What We’re Reading: Week 6

By Chad Garland, News21

What We’re Reading:

Navy uniforms are flammable, and military knows it (Dianna Cahn, 1/9, The Virginian-Pilot) The Navy’s standard-issue working uniform is not flame-resistant and “when subjected to a flame, it will burn robustly until completely consumed,” according to Navy findings released in December. A Navy spokesman said the service knew about this when designing the uniform, but had no requirement for a fire-retardant uniform. A Navy Times editorial estimates that phasing in a flame-resistant uniform could carry a $20 million price tag.

Can Service Save Us? (Joe Klein, 6/20, Time) Several service-based veterans groups are helping veterans find a sense of purpose in civilian life after returning from war. Organizations like Mission Continues and Team Rubicon give veterans an opportunity to apply their unique skills and experience toward improving communities through volunteer service and disaster relief.

“I Am Sorry That It Has Come To This”: A Soldier’s Last Words (Daniel Somers, 6/22, Gawker) Daniel Somers’ suicide letter describes his struggle with the trauma he brought home from war in Iraq, including PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Somers was a machine gunner in the turret of a Humvee on as many as 400 combat missions in Iraq in 2004-2005. He was 30 years old when he took his own life on June 10, 2013.

Veterans key to medical marijuana lobby efforts (Sophia Tareen, 6/21, Associated Press) Illinois Governor Pat Quinn faces a decision whether to sign legislation to legalize medical marijuana in the state. The Democratic governor has placed veterans’ issues at the top of his agenda and veterans lobbying for medical marijuana legalization may sway his decision.

In Debate Over Military Sexual Assault, Men Are Overlooked Victims (James Dao, 6/23, The New York Times) As the Pentagon, Congress and even the White House grapple with the problem of sexual assault in the military, one aspect that has been largely overlooked is the fact that the majority of victims are men. Of the estimated 26,000 service members who experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012, 53 percent are men, according to the Pentagon.

Facebook page memorializes suicide victims

By Chase Cook, News21

Mike Purcell is searching for 36,135 faces. He has found 2,109.

“Putting a Face on Suicide,” is a Facebook page that Purcell hopes will break the stigma surrounding suicide. The page features albums of 99 faces and allows family members and surviving families to grieve and remember together.

“You need to have some sort of remembrance of you,” Purcell said. “There is no shame in suicide…I didn’t want anyone not to be remembered.”

Purcell started the site after his son, Christopher Purcell, 21, died by suicide in 2008. Christopher was in the Navy and stationed in New Brunswick, Maine.

More active duty military died by suicide in 2012 than those killed in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. An estimated 22 veterans die by suicide daily, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Nobody wants to talk about suicide, Purcell said, especially in the military where members are taught to “suck it up and move on.”

The Facebook page is full of activity, with families posting small memorials after someone dies or on the suicide victim’s birthday.

Albums posted sometimes have themes, such as the military tribute. The album shows veterans and active duty military personnel who died by suicide. Some photos are accompanied by notes from loved ones.

Karen Heisig submitted a photo of her husband, Maurice Heisig, who died by suicide in 2006. “Mo,” she called him, had left the service to take care of his ailing father.

“If someone had suggested that Mo would end his life, they’d have been laughed out of the room, despite the fact that his younger brother died by suicide in 1999,” Heisig posted on Facebook.

Purcell plans to continue running the Facebook page until he gathers all 36,135 faces, which means one album of 99 portraits for each day of the year. However, the site is on day 22 and has been active since January 2011. Purcell said he might have gone overboard, but running the site has its own rewards.

“Every day I get some sort of nice email from one of the families saying how much comfort and how helpful our website has been to them in their recovering from their grief,” Purcell said.

“It has been part of my healing to help these other families.”

Click here if you want to submit a photo to the Facebook page.

Army Reserve officer faces yearlong unemployment

By Colton Totland, News21

With decades of military experience in areas that ranged from human resources to supply and logistics, Scott Hargrove seemed qualified for the civilian job market.

The former Chief warrant officer four left the Army Reserve in June 2012 when his veterans outreach job was eliminated. The Vietnam era volunteer found himself unemployed after 40 years of military life. His yearlong search for work has been frustrating.

“You’d like to think that wealth of experience is something that employers would jump on,” Hargrove said. “I just don’t like being out of work.”

Hargrove, 60, represents a unique demographic among unemployed post-9/11 veterans, most of whom are younger and much less experienced. The highest unemployment rate among veterans is in the 20-24 age range, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For April, it was at 17.7 percent.

Hargrove said employers are discouraged from hiring veterans because of confusion about what military experience actually means.

“We use acronyms in the military all the time. You need to take your military resume and convert it over to English; you have to put it into civilian terms,” he said.

Veterans and reservists visit the Arizona Army National Guard center in Phoenix. The facility offers career services for service members, notably resume-building advice on how to translate military jargon. (Photo by Colton Totland, News21)

Veterans and reservists visit the Arizona Army National Guard center in Phoenix. The facility offers career services for service members, notably resume-building advice on how to translate military jargon. (Photo by Colton Totland, News21)

Hargrove in early June visited a National Guard center in Phoenix for advice on his resume. Since 2011, new public and private organizations have offered career services for veterans. Hargrove has attended more than a dozen job fairs, he said. None has yielded desirable job offers.

“There’s a lot of veterans groups trying to help; in many cases, it’s almost overwhelming,” Hargrove said. “It’s just that there are so many initiatives. It would be nice if there were fewer organizations all doing the same thing.”

Advocacy group shares stories from veterans in claims backlog

By Daniel Moore, News21

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America on June 20 launched an  interactive database that shares the personal experiences of more than 1,700 post-9/11 veterans who are waiting — some for more than 10 years — on their disability claim to be processed.

The New York-based veteran advocacy group collected information from their members with a survey asking details about their claim, disabilities, wait time and how that wait has affected them emotionally and financially. Using the interactive, titled “The Wait We Carry,” the public can view each veteran’s response sorted by a variety of metrics, including location.

The public also may send messages to veterans to learn more of their story. Messages are sent to IAVA, which double checks with the veteran to make sure they are still open to speaking publicly.

Aminatou Sow, IAVA director of digital engagement, said the project is designed to “put a face to the big scary numbers” of the much-reported backlog of claims at VA regional offices by reaching out to all communities.

“One thing that we hear a lot from veterans is how they don’t feel heard specifically,” Sow said. “It’s one thing to say half a million people are still waiting for benefits, but the point of digital storytelling that the individual data points are as important as the aggregate.”

IAVA worked with Periscopic, an information design firm, and used a grant from the Knight Foundation to create the interactive.

What We’re Reading: Week 5

By Rachel Leingang, News21

A Loan Program for Veterans Comes Wrapped in Red Tape (Elizabeth Harris, 6/10, New York Times): More than 200,000 veterans live in New York City, but only 266 Veterans Affairs home loans were made in the city last year. One couple searching for a home loan finds the VA loan options to be burdensome for New York City properties.

Deployment to war doesn’t figure in majority of military suicides (Alan Zarembo, 6/15, Los Angeles Times): Most military suicides are committed by soldiers who never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, according to data from the Pentagon. The LA Times looked into some possible causes of the high suicide rate through the stories of five servicemembers.

What is the military-civilian divide to you? (Leo Shane III, 6/19, Stars and Stripes): Throughout our reporting, we’ve heard from veterans who cite a lack of understanding and cultural divide between military members and families and civilians. Stars and Stripes asked its readers what that divide means in their lives and what civilians should know about them and their service.

Elite Units in U.S. Military to Admit Women (Jennifer Steinhauer, 6/17, New York Times): The Pentagon announced Tuesday that women will be allowed to train as Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and Marine infantry members, among others. The branches each can decide how to integrate women into their ranks, but must ask for exemptions when they decide women can’t do a particular position.

Deadline passes for VA claims open more than two years

By Daniel Moore, News21

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs still has compensation and pension claims that are more than two years old, according to data from some regional offices, meaning that the agency missed the self-imposed deadline to clear all two-year-old claims by June 18.

Allison Hickey, the VA Undersecretary for Benefits, sent a letter in April to all 57 regional offices, instructing all claims workers and “as many (others) as needed” to focus on finishing all such claims within 60 days. She also asked all claims pending for more than a year to be cleared within six months.

As of June 19 the VA did not have numbers, but spokeswoman Meagan Lutz said the agency would have a progress report by the end of the week.

Jason Dominguez, assistant director at the Ohio Department of Veteran Services, said the Cleveland regional office, which handles all Ohio claims, started with 3,114 and has 238 left to process.

“Those mainly need medical evidence,” Dominguez said, adding that Cleveland also has been working on 1,560 additional claims sent from other offices with higher backlogs.

Of those claims that were “brokered” as part of Hickey’s deadline, 150 remain to be processed.

A claims processor at the Columbia, S.C., regional office reported her office had cleared the two-year-old claims.

“Once you got the go-ahead to clear something … I don’t know how you couldn’t get them cleared,” she said.

Navy veteran confronts trauma with exposure therapy

By Riley Johnson, News21

Jason Patterson, seen here in Saddam Hussein's office in the Baghdad Presidential Palace in 2004, served in the unit that governed Iraq after the invasion.  (Photo submitted by Patterson)

Jason Patterson, seen here in Saddam Hussein’s office in the Baghdad Presidential Palace in 2004, served in the unit that governed Iraq after the invasion. (Photo submitted by Patterson)

Jason Patterson’s traumatic experiences in Baghdad’s Green Zone no longer trigger anxiety in parking lots.

The 45-year-old Navy veteran saw a parking lot as a “death trap” with the openness creating easy targets for car bombs. Patterson’s daily stress over six months as a communications support officer in 2004 Baghdad seemed “like six years,” he said.

Patterson retired from the Navy in 2009, but his Iraq experiences crept up on him in ways he didn’t readily notice. On grocery trips in his La Vista, Neb., hometown, he’d park at the far end of the lot, fearing bombs, he said.

In March 2012, Patterson sought therapy for his post-traumatic stress through the Veterans Affairs hospital in Omaha. The program – prolonged exposure therapy –is one of an array of PTSD treatments allowed by the VA. A therapist would ask Patterson to talk about his trauma, and on his own, confront the situations that triggered it.

Terry North, director of the PTSD program for the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System, said that prolonged exposure therapy is designed to help veterans “develop a more balanced view of the world. With trauma, their world turns into ‘The world is a dangerous place.’ ”

In his sessions, Patterson would close his eyes and recall his traumas.

“That’s how you open the gate,” he said.

Parked alone in his silver Honda Civic, Patterson confronted his anxiety. The first few times he’d abandon his one-hour goal and leave after 10 or 15 minutes. But over 12 weeks he began to feel more comfortable. He learned to close his eyes, and think of fishing.

Patterson doesn’t fish more than once or twice every few months in the summer, but fishing helps him cope, he said.

“It brings joy, excitement and a sense of peace,” he said. “As long as I’m fishing, I don’t care.”

Vet honors soldiers on cross-country trek

By Meg Wagner, News21

Chuck Lewis sets out on his first day of a cross-country walk in Everett, Wash. (Photo submitted by Linda Sappington)

Chuck Lewis sets out on his first day of a cross-country walk in Everett, Wash. (Photo submitted by Linda Sappington)

Retiree Chuck Lewis considered two ways to spend six months: sitting at home or walking across the country. He chose the latter.

The 62-year-old U.S. Marine Corps and Navy veteran is “Walking for the Fallen,” a cross-country trek raising money for wounded veterans. His 3,300-mile journey began March 31 in Everett, Wash., and is scheduled to end sometime in September at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

A few years ago at Christmas, Lewis stood in uniform on a street corner in his Ronan, Mont., hometown and held a sign that read, “Standing here today in respect of those away.”

He made it a holiday ritual, and passersby started giving him money – 50 cents, $50, whatever they could. When he collected $1,000, he donated it to non-profits that help wounded veterans and their families.

Soon, Montana wasn’t big enough.

“We were sitting on the couch having our coffee like we do every day – like we did every day before he left,” said Linda Sappington, Lewis’ wife. “And he said ‘I’ve done everything I want to accomplish in Montana. Why don’t I walk across America?’”

Sappington was supportive from the start.

“We’ve been married for 20 years, so I know the guy’s a wild man,” she said. “When he has an idea, he has no problem making it happen.”

Lewis walks about 25 miles a day, pushing a two-child stroller that carries essentials: a tent, a sleeping bag, freeze-dried food and a solar panel to charge his phone, among other basics.

Some nights he camps. On others he sleeps in churches or in firehouses. Sometimes, people who’ve learned of his journey offer him a bed and laundry use.

His goal is $50,000. So far, he’s raised $14,100 as of June 12, Lewis said.

He raises awareness, too.  Lewis walks in honor of those overseas and in remembrance of those who’ve died.

“Six months is a drop in the bucket when you compare it to the soldiers who never come home,” he said.

What We’re Reading: Week 4

By Chad Garland, News21

War is complicated. Despite its gruesome horror though, war also can be a catalyst for good. Whether that good takes the form of, well, let’s call it spiritual growth, scientific research or educational opportunity for veterans and their families, more than a decade of military conflict has reshaped American culture and our understanding of ourselves.

What We’re Reading:

War Junkie (David Axe, 6/5, Medium) From the archive of war correspondent David Axe’s blog: a tale of war and its psychological, perhaps spiritual effects. Axe offers a moving account of his 2005 trip to Baqubah, Iraq. It’s where he covered the South Carolina National Guard and the country’s first democratic elections since 1958, and where he became acquainted with war.

Looking past monuments, parades for vets’ next steps (Leo Shane III, 6/12, Stars and Stripes) Groups such as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America have called for parades to welcome home war veterans. Other nonprofits have pursued the mission of putting veterans to work, volunteering or staying physically fit as a way to reintegrate and find a second calling in civilian life.

New Bill Would Give GI Bill to Surviving Spouses (Terry Howell, 5/23, Military.com) The Spouses of Heroes Education Act would give spouses of fallen service members the same full undergraduate education benefits their children receive through the Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill could cost $200 million over the next decade.

PTSD may be prevented, researchers find (Alan Zarembo, 6/5, Los Angeles Times) Scientists have linked a particular, “relatively common,” variation of a gene to activation of a receptor in the brain that might make some more susceptible to suffering PTSD. This could provide new methods of preventing the disorder, some researchers say.

As backlogged vets protest, soon-to-be vets prepare to file claims

Written by Daniel Moore, News21 // Video by Jessica Wilde, News21

The backlog of compensation and pension claims is down 4.7 percent in the last month and more than 10 percent lower than in February, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced Monday.

The agency has, in recent months, steadily reduced the claims backlog, which VA defines as those pending for more than 125 days, according to the weekly workload report. VA processed more than 4,000 claims last week alone, although the backlog stands at 565,327.

Concerned Veterans of America, a Virginia-based nonprofit, has in recent weeks campaigned for President Obama   to address the backlog. The Million Vet Backlog petition, which on Friday surpassed 20,000 signatures, also calls for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign, citing a 2,000 percent increase in backlogged claims since he took office.

In Tucson, at the Airman Family and Wellness Center on Davis Monthan Air Force Base, however, dozens of soon-to-be veterans crammed into a windowless room to complete the final day of Transition Assistance Program.

Airman files disability claim before retirement from News21 on Vimeo.

During a two-hour morning session, “Briefing on VA Benefits,” George Henderson, a military service coordinator, touted the Benefits Delivery at Discharge program, which allows service members to file disability claims within 180 days of the discharge date.

“Do this before you actually separate, because you could be a part of the backlog wherever you go,” Henderson told the class. “I’m telling you, there are 18,000 claims up in Phoenix right now. You wait until you get out and you stay in Arizona, you’d be 18,001.”