Home at Last: Seventy-five years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, men who died on USS Oklahoma are finally being returned to their families

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2016, All Rights Reserved)

John England was last seen heading back into the depths of the crippled USS Oklahoma to rescue a fourth shipmate on Dec. 7, 1941. The 20-year-old ensign had come topside after an order to abandon ship, then returned to the radio room three times to guide other sailors to safety even as the ship was capsizing. Ultimately, 429 sailors and Marines – including England – went down with their vessel minutes after it was struck by a barrage of Japanese torpedoes. Oklahoma’s losses were second only to USS Arizona on that day of infamy.

England’s family received a telegram from the Navy on Dec. 16, stating that he was “lost in action.” Helen England refused to believe her husband was dead. His mother, Thelma, likewise clung to a “thin thread of hope” that her son had been injured or picked up by an outgoing ship and would eventually get word to his family. England’s grandmother wrote that his disappearance was “the most bitter sorrow I have ever known.”

Sorrow is all they would ever know.

For more than 70 years, the family learned nothing more about England’s fate, including the fact that forensic experts identified partial remains of him and 26 other Oklahoma sailors in the late 1940s, then reburied them in an unmarked grave at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

England’s disappearance eventually splintered his family. His distraught widow cut ties with his parents. England’s daughter refused to speak of her biological father to her own children other than a vague reference to him being a Pearl Harbor hero – unavoidable in light of the fact that the Navy named two ships after him.

“It was such a sensitive subject,” says England’s granddaughter, Bethany Glenn. “We knew not to ask about him.”

Lifelong dream

England grew up wanting to serve on Oklahoma . As a young boy, J.C., as he was known, gathered the kids in his Oklahoma City neighborhood to launch a model of the battleship on a nearby pond. He moved to California with his family after eighth grade and became a standout at Alhambra High School, where he served as senior class president and swept more than one sweetheart off her feet. “His dance card was always full,” says Glenn, who eventually tracked down his high school classmates.

John and Helen England.

England met Helen at Pasadena Junior College and they eloped in January 1941. He received his Naval Reserve commission after earning his associate degree and sailed for Hawaii Oct. 3, 1941 – his pregnant wife’s 19th birthday. Their daughter, Vickie Lou, was born a month later and Helen made plans for them to join England after Christmas.

England was filled with anticipation. In his last letter home, he implored his family to send news of his daughter. “I wish you’d write me and tell me what everybody thinks about the new girl in the England family,” he wrote in late November 1941. “The only thing that gets me is that I’ll be the last one in the family that gets to see her.”

But England’s mother knew he had other worries as well. “He was the youngest officer on board and he was so ashamed of the fact he was an infant,” Thelma later confided in a letter. “But I was very proud of him.”

Missing

Oklahoma was anchored next to USS Maryland along Battleship Row when the Japanese attacked on that sleepy Sunday morning in 1941. The ship capsized 12 minutes after the first of several torpedoes ripped into its port side. A rescue team cut holes in the hull of the overturned ship and rescued 32 men. Thirty-five bodies were subsequently recovered and identified. Nearly 400 others were still missing.

The Navy righted Oklahoma and removed all the remains it could find beginning in July 1942. There were stories of fuel- and-oil-soaked bones stacked on the deck as the military cleared the holds, says Bob Valley, whose older brother, Lowell, was working in the port engine room when the Japanese began pummeling the ship. Those jumbled remains were buried in graves in two Honolulu cemeteries.

After World War II, the American Graves Registry Service disinterred the Pearl Harbor casualties and took them to a laboratory at Schofield Barracks with plans to identify skulls, femurs, hip bones and the like, and return them to the next of kin. The task proved daunting in an era when DNA wasn’t even a concept. Nonetheless, the Schofield laboratory team proposed identifications for 27 Oklahoma sailors – including England – based on comparisons of military dental records with teeth found among the remains, says Heather Harris, a historian with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

Because they were unable to identify complete skeletons, the government quietly decided to bury the partial remains of the 27 in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific – called the Punchbowl – and declare the casualties unidentifiable. England and nearly 400 of his shipmates were placed in 46 gravesites marked “Oklahoma unknowns.” It became the single largest group of unidentified casualties from the Pearl Harbor attack. And England’s family, like all the other families, was never informed.

Adrift

A month after her husband was lost at Pearl Harbor, Helen England’s San Francisco apartment building burned, adding to a string of tragedies. Her mother had died when she was 12, her father when she was 16 and now her husband when she was 19. She left her infant daughter with her in-laws and drifted east.

Two years later, Helen married an heir to a prominent family she met while modeling in the New York City area. Once her new husband’s family discovered Helen had a daughter, they demanded she bring Vickie Lou to the East Coast and allow her to be adopted by their family to avoid the appearance of scandal, Glenn says.

Vickie Lou wasn’t told about her real father, nor did she meet England’s parents until the 1960s. Heartbroken at the loss of their granddaughter, England’s parents focused on USS England, which was christened by Thelma in 1943 and set a record for sinking six Japanese submarines in a 12-day period in May 1944. A second USS England launched in 1962.

“The Navy was very good about letting them know where the USS Englands were and what they were doing,” Glenn says. “J.C.’s parents visited the ships whenever they were in port. I think that helped stave off their sadness.”

Vickie Lou, however, almost never spoke of her biological father. “She only told us surface things – that he was a Pearl Harbor hero. That absolutely nothing of him had been recovered,” Glenn says. “There was a cloud of sadness over everything.”

Vickie Lou died in 2002. Two years later, Glenn’s cousin discovered a couple of boxes marked “J.C.’s stuff” while cleaning out her own father’s attic. She shipped the boxes to Glenn, who found everything from England’s high school yearbook to years of correspondence between his mother and two of his former girlfriends. Glenn subsequently learned that her grandfather’s death sent “a ripple of sadness” through his high school class. She also learned that her grandfather had been so well regarded, his high school had created the John C. England Award, the top honor given to a graduating senior.

The biggest discovery was yet to come.

A survivor’s crusade

By the time Glenn was combing through family letters and calling his high school girlfriends, a Pearl Harbor survivor named Ray Emory had been pushing for identification of unknown Pearl Harbor casualties for more than a decade. It started when he swung by the office at the Punchbowl on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Japanese attack and asked where the Pearl Harbor unknowns were buried. No one had an answer. So Emory got a clipboard and began walking the Punchbowl, mapping all the graves. “It took a couple of years,” he says. “It was chaos.”

Emory also compiled lists of all the Pearl Harbor casualties by ship, along with their medical records, and started pushing DoD to identify the unknown sailors. In the course of his work, he discovered records of the 27 Oklahoma sailors whose skulls and jawbones had been identified – and then reburied. That led to disinterment of a grave containing five of the 27 in 2003.

That same grave, however, also had the remains of more than 100 other individuals. DoD needed money, medical records of the Oklahoma casualties, DNA samples from family members, and new practices and policies for dealing with large groups of commingled remains before it moved forward. Emory, Valley and families of other men who perished on Oklahoma came together to lobby Congress, DoD and every office that had anything to do with military remains. “They were fully engaged and committed to seeing the rest of the
Oklahoma unknowns disinterred,” Harris says.

The Navy eventually hired a forensic genealogist to gather DNA samples from the Oklahoma families, Harris says. More than 80 percent of the families who lost a loved one on the ship came through. Gerald Lehman, one of the first five sailors exhumed in 2003, was identified with the help of a DNA sample gleaned from the seal of an envelope that carried a letter home to his mother.

The email

Bethany Glenn holds a notebook of memories, including a photo of her grandfather, John C. England.

Glenn received an email from Bob Valley in 2008, after Emory recruited him to help locate the first group of Oklahoma families. She provided a DNA sample, as did her sister and her cousin, Katy Bemiss. Then Glenn and her cousin visited the grave where her grandfather’s partial remains were said to be buried, wondering if he would ever come home.

“We were in the midst of not knowing which way this would go,” Glenn says, because DoD hadn’t yet decided if it would continue to exhume the Pearl Harbor unknowns. “I thought, ‘I hope I don’t have to bring a shovel here and start digging.’ It was sobering.” All along, she was more worried about Valley, who is in his 80s. “I don’t want him to die before they find his brother.”

There’s hope. Thanks to the work of Emory, Valley and other advocates, DoD eventually committed to identify the men of Oklahoma and return them to their
families for burial by 2020. “This is the story of hundreds of people coming together to make this happen,” Harris says. But the work of one person – Emory – was crucial, Valley adds. “If it wasn’t for that, there never would have been any identification of the Oklahoma unknowns.”

Meanwhile, Glenn, her sister and her cousin started considering what they would do if England’s remains were retrieved. She told one of his high school
girlfriends that they were thinking of leaving him in Hawaii with his shipmates.

“(She) burst into tears and said, ‘Please bring him home.’ She urged me to see if we could bury him with his parents in Colorado Springs.” They discovered that England’s parents had purchased a plot next to their own, complete with a headstone, in the event their son was eventually found.

In June, the Navy visited Glenn, told her that they had identified England’s skull, and gave her the option of waiting until all of his remains were found to bring him home. Her family didn’t want to wait. England’s partial remains were flown to Colorado Springs in August. During a private moment at the funeral home before he was buried with full military honors, Glenn and her sister tucked their mother’s ashes into the casket, finally bringing father and daughter together in a gesture of peace.

“I know she struggled with the heaviness she was born into,” Glenn told the hundreds of people who gathered for England’s belated funeral. “And this is why my sister Lisa and I decided to include her ashes in her father’s grave – as a way to heal the past and to bring long-awaited closure to our family.”

This story originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thoroughbred Therapy: How Saratoga WarHorse rekindles life for soldiers dealing with PTSD

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2016, All Rights Reserved)

Rob Saavedra refused to acknowledge he had PTSD. The Air Force veteran and sheriff’s deputy worried the people around him – particularly coworkers – would consider him weak. And when he finally sought help from two different PTSD programs, he got no relief from the nightmares, panic attacks and exhaustive hypervigilance.

Seven minutes with a horse changed everything.

“It’s just amazing how all of a sudden you start meshing with the animal,” Saavedra says  as he tries to sort out how he just persuaded a hot-blooded thousand-pound thoroughbred to trust him. “They melt into you. I wish I would have come a long time ago.”

Saratoga WarHorse founder Bob Nevins calls this epiphany “the sacred moment,” often marked by a veteran burying his face in the horse’s neck and sobbing. “The veteran is relieving years of anguish and nightmares,” explains Nevins, a decorated Vietnam medevac pilot who knows both combat trauma and the power of the horse-human connection firsthand. “We just let it unfold.”

More than 400 veterans have had similar experiences at Saratoga WarHorse since Nevins quit his day job and exhausted his retirement savings to launch the program in 2011. The reward comes in emails and phone calls from grateful veterans who report sleeping for the first time in years.

“The soldier’s heart gets hardened in the war experience,” wrote Denny Sedlack, a 2015 graduate of Saratoga WarHorse who served as a Navy corpsman in Vietnam followed by 15 years in the Air Force. “The horse-human connection bridges the difference between the war world and the civilian world. And the horse-human connection tempers the pain of killing (and) being killed.”

Nevins also hears from spouses and therapists who are surprised by the dramatic change in veterans who attend the program. “They call me and ask, ‘What did you do with this guy?’” Nevins says. The most potent endorsements come from veterans like Clay Stanhope and Mary Kay McCollum, who saw suicide as their only remaining option.

Clay Stanhope at Saratoga WarHorse

Clay Stanhope at Saratoga WarHorse

“I owe my life to Bob and his crew,” says Stanhope, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and lost everything to divorce soon after returning home to Alabama in 2012. “The VA wouldn’t touch me. Nobody would help me. I was completely lost.”

McCollum, a Navy veteran and military sexual assault survivor, planned to jump off the Monroe Street Bridge in her hometown of Spokane, Wash., after years of traditional therapy failed to touch her night terrors. “You get stuck in the trauma and there’s nothing you can do to get out of it,” McCollum says. “There’s no amount of talking, cognitive therapy and drugs that can help.”

Unconditional acknowledgement

A map on a wall of Saratoga WarHorse’s modest office, just off a quiet, tree-lined street in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., tracks the places in the United States with the highest veteran suicide rates. The epidemic prompted Nevins to start Saratoga WarHorse after he researched the horse-human connection and tried it for himself . “Every bit of anxiety I had washed away,” Nevins says. “That’s why I started thinking this would work with other veterans.”

He recruited Melody Squier, a noted Vermont equine expert, to help him create a program in which veterans could have the same experience. Then he quit his job as an airline captain and emptied his retirement savings to get Saratoga WarHorse off the ground. “It was my dream job,” Nevins says of flying, “But it wasn’t as fulfilling as this.”

Saratoga WarHorse isn’t providing mental health treatment, counseling or therapeutic riding. “These veterans are so sick of people talking at them and writing them prescriptions,” Nevins says. “I don’t get into their trauma. I don’t give advice. I create an opportunity for them to have this experience.”

The experience is all about resetting the emotional circuit breaker. “Anytime a human being has a traumatic event in their life – from sexual assault to seeing your buddy blown up in combat – their emotional circuit breaker pops,” Nevins says “It’s like tripping the electrical circuit breaker in your house. The lights go out. You are walking around in the dark.”

Likewise, veterans with PTSD can’t sleep, can’t cope with their nightmares, can’t fully and functionally re-engage with civilian life. It takes a powerful positive experience, in this case bonding with a horse, to reset their emotional circuit breaker.

Horses have two biological attributes that make them the ideal animal to help , says Tim Hayes, Air Force veteran, horse trainer and author of Riding Home: The Power of Horses to Heal. Horses, like veterans with PTSD, are hypervigilant. Because they are also highly intuitive, horses sense that similarity, which makes it easier for them to bond with troubled former servicemembers.

In addition, horses have highly developed social skills – including tolerance, acceptance, forgiveness and compassion – that are critical to their ability to live in a herd. “If a horse gets with someone who is wounded, compassion immediately kicks in,” Hayes says. “That feeling that veterans get from a horse is unconditional acknowledgement. It’s a mental, emotional and physical shift for them.”

That shift enables veterans to open up to spouses and therapists and start rebuilding their lives. “The horse isn’t the end of the healing process,” says Hayes, who has attended Saratoga WarHorse. “It’s the kick starter.”

Legion support

Nevins, a member of American Legion Adirondak Post 70 in Saratoga Springs, makes it easy to attend Saratoga WarHorse. The program pays all expenses, including airfare, so there’s no VA approval process, insurance paperwork or financial barriers. Nevins receives support from community and fraternal groups in both New York and South Carolina, where a satellite operation opened with the help of horsewoman Anne Campbell. This includes Knights of Columbus, Rotary and the Elks as well as donors from the thoroughbred racing community such as Bob Baffert – trainer of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh – and his wife Jill.

Joseph E. Zaloga American Legion Post 1520 in Albany, N.Y., has raised money for Saratoga WarHorse. American Legion Whiteman Hull Snyder Post 1360 in Cherry Valley, N.Y., has donated half of the proceeds from its Veterans Day weekend 5K run to the program since Nevins sparked the interest of former post commander Alan Grover.

“Twenty active members of our post raised $10,000 for Saratoga WarHorse over four years, which shows what can be done by a dedicated group and great local businesses for a great cause,” Post Commander Dave Lamouret says. When Grover died in 2015, his family asked for donations in his memory to the program. “Alan’s family loved Saratoga WarHorse, loved that our race was raising money for a great cause,” Lamouret says. “Last year, all of Alan’s family came to help coordinate our 5K race and a couple of them ran the race.”

Word of mouth

Many of the veterans who come to Saratoga WarHorse have never touched a horse. Some are terrified of the imposing animals. Most are skeptical the program will help them.

Rich Keiser, past New York department commander, (left) with Saratoga WarHorse founder Bob Nevins.

Rich Keiser, past New York department commander, (left) with Saratoga WarHorse founder Bob Nevins.

“I would never have imagined this would have worked,” says Rich Keiser, past Commander of the American Legion Department of New York, who came to Saratoga WarHorse in early June. “I have PTSD and I got more out of WarHorse than I have my therapy at the VA and my group therapy. I hope a lot more veterans will try it,” adds Keiser, who was wounded on the infamous Hamburger Hill during his tour with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam in 1969.

Participants are often referred by veterans who have been to Saratoga WarHorse or by family members who persuade them to give it a try. A growing number of counselors are referring veterans as word of the program’s success spreads.

The application process is simple: A telephone conversation with Nevins. “I don’t want anything between me and the veteran,” he says, even though this sometimes means  midnight phone calls. Nevins can quickly assess if a veteran is in trouble. “When a kid tells me he hasn’t slept in 10 years, I don’t have to ask him any more questions,” Nevins says. “And they appreciate that. They don’t want to talk about it.”

Nevins and WarHorse Program Coordinator Janelle Schmidt also don’t describe the horse-human interaction in great detail to veteran who inquire about the program. They just try to make it feel safe for veterans to come and give it a try.

Saratoga WarHorse sessions are small, typically involving six veterans. Participants run the gamut from the Korean War era to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. About 30 percent are military sexual trauma survivors.

The first event is a low-key get-acquainted dinner that steers clear of war stories. The next morning the veterans head to a leased farm about a half-hour from Saratoga Springs. They learn the fundamentals of horse behavior – and winning the trust of a horse – from Squier. That’s key because, “As a prey animal, horses don’t immediately like you or accept you like most dog will,” Hayes says. “Before a horse accepts you, he has to trust you.”

By late afternoon, Squier selects a retired racing thoroughbred for each veteran. One by one, they lead their horse into the round pen for the critical encounter. And when horse and veteran connect, there’s a transformative moment that often moves the veteran and Saratoga WarHorse staff to tears. It’s difficult for veterans to articulate precisely what transpires. But they are all adamant about the life-changing power of the connection – and a resulting sense of relief they haven’t felt in years, if not decades.

“Most of the time when I talk about this, I lose it,” says 83-year-old Norman Seider, a Korean-era Army veteran. “There were several heavy moments with the horse, a bonding, then stuff began to pour out of me – not verbally – but it came tumbling out of my head. The anger and the stress just sort of flowed out.”

Universal connection

That encounter between human and horse is healing no matter the age of the veteran nor the reason for their PTSD. “There’s no difference with a 24-year-old veteran and a 68-year-old veteran. They have the same nightmares and the same issues,” Nevins says. “There’s no difference between military sexual trauma and losing your buddy on the battlefield. The trauma and the affect are the same. We give them the same experience, because the experience creates the change.”

Participants are enthusiastic about that change. McCollum found the strength to leave her abusive husband after 28 years and plans to start a blog to help other female veterans, particularly those who have suffered military sexual assault.

Clay Stanhope went from living in a homeless shelter and attempting suicide to a successful job as a long haul trucker. He’s gotten service connected with the VA since Saratoga WarHorse, a success he credits to Nevins and a fellow Alabama veteran – Glenn Knight – who recommended Nevins’ program.

Knight still isn’t sure how an encounter with a horse was powerful enough to penetrate the emotional walls he built in the wake of his tour as a crew chief and helicopter door gunner in Vietnam. “That horse told me, in a way I don’t understand, ‘It’s OK – you can trust people. You can come out of your foxhole.’” This from man who was consuming his seventh large glass of bourbon the night he first talked to Nevins on the telephone. “I’ve found new life,” Knight says. “I found faith in the church. I sing in the choir. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.”

For Nevins, the payoff comes from veterans spreading the word about Saratoga WarHorse. “I know when a veteran shares this with another veteran who hasn’t been here that they get the same satisfaction from touching someone’s life.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ALASKA’S VANISHING CARE: How VA’s “Choice” program sabotaged a hard-earned network of local health care across the state’s vast and inaccessible wilds

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2016, All Rights Reserved)

Last fall, an Alaska veteran made the five-hour drive from Homer to Anchorage for macular degeneration treatment. But after eight phone calls to VA’s Veterans Choice program, Alaska Retinal Consultants couldn’t get authorization for an injection vital to maintaining his eyesight. Out of concern for the veteran’s health, the clinic provided the treatment free of charge – then told VA it was done with the Choice program.

“We were talking with people in five different states,” says Katie Reilly, former operations manager for Alaska Retinal Consultants. “It was not unusual to talk to four to eight people to get one thing authorized. There was no reliability, no consistency and conflicting information – things you fire people for in a normal business.”

That’s a common sentiment among veterans, families and health-care providers throughout Alaska who were suddenly forced to switch to Veterans Choice in mid-2015 after VA ran out of money in other programs. Advertised as a congressional solution for the patient backlog at Phoenix and other beleaguered VA medical centers, the Choice program sabotaged a successful multiyear effort to provide Alaska veterans access to health care close to home.

“All of the programs we were using to provide care to veterans in Alaska communities were gone,” says Verdie Bowen, director of the state’s Office of Veterans Affairs. “We were getting hundreds of complaints a day from veterans and family members.”

The ensuing health-care disaster was akin to a “five-alarm fire,” in the words of Marine Corps veteran and U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. Surgeries were canceled. Everything from chemotherapy to colonoscopies was delayed for weeks, if not months. Veterans were then forced to start from scratch, enrolling in a new VA health-care program and finding doctors and clinics willing to jump through the hoops to qualify as Choice providers. (The private contractor for Choice failed to sign up any Alaska physicians before it rolled out the program.) Not to mention enduring an onerous new process for getting approval for even the most routine medical care.

“Veterans Choice is like laying out the carpet,” says Frank Lazo, commander of Prince of Wales Post 26 in Craig, “and then jerking it out from 
under you.”

“This was a knee-jerk reaction by Congress to the Phoenix problem,” Bowen adds, referring to the patient backlog scandal that cost VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job in 2014. “They completely misunderstood how this would affect care in Alaska.”

BUREAUCRATIC BLUNDER

Alaska has long recognized the challenges of caring for veterans in a state more than twice the size of Texas but equipped with just five VA clinics and no VA hospital. Because roughly half of Alaska communities are not on a road system, seeing a VA doctor means traveling by airplane, boat or both. “It’s quite the traveling ordeal if you are going to have an appointment with VA,” Lazo says. And veterans with less than a 30 percent VA disability have to pay for that travel out of their own pocket.

In 2010, Alaska began working with DoD, VA, private medical providers and Native health centers to give veterans access to VA-reimbursed medical care in their local communities, Bowen says. The result was a trio of programs that made the best of what was available in different parts of the state: 
the DoD/VA Joint Venture agreement at the state’s military hospitals and clinics, the Care Closer to Home initiative – VA-reimbursed medical treatment from private physicians – and the VA/Alaska Native Healthcare program. The latter alone, brought to fruition by years of negotiation and 26 separate agreements, made VA-reimbursed care available 
to native and non-native veterans in 122 clinics across the state.

Volunteers coaxed reluctant former servicemembers into enrolling in the rural health programs, resulting in many Vietnam War veterans getting medical care for the first time, says Jan Storbakken, veterans service officer for Post 26. The Alaska VA worked with veterans to find the most logical way to see a doctor.

“It was fabulous,” Storbakken says. “If it was cheaper and easier, Southeast Alaska veterans could go to Seattle for care.”

Getting that approval was comparatively easy. 
“I could make one phone call and get an appointment quick,” says Korean War Navy veteran Budd Burnett, who lives on Prince of Wales Island in southeastern Alaska.

Veterans Choice turned all that on its head. A private contractor took over scheduling, and routed Alaska veterans’ requests for medical appointments first to a call center in Louisiana and later to one in Washington state. What once took a phone call became weeks-long scheduling marathons.

“They are completely ignorant of Alaska cities and distances,” Burnett says. “They think the Alaska Marine Highway System is a road you can drive on, not a ferry you take.”

Under Veterans Choice, Alaska veterans wait far longer for medical appointments and pay more out of pocket for that care. Take Burnett. After weeks of phone calls, Veterans Choice finally approved his finger surgery and gave him a date to have the operation at a civilian hospital in Ketchikan. He made the three-hour, $210 ferry ride from his home on Prince of Wales Island to Ketchikan, only to discover that the Veterans Choice call center had given him the wrong surgery date. By the time Veterans Choice straightened out the mess, the surgeon Burnett requested had retired and moved out of state.

It then took more than three months for the program to arrange for Burnett to get a colonoscopy after a clinic on Prince of Wales found evidence of bleeding in his lower intestinal tract. “It was ridiculous,” he says. “A person could have died if it had been more serious.”

“This new program is waste, fraud and abuse for Alaska,” Storbakken adds. “Millions of dollars that were going to care for veterans is now going to administration.”

PROTESTS AND PROMISES

Complaints from the governor, state officials and Alaska’s congressional delegation were so persistent that David Shulkin, VA undersecretary for health, restored funding to the VA/Alaska Native Healthcare program within days. But the Care Closer to Home program – which gave veterans VA-reimbursed access to private clinics – has been revived only on a case-by-case basis.

A VA spokesman maintains that neither the Native Healthcare partnership nor Care Closer to Home ever lost VA funding. But the agency does acknowledge that using a private contractor to run Veterans Choice “created some challenges and confusion for veterans and community providers.”

The disruption in veterans’ health care was so serious that Sullivan organized a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee field hearing in Alaska last August. The testimony included 35 pages of complaints submitted by Alaska veterans left in pain and limbo by the sudden switch to Veterans Choice, an untested program designed for Arizona, not Alaska.

By then, Alaska Retinal Consultants had walked away from Veterans Choice.

“I can remember somewhere around that time telling the VA that if they weren’t going to fix it then we weren’t going to deal with them anymore,” says Dr. David Zumbro, who served 20 years in the Army before joining the office in Anchorage. The process was onerous. “It resulted in one of our employees dedicating the majority of her day helping veterans navigate the confusing bureaucratic morass known as Veterans Choice.”

Alaska Retinal Consultants and its veteran patients – who are dealing with everything from diabetic retinopathy to macular degeneration – were fortunate. VA dropped the mandate that they use the Choice program.

“Since then, my staff has been dealing directly with the VA in Alaska and we have not had a problem taking care of Alaska veterans,” Zumbro says. That’s the kind of local control that makes VA health care work for Alaska veterans.

But Alaska Retinal Consultants has clout other physicians might not be able to wield, with the only fellowship-trained retinal surgeons in the state. Other medical practices are still struggling, particularly to get reimbursed under the Veterans Choice program, Storbakken says.

And veterans continue to fight to see the physician of their choosing. “There is often no choice in Veterans Choice,” says Dan Kosterman, a disabled veteran and Eagle River optometrist who has endured long delays getting treatment for everything from spinal pain to sleep problems. “It seems like it takes an act of Congress to get an appointment with my provider. It’s like they are trying to shove veterans out the door.”

At Sullivan’s urging, VA agreed to pilot a Veterans Choice call center in Alaska in an attempt to have people who are knowledgeable about the state coordinate Alaska veterans’ care. “He was originally told by multiple VA officials that the program would be rolled out in two or three phases,” says Mike Anderson, Sullivan’s press secretary.

That pilot program is still pending, VA says. Meanwhile, the private contractor running Veterans Choice has hired Alaska staff to make it easier for veterans to get authorization for care and improve the process for paying medical providers.

The combination of Veterans Choice and the Affordable Care Act has also created problems for veterans with private insurance. Veterans Choice makes VA the “payer of last resort” instead of the primary insurer. So veterans have to pay their entire private insurance deductible before VA coverage kicks in if they are being treated for an issue that isn’t connected to their military service.

“Most people can’t afford a good insurance plan, so they get stuck with high deductibles,” Bowen says. He and the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs are lobbying Congress to eliminate the payer-of-last-resort provision from Veterans Choice throughout the United States.

With this and other fixes, Bowen is optimistic that Veterans Choice can be salvaged.

“I think it will grow into something we can live with,” he says. “Is it better for the vet? I don’t think so. The networks we have in Alaska are great. I wish we could go back in time.”

Plenty of Alaska veterans think that’s the answer. “They should just eliminate the Choice program,” Burnett says, “and go back to the way it was – when we could just call VA and get an appointment.”

This story originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wrongful discharge? Board that corrects military records ‘stacked against servicemembers’ critics charge

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2016, All rights reserved)

Want to correct an unfair discharge or remove an erroneous mental health diagnosis from your service record? The Army or Navy board of last resort will spend five minutes on your case. Maybe less.

“The deck is really stacked against servicemembers at these boards,” says Thomas Moore, manager of the Lawyers Serving Warriors project at the National Veterans Legal Services Program and a former Army JAG officer.

“They go to great lengths to deny meritorious claims,” adds Raymond Toney, a former Army reservist and private attorney who specializes in these cases. “They see their role as defending the government.”

In other words, if a combat veteran with PTSD is wrongly discharged for a personality disorder, he or she has almost no chance of setting the record straight – a record that makes all the difference as to whether they receive medical care and retirement benefits or are able to make a career outside the military.

A personality disorder discharge is often also a significant blow to a servicemember’s personal pride.  “They feel like they have served honorably, gone to war, and then have been improperly booted without acknowledging the wounds they received as a result of combat,” Moore says. “They feel like it’s an indelible stain on their military record.”

A Board for Correction of Military Records was established for each service branch following World War II. Board members are civilian volunteers who also often work full-time jobs. They consider a wide range of issues, from promotion and pay to whether a servicemember should have received a particular commendation such as a Purple Heart. The boards also decide whether a servicemember should have been medically retired for combat injuries such as PTSD and TBI, rather than simply declared unfit for duty due to developmental issues such as personality disorders and adjustment disorders and cut from the ranks. They are the board of last resort for discharge upgrades.

However, the correction boards are overwhelmed with cases and do not have the resources to do the job Congress charged them to do. Toney analyzed the work of three boards after noticing that the Army and Navy boards often avoided addressing potentially meritorious claims, or simply dismissed such claims on the grounds that “the applicant has presented no evidence” when it was clear the applicant had, he says. He discovered that the Army board spent fewer than five minutes reviewing each case. The Navy board, which also considers Marine Corps issues, spent an average of two minutes. Only members of the Air Force board take cases home a week in advance so they have ample time to review the record.

In other words, “these cases are predetermined by staff,” and board members are simply signing off on those decisions, Moore says.

Mistakes are common. If key documents are missing from the applicant’s military personnel file, the boards assume that the service branches properly followed procedures and did the right thing. In situations where a servicemember was discharged for a personality disorder, for example, the National Veterans Legal Services Program often discovers that the mental status evaluation was not done properly, or the document that shows the doctor actually diagnosed PTSD instead of a personality disorder is missing from the file.

Veterans can appeal corrections board decisions to the Court of Federal Claims or a U.S. district court. Yet only a small percentage of cases reach the federal courts – most former servicemembers don’t have the means to appeal, Toney says. And while the court has severely chastised the boards, little has changed.

What’s the solution? A 1996 DoD report to Congress outlined recommended that all service branches follow the example set by the Air Force corrections board, Toney says. “Twenty years later, none of the recommendations have been implemented.”

The boards also need more resources in order to be able to take the time to make thoughtful decisions, as well as more oversight.

“There’s no consequences to the board or the board staff for these decisions,” Toney says. “You have a system of impunity for bad decision-making. It’s going to take (action by) Congress and the secretary of defense. It’s going to take people getting pissed off about it.”

This story originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of The American Legion Magazine. Check out this related story on involuntary discharges: Booted After Battle: Thousands of combat veterans have been kicked out of the military for misconduct without regard for PTSD, TBI or their right to medical retirement

.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

BOOTED AFTER BATTLE Thousands of combat veterans have been kicked out of the military for misconduct without regard to PTSD, TBI or their right to medical retirement

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2016, All Rights Reserved)

 Max Fernandez was arrested for a bar fight the first weekend after he came home from Iraq. The Marine Corps machine gunner didn’t think twice about the altercation.”Coming back, my mindset was so aggressive,” he says. “I thought it was funny.”

Max Fernandez in uniform for blog

Max Fernandez

No one pressed charges and Fernandez’s commanders ignored the incident, he says. He and his buddies continued partying and fighting until Fernandez was booted out of the military, without getting treatment for an IED blast that damaged his vision and hearing – or the nightmares that followed him home from combat.

Today Fernandez is living in a homeless shelter in Los Angeles, undergoing treatment for addiction, pursuing a VA claim for PTSD and TBI, and trying to rebuild his life under the shadow of a bad discharge. It’s the story of thousands of former servicemembers who don’t get help when their combat injuries fuel misconduct. Instead, they are discarded with involuntary discharges that prevent them from receiving military retirement, medical care, disability and GI Bill benefits – all in the interest of speed and cost savings.

“According to current DoD and service branch regulations, it’s permissible to separate servicemembers who have committed misconduct, even if they are suffering from a mental disorder that makes them unfit to serve,” says Thomas Moore, manager of the Lawyers Serving Warriors project at the National Veterans Legal Services Program. “I believe this is a big problem.”

There’s a cultural issue at work, too, says Kathleen Gilberd, executive director of the Military Law Task Force. Sick or injured troops are considered troublemakers simply because they are not fit to deploy. “That means getting rid of them, usually without medical benefits, for misconduct or other designated mental and physical conditions,” she says.

LIFE SENTENCE

Being dismissed from the military leaves an indelible stain on a veteran’s pride – and his or her future. “An other-than-honorable discharge usually means something went awry with you in the service,” says Waldo Tapia, an attorney who recently left the Inner City Law Center on Skid Row in Los Angeles — which is representing Fernandez. “It’s a difficult stigma to overcome, particularly if it’s tied to PTSD.”

Civilian jobs are often unavailable once a prospective employer sees a problem discharge on a veteran’s DD-214. “If you get caught using drugs at a warehouse job, you might get fired,” Tapia says. “If you get caught using marijuana in the military, the other-than-honorable discharge follows you forever.”

Many of these veterans end up homeless. Many have no access to health care even though VA has the discretion to provide medical benefits on a case-by-case basis. Veterans who are kicked out of the military for misconduct related to PTSD, TBI and other invisible wounds are also excluded from receiving help from many nonprofits, says Kristina Kaufmann, executive director of the Code of Support Foundation.

In other words, the people who most need help often are the least likely to receive it.

HISTORIC PRACTICE

Involuntary discharges have been a volatile issue since at least the Vietnam War. A 1980 Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation recommended that servicemembers have the right to a hearing before being tossed out of the military. But the boards that review these cases are usually sympathetic to the wishes of commanders eager to get rid of servicemembers, and the servicemembers are often convinced that they are better off if they waive their right to a hearing, Gilberd says. There is also a persistent myth that other-than-honorable discharges are automatically upgraded if servicemembers stay out of trouble for six months after leaving the military, which may give them an incentive not to pursue a hearing that would help their case.

It’s unfair to just blame commanders, who are dealing with the realities of fighting long wars with an all-volunteer force.

“I get it,” Kaufmann says. “I was a commander’s wife during the surge from 2006 to 2008. I remember the pressure on my husband to have a battalion that is at full strength and ready to deploy.” And similar pressure to get rid of people who aren’t.

Involuntary discharges again became an issue during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A litany of negative media prompted Congress to order the military to carefully review the combat experiences of servicemembers before discharging them for misconduct. Yet another 22,000 soldiers have been involuntarily discharged since that 2008 legislation was passed, according to an investigation by National Public Radio.  Today the Army Inspector General is conducting its own investigation, again under pressure from Congress.

Involuntary discharges for misconduct are only part of the problem. A significant number of U.S. servicemembers who are discharged for personality disorders or adjustment disorders are also diagnosed with combat-related mental health issues such as PTSD during military medical exams.

“We’ve reviewed cases where servicemembers have been consistently diagnosed with PTSD, yet one diagnosis of personality disorder results in their administrative separation,” Moore says. “Many are then consistently diagnosed with PTSD by VA examiners after discharge from service.”

Servicemembers separated for personality disorders may receive honorable discharges, but they do not have access to key benefits associated with medical retirement.

“The most valuable retirement benefit is access to the military’s health-care program, TRICARE, which provides medical care for the veteran and the veteran’s dependents,” Moore says.

ATTITUDE PROBLEM

Servicemembers are reluctant to seek help, even when they know they’ve been injured – particularly when it comes to mental health issues. “There’s a kind of attitude that PTSD is a weakness – that a good soldier, a strong soldier, just works through it,” Gilberd says.

Max Fernandez headshot for blog

Max Fernandez

Fernandez is but one example of that attitude. The physician who examined his squad after their armored cargo carrier was hit by an IED near Fallujah in February 2006 recommended they spend a week on light duty as part of their recovery. They refused. “None of the Marines I was with or knew wanted to leave the field,” Fernandez says. “Any injury I had, I had to push out of my mind.”

That attitude is pervasive, Tapia says. “A lot of guys don’t want to report an illness or injury because they worry they will be viewed as holding their unit back.”

As a result, many aren’t diagnosed until they get out of the service, Kaufmann says.

Once back in the United States, Fernandez continued to deny he’d been injured. “I was having nightmares and intrusive thoughts,” he says. “I had the option of seeing people (medical staff), but that would have been frowned upon.”

Instead, Fernandez self-medicated. He and his buddies “drank day and night.” He flunked a random drug test and was stripped of a promotion. But the Marines allowed him to stay after he pleaded his case to a non-judicial punishment board. That is, until he got in yet another fight that left one man in a coma. He went from proud Marine to homeless addict with an other-than-honorable discharge in a matter of months.

“I was bitter,” he says. “Instead of looking at the paperwork – drug abuse – what about the two years that I served? They need to reform the rules and regulations to deal with the epidemic of psychological issues people are coming back with.”

Society shares the blame for the military’s attitude. “I think it’s a complete misunderstanding of PTSD and TBI,” Kaufmann says. “But it’s not just the military. We’re terrible with mental health in this country. We have such a lack of understanding and fear any anything mental health-related.”

HAZING THE INJURED

Fernandez might not have fared any better if he had sought help for his injuries. Servicemembers who seek treatment for PTSD and other mental health issues are often harassed to the point of career-ending misconduct, Gilberd says.

Michael Wells knows this territory firsthand. He says he encountered hostility at Fort Gordon, Ga., when he sought help for PTSD and TBI following his second tour in Iraq in 2008. His acting first sergeant tried to prevent him from getting mental health treatment; he sneaked off to his psychiatric appointments anyway, he adds. The repercussions escalated.

“He tried to take away my security clearance,” Wells says of the first sergeant. “He threatened me with physical harm.”

Amber Wells, who met her future husband at Fort Gordon during this ordeal, worried Michael would kill himself. “They wouldn’t let him go to the hospital,” she says. “They would say, ‘Real men don’t get PTSD.'”

The first sergeant also blocked his attempts to apply for medical retirement, Wells says. He reported the harassment to a command sergeant major from another unit and the Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) without result, he says. Then, finally, he just left Fort Gordon.

“He had actually gone to his psychiatrist – it’s in his records – and said, ‘If you don’t help me, I’m going AWOL,'” Amber says. “His psychiatrist basically laughed at him.'”

Fort Gordon referred questions about Wells’ case to U.S. Army Medical Command, which did not respond. However, the office of Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., confirmed that it is working on the case.

DISAPPEARING ACT

Once he reached the point that he couldn’t look at his uniform, Wells left Fort Gordon and traveled the country until he was certain his unit had dropped him from the rolls. He then turned himself in at Fort Knox, Ky., where he was given an other-than-honorable discharge. He spent the next three years scraping by with Social Security disability and low-income housing while fighting to get help for PTSD, TBI, and neck, back and hip injuries. An Idaho employer fired him when it discovered he had PTSD, on his third day on the job. Other help was off-limits. “There were a lot of outreach programs and veterans services I couldn’t use because I had an other-than-honorable discharge,” Wells says. “We survived on just over $1,000 a month for a couple of years.”

Amber filed VA disability claims on his behalf and scoured the Internet for help. She connected with Reno, Nev., radio host Boone Cutler and his wife, who raised the money to bring the Wells family and their two children to Reno. There, Michael finally got his first treatment at the local VA, but only after threatening to kill himself.

“It took me getting hospitalized for PTSD, survivor’s guilt and suicidal thoughts,” he says.

Cutler also connected Michael with Heller, whose staff was instrumental in getting his discharge upgraded to general under honorable conditions because of his PTSD. And VA eventually granted Wells a 90 percent disability rating for PTSD and hip problems. Today, he and his family are living in Texas, where he is undergoing a series of hip surgeries. Heller’s office is helping him pursue a 100-percent disability rating.

It’s been an arduous and dispiriting journey, Amber says. “Even after you fight for your country, you have to come home and fight for your benefits,” she says. But they believe Michael’s case shows that with persistence and the right advocate, other servicemembers can overcome a bad discharge.

“It took five years,” he says. “But I want other soldiers to know that it’s possible. No matter what, keep trying.”

This story originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bogus Benefit: USAJOBS.gov frustrates military veterans as downsizing sends thousands into the civilian workforce

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2016, All Rights Reserved) 

Before John Spanogle left the Army in the fall of 2014, he enrolled in a weeklong transition course at Fort Knox, Ky., and hired a professional résumé service to translate two and a half decades of leadership, training and distinguished service into civilian terms. A career officer with a top-secret security clearance and six combat tours that culminated in responsibility for U.S. Special Forces worldwide for the Pentagon, he had plenty to offer almost any employer, particularly the federal government.

If he could only have gotten its attention.

In the past year, Spanogle has applied for everything from entry-level work at VA to airport security supervisor for the Department of Homeland Security, through USAJOBS.gov. It has taken months to get a response from any of the federal agencies to which he applied. A simple acknowledgment of his application was rare. He landed not a single interview.

“It’s a sham,” says Spanogle, a retired lieutenant colonel with a master’s degree in business and a 60 percent disability rating. “The Army just riffed a bunch of guys. If it’s this hard for me, imagine what it’s like for the young enlisted soldiers. Can you see the hopelessness?”

Despite presidential proclamations, an overhaul of the USAJOBS website and federal agencies’ sloganeering about their desire to hire former servicemembers, veterans still find applying for a federal job arduous and – because the odds of success are so low – a waste of time.

“It’s ridiculous,” says Casey Curry, who served 26 years with the Oregon Army National Guard and has had much experience with  USAJOBS.gov. Curry spent a year looking for work through USAJOBS when she got out in 2007, without success. Then she interned with the Oregon employment office in 2012 and 2013, helping other veterans trying to negotiate the federal job application process. It was as frustrating as it was fruitless.

“I don’t know of one person who got a job using that website,” says Curry, who is now outreach coordinator for the Returning Veterans Project, which helps connect veterans and families in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington to free counseling and other health services.

Roger Peterman, who helps veterans find jobs as transition assistance adviser for the Indiana National Guard, cites equally bleak numbers. “In eight years of working with USAJOBS, I only know of two people who got jobs applying through the website. And either they knew somebody or we were able to connect them with somebody in the federal agency who could pull them along.”

The problems with USAJOBS are well known. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) stopped using a contractor to administer the website in 2011, brought it in-house and made several improvements, a spokesman says.

The relaunch of what was called USAJOBS 3.0 was fraught with problems, however, and quickly became the object of ridicule on social media. Even today, the agency acknowledges that USAJOBS needs more work, including making the online application process more user-friendly.

“Veterans are not alone in expressing frustration with the federal hiring process, including USAJOBS.gov,” an agency spokesman says.

But the website is unavoidable. USAJOBS is the single gateway for a multitude of civil service jobs. That alone is an issue. “There are tens of thousands of résumés on USAJOBS,” Peterman says.

Federal statistics show just how competitive it is. Veterans initiated nearly 7.5 million applications through USAJOBS in fiscal 2015, an increase of 2.4 million compared to fiscal 2013.

Veterans also suspect that many positions are posted to comply with legal requirements by agencies that have already decided who they want to hire. And there are complaints that some job listings aren’t current.”They don’t keep it updated,” Curry says. “People are filling out applications for jobs that are already closed.”

There’s also a sense that applications go into a black hole where veterans preference isn’t considered. “There’s no accountability on the federal agency side,” Curry adds. “You don’t know if they are looking at (veterans preference) or not.”

OPM disagrees. “USAJOBS.gov is the means by which veterans can find information about many job vacancies,” an agency spokesman says. “In this context, USAJOBS.gov helps veterans use the hiring preference to which they are entitled by making them aware of job openings they might not otherwise know are available.”

But there’s evidence that some federal agencies purposefully circumvent veterans preference laws and discriminate against veteran applicants who successfully negotiate USAJOBS. The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), an arm of the Department of Energy, manipulated the qualification ratings of at least 117 veteran applicants from 2010 to 2012, according to an investigation by the Energy Department’s inspector general. That amounted to nearly half the applicants for BPA jobs.

In at least one case, a BPA administrator closed the hiring process after learning that a veteran was the most qualified applicant – and then rewrote the job description to include criteria the veteran couldn’t meet. BPA’s human resources department was ultimately blamed for the agency’s discrimination, and vowed reform after its hiring practices were exposed in 2013.

Vietnam War veteran Rick Shuart had a notably better experience with USAJOBS. While it took him a while to master the website, he learned to tailor his résumé for each job he applied for and write a cover letter to the hiring manager indicated in the job posting, he says. Shuart also became selective about the positions he pursued.

“I rarely applied for a job where there was one slot open,” he says. Still, it took him a year to find a job even though he has a master’s degree in business administration. VA even turned down his application for a file clerk’s job in Baltimore.

Today, Shuart helps fellow veterans find work as an employment development manager at Services for the UnderServed in New York City. But his organization rarely steers former servicemembers toward USAJOBS because most cannot afford the time it takes to secure federal employment. Instead, Shuart’s organization focuses on private employers with whom it has a relationship – the sorts of places it can call and encourage a hiring manager to review a veteran’s application.

Likewise, Peterman also encourages veterans to look beyond the federal government for work.

“There’s a lot of great civilian companies looking for veterans,” Peterman says. He works with an organization called Operation: Job Ready Veterans, which claims a 70 percent success rate in helping former servicemembers find work. But even then, it takes time. “You’ve got to be patient,” Peterman advises. “You’ve got to be able to sell your skills from the military. Get somebody who can help you.” Develop an elevator speech. Be willing to take an entry-level job to get a foot in the door.

In the end, Spanogle finally landed a job as vice president of a nonprofit organization where he will help former National Guardsmen find jobs. He’s looking forward to making differences for his fellow veterans. “This is everybody – not only the unemployed, but the underemployed as well,” he says.

But he won’t be looking to USAJOBS for help. “I’m done with it,” he says. “It’s a ridiculous waste of time.”

This story originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Green River Gamble: A group of post-9/11 veterans set out to create a Legion post for a new generation — and it’s paying off

 By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2015, All Rights Reserved)

Critics predicted total failure.

A handful of veterans were attempting to revive an American Legion post in Green River, Wyo., that was so far gone almost no one knew it had ever existed. Tom Whitmore Post 28 never even had its own building, and its ceremonial rifles and scrambled archives were donated to a museum nearly 50 years ago. Even more challenging, this new crew planned a nonsmoking post with a family section twice as big as the bar area and a community center open to public use.

“Right up to the soft opening, we got a lot of criticism,” says Marshall Burt, a post-9/11 Marine Corps combat veteran who helped transform the run-down bingo hall into a vibrant Legion post that is buzzing with patrons on a weekday night – some shooting the breeze, some watching a ball game on TV, while a couple of kids play pool upstairs and another works on math homework downstairs. “They told us we weren’t going to be able to make it because people like to have a drink and a smoke. I’m hoping to say we proved them wrong.”

And how.

Wyoming veterans license plate croppedIn less than 18 months, Post 28 went from 18 to 183 Legion members, purchased and renovated a defunct VFW-turned-bingo hall, and started an American Legion Auxiliary unit, a Sons of the American Legion squadron and what is now the third largest American Legion Riders chapter in Wyoming. The post is sponsoring a baseball team, working with a local Boy Scout troop, starting a Junior Shooting Sports group and supporting the high school rodeo program – a hallmark of the Department of Wyoming. As impressive: 45 percent of Post 28’s members are post-9/11 veterans.

“We average one new Legion Family member a day, whether it’s Legion, Sons or Auxiliary,” says Post Commander Tony Niemiec, who returned to his hometown of Green River after retiring from the Marine Corps.

“Nationwide, we are struggling to get younger veterans involved,” says Doug Hensala, adjutant for the Department of Wyoming. “They’ve cracked the code as to how to get them involved – Desert Storm, Desert Shield, Afghanistan and Iraq veterans – by being very family-oriented.”

Lee Bartolotta, judge advocate for Post 28, adds, “This post took it to a different level. I don’t feel like I’m a woman in The American Legion. I feel like I’m a person.”

An Original

Toll Gate croppedToll Gate American Legion Post 28 was chartered Dec. 23, 1919, and named after the iconic 6,440-foot butte on the western edge of the small railroad and mining town. That followed an early-day tradition of naming Wyoming Legion posts after rock formations, says Tom Niemiec, post adjutant and retired Navy veteran. Like his brother Tony, Tom returned to Green River after his military career.

In 1924, the post was renamed for Tom Whitmore, a Civil War veteran who enlisted in the Union Army at age 15 and came to Sweetwater County after his discharge as a second lieutenant. He worked as a liquor merchant, deputy sheriff, Sweetwater County sheriff and clerk of the district court before his death in 1923.

“Basically, he had a whole lifetime of public service,” Tony Niemiec says. “I’m a Sweetwater County deputy sheriff, so his story is kind of near and dear to my heart.”

Much of Post 28’s subsequent history is lost. There is evidence that an Auxiliary unit was started in 1926 and the post once had a female drum and bugle corps, Tom says. Rumor has it that Legion meetings were conducted at a building across from the Union Pacific Railroad depot. But Post 28 never had a home of its own. Most people who grew up here had no idea Green River ever had an American Legion presence.

Some veterans, including the Niemiec brothers, joined Post 24 in Rock Springs but didn’t participate much because the neighboring town is about 12 miles away. The handful of Legion officers who knew about Post 28 made several attempts to get it restarted. “Every time I lined someone up, it fell apart,” State Commander Tom Dean says.

Then District 1 Commander Richard Dansereau challenged Tony Niemiec to take on the project.  “I was asking him why Green River didn’t have a post,” Tony says, recalling a conversation with Dansereau in which he lamented the lack of Legion presence in his hometown. “He said, ‘They do – it’s just not active. Why don’t you quit complaining and do something about it?'” Tony drafted his brother and they went to work.

Revival

Post 28 began conducting regular meetings in the Sweetwater County Library in late 2013. The members launched a rifle raffle that raised more than $30,000. With that money, a $5,000 grant from the Home Depot Foundation, $1,000 from Walmart and non-interest-bearing bond sales to members and families, they came up with a down payment for a one-story white building at 38 North Center Street in Green River.

Post 28 closed on the purchase of the building on June 2, 2014, and demolition started the next day. “We put elbows to it,” says Burt, who went directly to the run-down building after work each evening and often stayed past midnight. “We wanted a place for veterans to call home and it didn’t exist in this town.”

As volunteers tore out water-stained Sheetrock and framed new walls, Tony tracked down the post flag, original charter and other material, including the .30-40 Krag rifles the Army gave to the original post for ceremonial use. An anonymous individual gave the guns and archives to the Sweetwater County Museum in 1968, presumably when interest in the post faded. One of the rifles was sold to a collector; the museum was not eager to return the others. A lengthy battle ensued. Post 28 finally prevailed after Legion members secured a majority of the positions on the museum board and voted to return the six remaining rifles to their rightful owner.

“That was very satisfying,” Tony says.

Post 28 held its soft opening Labor Day weekend. That transformation, less than 90 days in the making, came with plenty of the unpleasant surprises endemic to old buildings. “The first time I saw it, I thought, ‘What a rat hole. I can’t believe we’re buying this building,'” says Marine Corps veteran Jere Goodrick.

“There were a lot of times I thought we were going to fail,” Tony adds. “Every time we’d repair something, we find three more things that failed. But every time we turned around, we found somebody who knew how to fix it.”

Almost always.

The day before the opening, the beer cooler failed. Tony made the six-hour round trip drive to Salt Lake City the morning of opening day to buy a replacement. He returned two hours after the festivities started, and a group of volunteers stepped up to lift the cooler over the bar and set it into place.

Smoke-free vision

From the beginning, the Green River Legionnaires knew they had to create a different kind of post if they hoped to attract younger veterans. “We didn’t want to have the same old mentality where it’s a bar,” Burt says. “We wanted it to be family-friendly, non-smoking and a warm, welcoming, friendly atmosphere.”

“You are going to attract more people by not smoking,” Tom adds. “A lot of younger veterans don’t like to expose their kids to it.”

Post 28 has received lots of positive feedback on its no-smoking approach, and attracted plenty of smoking members who are willing to step outside before lighting up.

Outside of materials for the sleek black concrete bar, everything from plumbing to painting was donated, including the section of railroad track that serves as the bar footrest.  The bar offers USB charging outlets and free Wi-Fi to keep smartphone users happy, and the adjoining family area has lots of amenities for kids. That includes electronic darts and pool tables. Air hockey and an Xbox are on the way. “Post-9/11 veterans have young families, so you have to evolve the post to support their needs,” Tom says.

Post 28 also offers a pizza night and a nacho night. Members are welcome to host birthday parties and wedding celebrations here. Other events, like a pancake breakfast co-hosted by one of the local Boy Scout troops, are open to the public. “If you get people in here, some of them will become members,” Tom says.

Creating a sustainable Legion also means including post-9/11 veterans in every aspect of the post. “When you walk into a post that’s struggling, what do you see? The people who are running it have been there a long time and they won’t let go,” Tom says. “Give the younger veterans the reins and let them move The American Legion forward.”

Future Outreach 

Although half of the Legion building in Green River has yet to be remodeled, everyone associated with the project radiates pride and ownership. They point to a bar stool or chair they sponsored – each comes with a brass plate honoring a loved one – or the original charter hanging on the wall that proves this is one of the original 1919 American Legion posts. Volunteer bartenders keep the place running from noon to close seven days a week. Goodrick sponsors a poker night to help raise money. Burt, director of the American Legion Riders, is planning the group’s first rally for Sept. 12. It takes all of this and more to make the mortgage and keep the lights on. But it’s worth it.

“It’s important to have an American Legion building because veterans don’t want to belong to something they can’t touch and feel,” Goodrick says. “Once this building materialized, our membership went through the roof.”

Families are actively engaged. “This is something we can do together,” says Auxiliary President Tammy Harris, whose husband, Shane, is a Marine Corps veteran and stalwart Post 28 volunteer. And the renovated building is a nice boost for a part of Green River that has struggled for years.

“It’s probably the most active place in this part of the community on a social level,” says artist and Auxiliary member Kaye Tyler, who painted “Welcome Home” in red, white and blue letters in the post entryway and put together the color scheme for the interior of the post.

As the post grows, members focus on doing more for the community. Post 28 has already distributed more than $3,000 in financial assistance to everyone from a stranded trucker to a veteran’s family who was $250 short of replacing a broken hot-water heater. It also offers two college scholarships to high school seniors who have a family member associated with the Legion.

The best part, though, is hearing the reaction of people who discover Post 28 for the first time.  “People come in here every day and say, ‘I belong here,'” Tony says. “That’s the greatest accomplishment.”

This story first appeared in the August 2014 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments