Student veterans turn to campus groups for help adjusting to college

By Dominick DiFurio

Training, reflexes and anger flowed into Devon Caballero-Zarate the day he had an altercation with his ex-wife’s boyfriend, using his tattoo-smothered forearms to twist the man’s wrist, intent on breaking it.

Fellow veteran Jordan Sherwood (right) talks with Mesa Community College student Devon Caballero-Zarate (left) about switching into a more suitable class.

Fellow veteran Jordan Sherwood (right) talks with Mesa Community College student Devon Caballero-Zarate (left) about switching into a more suitable class.

“I just reacted,” Zarate recalled, saying he also smashed the boyfriend’s head into a car windshield before the Las Vegas Police Department showed up.

Zarate was a special purpose mechanic stationed in Kadena, Japan, from 2001 until 2003 when he was discharged. His post-service disabilities stem from non-combat related incidents, particularly the murder of his father while Zarate was serving overseas.

“I snapped… plain and simple, I snapped.”

His father’s death sent Zarate into a psychological state that his superiors thought gave enough reason to send him back home permanently, Zarate said.

He now studies at Mesa Community College, hungry to have his hands on a four-year degree in the near future.

“Being a soldier, the military, that was my world… that meant everything to me,” Zarate said.

Many student veterans, like Zarate, say their military experiences leave them feeling differently than other college students, and so they turn to organizations like the Student Veterans of America to help them.

SVA is a national organization with 883 chapters across the United States. These chapters assist veterans in their transition into the college environment, some of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress and are juggling school with demanding lives. They have families and some have jobs.

Jordan Sherwood, a former member of the SVA chapter at Mesa Community College, says there’s more to life for student veterans than “going to class for the day and then going home, calling up your buddies and partying… I mean there’s always that too,” he joked.

Veterans groups on campus are a place for these students to connect with other veterans.

The Veterans Club at Arizona State University, where Zarate attended school prior to MCC, provides opportunities for members to come together through community service, social events, one-on-one guidance, and political activism.

At an October ASU Tempe Veterans Club meeting, members congregated in the evening over a couple boxes of Papa John’s pizza. Its president, Walter Tillman, runs through his agenda in front of a dozen veterans, discussing political issues, community service and social events.

As a veteran, Tillman is active in Arizona politics and encourages members of the club to reach out to elected officials and voice their opinions about student veteran issues. Recently he worked with Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, to push several bills that would further veterans benefits.

“It’s kind of in our best interest,” Tillman elaborated.

Joanna Sweatt is the Military Advocate at Arizona State University and is skeptical of mixing politics and veteran support. Sweatt is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and works one-on-one with veterans that need assistance at school or who simply need some company.

“Politics are stressful, no matter how much passion you have for them,” she said.

Sweatt says that she sees more successful veterans emerge from support groups that focus on service and support.

MCC also has a significant veteran population. The MCC chapter president Brian Dozier says he prefers to focus on brotherhood.

Zarate, for example, missed three days of school after his altercation in Las Vegas. He had trouble communicating his situation to teachers and was able to go to Sherwood for help. Sherwood also happens to be an employee at the Office of Veteran Services at MCC. He took Zarate under his wing, helping him communicate to teachers his struggles. He also assisted in getting Zarate into more suitable classes.

“I’ve been there,” Sherwood said of Zarate’s situation.

Sherwood also served in the military and got himself through a two-year degree. He’s now working on a Bachelor’s degree. He says he understands the complicated scenarios of fellow veterans, adding that student veterans join the club to find help with exactly these scenarios.

“We’re all fighting the battle to assimilate back into civilian life,” MCC veterans club member Ted Morrison added.

A Mesa Army veteran’s brain injury went undiagnosed for years

By David Ryan

After more than a decade of crippling headaches, alcohol and drug abuse, a psychiatric appointment unlocked a decade of mystery for Army veteran Kenny Baca.

Baca, 45, had lived for 15 years with an undiagnosed traumatic brain injury inflicted in a tractor trailer accident when he served in the U.S. Army Reserve in Arizona.

In the years after the accident in 1991, Baca spent months in jail for multiple DUIs. He couldn’t keep a job framing and painting houses because the more he worked, the worse his headaches became. He was aggressive and at times, would call his mother – lost – unable to figure out where he was.

While traumatic brain injuries primarily have been associated over the last decade as a signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, every year more than 1.7 million Americans suffer a TBI, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“The TBI is such a hard thing to diagnose, it’s not something physical. It’s not like a limp, it’s an invisible injury,” said Baca, who now lives in Mesa, Ariz. “I’m sure if I was walking around for 15 years not knowing, then there are plenty of people out there undiagnosed.”

In 2006, a Department of Veterans Affairs psychiatrist agreed to review the original medical records from Baca’s accident. She found a note about significant head trauma that never was diagnosed or treated as TBI by military or VA doctors. A VA neurologist later confirmed Baca suffered from TBI.

“Knowing that something is wrong, but nobody can tell you what … it finally brought some hope into my life,” he said. “That was the beginning of a lot of changes for the better.”

Baca’s accident happened on a two-week mission in Pomona, Calif. Baca was driving a soft-top tractor trailer carrying construction equipment on a freeway during rush hour when a driver cut him off. The tractor trailer slammed into stopped traffic.

Baca remembers the sound of metal hubcaps scraping against pavement and the smell of rubber burning before the trailer rolled and grated to a rest on the pavement with the passenger’s side facing the sky.

“I wasn’t in a seatbelt, and that’s probably what saved my life,” Baca said. “I probably would have gotten decapitated.”

Baca found himself partially ejected from the truck, pinned between the truck body and burning canvas top. His passenger was in a seatbelt and called Baca’s name.

“My name was the last thing that he said,” Baca said. “I was pinned under the truck and couldn’t help him, I couldn’t respond.”

Baca was pinned for 27 minutes.  He suffered a broken left femur, broken ribs and deep gashes to his face.

He spent six weeks recuperating. The damage to nerves in his legs was extensive. Doctors told Baca to get used to a wheelchair.

But with the help of a physical therapist, Baca began his recovery. It was two years before Baca took his first step, and three before he walked for the first time.

One day during a family gathering, his mother and sister looked up from the couch to see him standing. He walked from the family room, out the sliding door and jumped in the pool.

“I don’t know if he practiced at physical therapy,” said his mother Linda Madrid. “But it was just amazing to see.”

At 26, Baca moved out on his own and was working construction. But some days, he wouldn’t show up to a job and was fired.

Over the next 12 years, he said he was drinking multiple six-packs a day, and at times mixing alcohol with marijuana, cocaine or meth.

“I was self-medicating, trying to fit in, trying to work… trying to be a working person, somebody that contributes,” Baca said. “Self-medicating is a scary place to be. If you’re drinking, you have chronic pain, you can’t see things any other way. It’s hard to imagine not coming home and drinking beer.”

Eventually he mixed beer with hydrocodone, an opiate painkiller he was prescribed for chronic pain.

“I was really tired of my life,” Baca said. “I think I got really tired of it when I got my last DUI and went to jail. I wanted to change. I didn’t know how, and decided to get counseling.”

Baca’s new doctors worked out a treatment plan, but warned him if he continued to drink and use drugs, he was a prime candidate for Alzheimer’s at an early age. Baca hasn’t had a drink since.

He moved closer to his family and got married.

“If I didn’t get diagnosed with the TBI, who knows if I’d be here today?” Baca said. “Sometimes I wonder that.”

A little-known policy helps military spouses stay in U.S. legally

By Kendra Szabo

Maria Quiring’s son was just months old the day the deportation notice arrived at her El Mirage home. Despite her marriage of five years to a U.S. Air Force serviceman, Quiring was ordered back to her native Mexico.

“I was so afraid of the door,” Quiring said. “My little one was a baby. You see all this on the news so I thought they would come to my door with guns and take me and leave my kids.”

“I didn’t know if I would lose her,” said her husband Jared Quiring, a technical sergeant stationed at Luke Air Force Base.

Had a Department of Homeland Security policy called Parole in Place not found her a loophole, Maria Quiring would not be where she is today, watching her now 5-year-old son J.J. assemble a Hungry Hungry Hippos game on the floor.

Parole in Place, an unofficial policy allowing certain immigrants to adjust their legal status, started as a means of protecting citizens of Cuba, crime victims and battered women. But in 2008, under the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. government announced military families could qualify under the policy.

Maria Quiring left her home country of Mexico as a 19-year-old in 1999 when her former husband brought her to the United States as an undocumented citizen. After a year and a half, they were divorced.

Three years later, in 2004, she married Jared Quiring. She applied for citizenship, but because she entered the country unlawfully, the letter she received in 2009 notified her she would be deported and barred from returning to the United States for 10 years before she could return and apply for citizenship again.

“I was devastated,” Maria Quiring said. “My whole world was turned upside down. It meant not getting to be with my kids or husband for up to 10 years. It was chaotic.”

Military personnel are not allowed to travel to Mexico, which meant Jared Quiring would not be able to even see her.

“The first thing I did was ask my commander for permission to visit her and he pretty much said no,” he said.

It was Phoenix immigration attorney Judy Flanagan who told Maria Quiring about Parole in Place.

“This allows people with unlawful presence who have a spouse in active duty military to be granted a legal fiction saying they entered legally, circumventing having to leave and having to get the waiver,” Flanagan said.

In a letter to Congress in August 2010, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano wrote that, “On a case-by-case basis, DHS utilizes parole and deferred action to minimize periods of family separation, and to facilitate adjustment of status within the United States by immigrants who are the spouses, parents and children of military members.”

Immigration attorney Margaret Stock said that because the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has no official memorandum for Parole in Place, not many attorneys know about it and not many people have utilized it. For Maria Quiring, the process turned out to be simple.

“All they did was look at my paperwork and approved my residency for one year,” she said. Then, after that, it was only three months until I had my interview (for Legal Permanent Residency).”

At the interview, on Nov. 1, 2011, Maria Quiring was approved as a Legal Permanent Resident. Two weeks later, she got her green card.

“I call it the military pass,” Flanagan said. “You have a spouse in the military and you get some special benefits. It’s totally out of the ordinary. It’s like a magic button.”

The Quiring family felt the same way.

“That was probably the best news I had heard in a long time,” Jared Quiring said. “I leave in a couple months for Korea for a year. I know she’s going to be okay when I return.”

And his wife feels safe, too, knowing she’s residing in the country legally.

“I’m at peace and at ease knowing I’m safe and fine here,” Maria Quiring said. “But, I do want to become a U.S. citizen. I’m already studying for my test.”

Next year, she can apply for citizenship.

“I told my husband it’s better they messed up my paperwork the first time,” she said. “What people intend for evil, God intends for good.”

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.”

Post-9/11 veteran writes names of more than 2,000 fallen soldiers from memory

By Anthony Cave, News21

Ron White writes out a name of a fallen soldier from the Afghanistan war on a 50-foot memorial wall at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona on May 27, 2013. (Photo by Anthony Cave, News21)

Ron White writes out a name of a fallen soldier from the Afghanistan war on a 50-foot memorial wall at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona on May 27, 2013. (Photo by Anthony Cave, News21)

Navy veteran Ron White can remember 7,000 consecutive words. But he still forgets everyday items, like the blender to make his morning protein shake.

“I have a very average memory, but when I use this system, it’s extraordinary,” he said.

White, a memory expert, took a seminar when he was 18 years old. For more than 22 years, he has used the loci technique, which associates names with everyday objects and locations — his stove or the inside of a bookstore — to remember large quantities of information. White teaches a memory class and even has a set of instructional CDs.

Beyond using it on school exams or to win memory competitions, he took on a far greater challenge in May 2012.

White, who served in Afghanistan in 2007, started memorizing every fallen soldier from the Afghanistan war, more than 2,200 names.

White traveled across the globe, from Africa to Boston, with a black folder that contained pages of the fallen soldiers to memorize.

“I kind of feel like I’m taking these guys with me,” he said.

At Chase Field in Phoenix on Memorial Day, White wrote the names, one-by-one, on a blank, 50-foot memorial wall. It took him 10 hours. White’s purpose is for people to remember the soldiers. His efforts help raise funds for the Wounded Warrior Project.

Still, emotions run high when writing the names. Sometimes, family members stand and watch him.

Post-9/11 veteran Ron White wrote out more than 2200 names of fallen soldiers from the Afghanistan war on Memorial Day at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona on May 27, 2013. (Photo by Anthony Cave, News21)

Post-9/11 veteran Ron White wrote out more than 2200 names of fallen soldiers from the Afghanistan war on Memorial Day at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona on May 27, 2013. (Photo by Anthony Cave, News21)

“When you’re getting ready to write their name and they’ve waited an hour to see you write their son or daughter’s name, the emotions well up,” White said. “I just got to remind myself ‘stay focused on this moment.’”

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.

Arizona fund aids more military families, veterans each year

By Chase Cook, News21

A growing number of veterans, active duty service members and their families are asking the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services for help in making ends meet.
These are families whose chief providers are soldiers or veterans who were affected or left debilitated by combat.

In one instance the department paid to build a ramp for a disabled soldier. In April a soldier committed suicide; the department gave his family money for six months of help to pay bills.

The relief fund committee approved four awards totaling $14,722 in 2008, the first year of the program. Last year the committee approved 165 awards for $510,318.63. Overall, families have received about $1.36 million, according to Arizona Veterans’ Services. In May, at the monthly meeting, the Arizona Military Family Relief Fund committee considered six applications and approved three.

Those eligible include Arizona active-duty soldiers and veterans who served in combat after 9/11 and their families. They must have claimed Arizona as home when they entered military service, deployed with the Arizona National Guard or deployed from an Arizona military installation, according to Arizona Veterans’ Services.

The increase in applicants is mostly from changes to the relief fund’s qualifying criteria, which originally considered awards for soldiers or veterans who were physically injured or families of soldiers killed in combat, committee chairman and retired Air Force Col. Randy Meyer said.

“We are the stewards of this program,” Meyer said. “We have to do it right the first time.”

Meeting minimum qualification, however, doesn’t mean approval. The committee discusses every application, which features personal finance information and third-party verification of combat involvement and injuries. The committee then debates whether to support the application.

The three applications tabled or denied at the May 21 meeting in Phoenix were fraught with questions about debit card use, ATM withdrawals at casinos and the applicant’s inability to prove that hardship was combat related.

The committee is judicious with the money it gives out, and even with the program’s growth, Meyer said there isn’t an issue of applicants going without. All the money comes from private donors who receive state tax credits up to $400 for couples and $200 for singles. The Arizona Legislature sets a $1 million annual cap on tax credits for the program.