In Portland, One Vet Finds Peace with Puppets

By Forrest Burnson, News21

PORTLAND, Ore. – By day, Clint Hall, an Army veteran and supply chain analyst, works with spreadsheets to track shipments for Adidas Group. By night, he takes to his sewing machine to make hand puppets and plush animals.

Hall calls them “wiggle whales.” They’ve become more than a hobby; Hall has started selling them on Etsy.

“The puppets are silly,” the combat veteran said. “That’s why I enjoy making them so much.”

After serving Infantry tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hall returned in 2005 and was honorably discharged in 2007. Following his return home, Hall was diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition to therapy, Hall, now 35, found a creative outlet in making puppets. He looks at making puppets as a way to work through whatever problem he is mulling.

“It’s a problem-solving tool for me. And it happens to add value to my life,” he said. “Because then I have something positive to share with a friend, or give to somebody.”

What We’re Reading, Week 8

By Chad Garland, News21

Going Home (Chris Bloxom, 6/30, ESPN SportsCenter) Surprise military homecomings at sporting events seem to have become almost commonplace in the past decade and this six-minute ESPN video produced for the July 4th holiday shows why: they’re too touching to pass up.

Inside SportsCenter’s ‘Going Home’ video salute to soldiers’ family reunions at sports venues (Dan Quinn, 7/3, ESPN Front Row) Features producer Chris Bloxom wanted to add a structure to the string of YouTube video clips featuring military members reuniting with family members at sports events. Bloxom turned to the Army to find an Afghanistan veteran and his family to re-enact a homecoming as a way of creating what he called “intrigue.”

House veterans committee creates site to prod VA (Gregg Zoroya, 7/9, USA Today) Apparently frustrated with the amount of time it is taking the Department of Veterans Affairs to respond to its requests for information, the House Veterans Affairs Committee set up a website listing some of the nearly 100 requests the VA has not fulfilled, some dating back more than a year.

Over Water, Under Fire  (7/10, Powering a Nation) This interactive documentary special report produced by fellows at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill tells the story of the Colorado River. Text and graphics focus on the changes humans have made to the river and their impacts to the environment along America’s most endangered river, according to the American Rivers organization. These elements are woven into a video story about Army veterans traveling down the river together as a means of therapy and recovery.

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.”

National Guard member writes to increase military-civilian connections

By Rachel Leingang, News21

Dan Nygard wrote his debut novel, "Rounds," after deploying to Iraq with the Minnesota National Guard.

Dan Nygard wrote his debut novel, “Rounds,” after deploying to Iraq with the Minnesota National Guard.

It’s easy for non-military citizens to ignore the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, author Dan Nygard said, drawing from his experience as a Minnesota National Guard member.

“You can go through your day and it doesn’t affect it one bit,” he said. “You don’t have to pay attention anymore. Nobody’s rationing anything.”

His service outside Fallujah, Iraq, from March 2006 to July 2007 inspired his first novel, “Rounds.” He sees it as a way to connect non-veterans with what the military undergoes.

“I do think there’s a gigantic divide between civilian and military,” Nygard said. “Even with yellow ribbons and clapping in the airports, I don’t think the military feels like they’re connected to civilians.”

“Rounds,” drawn from Nygard’s experiences from his deployment, starts as a first-person narrative, then moves into third-person accounts before the lead narrator, Ray, returns.

“It’s very circular,” Nygard said. “I don’t think war stories can have that Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 narrative; it just doesn’t happen that way.”

Nygard got a Masters of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Minnesota State University-Moorhead, using the G.I. Bill. He began writing before he was deployed, but the “wealth of experiences” he had in Iraq were great subject matter for a novel.

Writing about his deployment helped Nygard to process a lot of what he went through, he said, almost as a kind of therapy.

“There’s a healing that can go on when you put it on paper,” he said, “and not only for the person who’s writing. It helps the readers to understand and become closer to the vet doing the writing.”

That connection is what Nygard really hopes his novel – and other fiction and non-fiction by post-9/11 veterans – can achieve.

“People do have an interest,” he said. “People are good at heart. They do want to feel and understand what’s happened in the last 10 years.”

“Rounds” is available as an e-book through Amazon. Nygard is writing his next novel, which is set at home and more about the aftermath of war.

“War Zone/Comfort Zone” follows female veterans

By Caitlin Cruz, News21

“Who else would preserve their land more than someone who is willing to die for it?”

Filmmaker Lizzie Warren with Connecticut Public Television follows two women who are attempting to begin a transitional housing shelter for female veterans, but it also tells the story of four women adjusting to life after the military.

For a more thorough description of the film:

Though women account for roughly 14 percent of active-duty U.S. military and more than 24 percent of the National Guard, they often receive less than a hero’s welcome upon return to civilian life. Many of these women veterans must deal with poverty, homelessness, joblessness, and psychological and physiological effects of PTSD from military sexual assault and/or combat all within a system that is ill-equipped and, in some cases, unwilling to help. War Zone/Comfort Zone is the personal story of their plight for normalcy and peace without the benefit of a comprehensive support system.

The documentary follows the journey of Shalini Madaras and Joy Kiss in the fight to open the first transitional house for women veterans in the state of Connecticut despite virulent neighborhood opposition. It also tells the story of four women who are coping with life after the military using interviews and footage that provide a surprising look into the lives of these invisible veterans.

The film was nominated for a New England Emmy for Outstanding Documentary.

Military Sexual Trauma in more than just the news

By Asha Anchan, News21

At the beginning of May the Department of Defense released figures estimating 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact that occurred in 2012, a 35 percent jump from 2010. These cases range from inappropriate contact to rape.

But military sexual trauma is showing up in more than multi-page reports. It’s been the content of documentaries, books and even a TV show mini-series that exposes the humans behind the numbers appearing in the reports.

Men and women who experienced sexual trauma are stepping forward, sharing their stories and getting in front of the camera for the first time. These stories are not new, explain many of the victims, they just haven’t been brought to light in this fashion.

The documentaries “Uniform Betrayal,” “Service: When Women Come Marching Home” and “The Invisible War” were released in 2011 and 2012 and depict men and women who have experienced sexual assault. “The Invisible War” was a 2013 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature and garnered a lot attention about military sexual trauma.

Last August, WIGS, a YouTube channel, created a TV show depicting a woman’s battle with military sexual assault. The show, “Lauren,” introduces characters to a fictional character that navigates through her rape in the military. It comes across as a dramatization of real stories and breathes life into the numbers in the headlines.

These forms of media attention are connecting faces to facts as an alternative to official reports. What will be the result of this story telling method? That’s yet to be determined.

Grandfather, grandson bond in service to troops

By Asha Anchan, News21

Connor Love stands by the graveside of Army Cpl. Jeremiah W. Robinson in Mariposa Gardens Memorial Park in Mesa, Ariz. Love frequents the memorial garden to honor fallen soldiers and make sure Robinson's gravesite is kept clean.(Photo by Asha Anchan, News21)

Connor Love stands by the graveside of Army Cpl. Jeremiah W. Robinson in Mariposa Gardens Memorial Park in Mesa, Ariz. Love frequents the memorial garden to honor fallen soldiers and make sure Robinson’s gravesite is kept clean. (Photo by Asha Anchan, News21)

Howard Love calls his 9-year-old grandson the most patriotic youngster he knows. Connor Love, wearing his Army hat and camo Vans, just listens.

Five years ago, he and his grandpa were sipping their weekly coffee at Starbucks – Connor takes his with milk and a few drops of coffee – when the boy pointed across the street and asked his grandfather what the flags and flowers meant.

He took Connor to Mariposa Gardens Memorial Park in Mesa, Ariz., where the two happened upon the grave of Army Cpl. Jeremiah W. Robinson, a Mesa native who was killed by an improvised explosive device in late 2005.

Connor noticed that the gravesite wasn’t very well kept. He didn’t know Robinson, but he straightened the flag and cleaned the graveside bench.

Now Connor is a regular at Mariposa Gardens; nearly every Saturday he says, “Let’s go check his flag.”

Howard Love proudly talks about his 9-year-old grandson's patriotism. The two of them send care packages to the troops every two weeks.  (Photo by Asha Anchan, News21)

Howard Love proudly talks about his 9-year-old grandson’s patriotism. The two of them send care packages to the troops every two weeks. (Photo by Asha Anchan, News21)

He and his grandfather do good deeds to honor the men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Howard Love supports 11 troops in Iraqi and Afghan combat zones by sending bi-weekly packages that include items such as socks and snacks.

Last year Love spent $13,000 collecting items and shipping them to the troops. It’s an investment, he said, and he’s proud of his grandson for being so invested as well.

Love calls Connor an “old soul” – quiet, collected and mature for his age.

Sometimes when they’re in the car and the words Iraq or Afghanistan make it into a newscast, Connor pipes in, “Did we lose anyone?”

“People don’t really think he understands what he’s doing, but I think he understands more than people give him credit for,” Love said. “He knows there’s a war, and he knows there’s guys that go and don’t come back.”

Native Americans honor Memorial Day

By Bonnie Campo, News21

The Memorial Day homage paid by Native Americans gave honor and appreciation a distinctly different sound.

Thunder Springs, the Hopi drum group comprising Lamar Barehand, Lamon Barehand, Budge Mahle and Nate Barehand offer their tribute to Native American veterans in a Memorial Day event at the Heard Museum in Phoenix.

Native American veterans honor Memorial Day from News21 on Vimeo.

Remembering those who served

By Kelsey Hightower, News21

One hundred flags lined Mariposa Gardens Memorial Park in Mesa, Ariz., to honor those who have served and are serving in the military. Friends and family gathered inside the cemetery chapel to hear a minister’s comforting words about the fallen. The service concluded with those in attendance joining to sing songs. Boy Scouts led the crowd to place a memorial wreath at the military columbarium and release doves.

Mesa Hightower New from News21 on Vimeo.