are not alone in their pain enables them to move forward with their treatment options. “Education includes the normalcy of the experience for anyone who has had an amputation,” Webster said. A sense of community is also essential to service members and veterans. “I know someone who is a double, abovethe-knee amputee like me, and we were doing an event where he had temporary debilitating pain,” Gadson recalled. “I count my blessings that it’s not that bad for me. I have an appreciation and understanding of their pain.”

UNDERSTANDING TREATMENT OPTIONS Traditional medical treatment for phantom pain includes prescription medications, but these aren’t typically the first line of approach, according to Webster. “Noninvasive strategies and non-narcotic medicines allow veterans to take more charge over their pain with little side effects,” he said. Webster also noted that while the type of injury that led to amputation does not seem to influence whether a patient develops phantom limb pain, there may be a tie to the management of the pain. “If the patient has learned to manage their pain prior to surgery, they may be able to manage phantom limb pain in a similar way,” Webster explained. He also identified the importance of working to find out where the pain is coming from first. “Someone can have a pinched nerve in

their back that causes radiating pain and can feel like it radiates down to where their leg used to be. This isn’t really phantom limb pain and means that the pinched nerve needs to be treated,” said Webster. While almost every amputee experiences some kind of pain after surgery, two-thirds report residual limb pain, which is different from phantom limb pain. Residual limb pain, which was once called “stump pain,” stems from the actual site, and can be tied to a specific, and treatable, cause. Nerve entrapment in scar tissue and trauma from surgery or infection are common causes. Residual limb pain usually subsides as the wound heals. For true phantom limb pain, some patients find non-narcotic medications — often anti-seizure drugs such as gabapentin or carbamazepine that work

to control pain signals or quell sensitive nerve cells — help manage symptoms. Narcotics also may be prescribed, but patients and their physicians must weigh the trade-off of side effects, which can include constipation, sedation and addiction. Webster added that many veterans prefer to address phantom limb pain with alternative therapies such as yoga, acupuncture, tai chi and relaxation sessions. Gadson agreed, admitting that while he initially thought treatment was “silly,” he now sees a reduction in the high spikes of pain when he sees an acupuncturist every few months. “Early on, I was closed-minded,” Gadson said. Finally, many veterans benefit from mirror therapy, which, according to Webster, involves using a mirror to reflect CON TIN UED





HEALTH & HEALING the existing limb, making it appear that there are two appendages. This can trick the brain into thinking that the missing limb exists. With this type of therapy, “often patients describe the pain as feeling like their missing limb is positioned in an odd way. Positioning the remaining limb in the same (odd) position and moving it to the desired position repeatedly, and over time, can help the patient feel as though they are moving their missing leg to a more comfortable and natural position,” Webster said. In a 2017 study, 89 percent of amputees saw a decrease in pain with mirror therapy after doing it 15 minutes a day, five times a week, for four weeks. Other therapies for phantom pain include cognitive-behavioral therapy, which uses behavioral modification to bolster happiness and address issues by focusing on solutions. Therapy also can help patients feel as though they are gaining control over the pain — an effective pain management technique in itself, according to Webster. He added that veterans and their caregivers should work closely with their medical providers to find a tailor-made solution to their pain. “We have to take an individual approach for each patient and take a holistic, integrative health approach to treatment,” Webster said.

TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCEMENTS As recently as 1983, successful treatment options for phantom limb pain were few and far between. Throughout the past 35 years, progress has been made in both the variety and effectiveness of these options. Researchers at Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va., hope that a peripheral nerve stimulator will prove to be another treatment option for phantom limb pain. The therapy works by inserting an electrode into a nerve that is still present in the amputated residual limb and using low-intensity stimulation to reduce the pain by blocking the transmission of the nerve signals associated with pain. Webster said researchers are starting to see some success with this option. Others have found relief through smaller technological advancements. Gadson relies on a smartphone app called Painly to help him connect with others experiencing chronic pain. The app brings together people in mental or physical pain, providing information — and a social community — when they need it. Painly, for which Gadson serves as an adviser, was created by Patriapps,

Occupational therapy assistant Lynn Boulanger uses mirror therapy to help address phantom pain for Marine Cpl. Anthony McDaniel. SEAMAN APPRENTICE JOSEPH BOOMHOWER/U.S. NAVY

a software company that aims to connect veterans, according to founder, CEO and Army veteran Drew Bartkiewicz: “Pain is a social science as much as science itself.” The virtual reality app WiseMind helps patients focus on mindfulness therapy. Development company Realiteer Corp, which created WiseMind, aims to help amputees, and those with abuse and depression, through virtual reality. In addition to offering occupational and physical therapy programs, the app has an option for VR mirror therapy, where patients can see their mirrored limbs from all angles and perform tasks. WiseMind is available on Steam for the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive for $20. Gadson said that having phantom limb pain is not “the end of the world.” “Sometimes people ask me how long it took me to recover, and I know they want me to say something like 15 to 18 months, but are you truly ever recovered?” Gadson said. “I live with phantom limb pain every day. … The pain lets me know I’m alive.”


The virtual reality app, WiseMind, includes an option for mirror therapy, allowing patients to see their mirrored limbs from all angles. The app also teaches mindfulness therapy, a type of meditation that can help with substance abuse, stress and anxiety.






Good Game Disc golf helps Army veteran adjust to civilian life

By Nick Buckley


N A RAINY DAY in June,

the clouds cleared just in time for Travis Gambee to show off his disc golf course. He’s not the owner, technically, but the 18-hole layout on the Custer Greens Golf Course at the Battle Creek Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Michigan wouldn’t be there without him. As the sun peeked out and helicopters from the nearby Air National Guard Base flew overhead, Gambee and his 13-year-old daughter, Kasey, navigated the course that he and his friend Eric Dingman designed, with input and financial support from the local disc golf community. Like a proud new dad, he spoke glowingly about its potential.

“I wanted to build a disc golf course and wanted it to be used,” Gambee said. “It’s on the VA property, and I know it’s going to be utilized, and it’s going to be utilized in a way that helped me, so other people can do it the way that I did it.” Gambee is an Army veteran, having spent nine years in the service with the 118th Infantry Regiment. The Richland, Mich., native said he struggled to adjust back to civilian life and “was really a shut-in.” While receiving treatment at the Battle Creek VA, a friend introduced him to disc golf. He’s been playing since August 2014, “My first time out throwing a disc, I fell in love with it, and after that I was hooked,” Gambee said. “I was out almost every day practicing, and for two years every weekend I was in a tournament, traveling around to

play in them.” His newfound love of the sport helped him in his recovery, said Gambee, who lost nearly 50 pounds and improved his self confidence: “It got my mind off of reliving in the past to looking at how I can get better at this sport.” Disc golf also provided bonding time between father and daughter. “Usually I would sit at home and watch movies on the couch all day, and it would get boring,” Kasey said. “So my dad asked if I wanted to play, and I said sure. I just practiced a lot with my dad, and he taught me a lot of stuff he learned from his friends. “It gets me out of the house. My mom always wanted me to do a sport, and I never really liked the other sports, but this sport is actually really fun to play.” Kasey finished fourth in her age

group at the 2017 Professional Disc Golf Association Amateur and Junior World Championships in Iowa, and has won 12 tournaments since 2016. She designed the short tee pads for the Custer Greens disc golf course. “She started playing, and she just got better and better,” Gambee said. “We talk about everything (when we disc golf). Nothing is off the table. … The more we did it, the more the communication opened up between us. We grew closer the more we started playing the game.” The nonprofit New Level Sports Ministries is contracted by the Battle Creek VA to run the Custer Greens Golf Course, which is open to the public. Gambee and Dingman, members of the Mitten State Disc Golf Club, approached Denise McCoy of New Level Sports about potentially putting baskets on the course.




“We talk about everything (when we disc golf). Nothing is off the table. … The more we did it, the more the communication opened up between us. We grew closer the more we started playing.” — TRAVIS GAMBEE U.S. Army veteran

Gambee helped design a disc golf course at the Battle Creek Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Michigan. He often plays with daughter, Kasey, top right. GETTY IMAGES; PHOTOS BY NICK BUCKLEY

“We love sports for both veteran therapy and youth, and our effort here is to make this course a family atmosphere, and disc golf is a perfect fit,” McCoy said. “It works as therapy and something for kids to do. … It’s exciting to see the life added to the course, so we’re extremely pleased.” The course charges a $3 walking fee or a $9 cart fee, with an option for a $50 annual membership for walking. Layout and scorecards are available on the free disc golf app called UDisc. The organizers hope to eventually bring tournaments and fundraisers to the course, as well as add new tee pads. Gambee said he’s already got a name for a tournament: Custer’s Last Throw. “You build it, they will come,” Gambee said. “And they are coming.”





A Place of Their Own Veterans, Gold Star families connect, heal at new recreation camp designed just for them By Rina Rapuano



Army veteran and a Gold Star mother whose oldest son died in Afghanistan almost nine years ago, opportunities for emotional healing have been tough to come by. Her son, Kielin Dunn, was a 19-year-old lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps when he was killed in action by sniper fire. Not only were Campbell and her husband, Gary, dealing with the devastating loss of a child, but they had two young children at home who were struggling with the loss of their big brother. “I felt like there was nobody else on the

planet who could understand what I was going through,” the Virginia Beach, Va., resident said. “There’s just not enough words to show how you’re feeling.” After becoming an entrenched part of the Virginia Beach Gold Star families community, Campbell was one of the first people Ross Vierra thought of when the charitable organization he co-founded in 2007, The Virginia Gentlemen Foundation, decided to create a recreational facility for veterans and Gold Star families. Building on the success of nearby Grommet Island Park, an oceanfront park and playground for disabled children, the group teamed up with the city of Virginia Beach and YMCA

of South Hampton Roads to open JT’s Camp Grom, an adaptive adventure park that opened its doors this past summer. While any family with a member or relative who is disabled can go to Camp Grom, Vierra, who served seven years in the U.S. Navy, said Virginia Gentlemen wanted its next project to reach the area’s community of veterans, Gold Star families and wounded warriors. They began planning four years ago, and eventually raised $15 million to build the 13-acre facility that sits on 70 acres owned by The Virginia Gentlemen Foundation. “We wanted to take folks with like CONTI NUED







experiences and get them together so they can feel safe,” he said. “A Gold Star family can’t walk around like a regular family. The person across from them usually can’t relate to losing a loved one in combat.” The team designing Camp Grom — short for “grommet,” a term referring to younger, less experienced surfers — listened intently to Campbell’s suggestions, such as providing a meditation space. The result was a reflection garden. “That’s one of the things I asked for when they were talking about developing the camp,” said Campbell, whose husband is a retired Navy senior chief petty officer. “You can’t have a facility for Gold Star families and not have a place for them

personally to go to so they can remember their fallen heroes, so I was really happy to see that.” A typical day at Camp Grom’s family day program begins with an opening ceremony, and participants engage in numerous activities, such as alpine climbing, archery, swimming, kayaking, basketball and soccer. Lunch is included in the entry fee. On select weekends, families can spend the day doing those things and more, including a family game show, card tournament and ice cream social. Registration is required so the facility can be sure to have the needed staff on hand, and the camp will run most of the activities from early spring to late fall since many of them are outdoors.

Andrew Yancey, the current chairman of Virginia Gentlemen, says several amenities were designed specifically for the facility: “We have a zero-entry lazy river, so you can take a wheelchair in and get into a tube instead of getting into the big crane chair. The cable-wakeboard that pulls you back and forth, the harness system on the Alpine climbing tower — (were) all designed specifically for this camp.” He’s also proud of the splash park and basketball court with extra-soft flooring for those in wheelchairs, a room for autistic visitors that features tactile walls and toys for stimulation and learning, and CONTI NUED






ADAPTIVE ADVENTURE YMCA JT’s Camp Grom is an adaptive summer day camp in Virginia Beach, Va., for veterans, service members, Gold Star families and wounded warriors. The camp, which is only open on select weekend days, also caters to non-military families with mixed abilities. Accessible activities and facilities include cable-wakeboarding, a stocked fishing lake, outdoor lazy river, Alpine climbing tower, archery and a sensory room. The daily fee for the camp is $40 per person or $100 for a group of 10, but children younger than 4 get in free. No YMCA membership is required. Visit ymcashr.org/ contact-us-ymcajts-camp-grom to make a reservation.


a resistance swimming pool designed to help wounded warriors rebuild strength. “We like to think of it as rehab through recreation,” Yancey added. But for many veterans, the wounds aren’t confined to the body, and the fellowship of those who understand them best helps the healing process. “When I go to the camp, I see other veterans uniting around each other, supporting and acknowledging what they’re going through — post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury or physical disabilities,” Vierra said. “There are people just like you going through the same systematic and emotional issues, and you can come together and bond. You can be engaged in every element, not

sitting on the sidelines.” That engagement of all participants, whether they are disabled veterans or children of service members, was essential to the mission of bringing families together. It’s what distinguishes Camp Grom from theme parks such as nearby Busch Gardens, he noted, where those in wheelchairs often can’t take part in the fun. Yancey recalled one family that attended the camp this summer. “They have twin daughters, and one is disabled,” he recalled. “When they came to the camp for the first time, the look on that little girl’s face when she was doing the climbing tower (with her sister) at the same time in the special harness we have, their faces just lit up.”

Campbell says that when Vierra approached her about Camp Grom, she had been fruitlessly looking for a similar facility to help her own family cope with Kielin’s death. To have such a place in her own community has shown her that Virginia Beach — an area full of veterans and military-connected families and facilities — is there for support. “I knew then in that moment what the community felt about us as a family, our sacrifice,” she said of her first visit to Camp Grom. “You can say ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ a million times, but when you put your time, energy and money to show how sorry you are, I knew we were a part of the community. We were accepted and not forgotten.”






Paul Mitchell, a social worker at the Tomah VA Medical Center in Tomah, Wis., demonstrates how using a U.S. Army combat simulator can help treat PTSD. PHOTOS BY MARK HOFFMAN/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL

Facing Fears In Wisconsin, a combat simulator helps veterans heal By Meg Jones



mother and brother goodbye in March and then swallowed what he hoped was a lethal amount of pills. A friend of Nelson’s had recently committed suicide and the 30-year-old Iraq veteran figured “if he can’t make it, neither can I.” But his family notified

police in New Auburn, Wis., where Nelson lived, and they found him before it was too late. Nelson ended up at the Tomah VA Medical Center in Tomah, Wis., where, as part of his mental health therapy, he returned to the dangerous sands of Iraq on foot patrols and route clearance missions, just like the ones he experienced overseas. This time, though, instead of battling

real roadside bombs and terrorists, Nelson confronted his memories through technology. The same techniques are being practiced on other veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Tomah mental health therapists are treating veterans with PTSD, depression and anxiety in a state-of-the-art combat simulator at nearby Fort McCoy. The CONTI NUED






Exposure therapy is not for everyone, and some veterans do not find the treatment helpful, or decide to leave the program early. But most who have gone through the combat simulator respond well.

Above, the combat simulator at the Tomah VA Medical Center recreates scenarios, bottom left, as part of exposure therapy. Bottom right, Tracy Martin, a clinician with the HoChunk Nation Department of Health, is part of group of mental health professionals who focus on how to better treat veterans having difficulties adjusting to civilian life.

multimillion-dollar simulator features full-size Humvees and weapons surrounded by a 360-degree video and audio system. Last year, Tomah therapists began using the system to effectively mimic the circumstances at the root of many veterans’ problems. The idea behind this prolonged exposure therapy is to lessen PTSD symptoms by confronting, rather than ignoring, trauma-related memories.

Nelson, a combat engineer, was struggling with memories of going to the motor pool shortly after he arrived in Iraq and seeing the aftermath of an improvised roadside bomb. He felt pain and sadness even though he didn’t know if the American soldiers were killed or wounded. “I never really knew what happened in that truck. I just saw all the blood,” said Nelson.

Later, he was further traumatized when a route clearance vehicle he was driving hit a roadside bomb. Since the Tomah VA started using Fort McCoy’s simulator last year, 75 people have gone through exposure therapy. About two-thirds are Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, said Robert Campbell, director of mental health residential programs at Tomah. The 65-day program includes nine

sessions in the combat simulator as well as other group and individual therapy. Tomah therapists work with Fort McCoy to tailor scenarios, which can feature desert, jungle and city landscapes. Veterans are placed in four-person teams, and a therapist is always with them in the simulator. The first time Nelson experienced the CONTI NUED






“(Using the combat simulator is) almost like a small time machine, and you get to go back, but you’re in a safe place. You get to process a traumatic event in a different way.” — SAMUEL HIPP, Army veteran

Veteran Samuel Hipp, right, talks about his service while fellow veteran, Zach Nelson, listens during a discussion with a group of mental health professionals at Fort McCoy in September. For Hipp, the combat simulator was healing.

combat simulator, the scenario involved an explosion with bloody mannequins. Memories of the blood he saw in the Humvee flooded back. Exposure therapy is not for everyone, and some veterans do not respond well or decide to leave the program early, Campbell said. But most who have gone through the combat simulator have improved in treatment. “Almost everybody who comes here has to have problems functioning. I’ve had people who couldn’t shop for their kids for Christmas because there was too much stimulation,” Campbell said. “We’re trying to take these symptoms down one at a time.”

AN INNOVATIVE ADDITION Statistics show roughly 20 veterans in the U.S. die by suicide each day. Tomah VA director Victoria Brahm noted that of those, on average, three veterans were getting mental health care when they ended their lives. While PTSD is treated in different ways, exposure therapy in the Fort McCoy combat simulator is “an innovative addition to PTSD therapy programming,” Brahm said.

At a mental health summit at Fort McCoy in September, providers and veterans officials had a chance to see the combat simulator in action before talking to a half-dozen veterans who had been treated with exposure therapy. Inside one of four rooms outfitted with a full-size Humvee surrounded by video screens, participants sat inside the vehicle or on chairs and watched as therapist Bo Pearson, standing in the gunner’s turret, explained what they were seeing. The Humvee pulled out of a forward operating base as helicopters whirred overhead and sand dunes loomed in the distance. The Humvee sped into a town, passing cows and goats, burqa-clad women and vehicles. “There’s a guy over here with a tarp over his truck. He could have a bomb in there (or) it could be harmless,” said Pearson, as the Humvee turned a corner and gunfire exploded nearby. Two people inside the Humvee pointed M4 air rifles toward a guy armed with a grenade launcher, fired and watched the man fall to the ground. Pearson fired the machine gun and a car exploded in

flames, black smoke billowing up. As the the basement and drink’ person,” said Humvee headed back to base, mortars Hipp, wearing a ball cap adorned with landed all around it, puffs of sand an American flag patch and an “I Fought blowing up into small clouds. in Stuff” T-shirt. Then, one day he got Veterans going through exposure pulled over for drunken driving. He therapy are never told in advance what believes this event saved his life because they will do and see in the it brought him to the VA simulator. The experience for help. begins once they get on In his first combat their bus from the VA simulator session, Hipp APPROXIMATELY and head toward Fort was on a foot patrol with McCoy, when they hear other veterans when the muezzin call to prayer, mortars began exploding a sound they routinely 75 feet away. A doctor heard while stationed in participating in the Iraq or Afghanistan. scenario as an embedded journalist ran away in VETERANS A SAFE PLACE fright and Hipp was told IN THE U.S Some combat veterans to bring him to safety. COMMIT SUICIDE turn to risky behavior Within seconds, the group EACH DAY when they return home, began working as a team, vainly trying to re-create and the fear that Hipp felt the feelings of adrenaline at hearing and seeing the from being in a war zone. first mortar blast melted They may drive too fast or drink too much. away as he concentrated on his task. Samuel Hipp, 32, who spent seven years “It’s almost like a small time machine in the Army, including a deployment to and you get to go back, but you’re in a Iraq in 2009-2010, abused alcohol. safe place,” Hipp said. “You get to process “I wasn’t a drunk driver. I was a ‘sit in a traumatic event in a different way.”



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10/9/18 12:06 PM





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Good Dogs Groups reunite military working dogs with men and women they served with By Kristen Seymour



Officer Fabian Salazar and his 9-year-old Belgian Malinois, Max, might seem like your typical man and best friend. Max loves waking Salazar before sunrise with a few licks, and Salazar hugs his dog with a fierce affection every dog owner recognizes. Their story is anything but typical, however. Max is a retired military working dog (MWD) who served as Salazar’s partner in Afghanistan and joined Salazar and his family in Texas last year after being separated since 2014. Max is also the reason that Salazar made it home alive from the Kandahar province in 2012 when some fellow sailors did not.

FORMING A BOND Salazar was a seasoned dog handler in September 2011, when Max graduated with his basic certification from Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio. Salazar, a kennel supervisor at Naval Station Everett, Wash., assigned himself to Max, and they immediately began training as a team to prepare to deploy in six months. “You normally don’t like to send brand-new teams to deploy, especially into a combat zone,” Salazar said. “Max was really brand-new, but I’d been doing this for a while, so it was a little easier to justify sending me — I was able to train Max up before we went. It was a good pairing, but not ideal for the short amount of time we had.” During that time the team trained for three weeks at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., in a mock Middle Eastern village to prepare them for Afghanistan. Max honed his patrol and explosives detection skills in a new environment with different buildings than he’d seen in his previous training, and this also helped both partners adapt to weather closer to the high temperatures they would soon experience. Nearly four months after deploying to Afghanistan, on July 18, 2012, Max

Before 2000, MWDs were often euthanized at the end of their working lives. That policy changed in 2000, however, when President Bill Clinton signed Robby’s Law, a bill promoting the adoption of retired MWDs. In most cases, the dogs will retire with one of their former handlers — often it’s the dogs’ final handlers who will file the paperwork for adoption after retirement, but not always. When no prior handlers are available, a civilian home is identified. Robby’s Law helps to provide for the retirement and adoption of MWDs, but it does not provide funding for transporting the animals after retirement, so if a former handler is based in Seattle and the dog was retired in Korea, the responsibility of getting the dog back to the U.S. landed on the former handler. “We (handlers are) such a small community, and we take such pride in our PROVIDED BY FABIAN SALAZAR dogs. If handlers are able Fabian Salazar, in hat, poses with Max and service members in to communicate, they can 2012 in Afghanistan. At right, Salazar reunites with Max in 2017. usually work things out,” Salazar said. And that was the case for him and Max. out of planes, did more than detect explosives — he “I said (to Max’s other two helping to detected an enemy fighter behind handlers), ‘Look, he brought capture enemy Salazar and his men, and alerted me home. I know I’m not his combatants and Salazar in a way that made him turn, last handler, but I know what searching out look and react. Max went through, and my hidden pas“They paid the ultimate sacrifice,” family is willing to give him a sages, although Salazar said. “Max gave me a physical good home.’” one of their reaction that let me know that someWhen Max retired in 2017, main objectives thing real was going down — I had to Salazar was scheduled to be PROVIDED BY MISSION K9 RESCUE in modern-day react. I think he just knew he had to get stationed at Guantanamo Iraq and me home to my family.” Bay for a few months before Afghanistan is explosives detection. Their bond is obvious, but Max heading to Lackland. Now considered Owned by the Department of Defense, spending his retirement with Salazar a civilian dog, Max couldn’t remain on these dogs are trained in specialties wasn’t guaranteed. base where he had been stationed in by the 341st Training Squadron at Everett, Wash., or be transported by the MULTIPLE HURDLES Lackland before being assigned to their military. Dogs have been a part of the U.S. handlers. A MWD can be assigned to That’s when Mission K9 Rescue, a military since World War I. They were the same handler for up to three years Houston-based group that has helped initially used as unit mascots but soon if a dog and handler are paired for a bring retired MWDs home since 2014, were put to work detecting attacks and three-year installation and remain stepped in. Salazar had heard that the carrying cable-laying equipment to well-matched, but it’s common for group was a helpful resource for former place new communication lines. a single MWD to have four or five military handlers to be reunited with Since then, they’ve performed a varihandlers throughout his or her career, ety of military jobs, including jumping Salazar said. CON T IN U E D



CONNECTIONS their dogs, so he reached out. “Initially, he asked about getting Max to Guantanamo Bay,” said Kristen Maurer, founder and president of Mission K9 Rescue. The request wasn’t peculiar — the group often covers the costs and arranges transportation of retired MWDs from all over the world, Maurer said. But in this case, she had a simpler solution. “I said, ‘What if we bring Max into our care, and once you’re settled, we’ll reunite you?’” Salazar agreed, and Max spent the next four months at Mission K9 Rescue’s facility where he had access to a large yard and air-conditioned kennel. Salazar checked in on his buddy frequently, said Maurer, and she not only did her best to keep Salazar up to date on everything Max was doing, but she also had daily conversations with the canine, who spent much of his day pacing in a small, perfect circle. “I used to tell him, ‘Just hang in there, Max, your daddy’s coming.’” On July 28, 2017, the two shared an emotional reunion at Mission K9 Rescue’s facility. Salazar remembers the day well: “The drive to Houston took a few hours, and I just kept trying to prepare my family, saying that we’re going to have Max, and he might need a lot from me, and he might take a lot of my time at the beginning. I was a little worried that he wouldn’t take to my family, and I didn’t want them to be upset if it took some time to get to know him.” When they arrived, Salazar’s heart began to race — and he got nervous for another reason. “I thought, ‘I haven’t seen him in three years. What if he doesn’t remember me?’” But the moment Max walked around the corner and Salazar began calling him and celebrating, the nerves were gone. “He started pulling toward me, and I was like, ‘Oh, he does remember me. He knows me,’” he said. It didn’t take long for Salazar’s wife and two children to step in and start petting him, and Max seemed to know he was with his family. It wasn’t only the Salazars with tears in their eyes at this reunion. “Our whole team got really attached to Max. We knew from the moment he landed in Houston that he was Fabian’s dog, but you couldn’t help but get attached,” Maurer said. “It’s always emotional to see handlers and dogs reunite, but this one felt especially big because we were all just so in love with Max. To see his final chapter was really special.” Considering she and her team have


Nick Caceres with Fieldy, who won the 2018 American Humane Hero Dog Awards military dog of the year. Fieldy served with Caceres in Afghanistan in 2011, and after retiring in 2014, he went to live permanently with Caceres and his family.

reunited 14 dogs and handlers in 2018 alone (with 10 of those requiring transportation from other countries) and more than 100 since they began their mission, she has plenty of reunions to use in comparison.

BATTLE BUDDIES Challenges arise even when the handler is in the U.S., like in the case of former Marine Cpl. Nick Caceres and Fieldy, a black Labrador who served with him in Afghanistan in 2011. During

the seven-month combat deployment, Fieldy proved invaluable — and not only for his work in explosives detection. “You’re going to war, and all these emotions are running. You don’t know if you’re coming back,” Caceres said. “You’re told it’s 130-degree weather; you’re told about it, but it’s all just unlike anything else. You really don’t have any idea. And then, you add in the element of a dog.” Caceres and Fieldy’s primary concentration was on continuing to train and do their job, and much of that training focused on a special toy that Fieldy absolutely loved but only got as a reward for finding a bomb or training device. “His drive was to earn that toy, get that affection — he had a job to do,” Caceres said. “As we got further along in our deployment, things got tough for all the guys. Sometimes, I just let (Fieldy) be a dog, and let the guys throw him a ball and pet him,” he said. “For a while, Fieldy could help us all feel normal — and that went for every single rank.” After Caceres completed his service, Fieldy was reassigned to another handler and remained in Afghanistan for three years, eventually heading to Texas, where Caceres and his wife lived. He checked on the dog frequently, telling stories about him and sharing pictures with his friends. In 2014, Fieldy retired and was moved to Virginia, while Caceres and his wife were still in Texas — and about to welcome their first child. “I had the option to fly him in a climate-controlled cargo space or go get him, and about 14 days to do it,” CONTI NUED





CONNECTIONS Caceres said. “With my firstborn on the way, I 2019 National Defense Authorization Act wasn’t financially ready.” (NDAA), which requires retired and adoptable Luckily, he had help from American MWDs be transported to the continental U.S. Humane, another organization that works to This updates the 2016 NDAA that authorized, reunite retired MWDs with their handlers. The but did not require, that former handlers have organization has been supporting the U.S. milifirst right of adoption and stated that the tary for more than 100 years, and according to transfer of a military animal may be without the group, it’s helped reunite 33 military dog charge to the recipient. teams, sometimes working with other groups. Still, there will be cases when cross-country American Humane also works to cover costs transportation is needed, and Maurer said her of flying handlers and veterinarians overseas team will be there. “We will always help get the when needed. Caceres explained his dilemma, dog back, stateside or abroad.” and the group coordinated and financed For these canines, transitioning from Fieldy’s flight, reuniting the pair that year. working military dog to family pet often “After a lifetime of service to our country, requires some adjustment. In some cases, America’s four-footed veterans deserve to Mission K9 Rescue works to rehabilitate come home and spend a happy, retired dogs to make them healthy and dignified retirement suitable for adoption, helping Dogs have been with the person who means them decompress from their the most to them,” said Robin time in service and recover from a part of the U.S. Ganzert, American Humane injuries or other medical issues, president and CEO. particularly if they’re being military since Caceres remembers the day adopted by someone other than World War I, when a former handler. well. “I had to work a half day that day, and I was so anxious at Even though some dogs might they were initially struggle work,” he said. “When I finally to relax, exhibiting got to the airport, I was talking behaviors like Max and his “crop used as unit to a reporter when my wife circles,” as Salazar and Maurer mascots but soon signaled to me that Fieldy had called them, there’s one thing already landed. I tried to finish that Maurer has noticed when were put to work. the interview, but then I saw it comes to reuniting dogs with him and just said, ‘I’m sorry, but Since then, they’ve their handlers: “Across the he’s here — I’ve gotta go!’” board, every single time I hand held many jobs. Fieldy had to make his way over the leash, it might take down a set of stairs to get to five or 10 minutes for the dog to Caceres, who couldn’t take his eyes off the recognize who he’s with, but after that, they dog. “He looked like he was in good health, and never look back. Then, the transition is easy — he seemed happy,” Caceres said. But Fieldy they’re with their person.” didn’t know what a momentous day it was Still, being with their person doesn’t mean and was just excited by the growing crowd. It dogs immediately know how to kick back and wasn’t until Caceres took Fieldy’s leash — and enjoy retirement. Initially, Fieldy, who’s now his beloved toy — that he got the dog’s full 11, didn’t understand why he couldn’t follow attention. “I don’t know if it was the smell that Caceres everywhere. But this habit was fixed triggered his memory or what, but he seemed by the introduction of a new concept: toys on to know me right away then,” he said. demand. “In Afghanistan, he had a special toy that he OVERSEAS OBSTACLES only got when he found something,” Caceres Today, the cost of flying MWDs to the U.S. said. “I gave him that same kind of toy — it’s from places like Italy and Afghanistan can cost his whenever he wants it, or he can grab thousands of dollars. another toy in the living room. He’s learning “Every dog and situation is different, and the that there’s not a job to do every day; he can cost really depends on where the dog is located just be a dog.” and how difficult it is to get them back,” said Max experienced post-traumatic stress Maurer, noting that it’s become increasingly disorder later in his career, and while he was difficult — and more expensive — to bring dogs awaiting his reunion with Salazar, he had back from overseas because fewer airlines the folks at Mission K9 Rescue a bit worried will take these dogs on their flights. Aside because he paced so much, and they struggled from language barriers, not all airplanes are to keep his weight up. But now Salazar said equipped to carry the large kennels these he’s happy. He’s put on weight, and he condogs require. Some airports, particularly in stantly seeks out hands for petting — unless the Midwest, aren’t large enough to accept the he’s playing with his favorite toy, that is. planes that are sizable enough, plus there are “He loves his Kong. When you go to pick it airline-specific breed bans. up to throw for him, he’ll grab it and run — he It’s an intense operation, but one that should makes a game of it,” Salazar said. “He’s like a become simpler with that passage of the fiscal puppy every now and again. I just love that.”

Military Working Dog Tribute at The Highground Veterans Memorial Park


HONORING MILITARY WORKING DOGS In late May, the Highground Veterans Memorial in Neillsville, Wis., unveiled a new memorial to military dogs. Around 5,000 dogs served in Vietnam as guard dogs or scouts. When soldiers finished their tours, another handler was assigned to dogs already in Vietnam. After the war ended and troops returned home, the dogs were deemed excess equipment and left behind — many were euthanized, some were given to the Vietnamese army and some were left to fend for themselves. Only about 200 came back to the U.S. Vietnam military dog handlers were understandably upset about the situation and urged Congress to change the rules and bring dogs back to America once their service in a war zone is ended. In 1992, President Bill Clinton signed legislation that now ensures all military dogs are treated like true veterans. The Highground memorial features a soldier holding an M-16 rifle and his dog’s harness. The life-size bronze sculpture is of a German Shepherd, the most common breed that served in Vietnam. Sculptor Michael Martino was selected by a committee of veterans after submitting sketches and a model. Martino incorporated veterans’ suggestions including a boonie hat on the soldier, a dog harness and two canteens, because not only did handlers carry food and water for themselves, but also for their pups. “I had the soldier kind of crouching down and one leg in front of the other so there’s forward motion while controlling the dog. They’re bonded at the hip,” said Martino. “The idea was the teamwork and closeness of the soldier and dog. It’s kind of an inseparable bond.” — Meg Jones






Bianca Shannon, Horses for Heroes wrangler and instructor, laughs alongside veteran Brian Ray while training at Crossed Arrows Ranch. PHOTOS BY GABRIELA CAMPOS /SANTA FE NEW MEXICAN VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS

Cowboy Up Program gives veterans, military staff chance to connect with horses, find healing

By Robert Nott



was sitting tall in the saddle of a palomino quarter horse at the Crossed Arrows Ranch, south of Santa Fe, N.M. The combat vet, who had spent three decades in the military, including two tours in Iraq as an adviser, focused his heart, mind and body on his connection with the horse. “We both have that same mindset,” Ray said. “Training to trust. We (combat veterans) don’t want to be psychoanalyzed by experts. We don’t want somebody sit-

ting there listening to us and taking notes. Horses don’t take notes. They don’t judge, and they learn to trust.” Ray is both a student and trainer-intraining in the Horses for Heroes Cowboy Up! program headquartered at the ranch. The nonprofit offers a free horsemanship program to all post-9/11 combat veterans and active-duty military personnel, especially those dealing with combat trauma or physical injuries sustained during their service. The goal is to let the participants adapt CONTI NUED






Brian Ray guides Roper, a palomino quarter horse, through an obstacle course.

“If you’re worrying, you’re living in the future. If you are sad or angry, you are living in the past. But if you are calm, you are living in the present. And a horse makes you live in the present. Because of their ability to read our moods, they’ll only work well with you if you are in the present.” — BRIAN RAY, U.S. Army veteran the skills they learned in the military to the cowboy way of life — giving them purpose and a chance to bond with others who have similar military backgrounds, said Rick Iannucci, the program’s cofounder and executive director. “Two things we don’t do here: We don’t do horse therapy, and we don’t sing Kum-

baya,” he said. “It’s Cowboy 101.” The vets who apply and are accepted into the program come to the ranch for 10 days and begin learning about horses within a day. Some work as ranch hands on neighboring properties during the training. They ride, rope, groom the horses, clean out the barn and shovel manure.

Program co-founder Nancy De Santis leads the veterans in a morning round of yoga to ground them. The veterans — an even mix of men and women — sleep in a bunkhouse similar to military barracks and sit on the porch at night, often sharing war stories and expressing their feelings about guilt, despair, hope and even suicide. “What happened (in combat) disconnects us from the normal way of living,” said Ray, a Los Alamos, N.M., native who served from 1985 to 2015. “What we saw, what we did, what we didn’t do, what we should have done” — that stays with you, he said. Working with horses makes it go away, even if for just a while. He began volunteering at Horses for Heroes after retiring three years ago,

prompted by his wife, who was getting tired of him sitting around the house in his underwear, watching television. He recently began working directly with the horses and wants to learn how to be a trainer “because I want to help.” The program is not intended as a cureall for post-traumatic stress disorder or a sure way for participants to get jobs as cowboys — although some do. Rather, Iannucci said, it helps the veterans understand they can apply what they once knew to any aspect of life. They leave the Horses for Heroes program “with a multitool case of skill sets, understanding how to rework their military skills to make them applicable to anything,” he said. CONTI NUED






Rick Iannucci, executive director of Horses for Heroes, attends a training session for new instructors.

Dr. Gerry Valentine, a consulting psychiatrist for Horses for Heroes and a former Veterans Affairs department research psychiatrist, said a number of the program’s components play a role in helping veterans. “It’s intensive; it has an immersive spirit to it,” he said. “There’s the openness of the setting and the horses.” The animals can easily read the energy and behavior of their human companions and be “very unforgiving” if the proper connection is not built between the two, Valentine said. What the horses do, according to Valentine, “is nudge the veterans toward engagement in a social interaction that

is safe and positive, a nudge toward creating a trust system that can address the core symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder — a lack of trust, a lack of meaning, withdrawal. Horses nudge toward coming back into a full social world.” Iannucci, a former Green Beret, retired U.S. marshal and ordained minister, started the program as an extension of other horse-related programs he was running that focused on post-9/11 vets and military personnel. “We saw a need to pay attention to them,” he said. He prefers to call symptoms enveloping combat veterans “post-traumatic spiritual dissonance.” He hopes the pro-

“We (combat veterans) don’t want to be psychoanalyzed by experts. We don’t want somebody sitting there listening to us and taking notes. Horses don’t take notes. They don’t judge, and they learn to trust.” — BRIAN RAY, U.S. Army veteran

gram helps participants “get down to the core of what happened during war that impacted their spirit as well as mind and body,” Iannucci added. Ray gets that. When talking to other veterans about the benefits of the program, he tells them, “If you’re worrying, you’re living in the future. If you are sad or angry, you are living in the past. But if you are calm, you are living in the present. And a horse makes you live in the present. Because of their ability to read our moods, they’ll only work well with you if you are in the present.” Robert Nott is a writer with The Santa Fe New Mexican.






Ain’t No Mountain High Enough Jackson Hole resort’s climb gives veterans opportunity to meet fellow comrades

Veterans ascend Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s Via Ferrata. SHANNON SCHINER



and drinks on a picnic table at the bottom of the Bridger Gondola in Teton Village, Wyo., at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. The Teton Adaptive Sports program director uncovered a platter of cake slices and set whipped cream next to it. “They’ll be back any minute,” she said. As if on cue, a group of hot, dusty and smiling climbers and guides walked down from a day on the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s Via Ferrata, a new climb that winds across suspended bridges, along granite walls and high above the valley floor. They shared the experience of having climbed the mountain, but they had another thing in common: The participants were all veterans. It was Sept. 11, and the climbers had just participated in a new collaboration between Teton Adaptive Sports and the resort. The hope was to give veterans living in the area the opportunity to connect with each other in ways other than over a pint glass. “I’ve never been the type of person that wants to sit around in a bar talking about war stories,” said Chris Reynoso, a U.S. Navy veteran. “I always shied away from people because I didn’t want to do that, so now I’m trying to get out of my comfort zone and do these kinds of things.” For the uninitiated, a via ferrata is a man-made climbing route built into a mountainside. The term is Italian — meaning “iron path” — and the routes often feature steel cables, metal rungs like steps on a ladder and bridges over chasms and valleys. The attraction is relatively new in Jackson Hole, having opened last summer, and none of the veterans had tackled it. Some were experienced hikers taking advantage of the chance to try out the Via Ferrata, but others were facing fears. “I’m afraid of climbing, so this was a big thing for me,” said Nichole Cox, who spent six years in the Army Reserve. “But I really enjoyed it.” When they reached the cantina at the base of the gondola and began CONTI NUED





CONNECTIONS dolloping whipped cream onto white cake and opening cans of La Croix, it was difficult to tell that they had been strangers when they met earlier that day. Camaraderie is integral to military service, but the type of connection they gained over just a few hours on the mountain can be tough to come by when veterans return home. “You go from living, working, sleeping, eating with these guys for a year or two,” said veteran Cam Fields, co-founder of the Front Country Foundation, which helps veterans have outdoor experiences but was unaffiliated with the Via Ferrata event. “When you get out, you don’t have that.” In Jackson, that camaraderie can be elusive for veterans. Veteran services are scarce, in part because the population is so low. A U.S. Census Bureau study that compiled population data on veterans between 2011 and 2015 found that in those years, when the general population was about 315 million, about 20 million veterans, or about 6 percent, lived in the U.S. Out of that relatively low proportion, the study found that veterans gravitate toward cities.

FEELING FORGOTTEN Only about 5 million veterans live in areas designated as rural, and, of those, 14.1 percent lived in the West, spreading a small veteran population across an expansive region. The diffusion of veterans across the West makes it difficult to find support from the Department of VeterMountain Warfare Training Center, a ans Affairs, so veterans in places such as facility in the eastern Sierra Range that Jackson can be left to integrate into the prepares military personnel for moungeneral population without much help. tainous, high-altitude and cold-weather “My generation feels environments. similar to Vietnam vets, “I grew up climbing “You go from forgotten, because the and skiing, so for me, it war has gone on for so was kind of like being at living, working, long,” Fields said. “We home,” Temple said. just come home; there sleeping, eating are no parades.” SHARED SERVICE, with these guys for SHARED STORIES Organizations like the the veterans Front Country Foundaa year or two. When onAlthough tion and Teton Adaptive the Via Ferrata climb you get out, you Sports are working to fill were there to find somethat gap. Without such thing beyond their shared don’t have that.” service, talk of their nonprofits, veterans are left to organize them— CAM FIELDS, time in the military was selves, which is easier Co-founder of the Front inevitable. Combined, the said than done as they Country Foundation participants had served reintegrate into civilian in every decade from the 1970s to the present, and life. that breadth spanned U.S. involvement Steve Temple’s military experience, which ended in 1983, prepared him well in places from post-Korean War South for the Via Ferrata. He was a mountain Korea to Afghanistan. warfare specialist in the Marines, “Obviously you want to know who each other are and what you do and training in places like Alaska and the


where you were, so you relate in that aspect,” Reynoso said. Their diversity of service led to one interesting connection: Temple and Todd Hanna, who served in the Marines from 2002 to 2008 and is now CEO of Kate’s Real Food, discovered they had the same commanding officer, albeit decades apart. Temple served as a young man, and Hanna enlisted after 9/11, but they were close to the same age, offering a chance for them to become friends. “It’s nice to make that connection. He has kids about the age of my kids, so I’ll probably see him around,” Temple said. Turning shared service into a deeper relationship is a trait of the post-9/11 veteran community. As Fields noted, those who have served in America’s longest-running war lack one thing: a clear ending to the conflict. Without diminishing the service of older veterans or the effects of that service on them, the endings of conflicts like World War II or the Vietnam War allowed those generations, no matter the outcome of the conflicts, to reintegrate

en masse, giving them a support system of fellow veterans. Those who have fought in America’s sprawling war on terrorism, which stretches from Iraq and Afghanistan to Africa and Asia, must cope with a return that can leave them feeling at a disadvantage. “You feel super far behind the power curve,” Fields said. “Most people my age have a master’s, a house, a family. A lot of my (fellow veterans are) just now getting degrees and certificates.” Events like the Via Ferrata climb serve as crucial support activities for a generation coming home from war in a trickle, not a wave. They recognize service without making it the focal point of the occasion, using it as a foundation, rather than an end goal. “We’ve all been a part of these teams, and developed close bonds when we were in the military,” Hanna said. “When we were up there on the Via Ferrata, it was like we fell right back into it.” Tom Hallberg writes for the Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News & Guide.


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Siblings Walter, left, and Jack Kaslikowski served with their two other brothers in World War II. Today, “It’s just the two of us,” said Walter. “We’re living so long, you know?”

Brother’s Keeper Siblings who served reunite as roommates in veterans home By Janine Zeitlin



director at the nursing home asked. Jack Kaslikowski looked at the man to his right, also in a wheelchair, also white-haired. “I’m going to punch him in the nose,” said Jack, who has quickly earned a reputation among nursing home staff for joking around. “He’s my kid brother.” Both men grin. That kid is 95. Jack is 97. In late June, Jack moved into Walter Kaslikowski’s room at the Douglas T. Jacobson State Veterans Home in Port

Charlotte, Fla. It is not the first time the brothers have shared sleeping quarters. Reared in a large family, “Sometimes, four of us would be in one room,” Walter said. In the early 1900s, their parents emigrated from Poland, through Ellis Island, and settled in Stamford, Conn., a harbor town on Long Island Sound. “It’s just the two of us,” said Walter, the baby, turning to Jack. “We’re living so long, you know?” He hooked his arm around Jack’s shoulder, “My big brother.” Jack was a paratrooper in the Army’s 82nd Airborne during World War II. “The idea of jumping out of airplanes … or should I say being kicked out of airplanes,” Jack said. “It was quite a

thrill, and besides being paid $50 extra a have hazed. month.” “You know most of these things fade “That was good beer money,” Jack from your mind,” Walter said. added. Jack’s son, Tom Kaslikowski, who lives All four Kaslikowski brothers went to in Tennessee, fills in some later details. war. Jack married Tom’s mother, Regina, after “It’s a great honor to serve the country,” the war. He worked as a mail carrier for said Jack. “I think it’s the utmost honor to decades and retired to St. Petersburg, do so, whatever it is, to be in the services. Fla., around 1972. His mother died a few And that goes for the girls also.” years later. Jack married Marion in the Their older brother Stanley, also a late 1970s. She died in 2014. paratrooper, joined the same outfit, and In recent months, Jack’s health during training at declined, and Fort Bragg, N.C., he needed he parachuted more care. Tom into a tree and recalled his dad’s got stuck. Stanley reaction upon recalled the incimoving into the dent in a book on nursing home and Stamford World seeing Walter, War II veterans, who had lived An American there a few years Town Goes to War, and met them in by Tony Pavia. the lobby: Someone landed Walt, what the nearby, heard hell are you doing him, and came to here? help. It was Jack. Well, I live here. “He just started “It was the best laughing when he of a bad situation. Walter Kaslikowski admires a picture of his saw it was me.” It’s something brothers Ted, left, Jack and Stanley. Stanley and you don’t want Jack ended up in the same battles. Both to do, but I can’t take care of him. I’m old were wounded during the Battle of Anzio myself,” said Tom, 65, in reference to havin Italy, an event that inspired a March ing others look after his father. “I think 1944 headline, Paratroopers Awaken it’s (as) good as you can get right there.” in Adjoining Hospital Beds, in their “He might drive Walter crazy.” hometown newspaper. Jack is outgoing, Walter is more “We made sure that if one got woundreserved. ed, the other one would get wounded, “When Uncle Jack walked in the room, even if we had to shoot ourselves, so we’d you knew he was there. He was bright meet,” said Jack. That way they could get and smiley and complimenting everyone a drink. “We always had to be together. … and was quite the man,” said Laura Walsh It was like a movie. It was fun.” Soule, Walter’s power of attorney and Jack, a staff sergeant, received a medal family relative. “Walt, he was the baby in for the “heroic conduct” and “fearless the family and probably oversheltered by leadership” he displayed in April 1945 his mother at that point. He was a quiet near Hitdorf, Germany. Surrounded by personality, though he’s friendly.” enemy forces, Jack organized and led his Walsh Soule sketched the outlines men through ambushes and firefights of Walter’s postwar life. During the before helping the wounded and Cold War, he was a messenger at the directing evacuation across a river, the United Nations. He delivered cables to commendation said. the secretary general and high-ranking Walter joined the Merchant Marines diplomats. At some point, he worked as in 1943 and traveled the world carrying a lobster fisherman. He married later in supplies during the war. In Naples, Italy, life, did not have children, and made his he met a soldier who knew Jack, and way to Florida. Why Florida? Walter and Jack arranged to meet. Jack Walter pedals back into his memory visited Walter’s ship. during this conversation at the library. While in the Mediterranean, Walter “I didn’t come to Florida for a while, not recalls feeling fortunate as he witnessed until I got older.” a ship hit by German planes go down as Jack stares at him. He waits a moment, men screamed for help. “It was a rough then gently pounds the table. time.” “Why don’t you say because I’m here?” But many other details of their lives “Oh yeah, because you’re here.”





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