William "Joey" Pocan teaches a Boots to Business class at the Hilton in Cincinnati, Ohio on Monday, August 29, 2016. Photo by Clay Lomneth / The American Legion. By Mackenzie Wolf   Davy Leghorn, assistant director of The American Legion's National Veterans Employment and Education Division, testified before the House Subcommittee on Economic Growth, Tax, and Capital Access. Leghorn’s testimony focused on exploring the challenges and opportunities faced by underserved businesses in the 21st century. Veteran-owned small businesses (VOSB’s) employ over 5 million people, manage receipts in excess of $1.14 trillion, and account for nearly 10 percent of small businesses in the United States. VOSB’s continue to face challenges when it comes to securing government contracts and often need to surmount bureaucratic obstacles to obtain them. “One detriment to the ‘veteran small business industrial base’ has always been the misinterpretation of legislation that designated SDVOSBs (service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses) as a preferred contracting group,” Leghorn said during his testimony. “Congress gave the SBA and other agencies broad business development authority to help veterans. Unfortunately, the SBA and the FAR Council announced in 2005 rulemaking comments that the government-wide SDVOSB Program was for established businesses and was not meant to aid in development for new businesses.” The 2016 Supreme Court decision in Kingdomware Tech. Inc. v. United States affirmed that the intent of the SDVOSB set-aside goal defined in the Veterans Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development Act of 1999 was not only to fill a quota. It was, however, designed to encourage small businesses and create opportunities for service-disabled veterans. “The American Legion had hoped that the outcome of Kingdomware would force SBA and the FAR Council to revisit the rules of the Veterans Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development Act,” Leghorn said. “This has not occurred. To this end, The American Legion asks Congress to encourage SBA and the FAR Council to carry out their business development authority. “Further, the Kingdomware decision also signaled the Supreme Court’s approval for a model of 'Veterans First' or 'Service-Disabled Veterans-First' to exist in contract set-asides and preference programs. Congress can now extend this model government-wide in a Small Business Act or in agency-specific legislation.” The American Legion also testified on the Boots to Business (B2B) course that is taught as part of the military’s Transition Assistance Program (TAP). B2B has been successful since its implementation in 2012. “In the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, there was an attempt to make at least one of the TAP capstone courses mandatory,” Leghorn said. “The American Legion supports this effort and hopes this will expose more servicemembers to the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) services and their grantees.” The American Legion believes more servicemembers should have access to SBA programs and the creation of more Veterans Business Outreach Centers (VBOCs). “Currently, National Guard and Reservists are not eligible for veteran entrepreneurship and loan programs until after they are activated under Title 10,” Leghorn concluded. “This is why The American Legion supports legislation that would amend 15 USC to extend eligibility for military-focused SBA programs to servicemembers who have been ordered to perform active service for more than 30 consecutive days.”
WASHINGTON — Today the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced that Fisher House Foundation plans to construct three new 16-suite Fisher Houses at VA campuses in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Aurora, Colorado; and Omaha, Nebraska; which will provide temporary accommodations for the families and caregivers of Veterans and active-duty military receiving care at the VA facilities.  Construction for the new accommodations will begin within the next six months.  “VA has a great and longstanding 25-year partnership with the Fisher House Foundation and is pleased to expand support of their important mission,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “Since the first VA Fisher House was built in Albany, New York, staff and volunteers serve passionately with gratitude in a welcoming ‘home away from home’ for families of Veterans undergoing critical care and treatment at VA.”  To date, Fisher House Foundation has built and donated 38 Fisher Houses to VA. Construction of a typical Fisher House takes approximately 12 to 15 months. Once the home is completed and ownership is transferred over to VA, the Fisher House becomes a federal building that is operated, maintained and staffed by the department. The VA Fisher Houses will support access to care for thousands of additional Veterans traveling to VA facilities for treatment. In 2018, VA Fisher Houses accommodated over 28,000 families, saving guests more than $18 million in lodging expenses. “In my life, there have been few things I have been associated with that bring more satisfaction than the Fisher House Foundation,” said Ken Fisher, Chairman and CEO of the Fisher House Foundation. “But we don’t do this in a vacuum; Fisher Houses are built on partnerships, and none are more important than our affiliation with VA.”  The Fisher House program currently has 80 homes at VA and Department of Defense hospitals. Over the next several years, it anticipates expanding from 38 to at least 64 VA Fisher Houses.  For more information, visit VA Fisher House Program or Fisher House Foundation.
By Heath Hansen   I looked up into the big, blue sky. Far in the distance, I spotted a C-130 Hercules headed towards the open grass field I waited in. For a few moments, I watched as the plane continued in my direction; suddenly, from the tail-end of the aircraft, paratroopers jumped out into the open air. The parachutes expanded sideways as they became caught in the wind and fully inflated, pulling the soldiers swiftly with them. Dozens of troops poured out of the fuselage and descended to the ground. I saw the first jumper hit the grass and quickly sprinted to him. “Dad?” I asked.  “No kid, your dad is still coming down; we put a white band on his helmet so you could recognize him.” Looking up, he extended his arm and pointed to a spot about 200 feet in the air at a fast descending grunt with white sports tape lining the outside of his helmet. “There he is.” I was 4 years old when I ran towards my father and reached him as he hit the drop zone. In BDUs and Army equipment, he was a green giant towering over me. As he bent down to collect his parachute, I started helping him pick up the soft, shiny, green canopy. “Wow!” I exclaimed. “I wanna jump out of airplanes when I grow up!” “Maybe one day you will, son,” he smiled. Several years later, I found myself at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “Hey, Hansen, formation is at 0500. If you forget your air-items, I’ll smoke your ass in the front-leaning-rest position,” my squad leader warned. “Roger, sergeant.” My buddy and I walked towards our rooms after being released. “This jump is gonna suck. There’s supposed to be high winds and cold temperatures,” my squadmate complained. “If it doesn’t suck, this isn’t the 82nd Airborne.  Ah, I love it,” I sarcastically replied. “Livin’ the dream.” I arrived at the company the following morning. We loaded onto large, white buses and headed to Pope Air Force Base. Our battalion went through the pre-jump rituals, using C-130 mock doors, required before all airborne operations - obeying jumpmaster commands, proper exit, proper parachute landing fall, etc. Later, we entered the “pax shed,” a large open bay, donned our parachutes and transformed into paratroopers. After the Jumpmaster Personnel Inspection (JMPI), we waited. And waited. And waited. Hours passed until we got word the engine issues stalling our departure were fixed and the planes were ready for take-off. The show was about to begin.   We approached the C-130 and boarded using the rear ramp. The propellers spun furiously, blasting us with a continuous stream of hot wind while we loaded up (which we welcomed on this frigid day). As our group packed in, I found a spot on the red, cargo-net jump seat in the middle of the aircraft. I would ride “inboard” today before jumping. We continued to cram into the plane until 64 of us were tightly squeezed into its big, grey belly; the ramp closed and the pilots began the taxi for takeoff. The guy in front of me was using an empty Gatorade bottle to spit his tobacco dip into. I made eye contact with him and he passed it to me. I made my contribution and passed it to my squad leader. The bottle continued making its way to the rear of the plane, each soldier taking his turn. The engines roared as the pilots increased the throttle, and our bird took flight. A few feet away from me a private was sweating profusely and dry heaving. A crew member passed him a vomit bag which he immediately hyperventilated into. As we climbed higher and higher, he breathed harder and harder. Before we reached cruising altitude, he puked. Laughter swept through our section of the plane. “Five-jump-chump!” my team-leader yelled. “Cherry!” I shouted. A “five-jump-chump” is someone fresh out of Airborne School, with no jumps in Division. To receive your parachutist’s wings, you have to complete five jumps from an aircraft. Until you’ve jumped 10 times, you’re considered a “cherry”- a new guy, a fresh, untested, inexperienced virgin to the ways of the Airborne. As we approached the Drop Zone (DZ), the jumpmasters shouted directives at us to get ready to jump. “Hook up!” We grabbed our static lines and hooked them to the anchor cable (steel cables suspended about a foot above our heads, running the length of the cargo bay). The Air Force loadmasters opened the paratroop doors and violent wind rushed into the plane. Heavy turbulence knocked jumpers off balance - it was almost go time.   There was a nervous looking butter-bar lieutenant standing next to me. I patted him on the shoulder. “Hey, sir!” I yelled in his ear. He looked back, “What’s going on?” he asked. My squadmate saw me talking to the lieutenant and listened in, smirking. “There’s a small piece of canopy hanging out of your pack tray. I wouldn’t jump this.” A look of horror came over him. “Can you fix it?” the butter-bar pleaded. “Negative, sir. I’m not a chute rigger.” As the lieutenant’s trepidation increased, my buddy chimed in, “Your parachute’s screwed, sir, but you’ve got a reserve. You’ll be fine.” I reflected briefly, wondering if my father’s generation of paratroopers enjoyed messing with junior officers as well - I’m sure they did.   “30 seconds!” The jumpmasters yelled. The Gatorade bottle made its way back to me. It was now about a quarter full of brown, slimy dip-spit. I used it once more and passed it forward. The small, circular light next to the doors changed from red to green. We were over the DZ.   “Go!” The jumpmasters screamed. One by one, doing the Airborne shuffle, the paratroopers handed their static lines off to the jumpmasters. After he took the lines, the troopers faced right and vigorously jumped from the aircraft. I watched as all the outboard jumpers exited the C-130 - all but the last one. The soldier, a private, handed off his static line, turned to the door, and froze. The jumpmaster had turned the opposite direction to collect the used lines. When he looked back, he saw the private standing in the door. “What the hell?!” he exclaimed. The private shouted back “I’m not jumping, sergeant! I refuse to jump!” Within a second of the private’s response, the jumpmaster (sergeant) grabbed the static line anchor cable with both hands, yelling over the roaring wind “GET THE HELL-,” he lifted his feet and slammed them into the private “-OUT!!!” kicking him out of the aircraft. There was no room for the faint of heart on this plane.   Inboard personnel headed for the door. Gripping the static line in my left hand, with my arm fully extended, I made eye contact with the jumpmaster, handed off my line, faced right 90 degrees and jumped out the door. I was immediately smacked by the wind. Keeping my feet and knees together and my chin to my chest, I counted in my head “One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thou-” my parachute canopy deployed and violently spun me around. After a couple of seconds, I was able to get the parachute cords untwisted and look up at my canopy. My parachute was fully inflated; I had made a good exit and cleared the plane. My descent towards Sicily DZ was underway. I looked at the other soldiers descending and caught a glimpse of a jumper above me, oscillating back and forth, very close to my canopy. Being that close in the air could result in entanglement, followed quickly by our chutes deflating. The paratrooper - a private, with little jumping experience - swung outward, then inward again, and stopped about two feet away from my face, his parachute canopy now touching mine. I looked at him and shouted, “Slip away, dumb-ass!” Distraught, the soldier quickly grabbed his rear risers and pulled as hard as he could. His parachute cleared mine and he began heading away from me. I pulled my risers and made extra space between us; I could now focus on landing. Looking down, I could see the ground quickly approaching. Ensuring my feet and knees were together, legs slightly bent, I looked back up and stared at the horizon, trying not to anticipate my landing. I could feel the cold wind on my face and pulled the risers on my parachute, into the wind, attempting to reduce my velocity. My body collided with the ground - I took a second to process the impact, but everything was okay. I stood up and took a few steps - any jump you can walk away from is a good jump. I collected my parachute and headed over to the turn-in point. Making my way to the logistics trucks, I passed a paratrooper being treated by medics. He was writhing in pain and bemoaning a broken ankle - he had a bad jump. I looked up into the big, blue sky; a cool breeze brushed across my face. I saw another C-130 approaching. Paratroopers poured out the back and slowly drifted towards the earth. I remembered being a child, two decades earlier, waiting on a DZ and watching my Dad jump out of a perfectly good airplane. Patriotism, a desire for adventure, and a deep admiration for my father had lead me to this moment.  We all have dreams about what we want to be when we grow up, but not all of us realize that dream. I was an airborne infantryman, following in my father’s footsteps, and livin’ the dream.
From Stars and Stripes: EUSTIS, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Veteran Michael Puccini gets a gleam in his eye when he thinks about his Army buddy Derek Gibson. “What I always remember about Derek is he always had that sarcastic smile,” Puccini said. “He was a jokester. Derek was always doing something to get a rise out of somebody.” He snickered while recalling the mischievous Eustis native bringing a stray dog to their barracks — which he knew couldn’t stay there — or teasing Puccini for being from Kentucky and not chewing tobacco like he did. Gibson died in Iraq on April 4, 2007, when the armored vehicle he was riding in was blasted by an improvised explosive device. Puccini was the truck commander in the Humvee right in front of Gibson’s. Saying it was something he’s wanted to do — had to do — for a long time, Puccini, 34, traveled to the Lake County city recently from Germantown, Ky., to meet Gibson’s family and pay tribute to the infantryman who was killed at 20 along with another soldier during combat operations. His wife, Kaitlin, 31, and their 8-year-old twin boys came, too. But there was no consideration of a Disney side trip. This was about sharing memories of Derek Gibson and getting to know the fallen serviceman’s family better since connecting with them several years ago on Facebook. “It’s been tough, as I’m sure it is for everybody, getting over the things that happened,” said Puccini, who was medically retired as a sergeant with two Purple Hearts after seven years in the Army. “I’ve regretted what happened with Derek, and have for years. “I thought it was important for me to come down here to hopefully move on, work on some things, spend time with (Gibson’s parents) Jerry and Janet and the rest of the family. I think it’s gonna help everybody.” Family members were grateful, just as they were the previous week when Lake County commissioners voted to bestow recognition on Derek Gibson by designating a 2-mile portion of County Road 44 the “PFC Derek Arthur Gibson Memorial Highway.” Janet Gibson, 61, said three others who served with their son have stopped by to see them and their four-legged family members — a wire fox-haired terrier named Eddie and a Chihuahua-corgi mix named Princess. She also received a Christmas card from another former soldier who has a young son named Gibson, after her son. The get-togethers, she said, “bring back stories that we hadn’t heard, and it just brings him back to life. “It’s really neat to hear them tell how he was funny and how he was always doing pranks and stuff, because that was how he was here,” she said, raising her eyebrows, “so he didn’t change a whole lot.”   The visit with the Puccinis included laughter over photos of Derek Gibson flipping the bird in photos, memories of his imitation of Chris Farley on “Saturday Night Live” and tales of him fishing on the Euphrates River, which regularly had bodies floating in it. He was a superb fisherman, said his sister Shannon Race, 27, who cherishes a photo of Gibson hoisting an 8-pound bass. Though she’s not big into fishing, she was proud that she pulled in an equally large bass a year after her brother’s death. The two photos are in a frame together. Race said he would say, “You want to catch a fish, you gotta think like a fish.” He liked fishing more than school. He dropped out of Eustis High School at 16 to go to work for his dad’s construction company, later earning a high school-equivalency diploma. He joined the Army in 2006 — the first in his family to serve in the military. “He didn’t want to follow a traditional route,” his sister said. Stories told by his family gave Puccini insight into the good-natured smart aleck he knew in the Army. He said Race has the same half-cocked smile as her late brother. But Puccini, now a deputy jailer, didn’t just reminisce about funny moments. He also provided the Gibsons, Race and Derek’s brother Dustin Gibson, 37, with a firsthand account of what life was like for their unit at combat outpost Gator outside the Green Zone — the safest area of Baghdad — where Gibson relished the unit’s perilous duty of sweeping suspected hideouts of enemy fighters. They didn’t have running water initially. “We finally got one shower stall per 100 people,” Puccini said, shaking his head at the recollection. They ate food purchased from local vendors, drank iodine-treated water and slept on old-style Army cots in an environment where temperatures can soar into the 100s. “We eventually got some Iraqi air-conditioners, and that was wonderful.” But the soldiers faced immense danger. Puccini said his unit lost six men in 15 months “and 70 percent of us had Purple Hearts.” Seated on the couch in the Gibsons’ living room, he quietly recounted the spring day that changed the lives of his hosts. Puccini said he was in the lead vehicle and Derek Gibson was in the second one, seated behind the driver. They came to a T-intersection and proceeded cautiously. “Something about that area didn’t seem right. Something didn’t feel right,” he said. “Everything was real still. There was nobody out moving — no cars, no nothing.” Then it happened. “I heard a big thud,” he said. “I looked in the rear-view (mirror) and could see the truck on its top.” Other soldiers wanted to rush to help, but Puccini said he had to warn them to wait to make sure everything was OK, so that others wouldn’t be needlessly hurt. When they got to the damaged Humvee, Gibson and Pfc. Walter Freeman Jr., 20, of Lancaster, Calif., who was pinned against the steering wheel, had fatal injuries. “I was enraged,” said Puccini, who along with others searched nearby houses for the person responsible for the explosion. They caught a man with residue on his hands believed to have detonated the bomb and turned him over to the Iraqi army, he said. He said he’s not sure what happened to the suspect. “They let us say goodbye to Derek and Walter,” he said. Then the bodies were loaded onto a C-130 plane for an “angel flight” and their eventual return to the U.S. “I’d have much rather died than any of my guys,” Puccini said. “I spend a lot of time thinking what I could have done different.” About 700 people turned out for Derek Gibson’s funeral at Eustis’ Greenwood Cemetery, which is only about a half-mile from the Gibsons’ home. Jerry Gibson, 66, visits the grave regularly and is sure there was a purpose for what happened. “Coming from a not real religious person,” he said, fighting back tears, “I know there’s a higher power.” For her part, Janet Gibson likes to remember how the son she lost to war could lift her spirits if she was having a bad day. He would say, “Oh, mom, turn the frown upside down.” That also describes her attitude toward Puccini and other military buddies of her son who stay in touch. “People that loved our kid,” she said, “of course, we’re gonna love them.”©2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.comDistributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will release new capabilities this summer providing Veterans who receive care at VA with the ability to access their personal medical data using the Health Records on iPhone feature from Apple.  Veterans will see an aggregated view of their allergies, conditions, immunizations, lab results, medications, procedures and vitals in the Health app on their iPhone. Health Records on iPhone also brings together hospitals and clinics outside VA with the existing Apple Health app. Veterans can see their available medical data from multiple providers, including VA, whenever they choose.  This new capability has been made possible through the recently announced Veterans Health Application Programming Interface (Veterans Health API). This Veterans Health API allows Veterans to access their health records within innovative applications on their mobile devices or in their web browser.  “Our Health API represents the next stage in the evolution of VA’s patient data access capability,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “By building upon the Veterans Health API, we’re raising the bar in collaborating with private sector organizations to create and deploy innovative digital products for Veterans. Veterans should be able to access their health data at any time, and I’m proud of how far we’ve come to accomplishing this.”  Launched in 2010, VA Blue Button, a feature of My HealtheVet, opened the door for Veterans to download a copy of their VA health records online. The new capability using VA’s Health API and Apple’s Health app furthers VA’s commitment to make it easy for Veterans to securely access their own health data.  Veterans with Apple iPhones will be able to access the app on their device. After a visit to a VA health care facility, the participating Veteran’s Apple device will automatically receive updated health record information within 24 hours from the visit using the built-in Health app from Apple on their iPhone.  Beyond the effort on the Apple iPhone, VA looks forward to partnering with others to bring similar capabilities to other mobile platforms.  Lighthouse, considered the “front door” to VA’s vast data stores, is the department’s API management platform. Since launching Lighthouse in March 2018, VA has delivered a developer portal, a Benefits Intake API, a Facilities API and a Veterans Health API. VA’s Veterans Health API is part of VA’s commitment to health IT modernization, and will contribute to VA’s expansive electronic health record modernization program.  For more information about the Veterans Health API, visit 
The ALL HANDS ON DECK! Show was born out of gratitude and patriotism. Jody Madaras has been described as a home town Ohio farm boy who went to New York and ‘made good’. In a family of great Americans lives patriotism, reverence, gratitude, honor, and integrity. In 2007, Madaras decided to feature these values by writing a show that would not only say “Thank You” to the greatest generation; the men and women who served our country during WWII and the Korean Conflict; but also, would remind Americans of a time when our country was truly united. Madaras has masterfully crafted together those values into a production that takes us all on a sentimental, and truly inspirational, journey—The ALL HANDS ON DECK! Show. In a recent interview, Madaras explained, “Our 1942 Roadshow & Radio Broadcast is very special to me; I spent nearly four years writing it. Saying something important with these songs was my intention. We are reminded every day that our country has challenges. Our songs and deportment all focus on patriotic unity, our “Can Do!” spirit, and what’s right about our country. For younger generations, this show offers a glimpse of what was and what can be. For the senior generations, it offers a trip down memory lane to the ‘best of times’. Ultimately, I simply want everyone to leave the theatre feeling a little bit better and happier about our country.” Madaras’ strong patriotism is credited in large part to his family. His grandmother June was extremely active in the American Legion Auxiliary. “Growing up with Grandma, we always listened to these songs.She was very proud of the United States and believed we are at our best when we are united. Her handwriting is in this show.” His grandfather, Adolph “Duff” immigrated through Ellis Island from Hungary in 1911, and proudly served as an officer in the US Navy in WWII. Madaras continued, “I chose the Hollywood Victory Caravan, a group of famous Hollywood film stars who toured America by train in early 1942 selling war bonds, as the setting for the show. My research uncovered that no one had ever written a show based on the Caravan. Their road shows raised millions of dollars for the war effort, and no one had ever fully honored them. 1942 was one of the most pivotal years in world history; paving the way for much of the prosperity we enjoy in our great country today. That’s our theme: feeling united, then and now.” The ALL HANDS ON DECK! Show tours the U.S.A. annually, and is also featured in Branson, Missouri in the fall. For schedule and information, please visit:
Cpl. Anton Anderson drags a simulated casualty during a beach ambush scenario as part of a leadership evaluation at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Zachary Orr) In honor of Black History Month, the below statstics bring to life the breadth and depth of African-American military service since World War I. Sources for the statistics include the 2016 American Community Survey, Statista, the Congressional Research Service, the National WWII Museum and the U.S. Army. 2.1 million: Black military veterans nationwide 30.2: Percent of active-duty enlisted women in 2016 who were African-American 17.1: Percent of active-duty enlisted men in 2016 who were African-American 20,000+: Black Marine Corps recruits who received training at Montford Point camp in North Carolina during World War II 21: African-Americans who received the Medal of Honor for actions during the Vietnam War 7,243: Deaths of active-duty black servicemembers in Vietnam 3,075: Deaths of active-duty black servicemembers in the Korean War 901,896: African-Americans who served during World War II 24: Percent of the 500,000 U.S. military personnel deployed to the Middle East during the Persian Gulf War who were African-American 350,000+: Blacks who served in American Expeditionary Forces units on the Western Front in World War I
VFW member Mike Buckley takes a break from the Arizona Trail Hike to rest at Manning Camp in Saguaro National Park. Buckley’s two-month-long trek covered 800 miles over six mountain ranges. Photo courtesy of Mike Buckley. After a 32-year Army career, this retiree hiked 800 miles across Arizona last year, helping him transition to the civilian world. February 07, 2019 Mike Buckley served 32 years in the Army, complete with six deployments and three combat tours. He watched men die in Afghanistan and Iraq. Four of his friends committed suicide.  Through it all, Buckley refused to take medication to manage what he had witnessed. Instead, he turned to nature. “Sometimes it seems like things are kind of a swirl… [In the desert], there’s no swirl out there,” said Buckley, who hiked from March 28 to May 22 last year on the Arizona Trail — traversing 800 miles across the state — in a venture organized by the veteran-owned nonprofit Warrior Expeditions. VFW Life member Sean Gobin founded Warrior Expeditions in 2013 after he spent four-and-a-half months hiking the Appalachian Trail immediately following his 2012 departure from the Marine Corps. “I realized the significant therapeutic effect of spending all that time hiking in nature,” said Gobin, who served in Iraq (2003, 2005) and Afghanistan (2011) as an armor officer with the 2nd Tank Battalion. It wasn’t until after his first-hand experience that Gobin began looking into research and background on the benefits of immersing oneself in nature. A 2015 study conducted by Shauna Joye and Zachary Dietrich of Georgia Southern University investigated how “long-distance hiking and paddling” affected the mental health of 31 veterans. “Our wilderness therapy program showed promise as a way for veterans to address issues related to experiencing traumatic events while deployed,” Joye and Dietrich concluded. “We found significant decreases in general anxiety, anxiety related to fear or uneasiness when in new places and around crowds and feelings of wariness or self-consciousness around others.” University of Michigan professors Jason Duvall and Rachel Kaplan studied in 2013 the benefits of such experiences among veterans and also found it beneficial. They found that participants “were much more likely to report significant improvements” in psychological well-being, social functioning and life outlook one week after the program.” “In many cases, these improvements were substantial, with the magnitude of change often 1.5 times that of participants’ reporting less serious health issues,” Duvall and Kaplan stated. The professors did note that a small sample size — 73 veterans participated in events during the study, but only 31 provided follow-up responses — does not clearly indicate if the improvements are sustainable. “However, the findings with respect to the reduction in perceived stress and negative affect, as well as the increases in feelings of tranquility and social functioning, suggest such benefits might persist and even continue to increase for several weeks after the intervention,” Duvall and Kaplan stated.Confronting a StigmaAs of Aug. 1, Buckley had been retired for one year, and he said it had been a difficult “year.” “It was harder than I thought it’d be… [You’re] transitioning to a culture you, frankly, don’t fit into,” he said. Buckley said he started having panic attacks in 2010, after leaving Iraq. But Afghanistan, he said, was worse.  “It was the culmination of the whole year,” said Buckley, an at-large member with VFW’s Department of New York. Buckley said there is a “huge stigma” in asking for help, and people in his situation “don’t want to be weak.” “You don’t want to become that angry vet that everybody whispers about,” Buckley said. “I was starting to become that guy.” The Army veteran became aware of Warrior Expeditions through Facebook and sent his information in for consideration. Though he initially wasn’t selected, an opportunity later arose to hike the 800-mile trail across Arizona. Buckley said he wanted to participate on the hike because he knew it was an “alternative” treatment. “I don’t want to be addicted to the pharmaceutical industry,” Buckley said. “[They] treat a symptom, they don’t provide treatment to the underlying cause.” The biggest challenge during the hike, according to Buckley, wasn’t the solitude, but, rather, swollen ankles and the Arizona heat. The trail provides two choices, he said — “move forward or quit.” “The solitude, truthfully, once I locked into it, was wonderful,” Buckley said. Buckley’s experience also supports other research from Joye, Dietrich and Joseph Amos Garcia, which specifically looks at Warrior Expeditions participants and was published in 2015 in the Journal of Experiential Education. “The isolation of the trail gave time for respondents to contemplate what they wanted and needed for their future well-being,” Joye, et al. wrote. “Although their goals were vastly different, all respondents made decisions to improve their lives and were confident that they would follow through with their decisions.”Becoming One with NatureBut for Buckley, his most vivid memory was the “absolute primitive” austerity and beauty of the trail itself. The first 500 miles, according to Buckley, consisted of six different mountain ranges. “It is truly astounding,” Buckley said. What brought Buckley peace from the hike was the calmness and breathtaking moments he experienced — like when he walked up on a desert fox that just looked at him, then went back to its own business. Gobin said there are three elements related to the programs Warrior Expeditions offers — a chance to separate themselves from their service, camaraderie of other veterans and community support. “First is just having eight hours a day of hiking, biking or paddling for months on end in nature,” Gobin said. “It gives our vets time and space to decompress from their wartime experiences.” Being surrounded by fellow veterans who can relate to what each other has gone through — or is going through — is “really beneficial,” according to Gobin. Group sizes range anywhere from two to 10, depending on the type of trail. “Since you’re spending so much time on the trails, it’s like a deployment,” Gobin said. “[The people you’re with] become as close as family.” Community support throughout the journey also “re-establishes the basic faith in humanity that veterans tend to lose” after experiencing a combat deployment, Gobin said. “[Veterans] tend to have a really cynical view of people and society and humanity,” Gobin said. “[The expedition] breaks that cycle of isolation and helps reconnect veterans to communities.” Social interaction was a key component of the experience, Joye and Dietrich found. “Not only did respondents mention their relationship with their fellow warrior hike hikers, but they also mentioned the friendship and bonding they experienced with strangers along the trail,” Joye, Garcia and Dietrich wrote. A friend told Buckley the trail does not give people what they want, but what they need.  And for him, that rang true. “The emotion thing kind of rolls on you,” Buckley said. “It happened to me multiple times. It becomes very raw.” For more information, visit  This article is featured in the February 2019 issue of VFW magazine, and was written by Kari Williams, associate editor for VFW magazine.
WASHINGTON — The national commander of America’s largest and oldest major combat veterans’ organization heads overseas this weekend to embed with members of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team from Fort Riley, Kan., who recently deployed to Eastern Europe as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve.   (Left) An Army M109 Palidin self-propelled howitzer firing a 155mm shell on the range; (Right) VFW National commander B.J. Lawrence at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. The visit by B.J. Lawrence, national commander of the 1.6 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and its Auxiliary, is the final chapter in a three-part story that began with a meeting with senior Army leadership in the Pentagon last fall. A discussion evolved around having the VFW national commander observe a unit undergoing pre-deployment training at the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., then marrying up with that unit overseas. Fort Riley’s 1st ABCT, part of the 1st Infantry Division, was selected, but since it had already completed NTC, Lawrence viewed similar training by armor and infantry units from Fort Carson, Colo. He then traveled to Fort Riley in December to meet with the brigade commander and command sergeant major and others prior to their months long deployment.    The purpose of Atlantic Resolve is to build readiness, increase interoperability, and enhance the bond between ally and partner militaries through multinational training events in Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Some 3,500 1st ABCT and 1,900 1st Combat Aviation Brigade soldiers, also from Fort Riley, are participating.  “My top priorities are training, readiness and morale, so listening to the troops where they train, and especially where they deploy, makes us better advocates for them and their families on Capitol Hill,” said Lawrence. “Visits such as these are essential to maintaining the close relationship the VFW has nurtured with America’s military for now 120 years, and we are grateful for this opportunity to learn even more.”
“Mr. Procopio is entitled to a presumption of service connection for his prostate cancer and diabetes mellitus. Accordingly, we reverse.” - U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit Court And with that statement, Blue Water Navy veterans won a major victory in their fight for VA benefits to treat illnesses linked to exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled Tuesday in favor of Alfred Procopio Jr., who served aboard the USS Intrepid during the war. Procopio, 73, suffers from diabetes and prostate cancer, both of which are linked to Agent Orange exposure. American Legion National Commander Brett P. Reistad applauded the court’s decision that found no reason to deny VA disability benefits for Procopio, who did not meet the “boots on the ground” criteria for Agent Orange-related VA disability benefits. “The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit echoes what The American Legion, multiple other veterans service organizations and Vietnam War veterans have been arguing since an administrative decision in 2002 cut off benefits to those who were exposed at sea,” Reistad said. “It doesn’t matter where you were exposed to Agent Orange when you served. It only matters that you were exposed when you served. To deny VA disability benefits for victims who were exposed at sea, and to provide benefits only to those veterans who were exposed on the ground, is a distinction based much more on budget than justice.” The decision comes on the heels of a failed effort to pass H.R. 299, The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, during the final days of the 115th Congress. The legislation would have extended VA disability benefits to tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans who served off the coast of Vietnam. The legislation sailed through the House of Representatives, but came to a crashing halt when a vote for unanimous consent was called in the Senate. Though Tuesday’s court ruling may be challenged with an appeal from VA within the next 90 days, legislation to lock in a presumption of VA benefits for Blue Water Navy veterans exposed to Agent Orange was again introduced during the first days of the new Congress. Reistad said that the ruling in favor Procopio Jr., “is a step in the right direction” for some 90,000 veterans who served offshore and may be suffering from conditions related to exposure to Agent Orange. VA recognizes 14 adverse conditions as presumptively linked to exposure to the chemical herbicide used to defoliate jungle vegetation that provided the enemy cover during the war. The American Legion allied with Columbia University during the 1980s and 1990s to provide undeniable evidence that Agent Orange exposure had led to numerous adverse health-care conditions among Vietnam War veterans who came into contact with it. “This ruling is an important step in a long journey toward justice for all who were exposed, were sickened and disabled by Agent Orange,” Reistad said. “But it is not the final step, and The American Legion will continue to fight in Congress, VA and the courts, if necessary, to definitively return fairness and justice to these affected veterans.”