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.”

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.

VA researches hearing problems for post-9/11 vets

By Kay Miller, News21

VA researchers are adding to their understanding of hearing disorders by working to resolve problems unique to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

At the National Center Rehabilitative for Auditory Research, audiologists are aware that hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) top the list of the Veteran Administration’s disability compensation.

The audiology profession in fact, has its roots in helping veterans, said Theresa Schulz, a retired Lt. Col., who was an Air Force audiologist and is now a Honeywell Safety Products hearing conservation manager.

“There were veterans coming back from World War II with hearing loss and that’s where the profession originated,” she said in an interview.

Audiologists became leaders in hearing protection as well as hearing loss treatments, Schulz said. Those efforts are continued today at the VA Medical Center in Portland, Ore., which houses NCRAR.

Gabrielle Saunders, NCRAR associate director, is the lead investigator of a computer-based study of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.  The study gives them instruction in preserving their hearing.

“They carry a [personal digital assistant] reminding them nearly 10 times a day to note what they think is the noise level around them,” Saunders said. The level of noise they hear is monitored by a dosimeter, a device also to record actual noise levels.

Preliminary results show success in convincing participants to actively protect their hearing, Saunders said.

“We hope that we will be able to not only provide this to all veterans, but be able to modify it for all branches of the service, and offer it to civilians too,” she said.

House Committee, seeking information from VA, subpoenas Shinseki

By Daniel Moore, News21

Lawmakers say they cannot effectively hold the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs accountable because the agency has not responded to nearly 100 requests for information, some of them more than a year old.

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs on July 9 launched “Trials in Transparency,” a website that will keep track of requests for VA information.

“The leisurely pace with which VA is returning requests – and in some cases not returning them – is a major impediment to the basic oversight responsibilities of the committee,” according to a statement.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) also subpoenaed VA Secretary Eric Shinseki for more information from his August 2012 request, related to $6.1 million spent on training conferences for employees in 2011.

“After the personal assurances I received from Secretary Shinseki and the accommodations made by congressional investigators, there can be no excuse for the continued delay,” the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said in a statement.

Issa originally requested internal VA communications following an Inspector General report that revealed spending at two human resources conferences in Orlando, Fla., had “weak, ineffective, and in some instances, nonexistent” oversight from the VA. The report labeled at least $762,000 as “unauthorized, unnecessary, and/or wasteful expenses.”

Since then, the committee staff has called or emailed the VA more than 45 times, according to a press release.

The VA has declined to comment on the subpoena.

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.

Therapy dog aids veterans with PTSD

By Bonnie Campo, News21

She rarely barks, but she always wags her tail as she enters some of the most difficult and darkened doorways of the Veterans Affairs Eastern Colorado Health Care System.

Elizabeth Holman demonstrates Waffle's ability to lean against patients on command, which Holman says brings comfort to PTSD patients at Denver's VA Medical Center. (Photo by Jake Stein, News21)

Elizabeth Holman demonstrates Waffle’s ability to lean against patients on command, which Holman says brings comfort to PTSD patients at Denver’s VA Medical Center. (Photo by Jake Stein, News21)

Waffle comes from a high pedigree of Labrador retrievers, but more importantly, she is the secondary caretaker for terminally ill veterans who are fighting their last battles. The 2-year-old pup also assists veterans who are newly returned home, those who have conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, and some who are just seeking a smile.

Waffle’s skill set includes responses to approximately 50 commands that range from her giving high-fives to opening doors for the disabled. Her handler, Elizabeth Holman, has worked four years for the Denver VA. Holman, a clinical psychologist, delivers palliative care, which focuses mainly on pain and stress.

Waffle offers an avenue for others to speak about their ailments, Holman said. She “can’t even imagine” what her practice would be like without Waffle, Holman said.

Dogs provide comfort, but they are no substitute for established PTSD treatment, according to the National Center of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a division of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Waffle quietly rests beside Elizabeth Holman in front of Denver's VA Medical Center. (Photo by Jake Stein, News21)

Waffle quietly rests beside Elizabeth Holman in front of Denver’s VA Medical Center. (Photo by Jake Stein, News21)

“Although people with PTSD who have a service dog or emotional support dog may feel comforted by the animal, there is some chance he or she may continue to believe that they cannot do certain things on their own,” according to the VA Center website. “Depending on a dog can get in the way of the recovery process for PTSD.”

Even though most veterans are on medications, this treatment is an alternative that Holman said seems to be working, especially for those who are seeking some immediate relief.

Holman cited studies that report simply petting an animal lowers patients’ blood pressure and stress.

“This is her mission,” Holman said.

Holman thinks that some wounded veterans cannot speak comfortably to doctors — who must continuously jot notes and make personal assessments — as they might interact with an animal, she said.

Waffle came from the Canine Companions program and has provided therapy since February. She already is greeted like a celebrity in about every room she enters.

“We didn’t name her, but someone said that it fits her because she melts the veterans heart like butter,” Holman said.

It is too soon to have a clear evidence base to prove whether therapy dogs are an effective treatment, according to the national PTSD Center website, but Holman said she can see the difference in her patients.

For now Waffle’s four paws will continue to march hallways in the hospital, dispensing happiness to new and old faces.

Army Sergeant uses music to combat PTSD

By Bonnie Campo, News21

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The Warrior Resilience Center at Fort Bliss, Texas, continues to explore multiple treatment options for post-traumatic stress disorder, while official and traditional treatment offer two options.

Doctors and clinicians at Fort Bliss treat active duty troops who primarily served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Treatment at the center is offered from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. in a program that lasts four weeks. Each day is tailored to the patient’s needs, said Vicki Thomas, who is chief of the Warrior Resilience Center.

Sgt. John Welsh finished the program June 21 and said that every day spent at the clinic encouraged him.

“I am about 65 percent recovered,” Welsh said. “But I have more hope now than I did when I began the program.”

Welsh benefited from his treatment, but because of his mental trauma will remain at Fort Bliss. Asked if he would be deployed, he said, “That’s not an option right now. I’m unfit for duty.”

That doesn’t mean Welsh will stop trying. He believes in the progress he has made, but he also advocates helping those who struggle with the same horrors and memories of war.

“A lot of soldiers ignore their problems until it becomes to much to bear; I was one of them,” Welsh said. “I am willing to do anything to help combat related trauma.”

And he has. Welsh produced a song for a friend in 2011, just two weeks before Welsh left for Iraq. That friend was Sgt. Brett Cornelius, who sustained a traumatic brain injury. One of the only things Cornelius can remember is his wife, so Welsh  took a poem Cornelius wrote for her and put it to music.

Welsh returned from Iraq nine months later with PTSD. Cornelius’s memory is approximately 15 minuets because of his TBI. But when they hear the song, Welsh said, they get to remember life before war, before the explosions, and before they were no longer fit to serve.

Through this act of kindness they both are heading toward success, just like the name of the song “On My Way.”

The song can be purchased on iTunes and proceeds from the song go directly to Sgt. Brett Cornelius and his family, minus legal and copyright expenses.

Oklahoma nonprofit helps veterans with claims

By Kelsey Hightower, News21

A Goldsby, Okla.,-based nonprofit organization has assembled a national community of volunteers to help veterans and their families negotiate the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs claims process.

Veterans wait to talk to a volunteer at the Goldsby Community Center in Goldsby, Oklahoma. (Photo by Kelsey Hightower, News21)

Veterans wait to talk to a volunteer at the Goldsby Community Center in Goldsby, Oklahoma. (Photo by Kelsey Hightower, News21)

Every Thursday at Veterans Corner, which is south of Norman, Okla., former military from across the country get assistance in filing their disability claims. The setting is modest. Volunteers work quickly to unload tables, printers, and office supplies to set up Veterans Corner in the Goldsby Community Center. In minutes, an empty building is transformed into an office and waiting area for the average 150 walk-ins.

This has been the routine for five years.

Dale Graham, founder and director of Veterans Corner, said that the organization was established to help veterans who say the VA wasn’t helping them get the disability benefits they deserved.

When Graham returned from his deployment in Vietnam he went to therapy sessions for his post-traumatic stress disorder.

Gulf War veteran Charles Russell and his wife Janet seek help filing a VA claim at the Goldsby Community Center. (Photo by Kelsey Hightower, News21)

Gulf War veteran Charles Russell and his wife Janet seek help filing a VA claim at the Goldsby Community Center. (Photo by Kelsey Hightower, News21)

“I went to the VA in the early ’90s and talked to them about [my] problems,” he said. “They didn’t want to hear about it and they certainly weren’t going to do anything about it.”

Graham set out to change that. “I was convinced to learn their system,” he said.

He began by helping his friends work through the claims process. Graham continues to fight for fellow veterans with the support of his 100 volunteers.

Veterans Corner has helped approximately 20,000 veterans and surviving spouses receive about $50 million annually in VA disability benefits, Graham said. Through this journey, as Graham describes it, his PTSD has improved.

“If you’re helping somebody else, you’re helping yourself,” he said.