'...redirecting military quality of life program funding impacts morale – and in the military, morale means everything' September 12, 2019 WASHINGTON – The Department of Defense announced plans last week to divert $3.6 billion in military construction funds to build or replace 175 miles of southern border fencing. The reprogramming of funds will significantly delay the start or completion of 127 military construction projects, half of which are overseas. The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States is monitoring the issue closely, as its senior leaders are well attuned to the housing and associated quality of life construction project needs of the military community, to include the impact that the decision may have on some 3,000 active-duty military personnel and 2,000 National Guardsmen currently deployed to the southern border in support of Department of Homeland Security officials. While the VFW understands and supports the need to maintain secure borders, the organization is also charged with advocating for a military that is not only combat ready, but combat effective and lethal. This includes advocating for quality of life programs that preserve the all-volunteer force, that increase our ability to counter global threats, and that support America’s allies. The delay or deferment of projects such as maintenance and training facilities, as well as schools, child care centers and medical clinics, could impact military and family readiness at home and abroad. Additionally, the decision to defer funding to expand projects such as the European Deterrence Initiative at various locations in Eastern Europe, and the Ground Based Interceptor program at Fort Greely, Alaska, could significantly weaken America’s ability to defend herself and our allies from near-peer competitors. Said VFW National Commander William J. “Doc” Schmitz, “the VFW is concerned by the administration’s decision to target projects that directly impact the quality of life of our servicemen and women. We understand that hard decisions must be made to protect our citizens, but redirecting military quality of life program funding impacts morale – and in the military, morale means everything. We look forward to a serious discussion in Washington about how best to support two federal departments who share the ultimate mission of protecting the sovereignty of our nation and her citizens.”
By Henry Howard Sarah Lee awoke from a particularly dark night for her. The pain pills she’d laid out on her kitchen table were still there. But her thoughts of suicide had been replaced by a vision. Lee, who had not ridden a bike since high school, decided it was time to pursue something she’d been thinking about recently: bicycling across the United States. It would help her raise awareness about veteran suicide, and be a way to vanquish the demons of post-traumatic stress disorder she’d fought since deploying to Iraq with the 216th Combat Engineers of the Ohio Army National Guard in 2004. Lee started by purchasing a bicycle. After three visits to a local bike shop in Nashville, Tenn., she bought one. That led to her first pedal, which eventually led to her cross-country journey of thousands of miles, discovery of The American Legion, and a return to the cheerful, energetic personality that had been obscured by PTSD. Isolation After leaving the Army, Lee started working as a photographer and relocated from Ohio to Nashville. The transition was challenging. “I missed the military, the camaraderie mainly,” she says. “It’s hard to find that in the civilian sector. As soon as you meet another veteran, you know that you were both trained to take a bullet for each other. You can start in a place that it might take a civilian friendship years to get to.” Still, Lee wrestled with guilt about losing friends in the war. She lacked motivation to embrace healthy habits. She battled chronic neck pain. Soon she was in a downward spiral. She gained 100 pounds and faced the prospect of a stroke or heart attack by 30. Lee rebounded. She started working out five days a week. She cut out carbs and sugar, and drank a lot of water. “After I lost that weight, I was in a good place,” she says, adding that she helped others become more fit, too. “I felt like I was really giving back again. Vets are very hard on themselves. A lot of us gain weight when we get out. When I took control, I felt a lot better.” That feeling lasted until a routine medical exam revealed a cyst on one of her ovaries. Lee slid back toward depression. “I really got into a dark place right up until my surgery, and I didn’t go anywhere anymore,” she says. “I was already isolating myself quite a bit. If I didn’t go to a workout or a photo shoot, I didn’t leave the house.” The cyst was benign, but the damage to her psyche was done. “I had it removed, and I’m supposed to feel like a new lease on life, and it wasn’t there. To be completely honest, I was almost hoping something might go wrong and that I could be done. I hate saying that stuff because I know people care.” After surgery on Thanksgiving Day in 2016, Lee hit rock bottom. She further distanced herself from loved ones. Her mind filled with thoughts of those she lost. Then, the following spring, one night changed everything. ‘Letters to no one’ Samuel Bowen was one of the close friends Lee lost in Iraq. “He went out on a mission I feel I was supposed to have been on,” she says. “He was killed, and several people were injured. He took the impact of the RPG. Many have said to me, ‘It’s not your fault.’ Maybe I would have noticed something or it could have gone differently.” The more Lee thought about those who died, the darkness deepened. “The further down you get, you just lose sight of everything that’s real,” she says. “You lose sight of everyone who loves you, the things that are good about you, the things you have done and will do ... you’re focusing on the ending, the final chapter. I’d do a lot of writing for no reason, just letters to no one. I really was not honoring the sacrifices made by my friends.” Lee shunned medicine, even ibuprofen, for pain. Post-surgery, she didn’t take anything she’d been given for relief. In her darkest hour, she counted the pills and lined them up, desperate to end her misery. But she passed out from drinking instead. She woke up and realized she would not survive another night like that. “I don’t know why I didn’t (take my life),” she says, recognizing that she had lost sight of her many reasons to live. “People love me. I’m not done. Those things kind of disappear sometimes, and it’s like this tunnel vision with no light. When I woke up, I knew I had to follow through with my cycling journey.” Lee immediately began planning and training for A Vicious Cycle, her five-month, 4,010-mile bicycle trip from coastal Virginia to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. ‘I had to do it for myself’ After her long hiatus from cycling, Lee found it easy to get back on the bike. “It felt so amazing. Honestly, I got a little tear in my eye on that first ride because I just knew right then that I could totally do this.” Her Kona Sutra bicycle was a perfect fit. “Some people might laugh at this, and that’s totally fine because it is kind of goofy, but I’m comparing it to the bond you had with your M16. We view it like an extension of our arm. You take care of it, it takes care of you, you keep it crazy clean. I kind of missed having that bond with something.” Lee grew up playing sports, including softball, enjoying the friendships and fellowship she found there. That led her to join the Guard, where she thrived as a leader and a teammate. On her bicycle trip, though, Lee was largely on her own, pedaling through the Appalachians, the Ozarks, the Plains, the Rockies, the desert, the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevadas. “I had to do it for myself,” she says, recalling how she raised money by making and selling hundreds of paracord bracelets. “I had to wake myself back up.” Even so, she never felt alone while on the road. “It was a way to honor friends we lost during my deployment,” she says. “I continue to lose them to suicide. I’ve lost three close friends now. I tried to honor them on the trip as much as I could. And you meet so many people along the way that you don’t feel alone, really, except during the cycling portion. That’s the best part, when you’re away from everybody and in a totally different world.” Before the journey, Lee told her parents, Brian and Betsy Kniffin, what she hoped to accomplish. She spread out all her gear, maps and supplies on the floor. “I remember when you were a little girl, and you were sitting the same way with your toys scattered in front of you,” Betsy told Lee. The Kniffins kept close tabs on her during her travels. “It wouldn’t have been our first choice to have our daughter do such an extensive trek,” Betsy adds. “But we understood. Her goal was healing, and she wanted to bring awareness to issues like PTSD and the veteran suicide rate. We supported her in doing that.” Every day, they prayed. They followed her blog. Occasionally they would call or text. The Kniffins, who live in Ohio, surprised her by showing up on Lee’s route in Sonora, Ky., on her birthday. “I turned the corner in this little town, and there they are, just leaning out from these pillars, waving,” Lee says. “I knew for sure I was doing the right thing when my parents were there, totally rooting me on.” New beginnings Lee’s bicycle trip began May 4, 2017, in Yorktown, Va., against the jet stream. Even then, she knew where she wanted to end up. “I really wanted to finish by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge,” she says. “I thought that would be symbolic – crossing bridges, new beginnings.” Initially, Lee didn’t feel she was in good enough shape. That improved, as did her road savvy. She got better at detecting noises and staying alert for vehicles, potholes and creatures. “If you’re going down a hill, a chipmunk could end you,” she says. “But I felt right at home with the situational intensity. I felt normal again, which is bittersweet. Does it take something like this?” Soon, local American Legion members heard about Lee’s ride and came out to support her. Dean Tuttle, adjutant for the Department of Tennessee, connected Lee to other veterans along her route and promoted her ride on social media. “It’s just an inspiration to see a fine young lady like Sarah helping our veterans, and making them aware of the dangers and of the depression that can happen when you come back from the battlefield,” he says. Lee was grateful for encouragement from the American Legion Family. “They made a huge impact,” she says. “Cycling across America is equal parts physical and mental. Just knowing people were watching me and believing in me, so much so that they were sharing my words statewide, nationwide – there was no way I was ever giving up, knowing I had those people behind me.” Tuttle sees Lee’s generation as essential to keeping the Legion strong. “This is what we have to look forward to: young veterans, like Sarah, who are willing to put their lives on the line to show that veterans can do other things than tell war stories,” he says. “Their stories also promote trying to battle depression and things that have happened on the battlefield. We never see their hidden injuries, but we’ve got to take care of them.” Sudden stop In Pueblo, Colo., Lee met a group of post-9/11 veterans who were volunteering with Team Rubicon to clean up debris from a string of fires, landslides and flooding. That evening they bonded, and they wished her luck as she prepared to cross the Rocky Mountains. On Aug. 20, Lee started her morning with a liter of water, oatmeal and a fresh surge of confidence. On her first incline, however, Lee was run off the road by a pickup truck hauling a trailer. She maneuvered off the road to avoid being struck, but her tires got stuck in the sand, flipping her onto the right lane of the highway. “Thankfully, he didn’t slow down or stop, because I might have hit the trailer,” she says. “There was a car tailgating him, and they didn’t see me. I threw my arm up real quick, and they swerved around me. “The tire screech ... I’ll never forget that sound. It was right behind my head.” A half-mile away, Team Rubicon members heard the commotion and paused their work. Another truck driver brought Lee back to the group, which had a paramedic check her out. She’d torn a knee ligament and would need recovery time. A Vicious Cycle was put on hold. Healing and bonding Lee returned to Nashville to heal. As she recuperated, she found a new home and a new family: American Legion Post 88 in Nashville. She met with the commander, Vietnam War Navy veteran Len Chappell, and left with a newfound appreciation for the organization. “I was a stranger to them, and they really felt what I was feeling,” she says. “There was an instant bond.” Chappell didn’t hesitate to welcome Lee when she arrived at Post 88. “It’s called veteran helping veteran,” he says. “That’s what The American Legion is all about: to support the young vet, the old vet, and where we need to go in the future.” After Lee concluded her bicycle trip, Post 88 was ready to get behind her next project. She’s working on launching a nonprofit organization called Waypoint Vets that would sponsor outdoor activities for veterans, such as hiking, fishing and biking trips. “Activities ultimately help The American Legion because they see what you’re doing,” Chappell says. “This new adventure will contribute to creating better awareness of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder. We’re fighting so hard for those things on a daily basis. It’s important we have someone out there, a young vet helping to contribute to the whole organization.” Post 88 has provided financial support and more for Lee and her message. She officially joined the post as a member while recovering from her cycling accident. Meanwhile, Lee’s healing took time. By the time she could resume physical activities, winter had come to Colorado. She had to wait until June 2 to continue her journey from Pueblo, where she had been run off the road. Dozens of cyclists, veterans and others gathered to surprise Lee with a send-off. “I didn’t know if I could do it, but I was going to give it all I could,” she says. “Everyone was waiting at the top (of the incline), cheering. For a first day back, I felt so empowered. I felt like maybe I was ready for the Rockies.” Lee pushed through the mountains and into the desert, taking a detour to see the Grand Canyon for the first time. It was more than a tourist attraction for her, as Eric Ward, a post-9/11 veteran friend of Lee’s, had never seen the Grand Canyon either. He died by suicide. She took a commemorative rock she had brought along and climbed to one of the area’s highest points. “I got a running start and chucked that rock as hard and as far as I could into the Grand Canyon,” she says. “Then I sat there and thought about everyone who’s given their life for this country or taken their life because of wounds no one else sees. I felt connected to them, and I wanted to honor their memories.” A golden ending Unbeknownst to Lee as she neared her Golden Gate goal on Sept. 3, 2018, a group of American Legion Riders planned to welcome her to San Francisco. “This is something we definitely wanted to support, even without really knowing anything about what Sarah had gone through herself,” says Cory Waddingham, past president of American Legion Riders Chapter 82 in California. “The determination she’s shown over the past several years to complete this mission is incredible. We wanted to come out and meet her.” Starting at North Vista Point, the Legion Riders escorted Lee across the Golden Gate Bridge, through the streets of San Francisco and to the ocean. There, she dipped her tires in the waters of the Pacific, marking the end of her ride. The Riders then carried her bike from the water, through the beach, back to solid ground. “It was our honor to carry that burden for you for a little while,” Cory told Lee. She’s grateful to the Riders for that moment. “It was breathtaking that so many people showed up to support me on last-minute notice,” Lee says. “When I arrived at the north end of the bridge, there was a crowd. It was just hug after hug after hug, with heartfelt and important conversations. They made me feel like instant family. They made it easy for me to complete my mission. I was sad it was coming to an end, but they made it feel like a new beginning.” That connection has only gotten stronger. “I’m so thankful to The American Legion and the Legion Riders for stepping up at the last second to really let me know, ‘You’re not alone, you never were, and you never will be. We’ve been here for a long time, and we’ll be here for a long time. You always have us to fall back on. Just keep going. We’re here to push you, pull you, whatever.’” On that final leg of her journey, crossing the Golden Gate, Lee was buoyed by well wishes and encouragement from friends, family and hundreds of American Legion supporters. “I would get a dozen messages from vets almost daily, saying I was inspiring them,” she says. “They were starting their journeys. They’re saying these things to me. It was fuel for me. I would never have gotten here if it wasn’t for all the support. People are nothing without each other, really.” Henry Howard is deputy director of media and communications for The American Legion.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie this week encouraged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to pass bipartisan legislation to help VA build partnerships with community groups who can offer direct help to Veterans who are at risk of harming themselves. The IMPROVE Well-Being for Veterans Act, from Reps. Jack Bergman (R-Mich.) and Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) would allow VA to direct grant funding to these groups across the country. These community-based groups would be able to use that funding to identify Veterans who pose a suicide risk. “H.R. 3495 is one-way Members of Congress from both parties can support Veterans and their local communities, and I believe it can be the beginning this year of a longer-term collaboration with the VA to get at the root causes of the suicide crisis in the nation,” Wilkie wrote to Pelosi in a letter last week. “I hope your caucus can support this bipartisan effort.” VA has had success partnering with community groups to prevent Veteran homelessness — and those efforts have been highly successful — three states and 77 communities have effectively ended this problem. VA is optimistic that strengthening these partnerships through new grant funding would lead to similar success in preventing Veteran suicide. Secretary Wilkie also extended an invitation to meet with Speaker Pelosi about the bill.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Together with longtime supporter Sport Clips Haircuts, the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. is proud to announce its “Sport Clips Help A Hero Scholarship” program has surpassed awarding $6.4 million in scholarships to more than 1,450 military and student veterans. The latest fall semester award of nearly $762,000 will help to ensure 165 student veterans attending colleges across the country are one step closer to achieving their educational goals. “Veterans transitioning from military to civilian life face a host of challenges, but together with our friends at Sport Clips we’re able to ensure that struggling to finance their last semesters of college isn’t one,” said VFW National Commander Doc Schmitz. Established in 2014, the Help A Hero Scholarship program awards service members and veterans with post-secondary scholarships of up to $5,000 to help them achieve their educational goals without the burden of student loan debt. “My final semester is the only semester that is not covered by my GI Bill benefits and the only semester I will be financially responsible for,” said Victoria Phelps, an Air Force student veteran at Temple University. “This scholarship will be a bridge to help facilitate a less financially stressful final semester. This scholarship will also help achieve my personal goal of being the first person in my family to graduate college.” “As of February 2019, all educational assistance from my Post 9/11 GI Bill will be depleted,” said Corey Phillips, an Army student veteran at Grand Canyon University. “This scholarship will help me and mine withstand the blow of the financial burden that waits around the corner.” Help A Hero scholarships are awarded twice a year to help cover the cost of tuition and fees of service members and veterans in the rank of E-5 and below. Scholarship applications are currently being accepted for the 2019 fall semester. Apply for a Help A Hero scholarship today. About Sport Clips Haircuts: Sport Clips Haircuts is headquartered in Georgetown, Texas. It was established in 1993 and began franchising in 1995. The sports-themed haircutting franchise, which specializes in haircuts for men and boys, offers online check in for clients, and is ranked by Entrepreneur Magazine as one of the “Fastest-Growing Franchises’ and #17 in its “Franchise 500.” There are more than 1,800 Sport Clips stores open in the U.S. and Canada. Sport Clips is the “Official Haircutter” of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), offers veterans preferential pricing on haircuts and franchises, and was named a “2018 Best for Vets: Franchises” by Military Times. Sport Clips provides “Haircuts with Heart” through its annual Help A Hero fundraiser that has contributed $6.5 million to the VFW; national partnership with St. Baldrick’s Foundation, the largest private funder of childhood cancer research grants; and other national and local philanthropic outreach. Sport Clips is a proud sponsor of Joe Gibbs Racing’s NASCAR drivers Erik Jones and Denny Hamlin, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan Indy Car driver Sebastien Bourdais, and partners with numerous NCAA and professional sports teams. To learn more about Sport Clips, visit sportclips.com.
'Knowing ... someone is in our corner, making sure that veterans are successful in their academic careers, makes it so much easier to be who we strive to be' Veteran Adam Lawrence sees a bridge between his devotion to the military and his love of mathematics and computer science. This Valencia, Calif., native joined the Army directly out of high school without giving it a second thought. He had watched both his father and grandfather devote their lives to the military so it felt natural to him, even though neither of them ever pushed him toward enlisting. Above: Adam Lawrence and his girlfriend Catherine. Lawrence was a light infantry team leader and sergeant, stationed at Fort Drum, N.Y., and deployed to Baghdad for a year. Now he attends Claremont Graduate University in a master’s program for Computational and Applied Mathematics. Lawrence has found a lot of assistance along the way from his school’s incredibly helpful financial aid department, and they informed him about the VFW’s “Sport Clips Help A Hero Scholarship.” He is extremely thankful to VFW’s donors, staff and everyone who has any part of the scholarship program. “Knowing there is a ‘safety net’ out there and someone is in our corner, making sure that veterans are successful in their academic careers, makes it so much easier to be who we strive to be. It really encourages us to pursue academics and without it, I believe many might not go to a university,” Lawrence said. Lawrence isn’t stopping with his master’s degree but plans to complete a doctorate as well. He wants to focus on Partial Differential Equations (PDE), applied mathematics, fluid dynamics, image processing and computer vision. To explain the practicality of his research aims, he credits his time served where he learned as an infantryman how heavily troops on the ground rely on their “eyes in the sky.” Lawrence will use his degree to ensure technology is delivering the best imagery and information. Lawrence has a clear direction, but he has helpful advice for veterans at any stage of their transition back to civilian life and careers. “If a veteran isn’t quite sure what their future holds both academically and socially, I believe community college is a fantastic resource for them. They have veteran resource centers and counselors that are trained to help veterans with their needs. They are the first people I believe veterans should contact in the civilian world. At community colleges veterans can find out what they want in life, with little to no price tag,” he explained. Another benefit of having financial support from the VFW is that Lawrence can focus completely on research and academics by picking up campus jobs closely related to his studies. He will seek an adjunct position after graduation, and his experience as a TA, grader and seminar coordinator have prepared him for the next phase of his career. “As a professor at a community college, I want to assist veterans or any other student who is on the fence about pursuing a STEM major,” he concluded.
VA MODIFIES SMOKE-FREE POLICIES AT HEALTH CARE FACILITIES TO INCLUDE WORKERS AIMED AT INCREASING THE QUALITY OF CARE FOR VETERANS
As part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) commitment to a smoke-free health care environment for Veterans, in October, the department will extend its smoke-free policies to include employees at its health care facilities. This follows the department’s June 10 announcement of a new policy restricting smoking by patients, visitors, volunteers, contractors and vendors at its health care facilities. The integration of these two efforts guarantees a fully smoke-free environment for Veterans. “This policy change is consistent with our mission to promote a healthy environment for patients, visitors and employees at our facilities and is an important element of improving our health care system,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “It will reduce the harmful effects of smoking, including exposure to second and third-hand smoke, as well as increase safety and reduce fire hazards caused by smoking.” The VA has collaborated with key stakeholders to update and recertify the employee policy to be consistent with department’s commitment to Veterans and the community. Implementation of the employee smoke-free policy will be completed no later than January 2020 based on employee union-negotiated timelines. The Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA) smoke-free policy applies to cigarettes, cigars, pipes, any other combustion of tobacco and non-Federal Drug Administration approved electronic nicotine delivery systems, including but not limited to electronic or e-cigarettes, vape pens or e-cigars. To learn more about health risks associated with smoking, visit the Surgeon General’s website at https://www.hhs.gov/surgeongeneral/reports-and-publications/tobacco/index.html or https://smokefree.gov/. VHA has resources and programs to assist employees in their smoke free journey and these can be found at the following VHA website at https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/quit-tobacco/ For additional information about the policy visit https://vaww.va.gov/vhapublications/admin/ViewPublication.asp?Pub_ID=8424.
'Higher education allows us to truly integrate all of the life lessons we learned in the military to our civilian careers' Veteran Tyler Walsh, 30, of Middlebury, Conn., believes higher education is incredibly important for veterans. Pictured above are Tyler Walsh and his dog, Mack. “The military teaches us lessons that cannot always be cleanly transferred into the civilian world. Higher education allows us to truly integrate all of the life lessons we learned in the military to our civilian careers,” he said. And he doesn’t take the bridge to better his civilian life for granted. Walsh thanks everyone who supports the VFW because it makes programs like the VFW’s “Sport Clips Help A Hero Scholarship” possible. Walsh joined the Marine Corps right out of high school because he believed he would have a more profound experience than what college could offer him. He’s had a strong desire to chart his own course from the very beginning. His interests led him to be a dog handler and working with a Labrador Retriever, Woody, to detect explosives when deployed to Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2011. He left the Marines a sergeant and began to set his sights on what would come next. Currently, Walsh attends the University of New Hampshire as a graduate student seeking a master’s degree in social work. Woody sadly passed while Walsh was in the demobilization process and they were never reunited. However, Walsh is now the proud owner of another Labrador, Mack, who has been instrumental in showing him the therapeutic impact animals offer. After this discovery, Walsh became involved with equine assisted therapy. He’s still pondering exactly where his path should go but is currently leaning toward combining his environmental studies undergraduate experience with a wilderness therapy program. Walsh’s path toward a meaningful career has been made a little easier with assistance from the VFW. “This scholarship has alleviated a great deal of stress in finding work throughout my graduate program. I am better able to focus on my studies with financial support,” he explained. He found the VFW’s scholarship easily by searching online and hopes that others will discover the feeling of accomplishment that comes from achieving an advanced degree. “You will never regret being better trained and more educated. Find a field that allows you to come alive and chase it with all that you have,” he concluded. -VFW Magazine, 8/14/19
Stop & Shop will celebrate the 98th birthday of one of its long-time baggers and WWII veteran, Bartholomeo 'Benny' Ficeto, with a surprise party at 12 noon on Tuesday, August 20th at the Stop & Shop located at 1049 US Highway 1 South, Edison, NJ. Stop & Shop will surprise Benny with a cake and performances by the USO Show Troupe. His niece who works at a Staten Island Stop & Shop store will also be on hand to celebrate his birthday, along with Stop & Shop executives. Benny started working at Stop & Shop nearly ten years ago in Bloomfield. He transferred to the Edison store about 18 months ago, and continues to work two, four-hour shifts a week as a bag boy. Previously, Benny served in the Army Air Force during World War II as a gunner on a B-25 Mitchell bomber, flying mostly over northern Africa and Italy, and has held other various jobs after “retiring” from a cosmetic company back in the 80s. Benny’s work ethic is second to none – he stands the entire time, working at a steady pace, and refuses to take his 15-minute break. Bennie has said, “Why would I take a break when I only get to work four hours?” WHAT: Stop & Shop Celebrates Benny The Bagger’s 98th Birthday WHEN: 12 Noon on Tuesday, August 20, 2019 WHERE: Stop & Shop 1049 US Highway 1 South Edison, NJ 08837
A U.S. soldier of 2nd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, makes his way down the stairs at the conclusion of the squadron?s room breaching and clearing exercise during Agile Spirit 19 near Tbilisi, Georgia, July 29, 2019. LASHIC PATTERSON/U.S. ARMY By MARTIN EGNASH | STARS AND STRIPESPublished: August 1, 2019 More than 3,300 soldiers from 14 nations began the largest annual exercise in the former Soviet republic of Georgia this week, aimed at strengthening security in the tense Black Sea region. During the two-week Agile Spirit war games, soldiers will face and use modern military equipment and hybrid warfare tactics, such as cyberwarfare, to defend against an attack by a “near-peer” adversary, Brig. Gen. Nikoloz Janjgava, deputy chief of staff of the Georgian armed forces, told Stars and Stripes on Thursday. He said that the opposing forces in the exercise scenario are not modeled on the Russians. However, Russia is using similar tactics in the ongoing conflict with Ukraine and used them in the brief war it fought with Georgia in 2008. “We are trying not to use the ‘R’ word during the exercise,” Janjgava said. About 20% of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory is under Russian occupation, including Abkhazia on the Black Sea and South Ossetia, which is about 50 miles away from the Vaziani Training Area, where Agile Spirit is taking place. U.S. soldiers, assigned to 2nd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, stop to pull security as they advance to the simulated enemy targets for the live-fire exercise during Agile Spirit 19 near Tbilisi, Georgia, July 29, 2019.LASHIC PATTERSON/U.S. ARMY About 1,500 U.S. troops and a similar number of Georgians are participating in the drills. Twelve other countries, including Ukraine, have sent an a total of 300 participants. U.S. and Georgian troops opened the event with a live-fire attack on enemy-held bunkers. They plan to move into defensive operations later in the exercise. Agile Spirit gives Georgia and Ukraine more experience working with NATO allies, Janjgava said. Both countries are on track to become part of the alliance in the near future, the Georgian Ministry of Defense said in a statement. The drills also help to prepare Georgian soldiers for upcoming deployments to Afghanistan, where Georgia is one of the top troop contributors to the NATO-led mission, Janjgava added. U.S. soldiers from the Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment, based in Vilseck, Germany, brought Stryker armored vehicles to Georgia for the war games. The wheeled armored vehicles can navigate more easily through Georgia’s hilly terrain than tracked vehicles, Maj. Nathaniel Carter said. “This exercise shows how maneuverable Strykers are in any given terrain,” Carter said. When the cavalrymen finish the exercise, they plan on having a “culture day,” sightseeing in Georgia’s nearby capital, Tbilisi, and spending more time with their Georgian comrades, he said. “It’s been great so far,” Carter said. “I’m impressed with the Georgian soldiers and look forward to spending the next few weeks with them.”
Legionnaire Lori McMath Varner (left) and Ashley Gorbulja-Maldonado will compete for Ms. Veteran America. The American Legion As a teen, Ashley Gorbulja-Maldonado competed in a series of pageants and competitions in Ohio that took her to more than 80 cities and allowed her to meet and mentor young women along the way. Little did she know that experience would come back to benefit her years later. Now a Legionnaire and past commander of American Legion Post 808 on the University of Akron campus, Gorbulja-Maldonado is one of 25 finalists for the Ms. Veteran America competition. She'll head to Hollywood this fall for the Oct. 13 final, joined by fellow Legionnaire Lori McMath Varner, a member of James W. McCartney Post 232 in Dry Run, Pa. “When I heard about Ms. Veteran America I thought ‘why not? Why not me?’” Gorbulja-Maldonado said. “I am the only one that can place limits on myself. If there’s anything I can do to help others in an advocacy platform, I’m going to do it. “To be Ms. Veteran America is symbolic for a lot of reasons. This a competition where women from all (military) branches are represented. This is just a group of badass women … coming together for a cause – something bigger than ourselves. Us being the voice for not just homeless veterans and their children, but … women veterans across the entire country. It’s something not to be taken lightly.” Ms. Veteran America contestants must be a women either honorably discharged from or still serving in the U.S. military. Ms. Veteran America is required to provide at least 100 hours of community service during her 12 months as title holder, and also is required to attend speaking engagements and special events as the official spokeswoman of the Ms. Veteran America competition and Final Salute Inc., a nonprofit supported by the competition that provides women veterans with suitable and safe housing. Contestants will be judged on the interview and talent portions of the competition, and must also provide documentation of their advocacy efforts from June through October. Gorbulja-Maldonado has served in the National Guard since 2011 and will commission over to the Army reserve this fall. She took a job with the Veterans Benefits Administration in the Washington, D.C., area, where she has relocated and plans to transfer her American Legion membership to Dyer-Gunnell Post 180 in Vienna, Va. “I take great, humbling pride (in being a Legionnaire),” said Gorbulja-Maldonado, a member of the Legion’s National Veterans Employment and Education Council. “Our organization is always looking out for the veteran, at a grass-roots level all the way up (to the national level). We are always on top of these issues. There’s such a support system and network within the Legion that’s so powerful and robust, that when we put our minds together collectively, things happen. “I have always felt that the Legion has given me the tools for success to put in my toolbox and use to solve any problem that has occurred.” Just being named a finalist in the Ms. Veteran American competition is a big deal for Gorbulja-Maldonado. “People have been watching me kind of grinding for years with everything that I do,” she said. “So this is a win for my community. This is a win for my network, for my family, for my friends, for my sisters-in-arms. “I threw a rock in the pond, and my ripples are now waves. Why not keep pushing forward? Why not continue to trail blaze and set the standard and set that bar high?" Varner, who served in the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard from 1986 to 1993 and is, in her own words, the “oldest” contestant in Ms. Veteran America, learned about the competition while the guest speaker at a women veterans retreat. In researching the competition, she learned about the growing number of homeless women veterans, as well as the large number of women veterans who don’t use Department of Veterans Affairs services. “It was very eye-opening,” said Varner, the mother of both a son and daughter serving in the Air Force. “So I applied (for Ms. Veteran America) in December, and then I found out that I was a semifinalist in January. And it really took off. “There’s so many people I’ve met. And I’m opening doors and opportunities for people to listen about this subject.” Varner – who also has membership in the American Legion Riders and American Legion Auxiliary, and serves on the Department of Pennsylvania’s Blood Donor Committee and newly formed women veterans committee – stresses Ms. Veteran America isn’t a pageant. “This is a competition to find the best candidate to be the national spokesperson for homeless women veterans,” she said. Varner hails from an American Legion department, Pennsylvania, that has been at the forefront of battling the homeless veterans issue for decade. In 1988, the department established the Housing for Homeless Veterans Corporation and purchased four townhomes between the cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to provide a safe, clean, stable environment for veterans while they completed schooling or job training and became self-sufficient to seek permanent housing. Today, the corporation operates six homes. Since its inception, well over 400 veterans have gone through the department’s program with an 85 percent success rate. The Pittsburgh VA puts the Department of Pennsylvania in contact with the veterans, who have the responsibility of cooking, cleaning and doing laundry while going through the program. A veteran may reside in one of the homes for up to two years with the stipulation they attend school or find a job. Varner said if she wins the competition, she would do her part to share the success of the Housing for Homeless Veterans Corporation. “I think there needs to be more visibility with it,” she said. “I always bring The American Legion into play in speeches because I feel it’s important, as a Legionnaire, to always let folks know the Legion is there to help.” For more information about Gorbulja-Maldonado’s campaign, click here. For more information about Varner’s campaign, click here.