In Bennington County, Vermont, local and state officials who share a passion for advocating for veterans met last week to discuss collaborating their efforts to help veterans. This past meeting focused on food programs and how they could benefit veteran and their families. The Hunger Council of Bennington County, a local program which is in collaboration with Hunger Free Vermont hosted the meeting. Richard Gallo, of the Vermont Veterans Outreach Program, testified that there are more than 46,600 veterans in Vermont; 3,432 of which reside in Bennington County. Statewide, just 29,341 of eligible veterans are enrolled with the Veterans Administration; in Bennington County, 45 percent of its 3,432 eligible veterans are enrolled with the VA. He also accounted that the average veteran in Vermont is male, 65 to 84 years old, and served in the Vietnam War, Gallo said. The Outreach Program was created nearly a decade ago through funds made available by Vermont's congressional delegation. This program has helped give veterans and their families solace. This includes the opportunity to meet with a program specialist to check in with veterans to help with processing civilian life, helping them obtain much needed services if needed. The outreach program also works with local non-profit organizations such as open-door missions, community cupboards and other food programs, to help the veterans and their families receive what they need as they get settled, on their feet and thriving. "The one thing for Bennington that you should be aware of is that a lot of us in the service industry really depend on the interfaith community network, too," said Leigh Smith, healthcare for homeless veterans coordinator for Bennington County. "They do a lot of wonderful jobs coordinating meals that a lot of folks utilize." One of the centers, the Family Assistance Centers (FAC) program is meant "to provide resource referral and support assistance to service members and their families, of all military branches. When we talk about the 'six essential services,' and community resources and community outreach as one of our essential services, that is a very broad, all-encompassing term," including state and local services available to the community at large, said Glory O'Neil, of the FAC program. "It's exactly that: nutrition, food shelves, shelters, crisis (support) — whatever the case may be." Primarily, the service center works with people involved with the National Guard. O’Neil shares this: “ A lot of those soldiers have families and also work very low-paying jobs and have a hard time making ends meet living in a state like Vermont," O'Neil said. "And so those are the people that we see coming to us who are running out of money quick and need those food shelves and need those community resources. So that's why we're here trying to figure out exactly in our areas, in the areas that we're new to, what's available for those soldiers that don't have access to, and their families that don't have access, to the VA benefits and a lot those other benefits that are available to some of our other service members." Three veterans services personnel from the Bennington Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) also were in attendance. the meeting. The Bennington VA clinic is small, providing about 1,800 total patients primary care and mental health care. Smith spends his time largely with individuals that are mental health patients and some face homelessness. “We also are looking at food insecurity. We ask the questions, 'have you ever been worried about food in the last three months?' 'Gone without eating?' as well as the homeless piece," she said. "I can say for the folks that I tend to work with: they depend a lot on the food shelves in Bennington County. There's also a beneficial social aspect with the Meals on Wheels program or with the meals served at the Bennington Senior Center, "which we really encourage, especially for our older folk," she said. Smith continues and notes that “there is a small percentage of veterans who refuse to go to food shelves out of pride. As partnerships are being formed, conversation is fast becoming the first defense at ensuring these veterans and their families have the best opportunities accessible. For as long as this continues, veterans in Bennington County, Virginia are being taken care of.
Beekeeping is one of Mike Roche’s passions. In the 1970s, Roche and his wife, Diane, bought a do-it-yourself beehive kit. The plan was to raise bees on their farm in Virginia, but life had other plans. Roche is a Vietnam veteran and remains active in the U.S. Marine Corps, which has caused the family to move. As they prepared to move, the unused beehive kit stayed with them. Year passed, but eventually, when Mike was working for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, the couple resettled in Virginia where they revived their dream of raising honey bees. One day, thousands of bees arrived by mail at the U.S. post office. The bees began thriving before long, and the Roche’s pattern of harvesting honey in the kitchen became a staple in their life. A few years later, the hive had died up and beekeeping was a former passion. But within a few years, their hive died off and beekeeping slipped out of their lives. After retirement, Roche had continued the hobby. Mike Roche served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 20 years and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel, but he didn’t use beekeeping as therapy, says Diane. “It was something that was enjoyable, and peaceful and dealing with the bees that he just loved.” It was particularly telling what similarities serving your country and bees carried. “All bees work for the welfare of the hive, and that mattered a great deal to my husband. Particularly after his experience in Vietnam,” says Diane. He didn’t want to be the only veteran that knew the joy of beekeeping. In 2013, Masterman crossed paths with Mike and Diane Roche through the Bee Squad’s Hive to Bottle program, which exists to help beekeepers with managing colonies on their own property. One day on a visit to Roche’s farm, Masterman, mused after witnessessing Roche’s joy, about creating a beekeeping program specifically for military veterans. Mike Roche was immediately sold and told her that he’d write a blank check. That’s how the Bee Veterans program first got started. Bee Veterans is more than a program, it’s also a home. It’s location, by the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, is unique and the apiary feels homey. The Bee Veterans Apiary was christened in the fall of 2015. Since then, 20 veterans have participated in free hands-on programming. Veterans had decided to bring their loved ones on the venture, making the program a family friendly place. Such is the story of Air Force veteran Colin Moening. He worked side by side with his childhood friend Pete Schwen. Moening retired from the U.S. Air Force a couple of years ago after serving for “25 years, two months, and two days,” but his Air Force schedule always seemed to be a deterrent. Moening and Schwen spent many evenings at the Bee Veterans apiary. Today, the lifelong friends are learning about winterizing the bees. “I feel pretty privileged to be able to come here,” says Moening. He plans to start two bee colonies at his cabin north of St. Cloud next year, but the first step is learning about the hobby. Moening states, “You come back to the community after being in the military and you don't necessarily know a lot of people and where to go. It’s a great opportunity.” Christian Dahm, 29, is a U.S. Marine veteran and Bee Squad employee who built this hive as an experiment. Dahm has been part of the Bee Squad family ever since Masterman awarded him a veterans scholarship to take an introductory beekeeping class a few years ago. Roche will always live through the program. Masterman says she’s learned to let the veterans show her what the Bee Veterans program should look like. Early on, veterans told her that they wanted the apiary to be a space where they could separate their military experiences. A bench will eventually will be placed on the property with Roche’s name on it, to honor the man that started the vision.
Military personnel are not limited to the battles they fight while serving, at home they are often greeted with challenges that cramp their lives with struggle and sickness. Such is the case with Sergeant Major Rob Bowman. He passed away from cholangiocarcinoma, which is a rare form of bile duct cancer, at the age of 44. Unfortunately, Bowman’s cancer isn’t an isolated incident. “Of the 30 men in Rob’s platoon who returned home, nearly one-third of them developed uncommon cancers and medical conditions,” said Coleen Bowman, Rob’s surviving spouse, “and the first doctor we saw confirmed immediately that the cause of Rob’s cancer was environmental, not genetic.” Thankfully, action is coming, however delayed. Exposure is a serious issue, one that lawmakers, police enforcement, and medical professionals are making time to study and to make changes. The families, the professionals realize, deserve well thought out, medically accurate information that can be used to help other people The thread of toxin exposure is long, it goes back to the start of civilization. Sometimes, it’s even personal! It was reported that in 1776, Tory sympathizer attempted to poison George Washington. Those who study the harmful effects of toxins realize that they have become even more harmful as the 20th century progressed. “We need the VA and the DoD to acknowledge that this is how these soldiers are dying,” Bowman stated, “we need better screenings, both before and after deployments. Rob’s complaints were initially blown off by his doctors. We’ve made progress, but we still have a long way to go.” Legislative progress is happening, slow as it may be. The National Defense Authorization Act recently passed, which is helpful in solving the issue, but has yet to solve the goal completely. Due to this issue, advocation of military personnel have chosen to help others, since they feel the law is not helping them consistently. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and the Vietnam Veterans of America worked together to apply for a grant that the Wounded Warrior Project was hosting. The grant’s purpose was to be a friend to the families of those affected in the way by toxins and to provide assistance to those whose loved ones passed away from access to military toxins. Generations have now dealt with the issues and the aforementioned nonprofits are here to support them. This issue will not go away overnight, but with supportive collaboration, progress is coming.
Homelessness is a widespread issue. It is far reaching and at times generational. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness defines homeless persons residing in emergency shelter, transitional housing or safe havens as sheltered populations and those living on the streets, abandoned buildings and cars as "unsheltered". Homelessness involving veterans is something that is prevalent throughout the United States. Los Angeles, California, one of the nation's largest homeless populations which saw a 57 percent increase in the number of homeless vets living on Los Angeles streets from last year. A recent report from Housing and Urban Development reported that efforts have begun to make a substantive difference. The number of veterans that are homeless have begun to lessen, about 40% in 2016, from the last five years. Additionally, the VA is making a commitment to become more proactive regarding the issue. The office has begun to work together with other government officials, various employers, faith based non-profits and other non profits, city housing providers among others. In the beginning of 2016, there was nearly 40,000 veterans that identify as homeless. Of those numbers, approximately 13,000 of those 40,000 were living on the streets, or in uncared for buildings or really anywhere that is accessible that they were sure they wouldn’t be thrown out of. There may be areas where veterans aren’t homeless. According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a community is said to have “effectively ended” homelessness if they have been able to provide permanent housing to all veterans within 90 days after they have been identified as homeless and have housed all veterans except for those who have refused assistance. This national trend isn’t the norm and is subject to shift and change without notice. In January 2016, HUD data reports that there are more than half a million homeless persons in the U.S. For more information, you can access these websites: https://www.va.gov/homeless/ and http://www.time.com/5019720/veterans-homeless/.
After serving in the military, veterans are entitled to benefits through Veterans’ Affairs. However the process is not always easy to understand and it’s not always simple to maneuver the in and outs of the system. There are spokespersons, of course, but they are often inundated with requests and edits to applications and tending to the backlog. Dan Thorstad spoke with Task and Purpose and answered some questions veterans typically have when navigating through the system. Dan Thorstad served 23 years active duty in the Army. He deployed twice and retired as a first sergeant. ‘ Discharge papers are integral to receive benefits. The papers are important because there’s a host of people that will need to see them! Loan officers, medical personnel, anyone helping you receive educational support, government officials, among others! Once discharged, the first step is to register papers. The most important one is DD-214 and that should be registered with whichever county the veteran lives in. Make sure that the papers registered clearly identify the character of service as that is what is needed for veterans to be able to receive benefits. Once registered, you’ll be able to retrieve them to receive services in a timely manner. The VA home loan is something that veterans are very interested in as housing is essential. If you can receive the benefit, veterans’ papers will say: Certificate of Eligibility (COE). The loan is supported by the VA, but the process is the same as any loan, save showing your eligibility. COE does lower expenses, but not all of them. Healthcare is important and as for as veterans are concerned, is as complex for non veterans as well. Take dental care, which is always a fight. The VA does have a dental office accessible in hospitals, but to receive services, veterans need to meet some requirements prior to being seen. Veterans must be enrolled in VA health care and also must carry a service-connected dental injury or be 100% dependent on disability. Another condition is that the veteran takes part in the VA Vocational Rehab program. Lastly, there is also a condition is that if a veteran hasn’t received dental care within the most recent 90 days of service. If a veteran doesn’t meet these conditions, there is a VA dental insurance program available. For other health care needs, submitting a claim with an officer is the surest way to get your claim heard. Submitting your claim by yourself is susceptible to mistakes and then adds to the backlog. Let the Veteran’s Affair officer help you! The aforementioned are just some the benefits apart of the conversation and not an exhaustive list, by any means. If you do have questions, don’t hesitate to contact a local spokesperson and set up an appointment to get some questions answered!
Once a veteran returns from service, it is important for personal and governmental reasons alike, to be identified as such. The Department of Veterans Affairs is making good on an ‘overdue promise’ which is doubled by a federal obligation to ensure that veterans have proper identification and are able to carry it with them at all times. This ID card will help veterans become more stable in their post service life. The card remedies the solution of carrying important paperwork that is susceptible to be lost. Retailers and officials that want to reward veterans for their service will not have to go through multiple steps, but just one with this card. Veterans who have received an honorable or general discharge (that is categorized under “honorable”) meet the requirement. You also must have met the time served minimum obligation. This includes time in uniform, which includes any reservists that may want a card for themselves. To apply, go to vet.gov and and click on “Apply for Printed Veteran ID-Card” in a blue section near the bottom of the page. Veteran Affairs has stated that a veteran may receive a card within sixty days. A veteran may check the progress of the card being made at vets.gov. By mid December, veterans will be able to see a digital representation at that site. There is no fee for a veteran who would like to have identification and meets all the prior requirements. Once Veterans Affairs approves an application, you can get them printed out at no cost to you. This is done at your local Office Depot. Office Depot has generously offered to cover the shipping costs as well. Thank you for your service. You can learn more about the service here: http://www.daytondailynews.com/news/local/new-veterans-card-could-shown-retailers-says/j7ekKFFZAmoZURAWpw17yL/
Veterans are susceptible to illnesses, life changing injuries, PTSD, financial hardships, fatigue and more issues but yet they sign for service anyway because they feel like it’s their duty. It’s commendable work and should be recognized on a government level when possible. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers stipends, training, paid breaks and other benefits to the caregivers of post-9/11 veterans through a program passed in 2010. This leaves a lot to be covered on other incomes. In the years since, there hasn’t been a replacement that was put in law and there are numerous families needing support. There is, however, a proposed $3.4 billion in federal funding over the next five years that would extend caregivers’ benefits to family and friends performing full-time care for veterans of all eras. On Wednesday, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved the expansion of the post-9/11 caregiver program. This approval is part of a new to breathe new life into the VA’s health-care system. If this approval does go through and is indeed signed into law, there will be benefits that will work hard to provide help to caregivers of veterans injured before May 1975. This law will also expand the parameters to help the families of those hurt from May 1975 to September 2001. Of those veterans is David W. Riley. Riley is a medically retired Coast Guard rescue swimmer, who is also a quadruple amputee. The expansion of the Caregivers Act would help his wife care for him and allow them to pay for training and much needed breaks between caregiving stints, which would improve the family’s quality of life. Riley notes that there isn’t a lot of knowledge beforehand about proper rituals of caretaking. Riley says of his wife: “To this day, she puts me together in the morning. She takes me apart at night,” Riley said in a telephone interview from their family home in Semmes, Ala. “It’s a full-time job. But she’s never gotten paid or training.” There is no set amount time for reprieve or training to learn how to properly take care of veterans that desperately need to be taken care of. Garry Augustine, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Washington headquarters, called expanding the benefits, “the right thing to do,” adding “you can’t have certain benefits for some veterans and none for others.” Joyce Wessel Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association, said that in the long run, this (the bill) may be less expensive than paying for long-term nursing care. Raezer goes on to say: The program would include hiring hundreds of people to review requests for benefits, and involve a massive undertaking to create a network of nurses and social workers who can offer breaks for caregivers. “After 9/11, the wounds were fresh and there were many caregivers who were losing their jobs to care for their spouses — so there was a lot of momentum,” Raezer said. “We always wanted to keep the door open to find a way to expand this. Everyone agrees it should be done. It’s just finding the money.” You can find more information at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2017/12/01/senate-panel-advances-3-4-billion-plan-to-dramatically-expand-benefits-for-veterans-caregivers/?utm_term=.72b2ef22951b
Once someone decides to leave the military, there’s a whole host of decisions that need to be made. Decisions that include choosing a new career, how to manage finances, a change of lifestyle and more are part of the challenges facing soon-to-be veterans. All of these decisions may be overwhelming but veterans are not alone. The VA is accessible and a good resource. Utilizing the VA is to the veterans’ benefit. Not only does the service give help, it also gives veterans a sense of community. Regular, problem free access to the VA can be hard to achieve but not always. It can depend on your area. You should know that certain vets are seen as higher priorities in the VA system, including those with service-related disabilities. There are representatives to help you and guide you in any decision making. There are also several hundred non profit organizations related to reintroduction, public service workers among others there to help veterans in need. Veterans are entitled to benefits and different programs to ensure a safe exit and reintroduction into civilian life. Blake Bourne, the executive director of North Carolina's Charlotte Bridge Home, which is a non profit that guides that the process of reintroducing veterans to civilian life easier. One of the many issues is healthcare. Healthcare is a large, overreaching issue, in both civilian life and military life. It is complex but not impossible to navigate. Bourne explains it like this: "Healthcare is the best microcosm for the challenges of navigating life outside of military life," says Bourne, who is also a retired Army officer. "It's not something we ever had to contend with, within service." If veterans have a family, someone will speak with them to make immediate preparations and then guide them to make longer term decisions for both veterans and any dependents they may have. Veterans who retire after 20 years of service or who are medically retired because of injuries have health insurance available to themselves and their families at a low cost. Education is also something that veterans may be a new topic once they exit military life. It’s a choice that also feeds into the issue of managing finances. Even though these can be challenging issues to navigate, you don’t have to do it alone. Most veteran service organizations, like the Wounded Warrior Project, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, and similar nonprofit groups have experience in navigating what can be a confusing system.
Veterans come from all different backgrounds. Brandon Heffinger is a Marine Corps officer, the Director of the Wake Forest Veterans Legal Clinic and a current MPA student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He shares his thoughts on why veterans sometimes have troubles when arriving home. Sometimes when you are on the battlefield and you begin to have experience challenges, it is hard to understand the suffering and pinpoint exact solutions. The following scenario does happen: They act out, struck with PTSD, the next person in the next chain of command is disappointed with them and they do receive less than honorable discharges, which implicates them in the post military life. The discharge prevents a large percentage of veterans being considered from being considered veterans which means they can't get help from the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to address their PTSD. It is a true blue Catch 22. This exact practice should not be in place, since it prohibits proper care for people that served which should be unlawful. This problem has existed for a long time, and Vietnam veterans are a strong case in point. The military granted 260,000 less than honorable discharges to Vietnam veterans. Meanwhile, 30% of Vietnam veterans have struggled with PTSD in their lifetimes, according to VA estimates. The issue did not stop them, it continued into 9/11 era. Efforts have been made to remedy this situation. Over the past three years, the Department of Defense and Congress have done some work to improve discharge upgrade policies, which has vastly helped this scenario. The House of Representatives has passed the Veteran Urgent Access to Mental Health Care Act. The bill requires the VA to provide an initial mental health assessment and provide services if needed. This is substantive work that we should be proud of as it brings change to a new generation of veterans that will need care, of varying levels. In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln called on the country "to care for him who shall have borne the battle . . ." It remains the official motto of the VA today and we should stand by that.
Life changes after becoming a veteran in profound, life changing ways. Veterans whom come back wounded feel the same way, but at an amplified level as they have to relearn so many things that were second nature to them. This can take a toll that is completely different than what serving entailed. The Star Tribune interviewed veterans who wanted to share their story. Veltri, who retired from active duty in 2003, came back and started college a few years later. His collegiate career ended when trying to assist someone during a fight and he ended up being paralyzed. Veltri was at a loss on what to do. As someone that was athletic prior to his injury, he was interested at the option of wheelchair adaptive sports. In 2009, he started his journey with Wisconsin Adaptive Sports Association. He now is on a lacrosse team with the Milwaukee Eagles, a team he helped become what it is today. He is not alone in his venture. Dr. Kenneth Lee, a founding member of the team, states that the point of the team isn’t merely to play, as rehab is a component as well. The team is generational, as the starting age is 14. Lee, 52, leads the lacrosse team and is a veteran. He was injured in combat. After he suffered several injuries, which included nerve damage and injuries related to shrapnel, he was also at a loss what to do. He eventually looked to adaptive sports and found a connection. "We're looking at it as rehab as well, post-hospitalization rehab back in the community. This gives them an avenue to shoot for every year," said Lee, an associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin, medical director for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games and president of the Board of WASA. It became apparent to the players that the benefits were not just physical. "These guys kind of feed off each other, especially if they're still depressed or think they can't do anything like this," Lee said. "The other guys will come over and say, 'Yes you can, look what I can do.'" The camaraderie, the emotional connection of being on a team, the level of accountability really ensured a strong bond. The activity also boosted individual growth. It will be amazing to see this trend grow throughout the years. "It will actually activate your mind and your body, and it just makes you go," Lee said. "This is one of the best rehab or therapy there is."