Marine rapper and photographer reflects on service

Anthony Cave, News21

Marine Sergeant Raymond Lott rapped about war when his camera lens wasn’t focused on battlefields.

Lott is a Marine photographer who was deployed in Iraq in 2006 and Afghanistan in 2008. He is now finishing his service in New Orleans.

The 30-year-old California native often reflects on his time overseas. But he unleashes the day’s “stresses” in a studio, rapping about his experiences.

In “Here Now,” Lott raps that he joined the military because he realized that “a little boy needed change in his life.”

When he wasn’t rapping, Lott was photographing – Iraqi women, firefights, Marines bandaging civilians and carrying out military duties. But Lott’s raps soothed him.

Marine photographer Raymond Lott received a 2007 Thomas Jefferson media award for this picture of an Iraqi woman. The awards are presented by the Department of Defense. (Courtesy of Raymond Lott)

Marine photographer Raymond Lott received a 2007 Thomas Jefferson media award for this picture of an Iraqi woman. The awards are presented by the Department of Defense. (Courtesy of Raymond Lott)

“It’s reflective therapy. You need to get out these emotions in any form; I use therapy through music,” said the man whose rap name is RSonic.

Lott has uploaded more than 50 videos on YouTube. He has more than 2,400 subscribers and his most popular video has almost half a million YouTube views.

“I’m helping people,” he said of his raps. “It helps them see the world in a different way.”

His photography also offers a worldview. Lott won a Thomas Jefferson media award presented by the Department of Defense in 2007 for his photo of an Iraqi woman.

Documentary workshop helps service members reintegrate

By Rachel Leingang, News21

Members of the North Dakota National Guard's 818th Engineer Company watch "Brothers at War," a documentary made by Jake Rademacher, who imbedded with his brothers in Iraq to try to understand them better. (Photo by Peter Haden, News21)

Members of the North Dakota National Guard’s 818th Engineer Company watch “Brothers at War,” a documentary made by Jake Rademacher, who imbedded with his brothers in Iraq to try to understand them better. (Photo by Peter Haden, News21)

Jake Rademacher was trying to understand what his brothers were experiencing. Rademacher’s two brothers served in the Army and shared a bond that as a civilian, he didn’t understand. So the filmmaker and actor decided to visit his brothers – in Iraq – while they were deployed and film a documentary.

“Brothers at War,” is now used as a workshop for returning National Guard and Reserve troops at Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program events across the country. Service members watch the film with family, then write journal entries and discuss the feelings and issues the movie evokes.

“What were the tough things about coming home for you?” and “How have your relationships changed with people who have not deployed?” ideally spark meaningful conversations for the soldiers and their families and help to deepen understanding on both sides.

The North Dakota National Guard’s 818th Engineer Company participated in the workshop during a Yellow Ribbon event in June. The 818th returned in March from a deployment to the southern Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

“You get to watch a movie,” Spc. Brad Sherman said. “That’s awesome. You get to sit down, kick back, and watch a pretty interesting movie… It doesn’t take everybody to walk overseas and say, ‘Hey can I get a plane ticket to Iraq?’… It’s pretty ballsy, he’s a pretty brave soul.”

The soldiers relate to Rademacher’s brothers, Isaac and Joe, while family members can relate to Jake’s wanting to understand what loved ones are going through, knowing that they never fully will.

North Dakota National Guard members from the 818th Engineer Company write in their "Brothers at War" journals after watching the film. The workshop incites conversations about being at war, coming home and relating to family. (Photo by Peter Haden, News21)

North Dakota National Guard members from the 818th Engineer Company write in their “Brothers at War” journals after watching the film. The workshop inspires conversations about being at war, coming home and relating to family. (Photo by Peter Haden, News21)

“You could definitely tell the emotions from the soldier’s perspective through Jake’s brothers and with Jake, as far as being the non-military member – those dynamics were interesting to see and I thought they were really true to life,” said Capt. Tom Leingang, a part of the Headquarters unit for the 818th.

Most importantly, the film allowed members of the 818th to discuss their feelings about reintegrating into civilian life.

“Any time you can get conversations going between soldiers, or do events with these reintegrations or Yellow Ribbon stuff, where soldiers can talk to each other, where they can open up to each other, or with their families, I think it’s important – I think it’s critical,” Leingang said.

VA provides $300 million in grants in effort to end veteran homelessness

By Catey Traylor, News21

Vaughn Little, a Gulf War Army infantryman, lost his leg during Operation Desert Storm. He is now homeless in New York City. (Photo by Catey Traylor, News21)

Vaughn Little, a Gulf War Army infantryman, lost his leg during Operation Desert Storm. He is now homeless in New York City. (Photo by Catey Traylor, News21)

Vaughn Little was alone, on the streets of New York City. With nowhere to go and no one to turn to, he found some cardboard and a marker and did what he swore he’d never do.

“Disable(d) veteran,” he carefully wrote. “Can’t walk; can’t talk. Please help. Thank you.”

Little sits in his wheelchair at the subway exit on the corner of 31st Street and 7th Avenue, across the street from the Hotel Pennsylvania, silently pleading for spare change.

An Army infantryman during the Gulf War, Little lost the lower portion of his right leg during Operation Desert Storm. He returned to the United States and had a hard time transitioning to civilian life.

He eventually found himself homeless.

Little is just one example of thousands of veterans who return from battle and end up sleeping on the streets they fought to defend.

The count of homeless post-9/11 veterans is unknown, but the increasing rate of homelessness among veterans has been a major concern for the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs since 2009, when VA Secretary Eric Shinseki vowed to end veteran homelessness within five years.

Since then, housing programs have received budget increases to house homeless veterans. Most recently, the VA awarded $300 million in grants to the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program, known as SSVF.

SSVF aims to help veterans before they become chronically homeless by providing money to local organizations to promote housing stability and connect veterans and their families to support services such as mental health care.

“This is the third year SSVF grants have helped veterans and their families find or remain in their homes,” according to a July 11 news release. “Last year, (the) VA provided about $100 million to assist approximately 50,000 veterans and family members.”

More information about SSVF, as well as links to other VA-sponsored homelessness programs is available at www.va.gov/homeless.

What We’re Reading: Week 10

By Rachel Leingang, News21

What We’re Reading, Week 10:

For Combat Veterans, Life During Ice Time (Jerry Barca, 7/17, New York Times): The Fort Bragg Patriots, an amateur hockey team, is made up of post-9/11 active-duty combat veterans. They use their time on the ice to relax and forget about their time at war, and they bond over their shared experiences overseas.

Marine officer: Scope of sex assault problem exaggerated (Jim Michaels, 7/15, USA Today): Marine Corps Capt. Lindsay Rodman, who now works as a lawyer at the Pentagon, said the military’s sexual assault issues have been exaggerated. She called the Pentagon’s 2012 Annual Report on Sexual Assault survey into question, saying exaggerating the numbers doesn’t help the military address the core problems.

No veterans need apply? (Lisa Nagorny and Dan Pick, 7/15, American Legion): The Center for a New American Security conducted a survey of employers, asking them why veterans are unemployed at higher rates than civilians.

This is the way to return to your family from Afghanistan (Breach, Bang, Clear, 7/18): This heartwarming video shows how one soldier surprised his wife and kids upon his return from Afghanistan.

Arizona State Marine veteran fills sandbags in Yarnell

By Anthony Cave, News21

Post-9/11 veteran Luis Camacho (far right) filled "hundreds" of sandbags for Yarnell, Ariz. residents facing potential flash floods. (Courtesy of Luis Camacho)

Post-9/11 veteran Luis Camacho (far right) filled “hundreds” of sandbags for Yarnell, Ariz. residents facing potential flash floods. (Courtesy of Luis Camacho)

Marine Corps veteran Luis Camacho spent more than two years in Iraq, logging three tours of duty from 2004 through 2008; he knows what it is like to fill sandbags.

When he heard that residents of Yarnell, Ariz. – where a raging forest fire killed 19 men June 30 – faced possible flash floods, Camacho, 27, took action.

“If there is something that veterans know about, its filling sandbags,” the public service and public policy major at Arizona State University said.

He used Facebook to ask ASU student veterans to volunteer to take the 90-minute ride north with him over the July 20 weekend. Only one responded, but that did not deter him.

A few Marines were among the fallen Granite Mountain HotShots. Camacho wanted to “honor their memory” through service.

“There’s a brotherhood there. There was that extra incentive to go help out,” he said. “Had they not died, that is the type of work that they would have done for their community – filling up sandbags.”

The two ASU veterans spent nearly six hours, taking a half-hour for lunch, filling “hundreds” of sandbags, he said.

And they were needed. With no vegetation, water and ash from the fire easily could flood houses. Residents took up to 30 sandbags each.

He also met with the Yarnell Fire Department captain and talked to residents.

“Their stories are just heartbreaking, and I’ve experienced a lot more than people should have,” Camacho said, reflecting on his volunteer weekend and his Iraq war experiences.

For one veteran, distance learning outlasts post-war complications

By Anthony Cave, News21

The “compact” feeling of a classroom can be overwhelming for students who are military veterans.

Post-9/11 veteran Stephen Michael DeMoss, 27, said that he “burned out” during the fall 2012 semester at Florida International University. He struggled with Post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism.

“I had to be hospitalized, I almost had to drop my classes,” said DeMoss, who served in Iraq in 2005-2006.

The classroom setting troubled DeMoss so much he took evening classes, which met when the campus was less crowded.

“A lot of people can sometimes be a little stressful, you don’t get there early enough and you have to squeeze between a lot of people,” said DeMoss, an international relations major.

Despite a flurry of emails and invitations from the FIU veterans group, DeMoss said he did not seek help. However, change came in the form of an internship.

In spring 2013, he moved to California for a semester to join his wife, who was an intern with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

That move meant that DeMoss had to take all his classes virtually. He improved academically.

“I guess I had the mindset of being very independent. Online is a lot easier,” DeMoss said.

DeMoss still has a few classes that he must take on campus in Miami before he graduates, but a government job is already in his sights.  DeMoss has an internship scheduled this summer with the U.S. Department of the Treasury in West Virginia.

He hopes to work for the U.S. Department of State some day, but Treasury has a plan too.

“This internship with the Treasury Department; they train me up,” DeMoss said. “Once I graduate, I have a job, if I want it.”

American Indian Health Services to receive VA funds

By Mary Shinn, News21

Donna Jacobs, the director of the Northern Arizona VA Health Care System, presented at the Veterans Benefits Summit in Tuba City, Ariz. during June. The Northern Arizona VA Health Care System is working with Indian Health Service facilities and tribal facilities across their region to open veteran centered clinics. (Photo by Hannah Winston, News21)

Donna Jacobs, the director of the Northern Arizona VA Health Care System, presented at the Veterans Benefits Summit in Tuba City, Ariz. during June. The Northern Arizona VA Health Care System is working with Indian Health Service facilities and tribal facilities across their region to open veteran centered clinics. (Photo by Hannah Winston, News21)

Tuba City, Ariz. – American Indian Health Service centers and tribal health care clinics nationwide are now getting Department of Veterans Affairs reimbursement for care they provide to Native American veterans.

The reimbursements allow health care centers to share staff, technology, training and other resources. Native Americans who are veterans also get increased access to VA health care. For example Indian Health Services staff will receive training to treat veterans with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The VA started processing reimbursements in May 2013.

In December 2012, VA and IHS signed the national agreement. Local versions of the agreement are being negotiated. So far 34 local agreements have been signed across the country, according the VA Office of Tribal Government Relations. There are 566 federally recognized tribes, many of them in remote locations.

Native Americans are only .8 percent of the overall U.S. population, but they are 1.6 percent of the currently deployed forces in Afghanistan, according to Department of Defense data.

Ron Tso, the CEO of an IHS center in the Navajo Nation, said at a health benefits summit in June that it’s important to share resources in preparation for returning veterans.

“We’re going to have a whole slew of veterans returning from Afghanistan, we have to be ready,” Tso said.

But IHS and the VA still haven’t designed a way to share electronic health records.

Veterans also voiced concerns at the June health summit on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona that part of the agreement would lead to more bureaucracy. For example, if a veteran needs care that was not provided by IHS, must go to the VA for a referral.

Rick Gray, a Vietnam veteran who lives on the Navajo Nation in Kayenta, Ariz., said often veterans are given inadequate answers when they ask specific questions about VA care.

“All we get it is: We’re sorry, we’re sorry,” he said.

Gray has fought for better healthcare on the Navajo Nation and he said it is true that the VA is trying to offer more veteran specific healthcare. In many cases they are still waiting for care to improve while the reimbursement agreements are put into place, he said. In many areas, veterans have been waiting for better care so long they no longer expect change, he said.

“A lot of the comments we get from veterans is: We’ll believe it, when we see it.”

What We’re Reading: Week 9

By Chad Garland, News21

What We’re Reading, Week 9:

Photo Exhibit Spanning Decades Reveals Our Collective War Story (Kainaz Amaria, 7/15, NPR) The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington exhibit “War/Photography,” consists of 309 photographs from 25 nationalities with conflicts that span 165 years. “It’s organized in the order of war,” said Anne Tucker, curator of photography for the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Her team spent 10 years scanning more than 1 million photographs from more than 17 countries to come up with a different approach to presenting the images of war, even some images not typically associated with war.

Shooting the messengers (Ed Caesar, 7/9, GQ Magazine, UK edition) A few high profile cases of war correspondents killed in the course of duty underscores the danger of reporting in war zones, Ed Caesar said. As deaths and kidnappings mount – 2012 was among the worst years for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists – Caesar wonders what has changed to make journalists increasingly vulnerable to, if not targets of, the violence they cover.

Woman’s work (Francesca Borri, 7/1, Columbia Journalism Review) “The only story to tell in war is how to live without fear,” writes Francesca Borri, an Italian freelancer working in Syria. Contrary to the romantic notions of freelance journalists as free, Borri said they are trapped at the frontline, where the competition to report on “the blood, the bang-bang” is cutthroat.

For Veterans, a Fight for College Credit (Jody Serrano, 7/17, The Texas Tribune) A pilot program that helps veterans in Texas get college credit for their military experience won’t be made permanent; it failed to reach the full House during this year’s legislative session, but the Texas Workforce Commission will be able to expand the program thanks to federal grants. On average, veterans have received about a year of credits based on military experience, allowing them to complete their degree and enter the workforce more quickly. The program sponsor might re-file to make it permanent in 2015.

How the Pentagon’s payroll quagmire traps soldiers (Scot J. Paltrow and Kelly Carr, 7/2, Reuters) The Defense Finance and Accounting Service, or DFAS, a Pentagon agency responsible for accurately paying America’s 2.7 million active-duty and reserve service members, has a problem – costly failures. A variety of factors, from technology decades out of date, to systems that can’t communicate and military leaders who shirk responsibilities, all contribute to errors that harm some military personnel, while benefiting others.

Native American ceremonies help vet find his way

By Mary Shinn, News21

Maurco Ambrose attends Treaty Days, a celebration each year in June at the Navajo Nation in Church Rock, N.M. Ambrose served as an Army cook in Iraq, during 2008 and 2009. After he returned, he found that Blessing Way ceremonies helped direct his life. (Photo by Mauro Whiteman, News21)

Maurco Ambrose attends Treaty Days, a celebration each year in June at the Navajo Nation in Church Rock, N.M. Ambrose served as an Army cook in Iraq, during 2008 and 2009. After he returned, he found that Blessing Way ceremonies helped direct his life. (Photo by Mauro Whiteman, News21)

Church Rock, N.M. ­— Maurco Ambrose lost his way in life after he left the Army and went home to the Navajo Nation, but he found new direction through meditative ceremonies.

Ambrose enlisted in 2005 when he was 17 and spent five years with 2nd Brigade 4th Infantry Division based in Colorado Springs, Colo. and served as a cook in Iraq from 2008 to 2009. After the military’s rigorous routine, Ambrose said he had no direction, couldn’t find a job and started drinking.

“My whole world was shattered. I was lost. I didn’t know what to do so I started to make friends with the wrong people,” Ambrose said.

In the Army, he encountered a strong stigma toward admitting to any kind of post-traumatic stress or depression and Ambrose said that he never admitted needing any kind of mental help.

“Out of the blue” he attended a Blessing Way ceremony led by his father’s cousin, who is a medicine man. He enjoyed the style of singing. After two months, he asked if he could start following the medicine man he refers to as father in Navajo, out of respect.

Speaking Navajo mentally challenged him, Ambrose said. He understands reads and writes the language, but struggles to speak fluently. As he learned the songs, he began to contemplate his life.

The first 12 songs are called the Hogan songs and describe building the house, he said. It starts with a planning stage and moves through each stage including taking ownership of the house.

“The more I started asking questions about the songs and the sets that they came in, the more and more I became engaged in it. The more you learn about the song, the more you learn about yourself,” he said.

Ceremonies last all night, and that’s how Ambrose has spent many weekends over the last two years. The ceremonies have helped him plan the next steps of his life and act on them. He will start his second semester of nursing school in the fall.

The Department of Navajo Veterans Affairs reimburses Native veterans for a variety of traditional healing ceremonies and on average pays for about 300 ceremonies a year.

Florida State University’s art therapy workshops calm veterans

By Anthony Cave, News21

Rather than talking to veterans about post-war complications such as anxiety and depression, they learn art as a coping mechanism at Florida State University.

The Student Veterans Center and Art Therapy Program at FSU host workshops for student veterans on campus.

“It’s meaningful to them; the creative process is healing in itself,” said Meredith McMackin, an academic adviser in the FSU College of Human Sciences.

McMackin, whose son was killed in Iraq, has worked with FSU veterans since 2008. A doctoral student in art therapy, McMackin helps with the workshops.

Veterans feel isolated on campus because of their experiences and age, she said.

“They’ve seen a lot of things that young, 18-, 19-, 20-year-old college students can’t fathom,” McMackin said.

Veterans in workshops produce everything from paintings to printmaking. The finished products from the October 2012 workshop were displayed in the FSU main library.

“It brings out something from within,” she said.

Post-9/11 veteran Rachel Mims, 26, is an art therapy master’s degree student at FSU. The Arlington, Texas, native served in the Army from 2001 to 2012, including a deployment to Germany. She initially was attracted to FSU because of its growing veterans population, Mims said. She saw it as an opportunity to help. However, she did not attend veteran events on campus at first.

“I was mentally discharged; I was done with the military,” Mims said.

One meeting, however, changed her outlook.

“I have relied on the veterans group for support, so much support,” she said. “That’s the biggest thing that has helped me out, is school.”

Mims, who also helps with the art therapy workshops, said that her veteran experiences are part of her life “forever now.” And, the emotions still run high, but in a different way.

“My field is a caring field, [art therapists] have that personality, they want to help others,” Mims said.